London-based tattooer Ben Dunning creates exquisite fineline tattoos rooted in realism. This week, we chat to Ben about artistic progression, staying creative through lockdown and his dream collaborators…
Hi Ben! Let’s introduce you – where do you work and how long have you been tattooing?I am primarily based at Six Bullets Tattoo and Seven Doors Tattoo in London. Not to forget my original tattoo home Ministry Of Ink in Farnham where I did my apprenticeship and spent 5 amazing years. I’d say it’s coming up to seven years tattooing now including my apprenticeship. It’s nice working in multiple studios as the styles and artists completely contrast each other, which in turn has helped develop my new way of drawing and tattooing.
You’re known for your intricate biro sketches. How did you discover this as your preferred medium? It’s always nice to hear when your work is appreciated and especially from a prestigious platform like yourselves, so thank you. I’ve always drawn for as long as I can remember and dabbled with biros over the years, but I used to work primarily with watercolour and pencil. I’ve transitioned into the pen work which started out as rough sketches to practice shading and blending.
I stopped for about a year to focus solely on tattooing but lockdown completely changed that. Like most people in the world, I found lockdown challenging mentally as I was living alone. With nothing else to do, I picked up a pen, grabbed some paper and just started drawing. I found it incredibly therapeutic for my mental health and it rekindled my love for drawing again. Then I set myself a challenge of doing a piece a day, which in turn pushed me to do more of the flash design drawings. Smaller pieces that I could finish and then tattoo. The flash designs helped me become more creative artistically.
Do you ever use an iPad or digital tools, or do you prefer to work by hand? I do use both, on my iPad I have Procreate which has probably revolutionised the tattoo design process in the industry. I use it in a multitude of ways to mock up my designs then refine them before eventually applying it to paper.
I have a lot of ideas in my head all the time so I write them down to refer to later.
I like to do a rough sketch (on the iPad) to work out the composition and see how or if it translates well as a tattoo. I use references as I’ve always been a realism artist, I’m obsessed with texture and detail so they help a lot to make sure I get everything I see translated onto the paper.
All of my actual biro drawings are done on Arches Cold Pressed 300gsm paper by hand which helps when it comes to eventually tattooing them, as I try to draw the same way I tattoo. I now tattoo primarily with a 3 Round Liner and shade the same way as I would with a biro so they go hand in hand with each other. Overall, there’s nothing like drawing on a real piece of paper!
Looking through your work, you often show examples of your artistic process and progression. What tips would you have for anyone seeking to improve their art?I think it’s good to share, I’m not interested in keeping things to myself, if it helps or inspires another artist then that’s great; if anything it gives me more motivation. Showing progression is positive, as it makes all the hard work, late nights, ridiculous amounts of coffee and dedication worth it, even though as an artist you’re never truly happy! Some people can be negative about how quickly another progresses.
It’s not a race, some people will naturally progress quicker than others, it doesn’t undermine your own progression. Just focus on your own work, that’s all that matters. Without sounding like a Pinterest quote…! I study a lot, follow a lot of artists on Instagram, visit art galleries and generally surround myself with art. I collect prints from other artists that inspire me.
Art is a journey, there is no right or wrong and it’s a lot of trial and error and in my case there have definitely been a lot of errors!
Start with the basics, learn shading techniques from books and videos, but most importantly, take your time, enjoy it and express yourself. Oh, and don’t draw if you’re not in the mood. I feel that can affect the quality of what you’re working on. There’s no harm in asking for advice from another artist – that’s why I have some tutorial videos on my Instagram, I try to help where I can.
What’s your favourite subject to draw or tattoo? I love drawing skulls. They’re a classic, you can be expressive with texture, detail and shape, and they’re great to tattoo. They work with pretty much every subject, snakes, flowers, wildlife, insects and can be tattooed in any style. It’s taking one subject and trying to create different variations and concepts which is a fun challenge. I purchased a real skull recently because they’re good for drawing exercises and taking your own references.
I’ve only recently found my direction that I want to take my tattooing and it’s taken me 6 years and a lockdown to get to this point. I’ve transitioned from photo realism to working with a 3 Round Liner to create smaller flash pieces whilst keeping it realistic, to a degree. I’ve got many skull designs that I cannot wait to tattoo!
If you could collaborate with any artist – tattooer or fine artist – who would you choose?Leonardo Da Vinci would be my first choice, why not start at the top and learn from the master himself! If I could collaborate with someone today… there are honestly too many amazing artists to choose from to pick just one. Considering the collaborations I have lined up already and always having a passion for realism, I’d have to say Cam Rackam who does amazing photorealistic paintings. He does a lot of work based on skulls in so many creative ways. I think we would compliment each other well and create something unique.
For a tattoo collaboration, to work alongside Gara Tattooer would be an incredible experience. He is a Korean blackwork artist who incorporates a lot skeletal elements into his work. He is one of my favourite artists and I would learn a lot from him too. I’ve already been very lucky to do some amazing collaborations with the likes of Pari Corbitt who inspired my biro work from the start, and the amazing Kieran Williams.
Finally, do you have any new projects in the pipeline to share with us?I always have at least one project that I’m working on. It helps keep me motivated and to push myself to improve. Collaborating with artists of varying styles helps me adapt, whether it be realism, traditional Japanese or blackwork. I’m trying to work towards being an all round artist that’s not tied to one style.
At the moment I’m working with a clothing line on some fun projects and a few biro flash split sheets with some artists that I truly admire. It takes a lot of planning when working with international artists. My most recent completed collaboration was with ornamental blackwork guru Jack Peppiette. Two completely contrasting styles and medium but I feel they complimented each other well. I’m looking forward to sharing them and future projects with you all soon!