The moral of the story is never get drunk in Rhyl,” Robert Weatherill laughs above the buzz of the tattoo needle.
“I was never happy with it. Not from day one. I was young and stupid and extremely drunk. It was a devil’s head with my ex-girlfriend’s initials underneath and I’ve wanted it covered up for years and years and years.”
As the 43-year-old fireman explains the perils of getting blotto in Welsh seaside towns, Majic the tattoo artist is hard at work.
The award-winning artist completed the outline of Robert’s new design on a previous sitting and is now undertaking the colouring and shading.
“It’ll take about two hours,” he says, constantly referring to an exquisitely detailed sketch taped to the chair. “There’s no getting away from it, it’s pretty uncomfortable.”
Robert agrees. “It’s going across the whole top of my back. Yeah, I’m not going to lie, it hurts.
“I’m getting a medieval King George design. I was looking around for a while and then I saw this design and I really liked it. It was striking and quite powerful. I’m patriotic and proud of the country and its history, I wanted something that reflects that.
“I think though this will be it for me. Never say never but I don’t think I’ll get any more.”
One person who’s sure to keep on going is Sue McElhone.
The 55-year-old, who was a tattoo virgin until her mid-40s, is in the next room of Wolverhampton’s Tattoo Palace. The landmark shop in Chapel Ash has been open since the nineties and has had thousands of happy customers. There’s music playing, the walls are covered in Banksy-style art and there’s books, flags and even a gumball machine dotted around.
Sue boasts more than 20 tattoos and 17 piercings – not exactly what you’d expect from an English teacher and former magistrate of eight years.
“I didn’t have any until I was 46 but then I graduated and I decided the get something to celebrate that,” she explains. “So I got a small Celtic symbol on my leg. I wanted something discreet but then I was upset that nobody could see it. So I waited a few months and then I got one on my wrist, ever since then I’ve been coming back every few months.
“It’s been nine years now, I want full sleeves on both of my arms – and I’m getting there.”
Sue, from Oxley, favours the steampunk style, Victoriana images with an almost sci-fi twist.
Her tattoos include ravens, spiders, cobwebs and lilies in a mixture of black, pink and purple.
But one of her favourite designs is rising up her right arm. The Queen super-fan has Edgar Allen Poe’s head with Freddie Mercury’s eyes surrounded by a two-headed raven and a gramophone. As you do.
“It’s pseudo Neo-Victorian, I just love the detail, the images are so delicate and beautiful. Today I’m getting some more shading and the word ‘alive’ on my arm. And when you see it you have to really shout ‘alive’ because that’s how the tattoos make me feel – they’ve given me a freedom. This is me. And I don’t have to apologise to anyone for it.
“I’ve taught full classes of students with these tattoos and no one has ever said anything – the only reaction I ever get is positive. The tattoos are art, they are so creative, this can only be a good thing. The tattoos do not affect my knowledge or ability to do a job, they are just an expression of myself.
“I don’t regret a single one. I think a lot of people who have them when they’re young do end up regretting them because they don’t really know who they are then. But I waited until I was 46, by then I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted.”
While Sue’s waiting, Tattoo Palace owner Corry, who has been in the business for more than two decades, brings over two hand-painted portraits of Freddie Mercury.
“Oh, they’re wonderful,” exclaims Sue. “Corry is so talented. She knows how much I love her art and Freddie so I’ll treasure these. She how creative these people are?”
With that, Sue’s led to the chair by her tattoo artist Stacie, who started off as the Saturday girl and has worked her way up over the space of 10 years. She settles down and the needle starts up.
“I don’t feel any pain,” says Sue. “I just feel the pressure and sort of go into my own little world. I feel great. I always enjoy the process.”
“Most people are generally OK. You don’t get people shouting or screaming, people know what to expect. I had one girl who cried before I had even started though once – I felt really bad about that. Aside from that, people are fine. They’re prepared.”
Sue’s ‘alive’ takes less than 20 minutes – and she’s thrilled with the results.
“I just love it. Stacie is so talented. I would never go anywhere else. Once you find the right tattooist, you stick with them. I want her to create me a bat cat next. That should be fun.”
Next to Sue is 22-year-old Jamie Hudson.
Jamie, who hails from Wombourne but works as a duct fitter in London, is getting an extravagant Colosseum design along his left arm. He’s being tattooed by Corry, who’s busy sketching the outline on to his skin.
“I got my first tattoo when I was with my mates on holiday as a teenager. It’s a mole doing a cartwheel with the words ‘don’t drink and drive’ underneath. It’s on my left bum cheek,” Jamie says, smiling.
“And I’ve kept going since then. I’ve got a cross on my side with a Wolves head on and I’ve got a rainforest design along my right arm and across my back. People really seem to like that one. I get a lot of comments about it. It took 35 hours in total.”
This one will take about eight hours, but what inspired him?
“I was just looking around for ages and this design just really appealed to me. It’s really cool and it should balance well against the ones I already have. It’ll take a few sittings but it’ll be worth it. I like tattoos with colour and lots of detail. They tell a story.”
Any regrets though?
“Nope. Not even the mole, believe it or not, it reminds you of a place and time. The only bad reaction I ever had was from my mum – she hated me at first.”
By Elizabeth Joyce