Could a tattoo artist fall in love with flour, sugar and icing? Definitely, yes. That’s exactly what’s happened to Ben Cullen aka @thebakeking, the artist behind your favourite Instagram hyperrealistic cakes deceiving people’s eyes. Despite not being “a cake kinda guy”, as he puts it, he’s discovered his true calling in baking, even though he’s always been very creative and trying to find his spot in the art world. Now, he focuses on the possibilities to turn any Disney character, celebrity or common object/food into a great edible sculpture because “The beautiful thing about art is there is no right or wrong, it’s all expression.”
From ink and needles to flour, sugar and icing, how do you explain this change? What do tattooing and baking have in common?
Well, although they seem so far apart in terms of industries, I’ve found that my love of tattoos and tattooing has translated across to the cake world and what I now do. Tattooing is accepted more widely now as an art form whereas cake sculpting and decorating as an art form is still breaking through into wider society.
I’ve been able to bring the types/styles of tattooing that I love with me to the cake world and I have my own style, which I hope I apply to the cakes I make. I always just wanted to be an artist, which is why I tried so many different mediums before finding cake and realising this was the style that was meant for me.
Despite what they may have in common, there is an important difference between the two: tattoos are forever while cakes are ephemeral. How do you bear with the fact that your beautiful, hyperrealist cakes last so little?
That’s such an amazing point that I’ve never compared. In tattooing, there is a beauty in the commitment people make to the work they have and choosing you as their artist, and like you say, it’s the complete opposite with cake making in that, as a food, the sculptures are always perishable. Personally, I love that even more. All the work, time and detail that go into making something perfect only for it to be completely destroyed is somehow magic. It makes the piece more precious in the time that it stands proud. A bit like life.
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Tattoo artist, graphic designer and master of cakes. It seems that you have always been linked to creativity in some way. Have you always considered yourself a creative person?
I would absolutely describe myself as creative. I’m sure I drew before I could talk, walk or even crawl. My parents have loads of stories of how I was always making something, taking things apart and remaking them differently, etc. And a lot of stories of me painting and drawing on things – sometimes valuable things (laughs). I’m always at my happiest when I’m creating, no matter the medium.
Are there other artistic disciplines that you would like to try or that you’re good at but we don’t know of yet?
I love to draw and to paint; I used to love graffiti, I love tattooing… I also went through a stage of making loads of sculptures from cardboard. I even love DIY and building because it means I am creating something (laughs). There’s plenty I haven’t tried yet that I’m sure I will get around to. In fact, I watched a video recently of glass sculpture and I instantly thought I have to try that (laughs).
You became a full-time cake artist in 2016. When and why did you feel you were ready to take this step?
I have to be honest, I’m not the most sensible decision-maker… I’m a bit of a dreamer and make most of my decisions based on instinct and just go with my heart. That’s what I did with the decision to go full-time with the cake making. I truly believed I could create the best art that I could in this industry and really better myself to be the best artist I can be. To do that, you have to give it your everything and focus all your energy on that, so I had to trust my instinct and take the risk and set the business off full-time. Building the brand has been so hard and has had so many ups and downs, but since I made that decision, I haven’t stopped grafting and haven’t looked back. I work tirelessly to be the best I can and I love every minute of it, especially when I achieve new goals.
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Of all the kinds of cakes you could make, you decided to go for hyperrealist – sometimes, they’re even too realistic. Is deceiving the eye one of your goals? Has anyone ever doubted your cakes for being too realistic?
Ahhh… yes, that’s more of a modern approach I have gotten into. I really love creating fun cartoon style sculptures and caricatures, I think naturally that’s my style of art. But yes, I definitely love the magic and trickery of the hyperrealistic sculptures. There have been many occasions when people don’t realize that it’s cake, and it’s the best feeling. I love keeping people guessing and I love that in some way, it’s making the cake world more fun and interesting for people who generally wouldn’t take an interest in cake decorating. I love that it interests new generations and especially young lads into the style of art.
Did you always go for this style, by the way? Or did you start with more standard cakes and then everything upscaled from there?
When I first started, I made more tiered-style decorated cake with all bespoke decorations. It didn’t take me long to get bored of that though, and if this style wasn’t what I was doing now, I certainly wouldn’t be a cake maker. The truth is that the styles are so different. People often ask me for wedding cakes because they assume I would be able to do them, but the truth is I love creating art, not cakes. And I’m actually terrible at making a traditional cake! (Laughs) The cake decorators that make these amazing tiered cakes are incredible at what they do and have such amazing skills that I just don’t have.
We already know how you like your cakes on the outside, but what about the inside? What’s your favourite flavour? And what about your clients’?
I’m going to drop a bombshell here but… I’m not really a cake kinda guy (laughs). I have never been into eating cakes really, and the only times I do it now is to test flavours. If I had to have any of the cakes I make, I would definitely go for the chocolate sponge with maybe white chocolate ganache or my lemon sponge, which I really like. I always make sure my cakes taste just as good as they look because I think it’s such a common misconception that they’re either one or the other, taste good or look good. I try everything to make as much of my sculptures edible and great-tasting cake!
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Layers of cake, fondant, edible paint spray… For those of us who don’t know much more than this about how to bake cakes, can you tell us how is the process behind what you do? How long does it take to build Ellen DeGeneres’ head?
So, before any of the fun starts, the baking is the crucial part. There is a lot of measuring, weighing and timing to make sure the sponges are perfect for the project you’re about to take on. Then, I move on to stacking the cakes and layering them before sculpturing them into the shape that I want. All the stages like this before the actual sugar paste decorating sculpting and airbrushing are so crucial because, at each step, there is no going back to change the shape, etc. Most of my sculptures take at least two days of work, but some can take a whole week non-stop. You can’t work for too long on client cakes to ensure you keep the cake at its freshest.
Maybe you’re not a “cake kinda guy” as you just said, but still, you have a sweet tooth, am I right? But does your culinary enthusiasm translate into other dishes or specialities? Are you also a master of any other food/dish?
I don’t at all really (laughs). I’m definitely more of a savoury kind of bloke. I like a beer and a pie, which is lucky because if I loved cake, I might end up eating it all day every day (laughs). I wouldn’t say I’m a master at anything else in the kitchen, but I really do enjoy cooking. I love making any variety of chicken dinners and a good old Sunday roast!
Since you started ’til now, I’m sure you’ve improved a lot. However, are there any techniques that you still need to improve?
100%. I don’t think I will ever settle with my skillset, I’m constantly learning and improving and setting myself new challenges and goals; it’s my favourite part of my life. I love when I achieve a new standard, but then I’m straight onto the next and trying to better myself and reach the very top of this industry!
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And, over these years, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face?
There have been so many challenges – mainly that I’ve created for myself, as I’ve mentioned. I’m always putting myself out of my comfort zone. Once I get an idea in my head for a design or style, I go at it full throttle even if I have no idea whether I’m actually capable of achieving it (laughs). So, over the years, this has put my back right against the wall trying to overcome challenges as they actually happen during builds, with things not fitting or structures not holding as I imagined or just simply me not being able to get a face or shading right.
One of my biggest challenges was a seven-feet ringmaster I made all from cake for the biggest international cake show in the world. This was a piece for the very front entrance, so the pressure was so high and I had never made a cake so big.
From Disney characters to famous artists, can anything become a good source of inspiration when it comes to baking? Of all the types of cakes, which ones do you enjoy the most? Do you remember anyone in particular that has been your favourite so far?
Yes, definitely my head is 1000 mph constantly with ideas. If you look around, the ideas are everywhere, especially with the hyperrealistic objects cakes. I love to make things that are so ‘normal’ and everyday-like, like a piece of fruit or something you take for granted in your life that has no place in the cake world. I remember one time I was on the way to my studio and walked past a brick. I spent that whole day making a brick cake instead of the work I actually needed to do and put myself behind and had to stay late. I just can’t help myself sometimes; when I see something, I just know I have to turn it into a cake sculpture.
Despite the challenges, cakes have given you great moments and you’re taking The Bake King to the top. What advice would you give to someone who’s considering making a decision like yours – switching professions – or just wanting to bake cakes professionally?
Thanks, I would have to say it’s such a difficult industry… The competition levels are so high and there are definitely easier businesses to get into financially – I left too much more financially stable ones behind myself with tattooing and graphic design. However, I would say if you know what you want and believe in yourself and your work, and you’re willing to put everything into learning and building your skills, then anyone can do anything they want in life. The beautiful thing about art is there is no right or wrong, it’s all expression.
I love that my work can inspire people to get involved in the industry and want to become cake artists. I’m excited about the future of the industry, so I would love to see more people get involved.  It’s not an easy business, but it’s worth every second when you get the results you’ve been working so hard for!
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