Art Culture

The university of life: Starting your own underground tattoo business

One day after an impromptu gym session with one of my friends, I spotted his brand spanking new SpongeBob tattoo and decided to enquire about it, not because of the questionable choice of design (sorry man), but because of the flawless craftsmanship. I was half expecting him to list one of the many established Bristol tattoo parlour as the culprit: Purple rose, Inked up or even the ironically named No regrets. However, it was neither, and to my surprise, it was one of our mutual friends.


He then revealed two things to me about our enigma of a friend. Number one, she had dropped out of University, and number two, she had started an underground tattoo parlour. To these new revelations, I, of course, replied with an elegantly placed “F**k me”, but once the initial shock subsided I said, “Sign me up”. Two weeks later, I had secured my very own appointment for a tattoo.

Olivia, known among friends as Liv, originated from the midlands, in a small town called Rugby to be precise, which may be responsible for her relaxing tone of voice, as well as her frequent use of muddled slang words that could match any roadman knocking about on the streets of London. A geography student at the University of Bristol up until a couple of months ago, although with effortlessly messy short hair and her seemingly laid back sense of fashion, you would be forgiven for thinking she was the lead for a 90s grunge band. She is twenty years of age and wears the freedom that’s involved all over her. Humble is the first impression she gives, but cut a little bit deeper, and ambition bleeds.


I arrived at her shared house, nerves written all over me. After a couple of increasingly aggressive attempts at knocking at her door, she greeted me with a smile that could put anyone at ease, and let me in. She took me to her studio, which in this case, was her cosy but dimly lit bedroom. Sanitary, no doubt compared to the average student bedroom, although maybe not compared to the standard professional studio. None of this discouraged me however, in fact, was rather encouraging in comparison to the bleak interior and buzzing needle sounds I have witnessed before in other establishments. After exchanging pleasantries, she was quick to lay me down, draw on a design, and pick up a needle. She was ready to work.

During the tattoo session, I decided to interview her to find out more about how she got here. This is how it went.

What led you to drop out of university?

I got to the second year, during the first week I really wasn’t enjoying the course, but stuck it out for another week to see if it would get any better. I realised that I didn’t have any interest or passion for what I was studying, so I wouldn’t be willing to put in the effort needed to get a good grade. I didn’t see the point in carrying on and causing bare stress for no reason.

Looking back at university, what are your views and advice for people not sure if it’s for them?

I’d say trust your gut instinct and remember how short life is. There’s really no point in “finishing what you’ve started” if you’re not going to benefit from it. Basically, just be realistic and don’t be scared, because you can always go back to uni if you find something worth your time.

What influenced the decision of starting an ‘underground Tattoo parlour’?

I’ve loved tattoos for the longest time, so I wanted to give stick and poke a go. I found out that I really enjoyed it, and did some more on myself and some close friends. Then I started up an Instagram to share my work and see if anyone else wanted one. I got people messaging me asking for tattoos, and it just went from there. It’s still quite low key, and I just enjoy drawing on people in my bedroom.

What is the method of ‘stick and poke’?

I’m definitely no expert and still learning a lot with each tattoo I do. I’ve found having the needle pointed at an angle and keeping the skin stretched out is the best. I also love doing needle to skin freehand, but realising that using a sharpie to freehand my designs onto the skin first has made a massive improvement in my work. I try to ask stick and poke artists for tips when I get tattoos myself as well, which has been really helpful.

Who is the first person you ever tattooed and can explain how it went down?

After I’d given myself two tattoos, I made one on my best friend, Izzy. I was dead nervous before, but I knew she trusted me, which massively put me at ease, so the tattoo came out great. I was and am so proud of it, and for it to be on my favourite person is really special to me.


What’s your favourite tattoo you have done for someone and why?

I love all the ones I did when I first started out just doing them for my friends because that’s when I realised I’d found something I loved doing, and it was so amazing that they trusted me enough to do a good job for them. Also, the first one I did was a chair on myself, and I adore that tattoo because that’s really what kicked everything off. Design-wise, my favourites are the suitcase, mushrooms and television set.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened while you have been tattooing?

A friend came round for a tattoo and didn’t think to mention he hadn’t eaten since the day before, so he fully passed out and kind of started fitting 5 minutes into his tattoo. It was literally just me in the house, and I was fully sh***ing myself, thinking it was my fault. Now I have learned my lesson; I always tell people to eat before they come to get tattoos.


What does this tattooing venture you have embarked on mean to you?

I was in a real slump when I dropped out because not many people were getting tattoos, and working full time as a cleaner with no other goals was a bit peak. I’ve never known what I wanted to do in the future, but having this as a potential option (if everything keeps going ok) gives me such a boost, and I know that dropping out was the right choice, which is a massive weight lifted off my shoulders. I’m just proper excited that people like what I do, and hopefully more people will come to get tattoos made by me because this is what I want to be doing with my time.

Why do you think people choose you over a traditional tattoo parlour?

When I started out doing tattoos, I was based in Rugby where the stick and poke “scene” is basically non-existent, so I think it was refreshing for people to see something different. Also, the fact that I would do tattoos for free or just a small tip because I was fully just still practising and enjoying making them probably helped. My prices being so low in Bristol has helped as well which is fine because I really haven’t been doing this for very long so I’m just gassed people do actually want my tattoos.

Where do you want to take your talents in the future?

I’d love to eventually have a studio space of my own and guest at local tattoo shops, but I’m really in no rush. I’m just enjoying learning so much and trying to get better and create more content so that more people want to get tattoos from me. It is nice having kind of a goal, but I’m not putting any pressure on myself because it really is a matter of whether people want tattoos from me or not. I can’t get better if I don’t have people wanting my tattoos. That being said, the amount of interest I’ve had (even though it’s relatively small) is massively overwhelming, so I’m really hopeful for the future, which is sweet.

One last thing: How do you rate my pain threshold after giving me a tattoo?

The placement of your tattoo was quite tame, but I used the fattest needle I have, and you literally sat like a rock and didn’t complain at all, so I’d say a good 7/10 for your specific tattoo.

After finishing our chatting some more, my tattoo was completed. FYI it’s a Greek mythology-inspired Apollo sun. Check it out below:


To see Liv’s full portfolio go to her Instargram: @01ivtattoo

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