SYLUSS SAYIN – GRINDSTONE TATTOO EMPORIUM
For those who have them, getting a tattoo is usually a landmark moment in someone’s life. Maybe it marks a special holiday, a loved one or a particularly meaningful memory. Or perhaps it is just a way to express oneself – carrying thoughts, opinions or art around on your body as one goes through life. Having had lots of tattoos done at a younger age, it had been almost fifteen years since my last one when I recently got back in the chair for some fresh ink. I went about the usual process of working out who I was going to trust to adorn me with their artistic permanence and it wasn’t a tough choice, as I had been told about Syluss Sayin at Grindstone Tattoo Emporium – an artist with a solid track record who came highly recommended to me by several close friends.
I was not to be disappointed as, over a five hour session, I not only got some really impressive ink done which I will happily carry around with me for the rest of my life, but I made myself a new friend in the process. We both shared some pretty deep stuff as we chatted – so much so, that I decided there and then that I needed to tell some of his story. It’s a story that has seen Syluss experience significant personal loss, transition gender, move all over the globe, become a renowned tattoo artist and, more recently, enter a much happier season of life settling down in Devon.
Born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Syluss spent much of his early years in Letchworth Garden City. Born to a Turkish Dad and an English Mum, Syluss grew up as a girl but, from a young age, wanted to be a boy – something that he didn’t properly explore until his adult life. He explained,
“I knew from a young age that I didn’t identify as a girl. I remember lying awake and praying at night to wake up as a boy the next morning.”
Sadly, his Dad, who he was very close to, died from cancer at the tragically young age of thirty-eight, when Syluss was just ten years old. Syluss commented,
“I had always seen eye to eye with my Dad. He was a lovely man and I just felt like we understood each other. When he died, I felt completely lost. I try to remember as much as possible about that part of my life but there are large parts of it that I simply can’t recall.”
Initially as a way of easing the grief and shock that they were experiencing, Syluss went on an extended holiday with his Mum, his Mum’s cousin and her son to Ibiza. Initially it did provide a bit of respite and his Mum loved it so much out there that she bought a house where the four of them lived together for a couple of years.
This was no idyllic Mediterranean life though as his Mum was not dealing with her grief well, embracing a party lifestyle to distract herself from the pain she was feeling and starting to reject Syluss as a way of coping with her inner turmoil. She said that every time she looked at Syluss it was a reminder of his Dad and this put a significant strain on their relationship to the point that, in the end, Syluss was sent back to the UK to live with his Grandparents.
“It doesn’t feel very nice to say, but it was the best thing to ever happen to me when my Mum signed over guardianship of me to my Nan and I moved back to the UK. My Mum just couldn’t cope with my Dad passing away and had some really destructive ways of dealing with the grief. I had always been close with my Dad before he died and never that close with my Mum, so when it was just me and her, things got pretty bad.”
THE TEENAGE YEARS
Syluss described himself as a very quiet and well-behaved little girl, although he didn’t really enjoy school. He started secondary school a year late due to moving back to the UK and then his Nan developed bowel cancer when Syluss was in Year 10. With all of this turbulence and inconsistency at home, Syluss struggled to focus on his studies or see the value in the education system.
At what was already a difficult time for Syluss, his Mum randomly rocked up at his Grandparents’ front door with his two half-brothers in tow and another on the way. His Mum’s partner at the time then also turned up leading to eight people staying in a small two-bedroom maisonette for a short while. With almost unbelievable timing, just a short time later his Nan sadly passed away so his Mum had to take on guardianship of him again. This tumultuous time meant that studying continued to take a backseat and, consequently, Syluss failed his GCSE’s, only getting one GCSE in Art.
Despite not having the right grades to get in, he blagged his way into college where he studied Art & Graphic Design. This gave him an environment to explore and express his creativity and he told me,
“Things with my Mum had got really dysfunctional at home so I slowly became subdued at home and the life and soul of the party at college. As a result, I didn’t really focus on my studies and went off the rails a bit. This meant that I also failed my college course.”
It was around this time that his Mum invited Syluss over for Sunday dinner. He turned up to find the house was empty and it transpired that she had suddenly upped and moved back to Spain along with his half-brothers. Syluss was just seventeen at this point and he hasn’t seen his Mum since that day – a fact that I found pretty heart-breaking.
Syluss seemed a bit more pragmatic about it though, saying,
“You can’t miss someone that you never really knew. I’ve certainly had moments of feeling the loss of the relationship with my Mum. It took a while but I now have a much better opinion of myself and feel in a much more positive place having struck out on my own. When you think about it, she’s known me for less than half of my life and has only ever known me as a girl. If she saw me now she certainly wouldn’t recognise me!”
Syluss continued to stay in touch with his Mum from time to time by letter but their relationship completely fell apart when his Grandad died. By this point, Syluss was twenty-four years old and his Mum said that she was unable to organise or attend the funeral due to lack of money. So, in the same two-week time period, Syluss had to organise the funeral whilst at the same time clearing out his Granddad’s house. His Mum wrote Syluss one final letter trying to explain things but it essentially read like a long list of excuses, deflecting her responsibility as the parent and placing it all on Syluss. This letter was the last contact that they had.
INDEPENDENCE AND EXPLORATION
This chapter of his life quickly closed when Syluss decided to move to Leeds with his then girlfriend. He ended up living there for six years, becoming the vocalist in a hardcore band, setting up a record label and headlining gigs all around the country. Syluss commented,
“Music was a huge part of my life back then. It helped me to overcome a lot of self-esteem issues by being out there at the front and putting on a show for people.”
At this juncture in his journey, the mental strain of everything that he had gone through took its toll and he had a breakdown of sorts. Suffering from pronounced post-traumatic stress and encountering disabling agoraphobia, he struggled to function day-to-day. It was in these murky depths that Syluss made some important life decisions. Particularly struck by The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – a fable about following your dreams – he decided to take the plunge and go travelling by himself. As he described this process to me, it felt almost like he had hit the reset button of his life’s hard-drive. Pressing into the unknown to force a change in his life.
So, he went to his only friend who had an internet connection and said, “I don’t have much money. Book me a one-way flight anywhere cheap”. He ended up going to Naples where he didn’t know anyone and didn’t even have anywhere to stay. He threw himself into the deep end of life and started to learn quickly to swim, getting a job at a backpacking hostel and becoming a tour guide in the historic city.
After a few months in Naples, he started dotting around from place to place – first Rome, then Ireland before returning to Hertfordshire where he started practicing tattooing from home. With a lot of practice, study and some willing human canvasses for friends, he quickly improved and put a little portfolio together. He started to carve out a specialism for black and grey realism and this new-found passion and skill then took him all over the world – Brighton, Melbourne, Vancouver and then Devon where he landed a job at Songbird Tattoos in Honiton.
As ‘tattoo marriages’ go, his six years with Nic Smith at Songbird was a lengthy one. He still maintains a good relationship with Nic and her team and only left as he had planned to set up his own studio in Liverpool. This sadly fell through at the last minute due to issues with a dishonest landlord so Syluss looked around for possible work back in Devon. Tragically, in June 2018, Jordan Clarke who was the resident artist at Grindstone Tattoo Emporium in Tiverton, had died in a car accident at the age of just twenty-one and so they were looking for a new resident artist to come on board. In what was a fairly quick and easy decision, Syluss and Rich Williams (co-owner of Grindstone) agreed to work together and that is where Syluss has been ever since.
FROM COCOON TO BUTTERFLY
Having touched on it at several points in our conversation, I was interested to talk about Syluss’ gender transition but, being completely honest, wasn’t sure exactly what to ask and also wasn’t sure if he would want to talk about it at all. It turns out that he was very open indeed and spoke really positively about his experience. He expanded,
“Transitioning has made me a very different person – I feel like I have shed a cocoon and become a butterfly. I believe that we should all be ever-evolving people, always searching for new experiences, new things to learn and new things to do. I had brushed a lot of my thoughts and feelings about my gender to one side as a teen. Remember, this was pre-internet so a lot of the information and connection for the Trans community was simply not readily available at that time. When I moved to Australia, I felt a part of an LGBT community for the first time and had lots of trans friends which helped me to process my own feelings and thoughts around my own transition. When I then randomly landed in Exeter, I was surprised to find out that it has one of only three Gender Identity clinics in the UK – a complete coincidence (unless you believe in fate of course). If I’m honest, since transitioning six years ago, I don’t feel male or female really. I just feel like me! I noticed quite early on that I felt very different hormonally – much more balanced and less ‘up and down’. But that could also be part of me sorting myself out as a person too, so I don’t necessarily tie that to gender.”
As part of this ever-evolving approach to life, Syluss is currently illustrating a choice-based children’s adventure book called ‘Evermore’ written by author friend Lucy Banks which has multiple large publishing houses fighting to sign it. He told me that this represented an attractive proposition as it would provide a passive income to allow him to be more free-spirited and flexible. He is also training in counselling and told me,
“I see so much potential in people. I’ve always wanted to help to fix people but, with counselling, you help people to fix themselves. I can’t wait to learn a brand new set of skills and see where it takes me.”
Both when I first met Syluss sitting in the chair of Grindstone Tattoo Emporium and then again when we met to chat over coffee for this article, I was struck by his transparency, honesty, boldness and inner-strength. He has encountered more than his fair share of adversity in life but has overcome it and continues to strike forwards on a path of positivity and optimism in life. His parting comment to me was fittingly inspiring…
“I’m now happy in myself. When you are happy in yourself, you can be anywhere in the world and be just fine.”
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Written by Joff Alexander-Frye and photos by Martin Jefferson