Long-time Bristol resident Barbie Lowenberg has found her path to being a tattoo artist via jobs as a music teacher, illustrator and art shop assistant. She has successfully made the transition to tattooing and now runs a successful slot at Black Lodge in Portishead. Here she talks about the challenge of trying to balance illustration commissions with the grind of a day job and how she eventually took the leap to pursue her dream career as a tattoo artist. Find out how she's growing her name in the industry and the pressures that come with performing such a permanent art form.
When was the first time you realised you were a creative person?
I've always drawn and painted and I was pretty musical when I was younger but never did anything that arty or took it very seriously. I was always just drawing at home and in the evenings and stuff - putting off homework. But yeah I was really musical, I composed music and played several instruments and that was my main thing.
So you always had a bit of a creative leaning?
Yeah, since I was really small.
So whats the path you took to where you are now?
I went to university in Cardiff, I studied music and then I became a violin teacher which was what I'd wanted to do when I applied to university. I was working for a music service and there was loads of paperwork and it just took the fun out of actually teaching kids and the creativity of that, so I was really frustrated. I'd known Iain (Sellar, Barbies boyfriend and fellow tattoo artist at Black Lodge) for a little while just through friends and he was always drawing. He came over one evening and I showed him my drawings which were based on tattoo ideas and things like that - they were really rubbish but he was like 'oh cool, I draw as well'. Then we just started drawing together, me, Iain and another friend of ours called Zoe. We were a bit drunk one night and said 'lets put this on t-shirts' and then just decided to start Longfox.
So how did the tattooing element come about?
Through Iain, he became a tattooist maybe a year or so after I'd known him, he's always drawn the kind of things that would work as tattoos. He was a graphic designer and then he got asked to start a shop with his friend so then he learned how to tattoo. Then I was like 'I'm jealous' [laughs]. So then a lot later I got into it. I'd always had an interest in tattooing but until becoming an illustrator it never seemed like an option for me. Getting tattooed by some of my favourite artists was incredibly inspiring and definitely had an influence on the subject matter and composition of my drawings. Over the years, before I started tattooing, I still shaped my work through the ideas behind tattoos and tattooing which made it a smoother transition.
So when did you realise you could make a living out of doing illustration? What made you switch from music to illustration initially?
I was kind of always working other jobs alongside drawing. I was still a music teacher for about a year after we started Longfox but as we started doing more murals and paid jobs I decided to get some part time stop off jobs to free up some time for Longfox and still get a steady income. It was really weird we just got asked to do stuff! Bristol's so good for that, everyone either has a little brand or a side project that you can get involved in or knows someone that does. It's pretty cool, you can just have a chat with someone over a beer and you end up getting paid to draw on their wall. Most of the people I know do really cool stuff. Even as a side project outside work or whatever.
Does living in Bristol shape or influence your work in any way?
Definitely. Me and Iain draw a lot of Bristol-based ideas and try and include little hints towards Bristol in our work. We drew the cranes and the Matthew, we've drawn the suspension bridge too many times now, I think people are getting sick of that [laughs]. On our days off if we go for a wander we'll take photos of the things around us, like tiny little crests on the sides of buildings, and we'll take ideas from that. We're always keeping our eyes peeled for little elements around Bristol that we can work into our illustrations.
Was there ever a point where you felt like you were losing your way a bit or not quite sure where you were headed career-wise?
Yeah, I think literally up until I started tattooing I was like 'I dunno! I dunno what I'm doing, I'm just drawing stupid pictures'. Tattooing's cool because you get to do your own ideas and people come with their ideas as well so it's not all your own subject matter.
Do you hate it when you get asked to do a design of someone else's?
I wouldn't copy a design unless I'd spoken to or had the permission of whoever did it. And obviously if I posted it online I would credit the original artist. But yeah if it's an illustrator and they don't tattoo and I had their blessing then yeah I would do it.
Do you prefer to do your own stuff though if you were given the choice?
It's quite nice to do a bit of everything, it's really nice seeing peoples ideas, sometimes I'm like 'I would never have thought to do that, that's quite cool' and it's quite nice to have the opportunity to shape it in your own way. To be honest I haven't been given a lot of things that other people have drawn, it's mostly just been people asking for my stuff, which is really nice as I do enjoy tattooing in my own style the most.
Do people ever say 'I just want a tattoo of whatever you want to do on me'?
Yeah. Some people book in and I'm like 'oh what do you want, any ideas?' and they're just like 'oh just some flash (the books of ready-drawn tattoos that people can choose from), I'll look on the day', and I'm like 'oh you're amazing! I'd better draw some flash then...' [laughs].
That's super cool. How far in advance do people have to book in with you?
Well at the moment it's just under a months waiting list but yeah I can normally fit people in quite soon, depends what they're after. I've only been at the shop for eight months-ish so I'm still getting in to the full swing of it.
Are you still doing the pokey method or have you progressed to the machine needle?
As soon as I started at the shop Iain taught me how to use the machine. I first practiced on a banana but the machine just eats it up. It was quite good practice though I guess cause it's obviously quite a curved canvas. I've been mostly tattooing with a machine but I still want to offer hand poked tattoos for anyone who wants one. Hand poking is particularly great for finger tattoos and anything fairly small and it's a different experience to getting tattooed with a machine. Often, people assume it's more painful to get a hand poked piece but it's generally not at all and it's quite a relaxing experience in comparison.
I've wanted to tattoo for years and various things have gotten in the way... it was totally a leap of faith and I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere.
What's the trickiest place to tattoo?
I think ribs, it's so hit and miss as to whether the ink will go in properly... it's different for everyone though. And because the skin is so stretchy, you're usually tattooing a stencil that's twice as big as how it'll look when the person is standing relaxed so it takes longer than expected. It's also one of the more painful spots for the person getting tattooed which means a fair amount of twitching and flinching to contend with! I've done a few pieces in that spot and sometimes it's a breeze and other times it takes three times as long as you thought it would!
Do you ever get nervous when that happens?
I do I guess, but I know what to expect and how to tackle it. I think about every line so carefully wherever I tattoo anyway, it's just a little bit more of a challenge in that particular spot. I like a challenge, but if people are open to getting the piece in a different part of their body then that's totally cool with me [laughs].
That must be mentally exhausting, by the end of the day you must be wiped.
It can be sometimes... at the end of the week the whole shop is like 'ok, lets get a beer, have a breather.' But it's super rewarding so I'd never complain!
Have you ever had anyone that didn't like their tattoo?
Not that I know of [laughs]. So far everyone seems happy.
Do you Instagram every one that you do?
No, I'm a bit fussy with my Instagram's, I wouldn't post three similar things in a row, so I've got a bit of a log of old photos waiting to go up one day. Quite often, I forget how to use my phone and take 400 really bad, completely unusable photos of a tattoo I really enjoyed doing. It happens quite a lot so quite a lot of my tattoos don't make it onto my Instagram [laughs].
Where did your cat/baby face logo come from?
I get asked that quite a lot and I haven't really got an answer... I really like cats and I like drawing babies and I was like 'I've drawn loads of cats and I've drawn loads of babies', so I put some human ears on a cat and I was like 'well that's gross, I can't show anyone that', so I did cat ears on a baby and was like 'that's better' [laughs]. I don't know why but it's just a weird, kinda cute, kinda creepy thing that luckily other people enjoy as much as me!
So you felt like you were losing your way until you found tattooing, is that the biggest professional challenge you've faced?
Yeah I'd say so. Partly because having always worked other jobs at the same time as being an illustrator, I found it quite hard to sit down and force out some creativity after a day at work or on my days off. It felt like I was juggling too much and my head was a bit overwhelmed with having so many things to focus on. I think anyone creative can relate to that though! Especially as you'll suddenly be incredibly inspired and have a million ideas in your head but your next day off isn't for a few days and by then, it seems forced and time pressured and it can be pretty frustrating. Now that my job is basically just drawing, it's much easier to be focused and I have so much more space to be creative.
Currently, I'm still facing professional challenges as my family are very against tattoos and I feel like a complete rebel child! I'd love for there to be a more widespread understanding and appreciation of what it means to tattoo and to be tattooed, whether you like them or not.
What's a moment where you've felt like you were doing great and you were really proud of yourself or an achievement?
I think I've kind of felt like that a little bit the whole way just because people are so nice and supportive. I think that's whats good about Bristol as well because people do go out of their way to find little independent things that are going on and then support it - it's a big thing. We've done a few stalls at various events which has been really cool... or just a compliment from someone I really respect feels amazing. So yeah there's loads of little things that happen where I feel like that. Having said that, it's not like I walk around patting myself on my back constantly. I guess it's just nice when you put so much of yourself into something to see it appreciated and supported. So big thanks to everyone who has done that!
Is this the best moment that you've had in your career so far?
Yes definitely! I've wanted to tattoo for years and various things have gotten in the way and then I just thought 'oh shit I'm just going to take the leap, I'm going to cut my hours at work and just do it!'. I was obviously really nervous, because I kind of committed to it before I even knew for sure that I could do it. Iain got this really awesome machine and said 'this is the one I use' and he gave it to me, he's been so incredibly encouraging and supportive from the beginning. It's been really cool, it was totally a leap of faith and I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere!
I think that pressure is sometimes a good thing...
Yeah I think it really was, I think because I sort of put myself in that situation and because I had support from Iain and all my friends I thought well, I'd better just do it!
Whats the biggest creative risk you’ve taken so far?
I think it’s literally been throwing myself into tattooing. My family hate it, they’re trying really hard to be supportive of it but they hate the idea of me being tattooed and just tattoos in general. So that is something I'm still trying to overcome, I kind of kept it a secret for years, they didn’t know that I even liked it so I can see why it was a surprise to them.
How tattooed are you?
I'd prefer not to say, my mum might read this [laughs]. I have plenty of space, lets just say that. I do also have several pieces by artists I absolutely love. And an entire wish list of tattoos that one day I hope I can achieve. It's a bit like living two lives, throwing yourself into the deep end of something you love but also having to practice a lot of restraint because of not wanting to disrespect your family. And then having to constantly explain why I don't have a whole bunch of visible tattoos when you are a tattoo artist haha... and then having arguments with yourself about why I can't just do what I want with my body as a 28 year old woman. I'm very passionate about people, particularly women, having control and power over their own bodies so it does suck somewhat that I don't feel like I have that for myself. Yet...
Did you have any before you became a tattooist?
Yeah I got my first one seven years ago, when I was 21. Ironically it was a reference to my family's heritage, before I realised how much they hated them, so they've never seen it - or any of my tattoos for that matter!
I was definitely over-thinking it. I think sometimes you just need someone to say ‘it’s cool, don’t worry, just do it’. I did, and it was totally cool. Sometimes all you need is a little nudge!
Have you had any mentors along the way?
For sure! Iain of course. He's been giving me advice and encouragement and inspiration from day one. The other guys in the shop, Dave and Hans, have also been really supportive and helpful! I've got a few mates that also do amazing things and have been lucky enough to meet some of the people that inspire me most. People are really open about what they do and how they create a certain line or whatever and in tattooing people are happy to share – those who I’ve met anyway – so there’s no competitiveness or whatever, it a really supportive, inspiring group of people to be around.
Has there been any words of wisdom that have stuck with you?
When I started tattooing at the shop, I was so nervous and Iain was guesting in London in my second week there. I was like ‘oh god, right, I’m on my own now’. Hans, who works with us at the shop said ‘Barbie just do it, just sit down and do it and it’ll be fine. Stop thinking about everything too much’. I was definitely over-thinking it. I think sometimes you just need someone to say ‘it’s cool, don’t worry, just do it’. I did, and it was totally cool. Sometimes all you need is a little nudge!
So what’s a typical day for you at the moment?
Iain and I live together and we travel to work together so we’ll get up and I’ll feed our cat and give her lots of cuddles and have some coffee. We’ll talk about what we have in that day and once we get to the shop and open it up we then get all our drawing prepared and make sure everything is ready to go. We’ve normally got two or three clients a day. We don’t always finish at the same time so one of us will just draw until the other one finishes. We normally leave at about 6ish. There's a fair bit of admin to go along side the actual tattooing, especially as I take my own bookings. I do emails whenever I have access to the shop diary, which is normally between tattoos or if I stay late or have a cancellation. I'm so glad I have such patient clients! Sketching and researching reference takes a fair amount of time too, and reworking designs over and over to make sure they work as a tattoo and to fit the particular spot they are going in.
How did you gain your following in the tattoo world when you switched to that from illustration?
It’s all Instagram. Which is amazing, it's a great platform for sharing visual work. I did a piece on Iain’s thigh, it was fairly big for a starter piece, and posted on Instagram that ‘I’m happy to announce that I’m starting tattooing at The Black Lodge’ and it got a pretty good reception! Initially, I was still working a day a week at my old job because I wasn’t sure if I’d have bookings or not, I didn’t know if I'd be busy but it picked up quite quickly. I think a lot of the people that followed me for my illustrations were in the market for a tattoo which helps of course. Iain posts about my work occasionally too, so his following see that as well which is awesome. Social media is massive for self promotion, especially as I’m kind of new in the game I think a lot of people would’t have known that I’m tattooing or working out of Portishead without having that platform to share it on.
As you’ve gotten older has your attitude towards creativity changed?
Kind of, it’s weird to have creativity as your job. I feel really lucky. It’s amazing. Some people dig my stuff which is awesome. I’m super grateful for that. I think because I’m lucky to know people who also do cool stuff, and they encourage and support and share your work. It’s like a whole supportive thing. I’ve done so many jobs that have just sucked my mind out. It can be a really good thing though because sometimes you get home after a really boring day and you’re like ‘I’m gunna draw a picture’ and you feel like you’ve done something. But now I can totally get stuck in and just go for it and focus more on developing my work. It never feels like a chore, I’m super excited everyday so it’s cool.
When do you feel most creatively satisfied?
After a long day of tattooing and putting your mind into a piece that will be with someone forever, and seeing that they are happy. It's a pretty satisfying moment! It’s a big deal for the person getting tattooed, you always remember the time when you got a certain tattoo, or sometimes you get it because there’s a particular moment in your life or something. So being able to value the importance of that and not just being like ‘I’m a tattooist, this is all about me and my work’ is a big thing for me.
Is there anything you wish you'd been told when you started out?
Not over thinking things too much. Thinking about the right things the right amount - which is hard, but having seen Iain do it for years and years and the pressure and the emotional side of it - because it is a big deal - I've kind of learned the attitude you should have. It's still really important what they're [the tattoo-ee] getting but it's also about making an amazing piece of art. But yeah, just thinking about the right things and not freaking out about the wrong things. You don't wanna be an anxious nervous wreck while you're tattooing someone!
So we're at your wake and you're floating above everyone as a ghost. Whats the one thing you'd like to overhear someone say about you?
Well obviously my ego would love to hear people talk about the cool stuff I've done - hopefully I'll do some cool stuff before that happens... I'd quite like someone to say I'm just quite nice I guess? Being a nice person is pretty cool. Hopefully no ones angry at me at my funeral. I'd hope that people think the tattoos I do on them are special to them and mean a lot, I think that would be nice.
Check out Barbies Instagram here
Check out Longfox here
Check out Black Lodge here
Photos courtesy of Iain Sellar and Dani Walton