Human Leather - A Conversation Between Artists - Tovi Sorga

Human Leather - A Conversation Between Artists

September 16, 2015

We’re sitting at the back of Tovi’s flat under Clifton suspension bridge at dusk. Our barbecue has attracted the neighbour’s ginger tom cat who looks extremely handsome against a light indigo sky.

‘Barbecued meat is the smell of summer and relaxation and a primal, natural thing,’ someone says. It goes quiet while we think about smells and meat. The cars have died down, stars appear.

Dave’s recently moved house and he says his designs are more prolific than last year. ‘Now I spend half my evenings listening to Alan Watts, drawing or making needles or doing something crafty. Earlier I was sharing houses with mates, kneeling on the floor painting... Not having space drove me mad.’

‘The other bonus of moving is now I’m 10 minutes from the skate park. When I get home from work on a summer evening I can jump on my bike and roll around. I grew up on BMXs and skateboarding, riding big curves in the air – the urban version of surfing...’ he says.

David Watt Tattoo Artist on BMX for Tovi Sorga - photo by Joe Williams

We open beers.

‘I’m still riding my BMX. I face planted for the first time ever on my 33rd birthday!

I can’t work without my hands. I’d rather land on my face. When you’ve got a mortgage and a career you can’t afford to injure yourself.’

Someone’s phone goes off and we talk about how distracting technology is as an artist. ‘You can’t immerse yourself in your work,’ Tovi says, and Dave agrees, ‘I turn off all notifications. Draw for 5 minutes, then check Facebook, draw for 5 minutes, then Instagram. None of it means that much...’

It’s a boring dilemma, we agree, each coming to our own compromise with it. Tovi began designing on screen around ten years ago after his sister taught him Photoshop in a day: ‘She always had a Mac so I got hand-me-downs until I could afford my own,’ he says.

Coy Carp Fish tattoo design hand drawn by David J Watt 

For Dave, every design is still hand-drawn on a plain piece of paper, ‘I’m one of the least Photoshop-literate tattoo artists out there,’ he says, ‘I trace and use a compass. I just appreciate traditional craft – the mentality of the traditional craftsman and it’s something that I wanted to learn – removing the electricity, doing it all manually. I don’t produce anything that couldn’t have been done 100 years ago.’

Dave’s been tattooing for over 10 years but has been increasingly drawn to traditional tebori methods.

‘Tebori is a totally different way to tattoo,’ he explains. ‘It’s basically just a stick with needles on the end, it’s a super traditional method and takes longer. You can’t buy tebori needles, you have to buy standard needles and solder them yourself – that’s another little craft that I’m learning from a few peers and mentors in Japan and the States that I’m in touch with. You have to thin inks down because the ink goes deeper into the skin.’

Tebori needles given to David J Watt by Japanese tattoo artist friend ©DavidJWatt 
Dave offers Tovi a free tebori tattoo, as he needs to practice. It’s less painful apparently, because you’re hitting the skin at 3 or 4 times a second instead of a hundred. But then, pain is subjective.

‘I like the crudeness and simplicity of the proper old school tebori tattoos that were all lined by hand.

Now I’m trying to do tattoos that look like they were done by a Japanese guy in a basement 30 years ago. You have to develop an eye to appreciate that something so simple is so beautiful.’

It’s a very select art. In Japan you need a proper master who you’re an apprentice of to qualify in tebori. You’d become a part of his tattoo family. One of the most senior tattoo artist's working in Japan, Horioshi the Third (Hori is the title of a traditional Japanese tattooer), still pays for the widow of Horioshi the Second, because he’s made a commitment to the mother of his mentor for life.

Dave has been to Japan to visit Horioshi too. ‘When I was last in Japan I was asked to take part in the Gion Matsuri – it’s an ancient Japanese festival in Kyoto. You carry a mikoshi through the streets. It’s quite aggressive. Everyone dresses head to toe in white with a bandana, rhythmically chanting Hoi-to. You’re in a team of guys carrying a huge wooden shrine, the weight is almost unbearable. You go in for 20 or 30 seconds, someone taps you, swaps, and then you go back in later. It’s based on an old Shinto, pre-Buddhist tradition – you’re carrying this spirit around the city to cleanse the streets for good luck.

 ‘A tattooist friend who lives in Kyoto said, “You must!”

I’m so lucky to have got to do it. There are guys in Japan who have waited 20 years. In the whole of Japan only a few Westerners have ever taken part.’

 David J Watt doing a full body tebor japanesei tattoo ©DavidJWatt

Who are the people taking part? we ask, happily eating Tovi’s deliciously marinaded chicken.
‘“The Black People”, they’re known as,’ he says, ‘Untouchables. Fucking Tough Guys. Matsui is their only chance to be the heroes, to shine in public. They’re taxi drivers or house painters in the week, martial arts experts at the weekends with body suit tattoos hidden under their clothes.’
‘Full body tattoos?’
‘No, just torso to elbow and shorts,’
Dave explains.

‘They’re hidden because the more you show the tattoo the less of the magic and power it has.’

It’s dark now and we can feel September in the air. 

‘Did you see that thing I sent you about the pigs they’re tattooing?’ Tovi asks.

‘Live pigs?’

‘Live pigs.’ he says.

‘And then this guy sells them off for £50k each. But he’s tattooing them with Disney characters.’

‘Why? That’s not cool.’ 

‘It’s not cool.’

 Tattoo artist David J Watt photographed for Nitelife

Dave adds, ‘there are collectors in Japan who collect human skin.’

‘Human? Who donates their skin?’

‘People do agree to it. But it’s a very underground world,’ Dave says.

We imagine trophy human pelts on office walls...

and talk about the mafia, or Yakuza, as it’s known in Japan – a more general term for the different clans still holding onto ancient powers, as they are all around the world in their modern guises.

We leave the cat chewing a chicken bone and dampen the embers. Then we go inside to look at the drawings Dave has brought of his latest collaboration with Tovi. They’re the outlines for a soft leather clutch – a tiger on one side, dragon on the other, so that when the bag is folded over the two creatures are entwined in a fight.

Under the bright electric lights the designers talk about adding yellow to the claws, and maybe some blue and red, of techniques for grading and blending... 

‘I was thinking of doing it with water for a soft long fade...’

Tovi agrees that would make sense for the more fluid parts, like a flame or liquid. 

‘I’ve mainly used dry brushing,’ Dave admits, ‘but the kind of method I’d use on standard tattoo flash to get a fade would be to do a solid block of colour and work water into it, then blend it out, which gives a kind of nice smooth...’ His hand waves and its not hard to think of the peculiarly porous qualities of skin.

‘Maybe just pick the eyes out as well?’ Tovi suggests. ‘And maybe, maybe very slightly on the volcano...’

‘I mean, that’s actually meant to be mount Fuji,’ Dave says, ‘snow-capped.’ 

Original drawing of fold-over clutch bag for Tovi Sorga by tattoo artist David J Watt

In the end they decide to keep all colour out, but for tiny specks of yellow and amber. Final discussions revolve around how to transfer the tender, painterly, original drawings into the digital world.


‘In my ideal world,’ Dave concludes, ‘someone would give me a pile of bags and I would hand-paint each one. But then that would be like a month’s work each time.’ 

‘Yeah, I want it to be as original as possible within the constraints of technology,’ Tovi emphasises.
Luckily it’s only the lighting and photographing of such large images that provides the challenge, as once the images are uploaded Tovi’s printing conveys Dave's inky strokes immaculately onto the soft, calf leather canvas.

David J Watt tattoos from The Black Lodge in Bristol.
View Dave and Tovi's current Tattoo Collection here.
There will undoubtedly be more to come.

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