Grace Neutral on Hand Poking, Body Modification, and the Therapeutic Benefits of Tattoos

Credit: Instagram / @graceneutral

It’s not particularly surprising to hear that Grace Neutral grew up surrounded by creatives. As a child, the now 30 year old London-based tattooer would spend her time flipping through books about body modification; books her mother—a well-traveled silk painter and batik artist—collected. She always found the books fascinating, so it felt only natural when she began getting tattoos and body modifications as a teenager (she’s had her eyes dyed violet, her belly button removed, her ears pointed, and facial scarification, among other mods), and then started tattooing professionally in 2010. 

A decade ago, very few artists in London were doing hand poke tattoos, though. With no one willing to teach her, Neutral was forced to learn on her own. Her journey as a tattooer hasn’t been easy, but she’s had great success nonetheless thanks to her signature dotwork and geometric designs, and her unique personal style. She boasts an impressive 650,000 followers on Instagram, recently released her first book, and even hosted a Viceland documentary series about tattooing around the globe. Now, despite her lack of any formal training, ‘Grace Neutral’ is an incredibly well known name in the tattoo industry. 

Here, we talk to Neutral about how she got started as an artist, why she loves doing large-scale hand poke pieces, using tattoos as therapy, and the reason she’s covering up a bunch of her older designs. 

On getting started as a tattooer (and why it wasn’t easy): “I started working in tattoo shops when I was 18 years old—that was 12 years ago, but I only started tattooing somewhat professionally in 2010. It was really difficult at the beginning because I did hand poke tattoos, and that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to learn how to tattoo using a machine, but that’s what everyone around me was doing. 

Plus, it was a very male driven industry. It still is today, but definitely not as much—I feel like women have a place at the table in tattooing now. But because of that, it was definitely difficult to start. It was hard to get people to believe in me and to help me learn, so I’m mostly self taught. I was lucky enough to get a few lessons from people I admired though, like Xed LeHead [a retired hand poke tattooer from London].”

On her love of the art form: “I live and breathe tattooing. It’s what I wake up for in the morning, it’s what I get excited about, it’s even what I think about before I go to bed. My whole life is consumed by tattooing. I just really love the whole process of being able to create art that lasts as long as the person wearing it.”

If you’re a fan of Grace Neutral and her signature style, but can’t make the trip to London to get tattooed, you can still rock her designs. Shop her new semi-permanent tattoo designs here.

On choosing hand poking over machine tattooing: “I don’t think I chose hand poke; I think hand poke chose me. I’ve always been very interested in the more primitive methods of tattooing and the ways that different cultures around the world use hand poke, so it was something that called to me. I’ve just always been obsessed with it, and I could never think of any other way of tattooing for me, personally.”

On what inspires her style: “I take a lot of inspiration from nature and the things around me, and from vision quests I’ve had on psilocybin and other hallucinogens.”

On the appreciation she has for her clients (particularly the ones who get large-scale pieces): “It’s really nice when you have someone coming back to you again and again to work on a piece. You create a special bond with that person, and the trust that you have is really beautiful. Hand poking on a large scale is an absolute honor for me to do. People think the process takes a really long time, and it obviously does take a long time—all big work does—but I’m pretty fast as far as hand poke goes. But to commit to such a journey as to have a huge tattoo done by hand, that’s a beautiful thing. I’m honored and humbled constantly by the trust that people give me with their bodies.”

On deciding to cover up her older tattoos: “My friend Sway, who’s an incredible tattooer from Leeds—he has a shop called Sacred Electric—has been helping me blast over my whole bodysuit. I’m basically tattooing an entirely new bodysuit over my old tattoos because I’ve been getting tattooed for 15 years and some of the stuff I got when I was a teenager isn’t really the style I enjoy now. Thankfully Sway is an amazing artist and he’s helping me tie my body together with a lot of heavy blackwork and Indian-inspired designs.”

On using tattoos as a form of therapy: “I’m a very emotionally sensitive person—I feel things very deeply—so being able to explore my body and use it as a tool to heal and to express has been really beneficial to me. It’s a therapeutic practice for me. I’ve used tattoos and [body] modifications as a way to express myself, as a way to heal from past traumas. The whole process of tattooing has been somewhat of a release for me.”

On her lifelong obsession with body modification: “My mom is an artist. She’s a silk painter and a batik artist and she’s always been heavily inspired by tribal artwork. Because of that, she had all these books on body modification in tribal culture, and I remember being a kid looking through all of them and seeing these beautifully adorned humans. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. So, that’s definitely what sparked my interest. And in my teens, I found out about BME, which is a body modification forum online—it was a place where people could share their modifications and innovate new ones. Through that, my interest grew. 

Then I started working in a tattoo shop when I was 18 years old, and I did a piercing apprenticeship under a Polish piercer who was heavily modified—she had a split tongue and scarification. She really opened the door to that world, and made it possible for me to actually get modifications done. She was the one who introduced me to a body modification artist who then did my first modification, which was my tongue split. And through that person, I met my other body modification artist who facilitated all my other modifications like my eyes, my belly button removal, my ear pointing, and my scars.”

On her advice for new and aspiring tattoo artists: “Try to surround yourself with other tattoo artists you admire, because being in a tattoo-focused environment is vital to your learning. Sure, it’s fine to go and learn in your bedroom if that’s what you want to do, but as someone who’s been working in this industry for over a decade, I know that you learn so much more when you’re surrounded by other creatives, even if they don’t do the same style or use the same technique as you. 

I’ve worked in tattoo shops all my career with other machine artists, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn from them. I learned so much from other artists, and I still do. In my shop Femme Fatale, I have 13 tattooers and two of them are hand poke artists and the rest are machine artists, but I still I learn so much from being surrounded by every one of them.”

If you liked our profile of Grace Neutral, who just released a tattoo collection with Inkbox, make sure to check out Curt Montgomery’s story here. (He has an Inkbox collection, too.)

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