Two of the most revolutionary new tattoo artists with a background of illustration and street art, Jade and Kev of Expanded Eye have been a couple for eleven years and a duo for about two. Seeing they have tight schedules working between the UK and France, we made sure not to waste any time during our interview on the outskirts of East London. However, true to one of their mottos, "Fuck the clock", Expanded Eye had us sitting in their garden with beers on England’s hottest August day in over a decade. We talked about everything from tattoos and art to politics and Albert Einstein…
You are from the UK but spend lots of time working in France. Where did you tattoo first and who was your first customer?
Kev: I started with tattoos in a place that’s close to here, where I got an apprenticeship originally. My first customer was actually on my first day of the apprenticeship. It was just a friend of the guy teaching me; I don’t know his name. I did some tribal dragon thing, disgustingly awful but I had to tattoo it and it taught me the roots, how to tattoo… Jump into the deep pit is the best way to learn a new skill.
Your tattoos are unique because they are your visual interpretations of a client’s personal story. Can you describe the process from a given concept to the final tattoo?
Jade: First of all, we find out what the client wants their tattoo to represent, we ask for as much information as possible to make the design as personal as possible and then we start sketching thumbnails, we do research into various things. For instance if a client has a special passion or desire, that’s something we need to delve further into so we can make the tattoo as unique as possible. So then we’ll sketch and the process goes on for two days minimum…
Kev: Yeah, we have to feel inspired by someone’s story. If their story is not inspiring, it’s quite simple: They don’t get an appointment. We have to feel inspired. So somebody might give us a list of things. We need to know why they want these things; what’s the reason behind this? What does it represent to them individually? Once we’ve gathered this information we can then make the design unique and personal, find a different approach or angle to portray their desires, their personalities and lives. Something they want illustrated and something we want to make a visual interpretation of.
Jade: We ask the clients not to concern themselves with the aesthetics. We want to know why you want it not what you want. And then we’ll spend an allocated time brainstorming, it’s just two minds working together and letting our imagination go wild and doing research. We’ll let the piece evolve and then we’ll have an idea and because there are two of us, one of us will say "how about this and that?"
Kev: We normally spend about two days on each design so the artwork is never forced. It’s never something we force it to… If we come up with an idea and it’s not strong enough yet we’ll give it time and bounce ideas off each other, wait till the design evolves organically. I think it’s really important that it does. It’s not a forced design, it’s nothing rushed.
How did you come up with this idea? Was it because you found a lack of originality and artistry in the industry?
Jade: It was very natural. The illustrating we did before tattooing was about communicating ideas, e.g. for an editorial piece. You’re officially interpreting those words. It’s kind of a similar thing with the tattoos. For us it’s incredibly important to do something with meaning and for us to be 100% happy with it. It’s going on this person’s skin for the rest of their lives so if we’re not 100% proud of it, then, you know…
Looking at your tattoos, you have a very memorable style. I have identified themes like fantasy, mystery and Surrealism in it. Where does this come from?
Jade: It just comes from a love of these things, really.
Kev: It comes from everywhere. We find inspiration from everything, not just other artists but from people’s lives and stories, you know? We listen to music and get inspiration absolutely everywhere! And the Surrealist side… We’ve always been interested in dreams and consciousness, so these elements do sort of come through in our designs but it’s not like we’re trying to make Surreal art. It’s our visual interpretation and it’s natural to us to portray someone’s idea in this manner. If you think it’s Surreal art, then okay.
The abstraction in your work reminded me of painter Wassily Kandinsky. What artists are you inspired by?
Jade: We’re inspired by a broad range of artists but not only artists. We’re inspired by everything. We do and see and take life in. And people, too, but in terms of artists…
Is there someone you looked up to when you were younger, who really had a big impact on your direction?
Jade: The Surrealist movement as we were just speaking about and also Dadaists are a big influence with me.
Kev: Yeah, Situationism and also sculptors and some classical artists like Egon Schiele. But these are just a few names of a massive suitcase full of names. There are too many to mention.
Your tattoos generally seem to be floating in space rather than being caught in two dimensions. Do you think skin is restrictive in this way because it is a two-dimensional surface?
Kev: I would say it’s not a two-dimensional surface because the body has shape and form so I’d say it’s the opposite. It’s not two-dimensional. If you draw an illustration or you make a fine art piece of work on a flat board or paper, that’s two-dimensional. But if you use the skin, it’s the opposite. It’s three-dimensional. The only restriction with the skin is you can only go so far with the tattoo needle and you can’t carve out pieces, you can’t make sculptural pieces from a tattoo. You can get textures but you’re limited with tattoos. But they are 3D in the sense that a form will not be flat.
Jade: And especially in terms of how they cross over, how we design pieces that go from one body part to the other. So if you’re working on an arm, that’s quite a narrow format…
Kev: We prefer to ignore the contours of the body so when we put a stencil on the skin, the body is relaxed and we go from the arms to the chest to the back, we just stick the stencil straight up the top, ignoring any gaps and joints, etc. So we just use the body as if it was a 2D canvas but as a matter of fact, it’s very 3D.
Jade: And the way it curves around the form of the body is really interesting as well. With a flat piece of paper, you kind of see it in its entirety but with something that curves around the body you’ll catch one part and then another part.
Kev: It has movements. From each angle you see it, you see a new image, you know? Rather than with something that’s flat, you’ll only see the same from every angle. But with the body, the image will change as you move.
You also do illustrations, installations and street art. How does this relate to your tattooing? Are tattoos not being taken serious as a form of art in society?
Kev: I don’t think tattooing has been taken seriously. I think mainly because people just imitate other people and in the real art world, in contemporary art, in galleries, exhibitions, people have their own style. They have their own personality and within their art they express themselves. In the tattoo world everybody wants to imitate everybody else so if you did traditional, everybody else wants to do traditional. If it’s Realism or tribal or Japanese, everybody’s doing the same. But there are people doing something different. Somebody doing their own, unique take… Expressing themselves uniquely within that.
Jade: The perception is starting to shift fortunately and I think that in the future, we’ll see tattooing hopefully gain a lot more respect and credibility in the art world. For us, there is no distinction between a piece of art on a canvas or, you know, a piece of art on your skin. If you love an artist’s work and you want to own a piece for the rest of your life, you want to wear it on your body, then for us, there is no distinction.
There seems to be a big deal of nostalgia, especially in your illustrations. Can you elaborate on this?
Jade: In the illustrations or the tattoos?
Yes, the illustrations. When I looked at them I felt like they always referred to the past and its beauty.
Jade: We use a lot of vintage and recycled materials in our work which we love. We love to find beauty in things that people throw away and we love these kinds of old textures. Yeah, we do touch on the past in some way when we’re telling stories or through themes we’re exploring in our work.
Kev: If you look at it, we illustrate stories and every story is in the past so there’s always nostalgia unless it’s someone’s idea for the future. We’re telling a story that’s already been told but we’re telling it now.
Other elements I found in your work are aphorisms and typology. How do the poetic and the visual beauty of words go together?
Jade: For us, they go hand in hand. We find incredible amounts of inspiration not just form what we see but from what we read, you know? Words can evoke imagery in your head, especially in the poetic form and we find immense inspiration from that. It’s important to us not just to focus on the visual. We are visual artists but in our personal lives we spend great deals of time reading and exploring, discovering new things and in terms of words, they are of utmost importance to us.
In June, you created an installation in London’s Shoreditch to coincide with the G8 summit taking place in the city. "The Global War Machine" is controversial and political. Can you explain your intentions?
Jade: Our intentions were to raise awareness about the G8 summit that was happening. For us, street art is about evoking awareness to a subject and catching people. People might see things in the newspaper and not want to read it but as they’re walking down the street you can catch them and show them what’s happening. We showed David Cameron, our prime minister. It was about the G8 in terms of oil, we cut an oil drum…
Kev: Yeah, we cut an oil drum in half with an angle grinder to make it look like a bas-relief kind of 3D-esque collage street art. And then David Cameron’s head is like a monster with eight eyes because he is a monster (laughs).
Jade: Yes and they were about the eight members of the G8. So the ‘Global War Machine’ was about arms, banks, oil and how they’re giving public funds into these despicable ways of spending money that are unethical and that we are completely against. We want people to see these things are going on and it’s wrong.
Kev: These are subjects that the mainstream media tend not to touch on for obvious reasons so I feel like it’s our duty, our job to make people aware of these types of wrongdoings by making a visual message on the street so we can catch people off guard and portray a message.
Something that’s passionate, that’s pissing us off. We can let you know what’s pissing us off, you know?
Jade: It shows the ills of society where public spending is cut on things like schools and hospitals, general education and charity and money is spent on things like wars for oil.
I get a sense of humanitarianism looking at your work. It seems to be all about connecting with other beings regardless of the limitations given by time and space. You even paid homage to Albert Einstein…
Jade: Yes, Albert Einstein is a huge inspiration to us. But in terms of humanitarianism, yes, we do feel that we’re all connected and that we’re all one and that’s a theme that flows through all aspects of our work, different disciplines that we like to explore…
Kev: We are one consciousness, you know? Yes, we are individuals but we are one collective consciousness and we should work towards a better future for everybody.
Speaking of time, what was your "Fuck the Clock / Shackles of Time" installation about?
Jade: We did that for Secret Garden Party and it was to show that people are prisoners to time. You know, people are always like "I can’t do this, I can’t do that", constrained by the clock. And we were urging people to fuck the clock, you know? Make time your prisoner. Time is just a fiction of our imagination, a man-made construct. Just leave your watches in your tent!
Kev: Enjoy the moment, there’s only here, there’s only now! There’s no past, there’s no future, there is only now and that is all there will ever be and we want people to appreciate that moment. If you think about the past, you live in the past. You expect the future but you’re not living in the now and it’s really important that people know to appreciate this very moment that we live in right now.
Do you think this applies to a city like London especially?
Kev: It applies to everybody.
Jade: I think London could take a leaf out of that book.
Kev: Yeah, I think so, too. Because it’s a fast-paced city with so many people just going there to work. They go there in their suits, leaving at 7 in the morning; they come back at 7 at night. It’s all about timing. If you’re late, that’s bad. We just think fuck the clock, you know? Who cares what time you wake up? Who cares what time you start work? Just do what you want to do when you want to do it.
That’s a bit Hippie-ish, right? In a good way, though.
Jade (laughing): People do need to take more time for themselves, you know? Stop rushing. You’re here, make the most of it; live in the present moment, now.
Are there any exhibitions coming up in the near future or are you currently working on new projects?
Kev: Yes, we’re having our first solo show. We’ve had two group shows previously. One in Madrid and one in Switzerland before, this was at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. But we happen to have our first solo show in October this year. The location will be in East London but the actual location will still be decided.
Last but definitely not least, can each of you comment on their most meaningful, own tattoo?
Jade: For me, it’s my most recent tattoo. It’s this one here (shows tattoo on the back of her arm) and it’s titled ‘We never die’. It’s about the idea that we’re made up with energy and when we die our energy never ceases to exist, so our soul is scattered out there amongst the stars and that’s just the end of a part of our journey.
Kev: The most meaningful tattoo for me is this one here (shows tattoo on his arm) which my boss did…
Jade: What about this one? (points at a different tattoo)
Kev: Oh, yes! No, there’s too many to decide! I’ll take this one (showing the tattoo on his arm again) because it symbolizes the start of my journey as an internationally known tattoo artist. My boss is quite well known, he did this tattoo for me which has an Einstein quote ("Imagination is more important than knowledge") here. And it’s about travel; I traveled to France to meet him and work with him so basically, for me it’s the start of the tattoo career and this tattoo symbolizes that. They all mean something; they all have a memory attached to them. I think, realistically, none are more important than the others but this is artistically and aesthetically the most pleasing one.