THIS month, Borders tattoo artist Max MacAndrews will again join the elite of his profession with an exclusive invite to take part at the world’s most prestigious tattoo convention, staged in New York, writes Mark Entwistle.
Max, 39, originally from Selkirk but now living in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø, has demonstrated his artistic skills on human skin before at the New York International Tattoo Convention.
This year he will be representing both his native Scotland – he was born in Peebles and grew up in Selkirk - and his adopted homeland of Norway, where he has lived since early 2010.
But what is it about the permanent marking of someone’s skin with ink which has so fascinated Max that he has opened tattoo studios in Galashiels, Edinburgh, Marseille, New York and now, Norway?
History has recorded the use of tattoos stretching back thousands of years. The first tattoos were probably soot or ash that someone rubbed into a small wound or cut and, once healed, realised it was permanent. The word tattoo itself has its origins in Polynesian culture, where it means to strike or mark something.
But tattooing has come a long way since then and Max is now one of the modern day profession’s leading lights. He enjoyed a varied career, including engineering and software design, before settling for a degree in illustration and a life as a tattoo artist.
Speaking to TheSouthern from his home in Tromsø, Max says he has always been intrigued by the idea of making pictures by hand and placing them into people’s skin.
“Getting a tattoo can be a truly personal and unique experience, so that is what makes it special for my brand of tattooing - bespoke tattoos made to order,” he said.
The image of tattooing seems to have changed over the last 20 years from the sort of thing only sported by drunken sailors to everybody, young and old.
Max believes the meaning of having a tattoo has radically changed. “Take, for example, my grandfather, who was an intense, conservative man and was very positive about my career when I let the cat out the bag - at age 98. I sent him a photo of the clan badge tattoo I did for a police superintendent.
“I was amazed by how pleased he was by my choice of career and the nature of my customers’ occupations made him laugh.”
Many creative people are now drawn to tattooing as opposed to other art forms. Max says he can’t answer for other people, but says for him, life is art and art is life.
“I see tattooing as a way of giving ordinary people a piece of handmade art they can take wherever they go, even to the grave,” Max told TheSouthern.
On the oft-asked question: is it painful, Max compares it to a cat scratch. “Pain is relative. I remind customers that beauty is painful. If you are a woose, tattooing is not for you.”
Max served a traditional apprenticeship on first entering the profession, before spending many years perfecting his technique and increasing his knowledge.
“The standard of tattoo art now is outrageously good and so I feel compelled to better my game constantly. Tattooing can be an individual, affordable and permanent purchase that you will never lose and it can’t be stolen. There is much tattooing that is simply reprographic in nature – copying existing forms – but art is about originality, creation.
“I am inspired by the beauty of the natural world, ideas and concepts of thinking. We are surrounded by ugliness of thought, image and action, and so my personal mission is to subvert that with as much as possible, in the form of tattoos.”
It was Max who originally opened the 119 Tattoo studio in Galashiels’ High Street, as well as Old Town Tattoo in Edinburgh and ran other business in the UK and New York, before visiting Tromsø and falling in love with the small city deep within the Arctic circle.
“I knew the first moment I visited here that this was the place I wanted to be. The sacrifice was enormous and most who knew me thought I was mental. I had it all and I walked away from it because I found my place in the world, in Norway.
“I’ve seen and done most of the things I’ve wanted to do in life, enough to last a lifetime. Tromsø is the place I most feel home in the world. My ambition is simple – to work hard, give the best of myself to this place and the people in it, settle down and become a dad.”
On the subject of the ‘Big Apple’, Max is one of only a handful of British tattoo artists to be invited to the famous New York International Tattoo Convention, where later this May he will again be representing Scotland, but also this year Norway.
Max feels it is because he understands the meaning of tattooing as a profession. “I can turn my hand to all disciplines in this job readily. My focus is on the customer 100 per cent and I give them everything I can, heart and soul. I believe my conviction and commitment to my clients, as much as artistic ability, is what has earned my name weight in the trade.”
The most difficult tattoos for Max are those, he says, with a commemorative nature. “That’s because I wish to show absolute respect for those persons concerned. I cannot help being moved by the stories I am told, and since I do care about the people I work on, I ensure that they are both ready for the tattoo and that it is, in fact, morally correct to proceed.
“As with all things I trust my instincts and follow my heart, and having seen plenty of death in my own life, I feel qualified to do so with sincerity.”
But Max will not agree to carry out any tattoo design. “I have refused secular tattoos and other designs that promote negative ideologies. I want to make people happy, not generate negativity with the hateful or the banal.
“But in fact, I refuse people daily on more obvious basis: if the design concept is weak or won’t make a good tattoo, I will decline but suggest alternatives and explain why.”
Among those who have sought out Max while he’s been in Scandinavia is last year’s Miss Norway, Anna Zahl, who says she chose Max because she got on well with him and personal chemistry was an important factor in her choice of tattoo artist. “And when I saw his outstanding work, it was a no-brainer,” Anna told TheSouthern.
Anna says Max has been welcomed into the Tromsø community. “Norwegians are a reserved and not very outspoken people, but Max has truly made his mark as an honest, hard working guy who gets along with everyone.
“People take the time to travel from the southern regions to get inked by Max, and I think he is considered one of the best tattoo artist in Norway. To have him represent Scotland, as well as Norway, is a true honour.”