If the faded blue dolphin on Samantha Cameron’s right foot or the scorpion perched on David Dimbleby's left shoulder prove anything it’s that tattoos have never been less shocking.
Once regarded as the marks of criminals and outcasts, it’s estimated that one in three young people in the UK now has at least one tattoo. Getting inked has long been mainstream. But for those who are on the frontline of tattoo culture around the world - from artists to those covered in ink - body modification is still a controversial act and an important part of their identity with a history worth remembering.
Tattoos around the world featured in Needles & Pins
It’s these communities that East-London-based tattoo artist Grace Neutral explores in the new Viceland series Needles and Pins. A trained ballet dancer, Neutral swerved into a body modification career starting out as a piercer. She now specialises in hand-poke style tattoos, that create dotted images on the skin. Unsurprisingly, Neutral is heavily inked and modified, including her eyeballs which are an electric shade of dark blue and scarification on her forehead. Asked what having each of her eyes injected with dye 12 times was like, she simply replies: “scary as fuck.”
The show follows Neutral as she explores the scenes in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK. In Britain she meets those pushing the boundaries of body modification. She explores how links with criminal gangs mean tattooing in Japan remains a taboo despite the country’s rich history. And in the US she unpicks the relationship between tattooing and prison culture as well as the commercialisation of the tradition. The illegal underground tattooing scene of South Korea is also laid bare.
But it was her trip down under that most stuck with Neutral.
“In one of the episodes, we travel to New Zealand to explore the native art of Maori Ta Moko tattooing which is part of the Maori culture. I was privileged enough to spend time with Moko's tribe and sit in on their singing practice,” she tells The Independent. “It was an unforgettable experience.”
At the same time and in stark contrast to Maori traditions is the visibility of tattoos online. Now, tattoo artists can collect tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and can have months-long waiting lists for appointments. At the same time, otherwise intimate body art is shared on a global scale meaning copycats and plagiarism is a new issue.
“The industry has changed massively in the last few years,” says Neutral. “Most artists now have an online portfolio which they can update at the touch of a button. Social media enables artists to publish their work to a much wider audience than before.”
And although tattoos easily hidden away at work, being inked on the face, neck and hands is still frowned upon across the world. Neutral adds that, just like most things, people respond to tattoos differently depending on the gender, race and place a person lives.
“These are all factors. The good news that in general, I think the world is becoming increasingly accepting of tattoos today. And that's great.”
As for herself, she adds: “I tune the negativity out.” It gets exhausting. I get a lot of positives about my eyes and that always makes me feel good, but I have a shield for negativity. I don’t even notice the bullshit anymore.”
Neutral is undettered. “My body art is constantly evolving - and the journey continues. As far as planning goes, it's hard to explain. Ideas, inspiration - it comes naturally with life and the experiences I've had.
Asked where she will draw the line on body modification, she adds defiantly: “There is no line.”
Needles and Pins airs at 10pm on VICELAND, available on Sky Channel 153 and NOW TV.Reuse content