Stefan Getty is local tattoo artist and proprietor of Cloak & Dagger, a completely custom tattoo shop, based in Antrim. Having known Stefan for quite a while now, I’ve seen his entrepreneurial spirit and hustler mentality manifest into a fully fledged business. He dedicated himself at a young age to making his dream a reality, getting to a point where he could sustain not only himself, but nurture the creative talent of others, opening his own studio at the age of 20.
If you don’t have work from him yet, get in line now, it could be a while before your window pops up. While you’re waiting, here’s some reading material. The piece is accompanied by examples of Stefan's work and a couple of our own illustrations. Click through to the shop Instagram here, for more.
This conversation was recorded at Cloak & Dagger after the day was done, one Saturday evening. We talk about his start, the journey to his current style and preferences, opening the shop, inspirations as well as future ambitions and goals. You'll need about 20-30 minutes for this piece so grab a cup of tea and enjoy. Cheers.
DB: So, to get a bit nostalgic, what was your first foray into art before you started tattooing? When did you pick up a pencil or pen and know this is what you wanted to do?
SG: Yeah, so art was always a part of our family. I remember after bath time, that was art time. You sat in from of the fire and my dad’s real artistic. We used to draw cartoons of our entire family group. That was a mad memory. Just the joy of drawing. That’s where it came from. I was always the kid who did the posters in primary school and stuff. Then it progressed into high school where I was doing everybody else’s art. There was never a moment where I can’t remember it not being a part of my life.
DB: I remember having a conversation with you when you worked at Joker tattoo, showing you some artwork and you commented on how there were little imperfections and nuances and how you couldn’t do that. When it comes to tattooing, obviously you want your lines to be perfect, but it seemed as though you were separating the artistic ability and the application of it. Have you thought about that any more a few years on and how do you consider yourself now? Some still don’t consider tattooing to be a true art form, what are your thoughts?
SG: Back then, when I saw your artwork, it was all lines, more like an etching type of thing. It was bold and stuff and that was really aesthetically pleasing. For me though, I was just so focussed on doing a perfect tattoo. Now, however many years on, we’re getting credit. Tattooists are getting credit. But there are so many of us that just say we’re tattooers, not that we’re tattoo artists. There are so many people pulling it different directions.
If we all said, “We are artists, this is an art form”, we’d probably get more recognition. There are some who just treat it like a trade. Like a blue-collar, go to your fucking job everyday type thing, which sort of holds it back. But you do have just as many people coming in from an art background doing their thing. It’s definitely a true art form though.
DB: So you think of yourself as an artist, just as much as a tattooer?
SG: I’d say I’m a tattooer first and foremost but we’re definitely artists. We’re artists everyday. We make art for people.
DB: How were you practising when you started out? Were you tattooing yourself?
SG: Starting out, I got a job through work experience in school. I told the school that I was going to an art gallery and I’m forever thankful to the guy that gave me the work experience. It was a guy, Rab Doherty. I don’t think he tattoos anymore. But he was tattooing up until about a year ago. He gave me that opportunity. He lied on the forms and everything and said it was an art gallery. It was sweet. (Laughing)
DB: Where was that shop?
SG: It was Underworld Ink, in Ballymena on Linen Hall Street or the one just down from that I think. It was a dope shop. Really old school. Proper old geezers that worked in it. I did two weeks there and it was a rude awakening to what the industry was about. They were just like, hardcore dudes that tattooed. And they were rock ’n’ roll you know? That was it, from then, bitten. I had to get into. I had to tattoo and I did. I tattooed myself. I took some time off because at one point I didn’t know whether I was going to be any good at it or not. I had doubt. I had self doubt just like any other teenager did.
DB: What age were you, actually?
SG: I was 13 or 14.
DB: And you started tattooing yourself at that age?
SG: Yeah. It was actually my mum’s friend got me a tattoo kit after that work experience because they were obviously inspired by my passion for it at such a young age. I was taken by it. I started tattooing myself and would run up and down the stairs to my mum showing her. She’d be like, ah what the fuck are you doing? (Laughing) I started covering my legs.
DB: Yeah I remember you chatting about that when I went to your house one day and you were doing a chest piece.
SG: Yeah, it was a scorpion.
DB: You were talking about starting on your legs then, yeah.
SG: It was totally bonkers. I wouldn’t say, tattoo yourself, to any young tattooer now. I’d say it’d get in the way of your professionalism. Try and find a way without doing that. But at that time, it was really hard to get in you know? This was before it really blew up. Before the big book opened. The was pre Miami Ink. So I was the kid tattooing like crazy on my friends and stuff. Then it got to the point where I was good enough to get a job. That was the time where you had met me.
I was actually working in Joker when I did that tattoo. The scorpion. And the only reason I was tattooing at home was because it was so hard to get work as a young tattooer in Belfast.
DB: What do you think the reason for that is? Is it a reputation thing? Or maybe someone goes to a studio knowing the artist’s work who runs the place and so you’re bottom of the pile? I don’t know how that’s work really…
SG: I think at that point, in any tattoo shop, when you come in and you’re young, you’re definitely bottom of the ladder. You have to come in and prove yourself. But at the time with that shop, the guy that owned it wasn’t a great tattooer but I just needed my foot in the door. It wasn’t about anything other than getting in. He was so not interested in tattooing. He was more interested in making the quick money from it. I knew that I could be busier tattooing from home but it was an integrity thing, like, just stick it out and see how long we can try and get the work to come in. It never did because he just took everything that came in the door. He didn’t share it out which he should have done which would have been fair for my growth you know?
We parted ways quite soon after. I don’t think I even lasted a year there. It was just down to me being a tattooer. I was passionate about everything tattoo and he was just passionate about making money. It just got to the point where it was like, what is the point, travelling in and paying you 50% of the small amount of money I make when you do nothing for me. So that’s where that was.
DB: Sounds sort of fucked up…
SG: Yeah it was crazy. It was so hard. It was one of the hardest things. Getting up in the morning some times and not having enough money to get the bus, waking my mum like, give me a bus fare so I can get to work! (Laughing) It was so hard.
DB: What was your first tattoo other than yourself, the first on someone else?
SG: I had tattooed the shit out of my legs, doing stars and practicing all these different things that I imagined my first tattoo being. It was on my friend Colin. We covered it years later. That tattoo was so bad. It was fucked. (Laughing) I didn’t know the whole set up, start to finish of how to do a tattoo, even how to talk to him. So he was shitting himself, I was shitting myself. It was never going to be good, like, scratched onto his arm. I remember it healing and it just coming off. It wasn’t even in the skin, just scary. It was more just doing it on another human being that scared the shit out of me.
DB: But you still remember the whole experience?
SG: Completely, yeah. I remember him being stoked about it because we were kids and me thinking, I don’t know about that. Because it was so shoddy. It worked out though.
DB: A little more trivial, but what is your favourite piece on yourself?
SG: My favourite tattoo to date is probably still first tattoo because it was my sister’s name. It just meant so much. The only reason I was allowed to get a tattoo at that age was because I was getting her name. I've gotten pretty good ones since then. An Oliver Peck tattoo on my hip. I’ve got a Paul Slifer on my throat. I’ve been tattooed by a bunch of good people.
DB: You got your neck done in Red Hot & Blue in Edinburgh yeah?
SG: Yeah, that was Paul and Alec in there who did my neck and my face. That’s a super shop. It’s one of the best shops there is.
DB: We’ll just go back to the Oliver Peck situation. What was it like? Getting tattooed by a famous tattoo artist and being a tattooist yourself?
SG: I had this preconceived thought that he was this sort of, walking on air, celebrity tattooer that could do no wrong. I think I realised pretty quickly after shaking his hand that he was just like any other tattooer. He just had the right breaks in his career to get on that level. Because his work wasn’t like any different to what we do and it was just like he was this celebrity tattooer that could charge whatever he wanted but he was super nice. He shook my hand, drew my artwork, tattooed it dead quick and charged me a hell of a lot of money for it.
I’m not going to rush to meet any more of my heroes. Not that it was a bad experience by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just not all that fussed on rushing to get tattooed by these guys. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
DB: And who else is up there then?
SG: I’ve been tattooed by Paul Slifer, like I said, and that experience, him just being so friendly and singing away, it being so effortless for him. I think he traded an iPad for my neck tattoo. You know, that was just amazing.
DB: That’s awesome. Well getting back to you, your main thing is definitely Traditional style tattoos. If anyone were to look at your portfolio previous to seeing your current work it’s pretty diverse in range and style so how did you arrive at this point?
SG: I think when I started out, I was so stubborn not to have a thing. I didn’t want to pigeon hole myself. I wanted to do everything and do it well. That’s still part of me and when I’m teaching the guys in the shop and I’m trying to get their mindset right, I always go back to that lesson because it helped me out so much. Just doing everything and not being this stuck up tattooer. “I’m not going to do that ‘cause it doesn’t suit me.” type thing.
But, in the last two years, I always had that passion for traditional tattoos and a Western take on Japanese tattoos. Just how they looked. I had a certain line that I liked. That really bold look. If you go back to what you said about your artwork, the traditional artwork has everything that I want in a tattoo. The bold lines. Amazing colour. And, you know, primary colour, not anything fancy. So now that I can pick and choose what I want to do, that’s when you start to see that I only do those type of things. Until then, anything was alright, but I want the people in my shop to be able to do that as well.
DB: Yeah, to keep your hand going sort of thing…
SG: To keep your tools sharp, yeah. You’d be bored if you did one thing. A perfect day in a tattoo shop for me is, do a bit of script, do a traditional rose, do a little small black and grey tattoo and have a cup of tea and go home. That’s diversity to me, that’s the shit. That’s what everybody should aim towards. See this whole, do one thing all the time, that’s not good. You’re going to get yourself into a corner where you’ll look out of thinking how do I get out of here? How do I do a bit of script? How do I do this traditional style when all I do is black and grey? Whereas, putting your hand into all those categories will allow you to give your client the best tattoo on the day, no matter what it is.
DB: What’s the process for a client like from the start here?
SG: I think when a client comes in here, they’ve already done their homework, you know, we’re not just a normal run of the mill shop because we don’t do walk in trade, everything is done by appointment so by the time they get to their appointment, they’ve looked at a lot of things. They’ve been back and forth with any one of the artists here and we’re pretty much on the same page by the time it comes. They know their artwork, they know the know how it’s going to be coloured and we’ve all agreed on a price and it’s just really effortless here.
In the past, I’ve worked in shops where it’s just been sort of haywire, like woah, okay you have to do this here, and you’ve got a fucking hour to do this and everything’s just rushed whereas here, if it happens it happens. And, I’ve turned loads of tattoos away because you know, it doesn’t suit our shop and that’s not because of the category or style of tattoo, maybe the person doesn’t suit it and I’m not the tattooer for them.
DB: Yeah, that relationship is really important between artist and client…
SG: That relationship is vital. If you can’t get on with that person. Well, you’re meant to be doing something that you love so passionately and giving that to them. You have to have some sort of mutual respect and if you don’t get it back, it’s the hardest thing ever. It’s the hardest thing ever to do a tattoo on someone if you don’t think they deserve it or that they don’t appreciate it at all.
DB: And maybe more of a question for the tattooers, but machines of choice?
SG: It’s funny because I started off just using coils, like really traditional, Micky Sharpz, like, heavy ass coils. Then, in the sort of turn of modern tattooing, rotary machines came about and I literally played with every rotary there is and put them back down again. A lot of other tattooers have asked me about them over the years because they know I’ve used so many. And…I’m right back to using coils or a really simple rotary. There are so many fancy things out there that are like cartridge systems and stuff and they cost a fortune. But, not necessarily making anyone’s work any better.
I had a conversation with a tattooer a couple of months ago. He told me that he'd bought the best ink and a Cheyenne Hawk and he would be great because of that. That it would make a big difference in his work, and it’s just not true. It’s your craftsmanship. Your tools have a little bit to do with it but not everything. It's not like buying an amazing or expensive machine makes you better.
DB: Yeah, you can still be a scratcher with a fancy machine…
SG: In the grand scheme of things, the simple stuff does it best. Like, in your experience, with Helen at Skullduggery. Her tattoos are sick. She doesn’t use anything fancy but her tattoos are sick. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. That just goes to prove it.
DB: Yeah, and again that came from doing the homework and knowing what I wanted. People go to her…
SG: For that look.
DB: So along the way, you gained quite a few accolades and awards across the years. You have them out on display and stuff so there is a pride in that. How did it feel receiving that recognition?
SG: Winning something at a convention makes you a little different from every other tattooer in the sense of like, that claw machine in the supermarket that picks up teddy bears up and sets them out. That’s what it does. What it says, is that you’re willing to go to these things and put your work in front of other tattooers. It’s got nothing to do with, oh, I’m a multi-award winning tattooer, it’s the social side of putting your work out there against other tattooers and it standing up and being equal.
DB: Like healthy competition almost?
SG: It’s definitely competition. And sometimes it’s healthy and sometimes it’s not so healthy (Laughing) But it’s definitely important if you want to push on and get that credit from your peers, it’s what you want to do. You could sit in a tattoo shop all your life and tattoo the public but you’d miss out on socialising with like-minded people. Tattooers are cool people, you know and it’s nice to have tattooers as friends. Conventions is how you do that.
DB: In a roundabout way, some people might say getting an award would be the best thing that’s happened to them. We spoke about this last week but what’s your favourite moment of your career thus far?
SG: Well, my favourite moments come from words that people tell me, getting compliments and stuff. Tattooers recognising who I am in America and the UK is great, but when the people who are close to me that I love tell meI’m on the right track, that’s really important. And this is what we talked about. I was just tattooing my brother recently and he said the most amazing thing to me.
That, now, he would get tattooed by me. He didn’t realise that when he was saying he was waiting for me to be good that it could have been insulting me. He didn’t even think. He just said it so honestly and purely that he thought that I was at that point where he would wear my work and be proud of it. To be able to say to his friends, my brother did this. That just blew me away. It was so amazing. He could say he was proud of me all he wanted but actually coming and getting the tattoo cemented that. It’s so cool.
DB: How long has Cloak & Dagger been open then?
SG: Cloak & Dagger’s been opened since 2012. We’ve had 3 locations.
DB: Whenever you started you probably had ambitions of opening your own shop. So, you’ve been doing this for 6 or 7 years now. You’ve opened the shop and are at the point where you’re not only doing the work you want to do, but also bringing other people along. You’re nurturing talent here. What’s that like?
SG: I think, just to go back to the start about having ambitions to open a shop. I never wanted to open a shop (Laughing) It wasn’t ever an ambition. It’s just because I would have loved to have worked in shops all over the place and that was my goal.
DB: Just like travel and tattoo as you go?
SG: Yeah, if I didn’t have Cloak & Dagger, I’d probably just be on a travelling rampage by now. I’d probably be everywhere by now but it came about after dealing with so many dickheads that owned shops. Guys that didn’t even tattoo that owned shops who were just fucking douchebags, who didn’t care about the productivity and the quality of what was coming through the shop whereas I was really passionate about the experience being good. That’s where the name Cloak & Dagger came from. It was a secret, us opening the shop. It was all underground. I was still working in a shop while we were grinding to make the other shop work.
I opened it for other tattooers to sort of come with me and have a better experience. We’ve had a lot of bad people working for us. I wouldn’t name names but in the beginning we just had some toxic people and it’s taken us a long time to get good people. Good industry people that have come from good shops like AWOL in Galway. Good tattoo artists with good experience. It’s taken us almost five years to get that. That was probably the hardest journey ever to get the right people.
Looking back, when I think about the other shops that I worked in, they just weren’t looking for those people. It was either the quick money, or making some kind of statement by having a tattoo shop. This is my life. From when I wake up to when I go to sleep. It’s like that with everybody in my shop. Everybody’s pushing forward at the same pace here which is fucking exciting.
DB: Well this question sort of ties to those wrong kind of people you were talking about. Maybe people who have seen what tattoo culture has become and want to get involved for the wrong reasons. What’s your take on the whole reality TV tattoo thing and how do you feel it’s affected the industry? Is it wholly negative?
SG: Right, well, reality TV shows are bullshit already. So when you add tattoos into that. Something that’s a very personal journey. You’re going to get bullshit on TV. Because you have to lie to people to condense it into these shows. The shows are so bad, yet at the same time it’s opening it up to the public for the business aspect of things. So, a lot of tattoo shops are doing a lot of run of the mill tattoos but they’re busy and they’re tattooing everyday because of these shows.
We had a massive influx of tattooers coming in after these shows you know, people thinking, aw these guy's lives are amazing, I want to be a tattoo artist. They’re the johnny-come-latelies. There the guys who showed up really late to the party. There are people who just got in before the door shut and they need to realise how lucky they are. The guys who are turning out decent work now. Guys from the last 5 or 6 years who don’t realise that it’s fucked.
If you’re in now and you’re making money and making good work, good, you’ll stand the test of time. But if you’re in it now and not doing either of those things, pretty much, you’re done and dusted. The book is going to shut. It’s a big open book because of the internet and TV shows but that book’s coming to a close very, very soon. There’s too many people in it. It’s rinsed, completely rinsed.
DB: Well, this is a sort of tenuous link but you did a Channel 4 short, last year, with Big Bad Llama. What was that like?
SG: Well we can relate that Channel 4 situation to the likes of Tattoo Fixers. When they cast for a show, they’ll ask all the top guys. All of them will say no. Then all the middle tier guys will say no because they don’t want their integrity called into question. Then, you have the bottom feeders who are fame hungry and they’ll eat someone’s hand off for that opportunity. My experience on television was not about tattoos. Basically, I was doing something for a close friend. I support his work and anything he does.
DB: That’s the Male Body Handbook by the way…
SG: Yeah and that’s Tony Webster by the way. He’s such a talented guy. Everything that he does is pro tattoo. He expresses the male and female body in such an artistic way that’s appealing to the tattoo industry. He’s done editorials for the likes of Ulster Ink and other tattoo related bits and bobs so it was something I was happy to get into. Opportunities came from that to do tattoo related stuff from Channel 4 and other networks which I’ve just point blank refused because I’m not about being a famous tattooer, I just want to be a good tattooer. That’s enough for me.
DB: What about other ambitions beyond tattooing? Obviously you guys have the ridiculously popular shop merch going on. Do you see that developing into something bigger?
I think because we’re just so busy and like you said, with the merch, we just can’t hold onto it, ever. It literally comes in and people are just like, is my stuff there yet? It just goes and we can’t really keep on top of it. It’s almost a business in itself now and it’s pretty separate. I’d like it to see it go even further and become it’s own identity. But as far as the shop, we just hired two new tattoo artists who will start here soon. And they’re good. So that brings us to 5.
DB: And you’re still finishing the rest of the building?
SG: Yeah, we’ve got more refurb to do. Two rooms to finish and so I think we’re occupied anew’ve got goals to achieve but I’m one of those people who will just continue to move. I need to feel that otherwise I just feel stale and like I’m standing still. My family always laugh because I can’t stand still. Not in the literal sense but in that I need to feel development in every sort of aspect. I need to feel like I’m getting better, pushing forward and getting to that next level. The more it happens, the more I notice and sometimes I don’t notice, look back and think woah, I have come a long way. There’s still so much more to achieve. This is just the beginning of Cloak & Dagger.
Where do you want to be in 10 years say? Have you mapped out a little further down the line for yourself and the shop or are you taking things as they come?
SG: I have a five year plan, from this year and last year. I want to buy property. I want to buy a property in New York and I want to stay there a lot more. I’m aiming to split up the year and get some more permanent work there and juggle it, hopefully to a point where I have clientele in both locations. Maybe in like ten years, make the move completely to America.
DB: Nice, and keep the shop here?
SG: I don’t think I could ever get rid of Cloak & Dagger here and if I were to open a shop there, it’d be Cloak & Dagger too because this shop, this brand, means so much to me. It was my journey from day one. Building it up from ground zero with nothing. I opened Cloak & Dagger with £100, a handshake and promised the guy that I’d have his rent. That was just blind faith and it worked out and kept working out for years. It’s very special to me and I don’t think I’d ever let go of it, no matter where my life goes.
DB: Lastly, do you have any advice for people wanting to get into the industry and anyone who’s looking to get tattooed?
SG: I think if I could speak to my 13 year old self, I’d say don’t listen to anything anybody else has got to say. Stick to your guns and you can make it happen. Because if you can see it, you can make it happen. It took me so long to realise that. I used to listen to all these guys who I thought were amazing tattooers and then when I got to the point where I was at their level, it just didn’t make sense anymore so I started to find my own way.
To a certain extent, I’ve just found my way the entire time. If I was speaking to a young person that was in my position now I’d say look, you’re going to do it anyway, it’s not something you can do at 50%. You’re going to do it by any means necessary because you’ll fall in love with it just like I did. Don’t listen to fucking anyone who’s in a position to tell you right from wrong. Tattooers, then tried to put me off but looking back, it’s just because they didn’t want a kid being good. Do it the right way. Search for an apprenticeship. Whether you have to pay for it or sweep the floors. Just to get in and be known as someone who did an apprenticeship. It’s definitely worth it and makes life a lot easier.
For clients, do your homework. You have so much out there. Stop bringing us google related images and and be passionate about your tattoo just like we are. Look up the artist to see what they do best and maybe get something they specialise in so you get the best potential tattoo you can get.
DB: And when are you free next? You’re pretty booked up?
SG: I try to keep it like every 2 or 3 months you can get tattooed by me. But at the same time because it’s a shop, shit happens and there’s a cancellation list. Next available for me is end of May.
DB: And click through to website or phone, call in?
SG: You have to come in. We don’t take anything over the phone. Everything’s got to be face to face. I don’t want to commit to something that I won’t genuinely enjoy and I like to meet the people. I like to shake their hand and get a vibe. (Laughing)
DB: Well, awesome. That’s perfect, thanks for doing that.
SG: Hopefully that’s good for you, thanks!