‘The Tattoo Thief’ author reveals us the secrets of her first novel suspended between chills, ink and crime-story. A macabre affair set in Brighton

If this summer you will go to read a single and indispensable book (“reading companion” to take you to the mountains or under the umbrella), determined bets on ‘The Tattoo Thief’ by Alison Belsham published in UK last May by Trapeze.

You can find the reason for our true enthusiasm in this exhaustive Alison’s interview where we talk of blood-coloured ink, gorgeous octopussies, psychopaths obsessed with the skin of others and delicate psychological/police equilibrium. Check it out!

Allison Belsham photo by Orion Books
Allison Belsham photo by Orion Books

Why did you chose the tattoo art world as creative setting for your first novel?
Definitely my decision to set ‘The Tattoo Thief’ in the world of tattoos was based upon my own personal experience of getting a tattoo. I had wanted a tattoo for a long time before I got one, so it was a very exciting moment when I finally took the plunge. The night after my first tattooing session, I was lying awake in bed and I thought to myself, «I’ve got my tattoo now – no one can take it away from me». A minute later I had a second thought – «What if someone did take it away?» In that moment, the idea for ‘The Tattoo Thief’ was born. It seemed such a frightening prospect that someone might cut tattoos from people’s bodies and I knew it could become a thrilling crime novel.

Do you think the partnership between Francis Sullivan (the police inspector) and Marni Mullins (the tattoo artist) be focused on trust like it could be happen between a tattoo artist and his/her customer?
This is a very interesting question. When you get a tattoo, you have to absolutely trust the person tattooing you, even though quite often it’s someone you’ve never met before. However, you’re giving them permission to mark your skin in a way that’s virtually permanent. It means you need to choose a tattoo artist with great care and talk to them about exactly what you want before they start tattooing. The relationship between Francis and Marni starts from a position of total distrust. There are things in Marni’s past that give her good reason to dislike the police, while Francis Sullivan doesn’t like tattoos or the world with which tattoos are associated. As the case develops, these two are forced together and ultimately have to be able to rely upon each other in some very serious situations. The trust between them grows slowly and is frequently derailed by setbacks in the case, but the better they come to understand each other, the more they’re able to trust the other.

Do you think a strong character like Marni Mullins could become serial?
I’m actually halfway through writing my second novel, and, yes, it does feature Marni Mullins and Francis Sullivan. In fact, it’s planned as a trilogy, and by the end, we’ll know all about the dark shadows in Marni’s past and why she distrusts the police so much. I’m far too fond of these characters to leave them with just one book.

Let’s talk about you: who did you get a giant octopus for your first tattoo?
I think most people, when getting a tattoo, choose a subject that has some special meaning for them. However, one thing I’ve learned is that what has meaning to you changes over time. How many people regret having their boyfriend or girlfriend’s name tattooed on their arm once the relationship is over?

For this reason, I decided to have a tattoo of something that wasn’t particularly significant to me, but that I liked the look of.

Since getting the octopus tattoo, people assume that I have a special interest in octopuses and often send me pictures of them and articles about them – so I now know far more about them than I ever used to! (laughs) They’re incredibly intelligent creatures, despite being invertebrates. Did you realise that each of their eight limbs can think individually?

How did you met Matthew Gordon, the author of that octopus?
When I decided towards the end of 2015 that I was going to get a tattoo, I went to the London Tattoo Convention to find a tattoo artist. As I went around, I picked up the cards of the tattoo artists whose work I liked, and then later looked at their websites in more detail. Matthew’s card was one of those I picked up, and I decided I wanted a tattoo by him, despite the fact he was living and working in Berlin at the time. I think when it comes to choosing someone who’ll put a permanent work of art on your skin, you don’t pick them because they conveniently live around the corner from you – you select them for the quality of their work, first and foremost. So I had two trips to Berlin, and some more sessions in the UK when he came over visiting. He’s now working in California, so that would be a bit more difficult!

Your tattoo session with Matthew has been very long and demanding: 5 meetings for 25 hours of hard working…
When I went for my first tattoo session, I hadn’t planned to have a whole sleeve tattoo – but the design Matthew had done was so fantastic that I felt a sleeve was right. I also didn’t know how long it would take – because at that point I had no experience of having a tattoo. But once I made the decision, I was fully committed to it, and it was just a matter of working out when I could see Matthew over a number of months. The whole piece was done over a six-month period, so I had plenty of recovery time between sessions.

In the next times will you add some ink on your left sleeve too?
My intention is not to have another tattoo. I think having just one large sleeve tattoo has more impact than if I were to have lots of others. However, I frequently see tattoos that I really like, and I find myself thinking about getting another. Possibly, if I ever visit Japan or China, I might be tempted – there are some extraordinary tattoo artists in the Far East!

Last question: will you promote ‘The Tattoo Thief’ on some huge international tattoo conventions?
I would love to! The book opens at the Brighton Tattoo Convention and is set in Brighton, so I will almost certainly be promoting it at the next Brighton convention. Hopefully, I’ll be able to arrange with my publishers to promote it at some other conventions – I would love to be able to do a tour of all the big conventions in Europe, as I really love tattoo conventions. I find it endlessly fascinating to watch people being tattooed and the range of incredible skill in the tattooing world continues to astound me. Most authors promote their books mainly at literary festivals, which of course I’ll do too – but taking it to tattoo conventions naturally has a special appeal to me!