Jade Tomlinson is showing us her tattoo. We’re sitting in the sun in Brick Lane, East London, and more than one passerby does a double-take when they see it.
The design is extraordinary, running across her arm and onto her back: a whale that transforms into the head of a man, with his beard forming its tail. The complexity is just mind-blowing, with endless fine lines and tiny details that you only catch on a second look. The intricate design came from the mind of her partner Kevin, who then inked it for her. Together, they’re known as Expanded Eye.
“We never really die,” says Jade, when asked what the tattoo means. “When you die, your energy never ceases to exist. Your soul is scattered out there amongst the stars. My father passed away seven years ago, and it’s a philosophy that stuck with me.”
After this little nugget of philosophy, it would be easy to peg them as quintessential artists – doubtless some of the people walking past do. She wears a beret at a jaunty angle. He has an absolutely splendid moustache, with ends curled so precisely you could hang Christmas ornaments on them. And a conversation with them can whiz through dozens of topics, taking in the nature of time, the texture of souls, the role of truth in mass media, the dominance of television. But here’s the thing: Expanded Eye’s work has earned them the right to be a little philosophical. Their style is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Tattoos are only one part of their repertoire: they’ve had sculpture work exhibited in Europe and at festivals like Secret Garden, and pieces regularly pop up across London as street art. “The tattoo and art worlds are closed off from each other,” says Kevin. He and Jade are passing a cigarette back and forth. “We’re trying to break down the barriers, and show that contemporary art can be a tattoo as well. If you know the tricks of the needle, you can use them to your advantage.”
The art of Expanded Eye is all about getting away from the gallery. “Street art is very important to us,” says Jade. “These are places where people aren’t interested in art, they don’t go to galleries. It’s not just about the art – it’s about conveying the message and about…”
“…about catching people off guard,” says Kev jumping in, “when they’re just walking by on their same routine. We want to evoke a reaction. It’s accessible to everybody. It’s a free public gallery.”
“The same for festivals,” says Jade. “People can look at it and admire it and they don’t have to pay to see it.”
Jade and Kevin studied at the same art school in Norwich, and have been a couple for twelve years. “Our art is our life,” says Jade. “It’s seven days a week, and we put our all into it. It couldn’t work any other way. Being in a relationship and having to devote as much time as we do to our art – it wouldn’t work any other way.”
Kev agrees. “It’s not always a smooth ride though! It wasn’t something we planned either, but we’ve organically merged our styles.”
Although they say they’re taking a break from tattooing to spend the summer working on more traditional art, it’s their tattoos that have really put them on the map. Expanded Eye don’t take appointments from just anyone – instead, they pick their clients based on the stories they have to tell. They’ll only ever create a tattoo if there’s a meaningful reason behind it; a recent client asked for a tat to illustrate the end of her parents’ marriage. As her parents were obsessed with the sea, Expanded Eye created a piece representing the circle of life, with the hair of the mother becoming the ocean, holding aloft a wooden sailboat. “People say all the time that they never knew this was possible,” says Jade. “[Tattooing] is a closed industry, and you don’t get as much unique work as you do in other forms of art. It’s just another medium – skin, canvas, paper.”
Jade pauses, then goes on: “We started off as illustrators and our style has evolved. We never imagined it could go this far – using symbolism and subtle ways of communicating meaning. A lot of our sculpture pieces are based on the concept of the universe, and on the concept of time and how it’s a manmade construct, how…”
“How time doesn’t actually exist,” adds Kevin. “How we should live in the now, not the past or the future. A lot of the pieces we make are linked to the idea that time isn’t real. It’s just in our imagination.”
Whether or not they’re right about the nature of time, the one thing that does play an enormous role in their art is nature. They spend seven months of every year in France, as guests of a local tattoo studio in Thonon-les-Bains, a small town near the Swiss Alps close to the natural springs where Evian Mineral Water comes from. “It makes such a change from London,” Jade says. “The contrasts are unbelievable. We’re really inspired by the nature there – it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s great for us to be able to focus on our work. We like to use our environment as part of our artwork.”
For the rest of time, they come back to London. They work outside in Jade’s garden, which Kev says is so overgrown that it feels like an abandoned forest. A lot of their work uses offcuts of damaged wood. “The fine art pieces we make, we always used salvaged textures,” says Kevin, “although no trees are harmed in the making! We get the wood from skips and derelict places. The more damaged the better. We can work paints into it, sand it down.” The resulting sculptures are a joy to look at: peaceful human faces are carved out of wood, and an old chest of drawers becomes a body, with a moustache on its face almost as curly as Kevin’s.
They might live a freewheeling existence. But as artists, Expanded Eye enjoy an amazingly commanding position. Their tattoo business is a lucrative one, and it allows them to spend time on their sculptures. After spending time tailoring a tattoo to what the client wants, it’s important, they say, to work on something that’s solely their own vision – to build on their aesthetic. It’s what keeps clients knocking at their door. After all, people want a piece of the artist, not just any old tattoo.
“It baffles us why there are tattoo artists that aren’t creating their own art in their own style. You wouldn’t see that in the art world. Everybody has their own style.”
“Yeah,” says Kevin. “You wouldn’t go to a gallery and see somebody completely ripping off somebody else.”
The Working Artisan’s Club, is presented by Huck and O’Neill to celebrate the rad makers who shape their future with their own two hands.
Stay locked for The Working Artisans’ Club 2014, coming soon!