Neil Ahern – Getting Under The Skin.
The world of Tattoo Art is not one where I venture frequently. My body is free of ink and jewellery because I prefer the natural feel – if you are not prepared to eat it, then don’t put it on your skin is my mantra. However, I admire those who artistically ink their bodies, a living canvas of individuality that makes the statement; I’m not like you. I had often heard the name of Neil Ahern mentioned on the island as one of the most respected Tattoo artists working in Europe who just happened to be living in Ibiza.
I had always wanted to interview him but never got close enough to request it; his legendary status as an eccentric rebel preceded him, a mix of Irish blood and English culture grappling with his personality
As a London teenager, Ahern had the good fortune of arriving in Manchester just as the city was exploding culturally in 1986, an era that so influenced British music and art. He started working as a glass collector at The International One, where live bands like Tackhead, Denis Brown and New Order would play. His local was the Band On The Wall pub on Swan Street, where he would unwind on a Friday night after a shift at Pizza Hut with a Bong and a Carlsberg, listening to Prince Tony on the decks. An electric and multicultural environment where big gangsta style characters would smoke fat joints and play reggae music, a heady mix of raw culture and experimental identity overflowing onto the Madchester streets that gave birth to the Acid House scene. He was busted alongside Nico of the Velvet Underground in the toilets of The Spinners Pub in 86 for possessing hash. He enjoyed a diverse mix of music from Jamaican Sound system to Industrial Hard Core, and he is essentially a connoisseur of quality acoustics. From Manchester, he travelled the world and learned the Art Of Tattooing from his mentor Felix Leu before arriving on the shores of Ibiza in 1992. A nomad, you could call him, or more apt, a travelling Wilbury.
So it was on a hot and humid day in August, I eventually caught up with the man. A mutual friend had arranged the interview, and as interviews go, it was a car crash of Balearic proportions. I had mixed up my dates, and when I met Neil outside his famous Inkadelic Tattoo studio in the shadow of Dalt Vila, I was not expecting the ass-kicking I was about to get. It was like interviewing Oscar The Grouch; such was his humour on the day, not helped by my lack of knowledge and research of his profession, which only made a bad situation worse. He twice left the table to attend to a client, but when he eventually returned, I knew I was sinking fast and ready to walk the plank of his patience. I had met another side of Neil Ahern, a fiercely independent, stubborn and temperamental presence that certain artists, especially those from Ibiza, are known to possess. Amid the barking and pontificating, I caught a glimpse of a warm twinkle in his eye, a chink in his armour that gave me hope. Thankfully my ego kept its head down during the onslaught, just enough for me to get to half time and take stock of the situation. Neil had left the table again after finally giving up on our awkward relationship, saying it was over.
Just as I was about to leave, he appeared again, apologised for his mood and said, “let’s try and do this again another day”. I was half thinking to myself feck you, Ahern, I have better things to be doing with my time than marching up to Dalt Vila in the sweltering August heat to do another interview, but something drew me back up those famous cobbled streets to finish the job and allow the man the respect he deserved. So the next day I got a phone call from Neil and when I answered the first thing he said was “Hey man, thanks for picking up” I could feel his grin down the phone. “I want to do this interview with you; how’s your availability for tomorrow”. It was different from the voice I was talking with the previous day, so we agreed to meet for a beer at the bar where he and his dog Lil Bit are part of the furniture, overlooking a Roman square on the cobbled streets that lead to the Portal de ses Talues, the main gate into the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Dalt Vila. From his protective perch, he could survey all those who approached and entered his studio on the second floor of a classic Colonolian styled building with high arches and stone stairs that climbed three floors.
Tattooing is the art of the mark
He was much more relaxed this time, and I was better prepared but still nervous interviewing him. “I was only testing you the other day”, he smiled, “it’s a filter I use to evaluate people”. Yea, sure I said, smiling doubtfully at him but at the same time relating to the technique. So we were off to a better start, and he opened up when answering my first question, what does the art of Tattooing mean to him. “The fundamental core principle of tattooing is the mark”, he replied. “It’s a romantic fantasy of mine to travel to extreme locations and events to be there to stamp my mark on a cultural movement or moment in time. The more extreme, the better”, smiles Neil. Ahern likes to play around with danger, and his trademark is the human skull. People travel from all over the world to be marked with an Ahern Skull. While we were sitting at the table, a passing friend proudly displayed the intricate skulls that Neil had etched on his arms and legs. Neil then showed me his inked leg where Kate Moss had tattooed “Kate Woz ere” on his thigh. I could go on for chapters about the famous people Neil has worked with, but I got the feeling the man is not the type to brag or blow his own trumpet, which I respect about a person.
It’s that grounding and human touch that has endeared Ahern to his close circle of friends. His staff at Inkadelic adore him. When I asked about the employees who had passed through his hands, he replied, “I don’t employ people – people work with me”. Over 20 of those workers, roughly one a year, have ascended the old metal and wood railing stairs of Inkadellic Ibiza to learn from a master of the profession. His studio resembles a Mogwai styled curiosity shop of ornate skulls, prayer flags, hardcover books, cultural trinkets, and framed photographs that reflect his travels around the globe. When you enter, you sit and wait to be attended to from behind a half swing door adorned with two copper hamsa hands, symbols of health and good fortune. A narrow, curtained hallway leads to the studio workshop, where artists are immersed in their work. The studio reflects its owners tactile and authentic character, a cave of natural substance over style.
Ahern’s artistic ethics are rooted in the tangible, earthy realism connected to creativity and spirituality, where the strange and obscure are appreciated for being different. A space that expands the mind rather than minimising it, a subject close to Neil’s heart. “Ever since primitive man sat at the fire and rubbed carbon into his skin cut and discovered that it didn’t go away, he started to mark cave walls and record human existence – the birth of Tattooing. This is the core of Tattooing for me, the everything – it’s the art of the mark, that’s what’s important, leaving your mark,” states Neil in a reaffirming voice. “It was never about design or fine symmetrical lines; I see too much of that coming into my studio today. This is where it’s gone, everybody bringing in the same picture from the internet. There is no creativity; free your mind, and your ass will follow.” smiles Neil.
“I love Tattooing people in different cultures; it’s a beautiful thing both liberating and informing, and it’s something we try to encourage at Inkadelic”. With such a grounded personality, it’s not surprising that Neil follows Liverpool FC and enjoys diverse music ranging from Jazz to Hardcore but bemoans the gentrification of modern music where everything sounds the same. When he’s not travelling or working, he spends his days living in Dalt Vila, which he regards as his home, a place that retains the community spirit of a traditional Spanish Pueblo. “It’s an honour to live up there, and it’s a completely different environment compared to down here in the square”, comments Neil. “A real community spirit, where people look out for each other. A place where you can still leave your door open and not get robbed. However, when you walk down the rampart, It’s a different scene outside the gates of Dalt Vila, one where you are made feel bad for being you.”
It’s this subject that we now start talking about- the changing face of Ibiza. Neil, like many others, sees Ibiza becoming a place for the rich, where the highest bidder can purchase the latest trend or commodity. “Social media can be liberating, but it can also be your jail”, states Neil in a grumbling voice. “It’s a drug. While cocaine and heroin are shunned by society, this digital drug is embraced by humanity. I see parents bribing their children with data and kids these days have no freedom from it. They are always connected, being manipulated and losing intersocial and practical skills”. Just then a young girl passes, she is about six years of age and a neighbour of Neil’s. “Let me show you what I mean”. Neil calls the girl over to the table and shows her his watch. “Call you tell me the time, please,” he asks mischievously. The girl laughs nervously and runs away. “You see, she doesn’t know what a real watch is for; she is so used to reading it digitally on her phone. People are losing the ability to be creative. There is no advancement in our society, and we are slaves to our phones” With that, Pinky, a member of the Inkadelic family, arrives at the table to seek advice on a work matter. Neil responds with fatherly affection. It’s clear he is loved and respected, and a man, when you get to know him, would be referred to as a “good skin” in Ireland.
We chat away over a cana, talk politics, and about his annoying neighbour who calls the police every time he plays loud music. For an artist with a love for quality sound, it’s ironic that he’s forced to use small speakers in his studio. “This would not have happened back in the old days, and it’s an indication of how much the island has changed”, laments Neil as we are served another cold beer from the hip little bar nestled under his studio. It’s a hidden oasis amongst the commercial streets of La Marina, across the square from another iconic location, The Croissant Show, which will see its owner retire this season. However, retirement is not on the mind of Neil Ahern, as his life revolves around Inkadelic, his co-workers and his little dog. Like all of us, he has his demons to fight every day, but people rely on him to get out of bed each morning to lead the way and represent what is distinctive and authentic, as they don’t make people like Neil Ahern anymore; they are a discontinued line.
So if you find yourself at the main gates to Dalt Vila someday and sick of all the tourist traps, look off to your left at 11 o’clock and discreetly tucked away in a corner is a piece of old Ibiza magic. A pirate treasure trove of artefacts and skulls from around the world telling their own unique story. If you are lucky, you may get to meet its Captain and request that he mark your skin. But be aware, if you ask for an unworthy or generic marking, be prepared to walk the plank. For Inkadelic is more about individualism and freedom of expression, one of the last bastions of real Ibiza. So don’t be a sheep unless the colour of your wool is black, be different and be creative, and you may be rewarded with the master’s mark, a prize of true value.
It was a Pirate ship that sunk, laden with treasure, coins and jewels in the port of Ibiza that lent the now-lost beach its name. Platja des Duros
The show’s production also didn’t disappoint, with the lights, lasers, fire and smoke cannons being some of the best we have seen at Ushuaia.
“Due to medical advice from his doctor, David Guetta has been told to rest for at least the next two weeks after he caught a virus last week”