Maybe it’s her big violet eyes. It could be her trademark black hair and super-short, blunt fringe. Or the tattoos that adorn her temples and throat. Whichever part of Grace Neutral draws you in first, you quickly realise that her entire body is a visual expression of her beautiful soul.
A tattoo artist by trade, muse and model in her spare time, Grace is passionate about the ways in which humans present their inner selves on their outer shells. In fact, she’s just created a new documentary series called Needles and Pins with Viceland to explore tattoo art in relation to beauty and individual expression. In the series, Grace explores the communities, histories, and rapid growth of tattoo scenes across the world, talking to seasoned professionals working in the industry alongside teenagers under the legal tattoo age (18). She speaks to friends, colleagues, women and men, the casual and the dedicated, to confront the stereotypes that restrict and sometimes harm those with tattoos.
Tattoos have always been a radical act of self-expression, a badge of honour and a rebellion against the mainstream. Traditionally associated with underground subcultures and working-class men who showed loyalty to certain professions, such as navy marines and dockyard workers, in the past 10 years, tattoo parlours in the UK have become high-street staples and now, around one in three young people have a tattoo. “There are heavily tattooed people at fashion weeks in London, New York and Paris – that’s not an unusual thing to see”, Grace tells Refinery29. “Tattoos are being appreciated as an art form and the taboos are fading, the stereotypes falling. It’s acceptable for anyone to have tattoos now. It’s great that it’s not being looked down on by society as this dark, seedy thing anymore.”
The visibility of tattoo artists, thanks to social media – particularly Instagram – means that people are able to see the creativity that goes into each design, from the initial concept to the sketches to the positioning to the specific technique used to ink.
Grace first entered the tattoo world as a teenager in Plymouth, a port town with a big tattoo scene. “I was getting tattoos when I was 16 – which is way too young – and it just went from there. It was normal for a lot of us, wanting to experiment with our bodies. All the people I grew up with were heavily tattooed.” Her first? “A heart with a scroll going through it, on my thigh, so I could hide it from my mother. The scroll is still empty – I think it’ll be empty forever.”
As someone who has ink over (almost) her entire body, what is it like being on the other side of the needle? “As a tattoo artist, it's a great honour to be able to put such a permanent thing on someone’s body, and have someone trust you with your vision. I love it when people come to me because they get where I'm coming from, they see the energy I'm putting into my artwork and want to share it with me – it’s a beautiful thing.”
It may seem like everyone and their friend claims to be a tattoo artist now, offering DIY at-home stick ‘n poke styles to stamp skin, but you’d be mistaken to assume it’s for everyone. “Being a tattoo artist is the new rockstar, everyone wants to be one, but it’s hard, not just a way to make quick cash. It isn’t that glamorous – you have to work all day, then go home and draw all night, and go and find inspiration to keep that creative pool flowing. It’s a sacred honour – people are trusting you with their flesh and blood, you need to respect the art and immerse yourself in it fully.”
And immersed she is: watching Needles and Pins you can really see her passion and love for tattooing’s history, its cultural significance, and its key players. What do her tattoos mean to her? “They’re a visual diary of everything that I’ve done, moments in my life that I’ve wanted to mark down. It’s a way for me to put some of the inside on the outside. It just makes me feel more complete.”
Below, Grace talks us through some of her favourite tattoos, from her family’s names to the artwork of her idols. Scroll through to read her words.
"I was 23 and with a body modification artist who I had helped with procedures for years. I had wanted them done for ages – it felt like a rite of passage because it's such an intense procedure, so I got them when I felt strong enough mentally to do it. That was really good for my confidence. It's done by injection and it doesn't hurt, it's just a control thing, as you can go blind if you don’t stay still. It’s pretty scary.”
Back of neck
“I’d only been tattooing a few years, and was working at Good Times Tattoo in Shoreditch. They had a residency with a Spanish artist I’d loved for years called Alvero. He came over and I said, 'I love your work, I’ll give you the space and you can do whatever you want'. It was just a really nice mark in my career, getting tattooed by someone I really admire.”
“I just fucking love juice boxes. Especially in the summertime, you won’t find me without a juice box in my hand. It was Strawberry Ribena back in the day, now I’m all about Orange Ribena.”
“This was done by Duncan X, an artist considered an elder of the industry. He’s a profound figure in tattooing, especially in London. We became good friends through working in the same shop. I love the way it looks – it’s strong and striking, and to have it done by a hero of mine was really special.”
“I got this done when I was 20. I wanted something striking and beautiful on my back and had wanted something to do with my grandmother – she was an amazing woman. When she passed I knew I wanted to get a tattoo for her, but it took me years to feel like it was the right time. Her favourite birds were swans, because she’s a Devon girl. I’ve had some pretty far-out experiences with signs in the universe. One of them was to do with a swan. When someone leaves you, weird things happen that make you think they haven’t left you.”
VICELAND documentary series Needles and Pins, begins on Wednesday 22 February at 10pm. VICELAND is available on SKY channel 153 and NOW TV.