What images are conjured up in your mind when you hear the words ‘tattoo artist’?
Perhaps a burly biker, who has been on the receiving end of the long arm of the law on several occasions, covered in body art himself?
Well, Mark Gray may have a few tattoos, but that’s where the similarities end as this north Northumberland tattooist is a 21-year-old single dad successfully running his own business.
His Amble-based Grayscale Tattoo Studio, which opened in June 2014, is now so well-regarded that anyone looking to ‘get inked’ may well struggle to get a booking.
Speaking to Mark and his dad Norman in the Wellwood Street shop, it is quite evident that Norman is among his son’s biggest fans.
“A lot of people were sceptical when he started,” he said. “But he’s got talent that can’t be taught. You can be taught how to be a tattooist, you can’t be taught to be an artist like him.”
But it’s not just his family who are impressed, as despite his tender years, Mark has regulars from across the North East as well as attracting customers from overseas, from the likes of Sweden and Russia.
“It’s been unbelievably busy since the day I opened and it’s just getting busier with my reputation getting around,” he said.
Mark is doing well enough that he has taken another tattooist under his wing, while Grayscale also hosts Miss Savage Cherry, a body piercer who’s a body modification specialist as well.
“I didn’t expect it to escalate to what it’s become so quickly,” he said. “Literally from the day I opened, I have been fully booked.
“A tattoo artist is really the only artist that can make money while they are still alive!”
What’s more, this year Mark has been invited to one of the most prestigious events in the scene’s calendar – Tattoo Jam, which takes place in Doncaster in August.
He will be one of about 200 tattooists from around the world to appear at the convention. “Some tattooists would give their right arm to be there,” said his dad.
“It’s quite an exclusive event,” Mark admitted. “Out of the blue, I got an email from the organisers asking if I would like to go.
“I’m really looking forward to it, but I’m nervous as well. They couldn’t believe I was only 21.”
Explaining how he ended up in this career, Mark, who has lived in Amble for 11 years after moving up from Gateshead, said: “I have always been interested in my art, but I didn’t think about becoming a tattooist until I was about 16. I was interested in mechanics before that.
“From 13, I wanted a tattoo myself and later I started drawing tattoo designs, just as a hobby really, then friends wanted me to design tattoos for them.”
At 16, he started researching how to tattoo and, as a Christmas present when he was 17, he was given tattoo equipment which allowed him to start practising on artificial skin. Then it was time to progress to real skin; luckily, he had a willing volunteer in Norman as well as his own body.
“It was about a year like that then I got a job in a studio in the area,” Mark said. “I developed my skills over the course of the year I was working there.”
At 19, he decided it was time to try it on his own and his dad knew a woman who happened to be giving up the lease on a shop in the town centre. Then it was a case of two months’ hard work to kit out the premises before the grand opening two years ago.
These days, Mark reckons his clients are roughly a 50/50 split between regulars and new customers, with a majority of his work being large-scale tattoos which take several sessions.
“It’s good to get your teeth into something, but there are occasions when it’s still fun doing something smaller,” he added.
“I can’t go anywhere now without people stopping me and talking about tattoos.
“A lot of people are surprised now when I say I’m 21, but you should have seen the look on their faces when I first started at 19.”
And all this while living with his son Leo, who is 10-and-a-half months. How does Mark juggle work and his home life with his son?
“I manage,” he said. “Obviously I have the support of my family and I always make time for him as well as my work.”
Mark tries to get involved in the community as well, offering tattoo time as raffle prizes for charity events ‘to give something back to customers and the community’.
He added: “I would like to thank my customers for their support over the past couple of years because without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
For more information on Mark and Grayscale, visit www.grayscaletattoostudio.co.uk or call 01665 714904.