Fleur Tufnell – Heart On Your Sleeve

Fleur Tufnell – Heart On Your Sleeve

Written by Stella Nicholls

Photography by Nick Hook

“My Body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” Johnny Depp

For thousands of years, humans have decorated their bodies with tattoos for a variety of different reasons.

As a tattoo ‘virgin’, I’m a bit of a tenderfoot when it comes to getting ‘some ink’, so I needed to get down to some research.  Finding Egyptian mummies with tattoos was a real eye-opener to me. Who knew that the art of tattooing was that ancient? (and yes, they really were permanent then!)

From rites of passage, marks of fertility, pledges of love, identification purposes to artistic, cosmetic or even to symbolise belonging to an ethnic group or gang, it would seem that the art of tattooing is and has long been very relevant and is a growing and popular industry.  Modifying and decorating the skin using ink or pigment, could even be seen as a declaration of who we are, each piece telling a unique story.

We are living and breathing human canvasses, making for a bright and often colourful world and I’m told that the ink beneath the skin never dries, remaining fluid, which is why tattoos ‘settle in’ differently from person to person.

Back to why I ended up writing this piece when it could have easily been given to an experienced and ‘well versed’ tattooed person. Llew Nicholls, of Grow, decided to fulfil a lifelong dream and literally wear his ‘heart on his sleeve’. As his wife, I’m part of his story, so was intrigued and went along for the first meeting with Fleur Tufnell, an experienced tattooist and owner of the Mermaid’s Lair – a perfect choice, as I was soon to discover.

Llew had sent Fleur some ideas, visuals, as well as chatting to Fleur about his idea for the sleeve that he was to have done on his upper arm.  There was so much detail to incorporate, I remember wondering how on earth Fleur was going to interpret it all onto his arm. (I mean I know he’s a big man, but would his arm hold all the images he wanted?  I imagined a cartoon-strip type image at best).

Fleur Tufnell is a storyteller through her art and has the ability to turn an idea into a picture which rapidly becomes a masterpiece. She spoke to Llew about her ideas, drawing on the Polynesian style of design for inspiration, which would pull it all together.  I enjoyed watching the creative process and the end design was perfect, beautiful and more than I ever would have thought possible.

I managed to spend a little time chatting to Fleur while she outlined the tattoo on Llew’s arm (and watched Llew wince more than a few times, I might add).  She has the perfect ‘bedside manner’ (is that the right term?) and puts her customers at ease, as she chats.

Fleur Tufnell and Llew Nicholls sharing a joke as she tattoos his sleeve
Fleur Tufnell and Llew Nicholls sharing a joke as she tattoos his sleeve

Fleur, who lives in Plymouth, became a tattooist by seeking an apprenticeship which she was fortunate enough to find at a studio in Exeter.  She says that persistence is key for someone wanting to get into the art, as apprenticeships can be difficult to come by. She headed into the studio one day a week to ask questions and help out for a month and a half before she was formally offered an apprenticeship.  Of course, she jumped at the chance and over the next nine years, successfully built her career, with the help of some experienced tattooists.

A real high point for Fleur and perhaps the most nerve-racking at the time (she said she didn’t eat for about a week) was starting her own studio.  The Mermaid’s Lair is cosily ensconced beneath the independent clothing store, known as Frocks in Swing Time on Fore Street, which, with its red exterior, is easy to spot.

Fleur says that it takes around three years to really get a good grip on everything, as a tattoo apprentice.  Everyone’s skin is different, and it’s not something that you just suddenly pick up. She says that it’s a lot different from drawing on paper, as naturally, skin is ‘quite stretchy, quite different’.  As she was tattooing the outlines on Llew’s arm, she was describing her interesting tattoo career journey. “You don’t start off on something like this,” she said, referring to Llew’s tattoo. “You start out on something much smaller and build up from there.”  Fleur went on to say that she loves the challenges that people set her in the job, she laughed and said some days she thinks, “How on earth am I going to put that together?” but says that’s what keeps her fresh and keeps her creativity ticking over.

Fleur still has many of her own tattoos done by Anthony, (one of the talented people who mentored her during her apprenticeship), and at this point, she showed me several of them, describing the stories behind the ink and it was truly fascinating.  She said,

“You don’t want to get tattooed by someone who’s not got any, you want to know that that person knows what it feels like.”

Fleur Tufnell exposing her own tattoo sleeve as she works on our Grow CCO
Fleur Tufnell exposing her own tattoo sleeve as she works on our Grow CCO

Besides designing new creations, Fleur’s work also involves a lot of cover-ups.  She said that fixing mistakes, or ‘Tattoo Regrets’ is a large part of the job, and “operates a whole different challenge in itself”. As someone who has watched endless hours of ‘Tattoo Fixers’ on TV, I was just a little bit delighted at the thought that it isn’t something that just happens in ‘glamorous TV Land’.

I asked Fleur if it’s important to be able to draw well as a tattooist, and she replied that it’s vital as you often have to draw freehand, straight onto a person.  There are parts of the tattoo that can’t be put onto paper and then transferred and made to fit someone’s arm, for example, as everyone has a different size and shaped arm.  She said,

“You are always trying to make it fit and flow because it’s got to suit the person who’s wearing it. A good tattoo could be ruined if it doesn’t suit the person.”

Placement is also very important as if you put something on the wrong area, it’s not going to accentuate a muscle group or sit right on the skin. Fleur has spent time familiarising herself with anatomy and the different muscle groups – the way they move and flex, which enables her to accurately position a design.

I wondered what a ‘typical day at the office’ involved for Fleur, besides the creative process and meeting with customers, and she mentioned that there are a lot of health and hygiene factors that need to be taken into account. She spends a good hour everyday cleaning and setting up, saying “you have to be quite driven and dedicated, especially as a solo tattooist.”

Fleur Tufnell working on the outline of the custom sleeve that she designed for Llew Nicholls
Fleur Tufnell working on the outline of the custom sleeve that she designed for Llew Nicholls

Part of tattooist’s life is always remaining open to new ideas. It’s a job that’s constantly changing and evolving – the machines, the equipment, the skills, the types of tattoos that people ask for. Fleur says that even in the time that she’s been working, the tattoos that can be done now are more intricate because of the onset of technology. With things like iPads and Google, the ability to Google something and get hundreds of results back is at our fingertips.

She said, pointing to a part of the tattoo on the upper side of Llew’s arm,

“For Example, Llew’s Galaxy is a Galaxy that is most easily seen from South Africa, so it’s a piece of his home view.”

Fleur said it was important to make that connection towards something meaningful. She went on, “It is actually Galaxy M83 or the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy.”  The attention to detail that Fleur gives to her work is phenomenal.

I asked Fleur what a fledgeling tattooist practises on when starting out.  She mentioned that for the most part, she practised on her own skin (leg to be exact).  With a new apprentice, she would ask them to start out tattooing themselves, as a big part is ‘feeling it’.

“It’s about actually feeling how deep it is in the skin so that you know you aren’t going too deep and that you won’t be scarring someone for life. Feeling it on you, as well as the feedback coming through the machine, is quite important in knowing what you’re doing.”

She continued,

“If you aren’t prepared to tattoo yourself, I don’t think you should be prepared to tattoo anybody else.”

Good point!

Llew laughing as his arm is tattooed.
Grow’s CCO Llew Nicholls laughing (or perhaps grimacing!) as Fleur Tufnell works on his sleeve

During her R & R time, Fleur loves Yoga, spending time with her family and being close to the sea, and will often head down to the beach to go paddle boarding and snorkelling.  She loves spending time with her friends too, and I suspect that she may have many, as she is such a lovely ’people person’ with a warm personality. Someone who you wouldn’t mind spending a few hours with, as she tattoos you.

Fleur is hoping to do her Masters in illustration this year.  Her dream is to teach, further on down the line, and lecture in an Art College or similar setting. Ultimately, she would love to run a course which is based around the composition and building of a tattoo and, all the different tattoo types, as there are so many styles.   She’d love to be able to pass her skills on, and with her creativity and beautiful designs, it would be a shame not to!

As for Llew’s completed tattoo? It’s stunning; I love it!

If you would like to get in touch with Fleur Tufnell, follow her on Instagram or Facebook @FleurTufnellArt

Llew's finished tattoo
Llew’s finished tattoo

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