What is it like being at the helm of one of England’s longest running tattoo magazines, receiving thousands of emails per week from artists, photographers, writers, fans, scantly clad women, and overtly mad readers? Skin Deep’s editor, Sion Smith, can sum it up in a pithy rumination: “I suspect I have one of the best jobs in the world.”
As the longest serving editor since it’s inception in 1994, Sion doesn’t see himself going elsewhere. Publishing over 13 issues a year (issue 273 is fresh off the press), with a circulation of around 32,000, and boasting a million and a half Facebook likes and increasing numbers on other social media platforms–“it pains me to say that because I detest social media with all of my heart”–Sion is committed to print publishing and dedicated to tattoo culture.
With five books already under his belt and a sixth on its way, “I’d like to write an episode of Doctor Who too,” he has made time to indulge us with stories from the front line, as well as offer advice (the dos and do nots) to tattooists, writers, and photographers looking to contribute their work to publishers.
So, without further ado.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)
Years ago - when it became apparent my band was not going to become Kiss - I had a hankering to write for Rolling Stone (this was when it was good, when it meant something) and they didn’t want to play, so I went rogue and launched my own music magazine instead to prove I didn't need them–it was the absolute best of times. I hit more than a few walls at speed along the way too (all of which has been valuable but only in hindsight) but fast-forward to the present at Skin Deep, it was much a case of ‘right place, right time, right attitude’. I suspect I have one of the best jobs in the world.
As for the role of an editor, right now it’s ever changing. Once upon a time, it would have been important to be on top of news to show you were ‘in the zone’, but by the time a magazine goes to print everybody knows all of that so there’s very little point in me being on top of it in that respect. It becomes a lazy use of time and space to pursue it.
As far as I’m concerned, my job is to manage the team I’ve put together and make sure that, collectively, we deliver something of value to the audience.
My main priority is my ‘duty’ to the readership that buy the magazine and a very close second is to the tattoo artists who provide the basis for the content. It’s important to remember though, that readers are also clients for tattoo artists so it’s very much a symbiotic relationship between all of us.
The tattoo world talks about scratchers a lot, but there are scratchers in my writing world too. Just because you’ve got a keyboard in front of you doesn’t mean you’re a writer.
We have something to say. We have high production values too–that’s not to be sniffed at. We are always positive, never negative (there’s enough of that in the world), we have a sense of humour but just because we’re having fun doesn’t mean we don’t take it very seriously. One of the important things for me personally is that nothing gets through the door that isn’t great. Print is print and has a shelf life far in excess of digital no matter what anybody tells you.
Everything is louder than everything else and when you point at everything, you point at nothing.
There is no competition from the Internet. Not yet. The very nature of the Internet is to make everything available all at once–everything is louder than everything else and when you point at everything, you point at nothing.
We are going strong. People still love magazines (all kinds of magazines, not just us) and whichever tattoo magazine we are talking about here, it’s still a huge validation being featured in one–a lot more than on a website. Did you ever call your mother up and proudly announce your work had been featured on Facebook or Instagram? I don’t think so. Given a never-ending canvas to draw upon, the drawing never ends.
100 pages every four weeks, however, is a focus. It has a point. It is there and then it’s not there. The tattoo world talks about scratchers a lot, but there are scratchers in my writing world too. Just because you’ve got a keyboard in front of you doesn’t mean you’re a writer.
I’m not really interested in politics and fail to see how tattooing can make a difference on that front–though there are some interesting statements still being made in Russia with tattoos–but tattoos are a means of escape surely? Tattoos are pop music for the skin. Culturally, it quite often depends where you’re standing too. It means a totally different thing when you’re in Borneo instead of Manchester.
Having said that I've been very involved in mastectomy tattoos and the P.INK project over recent years. As a man, it’s pretty difficult to understand what women go through mentally with breast cancer, but I’m getting there. You can see what they do right here, and if anybody is interested in the pieces I wrote, they can find there here and here.
Right now, I’m collecting data on tattooers who are red hot with scar tissue and who are also great artists. The last thing anybody needs when they’re looking at this as an option is to find themselves with a shitty tattoo.
The idea was to do one thing for the human race and one thing for the planet.
I also have a new project that involves rescuing bears from captivity and relocating them to a sanctuary in Romania. There’s a t-shirt store and a donation page. The basic idea is that tattoo artists will design a t-shirt, it goes up for sale for 30 days and then it disappears forever. All of the proceeds go to the Liberty Sanctuary via World Animal Protection–I haven’t settled down a solid shop for it yet so I have a hub for everything associated with it at www.bigbearrescue.com.
Both of these things are my way of giving something back. I got up one day and felt I should do something useful out there. The idea was to do one thing for the human race and one thing for the planet. Whining about the world is pointless - people need to get their hands dirty if they want positive change.
I’d like to see a world in which the newsreader on the main evening news is tattooed but nobody cares. I much preferred it when being tattooed was seen as an act of rebellion and underground but we will never get that genie back in the bottle, so the only logical place to go is for tattooing to be everywhere but done well.
I’d like to think that Skin Deep will stick to its ethos and continue to be a source of great writing about all aspects of tattooing: what it is, what it’s capable of, who is bringing tasty bread to the table art-wise, that’s the point of a magazine surely, otherwise you might as well just keep refreshing your Instagram feed and be happy with that.
One of the highlights was bringing in issue 200 of the magazine. It was over-sized, many more pages than usual and people bought thousands and thousands of copies. A niche magazine about tattoos with that kind of reach was doing something very right and I am massively proud of what we collectively did with it.
Another very definite highlight was the letter I got a couple of years back from the guy who created the magazine long before our publishing company bought it in which he said (and I paraphrase) “Thanks for making Skin Deep into the magazine I always wanted it to be and knew it could be.” That meant a lot. Big time.
The worst part is perhaps the politics that swirl around. I am amazed at how many people find a storm in a teacup to be the end of the world as we know it when people really are dying on the streets. If you think a magazine, a website or a show is shitty and you have real issues with them, put your money, time and effort where your mouth is and prove it by doing it better. That way you get the satisfaction of being right and making the industry and the world a better place.
I see so many fantastic tattoos everyday but there was one that actually made me cry on stage while judging it and that was a tribute to a woman’s sister and daughter who had died in a car crash the weekend before. I wish I hadn’t asked what it was about–that got me right where it hurt. There have been the ones in which shrapnel wounds/scars have been tattooed over/around and removed from history which have changed peoples lives for the better. I like that kind of thing a lot.
I saw a young girl get a tattoo of a Transformer robot on her hand once too… her first tattoo. That was a low point at the other end of the scale. The tattooer shouldn't have done it, she shouldn’t have wanted it and maybe I should have said something but it was pretty much done by the time I came upon it. Too many people don’t understand how powerful a tattoo can be when it’s unleashed into the world.
But really, take a look around… there’s so much good work around at the moment, my mind is still blown every day on some level at what artists are capable of delivering. How can you single anything out!
Stefano Alcantara: He’s something of a ‘hero’ to me… but not in an Alice Cooper kind of way. He came out of Peru, was handed a shot at the gold from Paul Booth and ran like hell. He’s still running now and is such a great artist. While others are posting crap about others online, he will find the time to paint (and boy can he paint), hit the gym, hit the road… He respects the art, his customers, his life… I’m pleased to say that he has also become a friend. I don’t think I need any other reasons.
Lea Nahon: I love pretty much everything she does - even her seafood creatures! Her style speaks to my dirty/pulp soul. As far as I’m concerned she tattoos human life in exactly the same way as I see it - and if you’ve seen her work, that’s probably quite scary.
Mike Moses: Simply wonderful tattooing at every level. He’s off-kilter, thinks differently to most… every day something new turns up. Like Stefano, he never stops working. His illustration work is unbeatable too. He is the Jim Henson of tattooing and for that, we should all be thankful. Mike has also become a good friend and one day I might even be able to talk him into getting on a plane.
Maud Dardeau: Beautiful at every step and not a hint of colour. I’ve never seen anybody make a single colour sing quite like this and she just keeps getting better and better. One day I’ll make an appointment and that will be the last tattoo I ever have.
Colin Dale: Because somebody needs to be doing this kind of tattooing at the level he is doing it. He strikes a chord with my Celtic soul and sometimes, that’s all the justification I need.
I don’t read or look at any other tattoo publications. Imagine you were recording an album and kept sticking your head into the studio next door to see what everybody else was doing. You cannot fail to be influenced if you do that. It’s nothing against those other magazines or sites, it’s just the way I choose to work. If I think the same things that they think, I am bringing nothing to the table and nobody likes duplicated birthday presents.
But if you were to pressure me, http://tattrx.com is superbly curated, cared for and as far as I’m concerned, speaks about tattooing in the right way.
In a world in which a lot of people regularly mail me and all the other tattoo magazines at the same time without any introductory letter like we are a noticeboard… don’t do that. Also, low-resolution pics fit for only screens are useless to us all. 300 dpi high res pics are a standard requirement (they should teach this shit at apprentice stage). Sending in low-res images is not exciting for us. Have more respect for your own work and so will we.
Most importantly, have something to say. Have an opinion on something. There are only so many times (i.e. once) you can hear “I taught myself” or “I did an apprenticeship” or “I have been drawing since I was six”. Having said that, a lot of those answers come because people who don’t know how to interview have asked the question in the first place. It’s a work in progress trying to squash it.
For writers, be original, spell things correctly (I have better things to do than watch your back), be on time, be nice to work with and don’t be a dick. As an editor and a reader, I want to see a great piece that uncovers things that are new, skewed and interesting.
I really believe you cannot be taught how to write. Don’t waste your time or your money on a university course. Trust me on this. All you need to do is write. You will know if you’re a writer because it hurts when you don’t do it, and if you really do find it in your soul, I’m not hard to find if you want to write about tattoos.
Photographers are a little different. As much as I like (or did once upon a time) topless shoots appearing daily in my inbox, how many times have you actually seen us use them? Never is the number of times. And while your model might lay waste to all of human civilisation with their looks, if their tattoos are sub-atomic, they are of no use to our readers or me. I would hope that was the case for all media but sadly I know it’s not. For some people, simply being tattooed is enough and plays to that ‘fashion’ thing I was talking about earlier but when it comes to Skin Deep, we look very kindly indeed upon being tattooed well.
And maybe a parting shot to both writers and photographers: STOP giving your work away for free or for a credit. It’s a fool’s game. Anybody that takes your work and uses it with a little lip service to compensate your time and effort is treating you like an idiot. You will never, ever become a pro and be able to do it for the rest of your life if you do this. You need to earn money because travelling is not free. Eating is not free. Wi-Fi is not free. Good tattoos are not free. Nothing is free. So why should your work be? If you’re that desperate for the attention, you need to see a psychologist - and they will also charge you for their time.
The world is huge. People will tell you it’s getting smaller, but it’s not. It’s only getting smaller because most don’t want to look beyond the first page of ten results of a Google search. You have been sold a lie. Stop looking at what everybody else is doing and create your own world. The world doesn’t need another Mexican Sugar Skull - it needs you to bend and kick it out of shape by creating something that’s not already there.
Put down the pen someone else gave you.