Tattoo Artist and Print Maker
One of my passions in starting this blog was to raise awareness not only around M.E., as an illness, but also to shine a light on the many individuals who suffer with it. M.E. can affect anyone and even mild M.E. can have a dramatic impact on people’s lives. Despite being on a never-ending rollercoaster ride of varied and fluctuating symptoms, people with M.E. are some of the most determined, talented and inspiring people I know. In this article I interview Alex Flower, Tattoo Artist and Print Maker.
I first came across Alex in May 2021, when I took part in M.E. Awareness Month for the first time. My personal highlight of the month was joining in with Anna Redshaw’s Blue Sunday Tea Party for M.E. (You can read my blog article about my experience of taking part in Blue Sunday here.) In the run up to Blue Sunday, Anna had mentioned to Alex that she was planning to do a giveaway and Alex asked if she could come up with a special Blue Sunday lino print to be a part of it. Alex wanted to create a print that linked with Anna, and showed a real sense of celebration and so, the guinea pig in a teacup print was designed! Alex named the print ‘Forget M.E. Not’ and, being the lovely person she is, decided to donate 50% of the proceeds to Action for M.E. The sales of ‘Forget M.E. Not’ raised around £230, which is fantastic! Alex says:
I never dreamed there would be so much support; it was wonderfully overwhelming.
I saw the ‘Forget M.E. Not’ print and thought it was gorgeous. I decided to buy one, as the perfect memento of my first Blue Sunday experience. The print now sits proudly on the desk in my office space, cheering me on as I write. As you can probably guess, I’m a big admirer of Alex’s work, so I was very excited when she agreed to let me interview her for my blog.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background? You were a pastry chef and then did a tattoo apprenticeship. What inspired you to have a change in direction and do the apprenticeship?
I have wanted to be a Tattoo Artist since my early 20s. As soon as I realised what Tattooing could be and the artistry behind it, as well as how impactful having tattoos could be for a person, I fell in love with it and knew that was a world I wanted to be a part of. But it is an incredibly difficult industry to get into and I got to a point where I didn’t believe it would happen for me. Baking and pastry was something I had always loved doing so it made sense for that to be plan B, especially as I could work that round my health at the time. When I was 29, I realised Tattooing really was what I wanted to do so I made a conscious effort to pursue it, and things seemed to line up. I found an apprenticeship just before I turned 30 and didn’t look back!
I see that you’re a self-taught print maker. How did you go about learning print making?
Lino cutting/relief printing is something I’ve wanted to try for years but tattooing takes over your life! If you’re not tattooing you’re designing for your appointments, or doing admin like emails or taxes, or being present on social media…it is all consuming, even more so when you’re also juggling health issues. I got a beginners Lino cutting kit for my birthday at the beginning of the first lockdown last year and obviously had all the time to try it and loved it immediately! I found a lot of the skills I use for tattooing overlapped into carving. So I took to it pretty quickly. It’s also something I could do from my bed, which at the time was very important because I was bedbound.
When you started print making in March did you originally think it would be a useful skill for creating and selling art during the lockdown (while you couldn’t do tattoos) – or was it just a fun project at the time?
I didn’t really think of trying to sell my prints at first, it was purely something for me, but then lockdowns continued and my health got very bad very quickly while I was waiting for an operation. I couldn’t get back to tattooing until I had the operation, which was delayed a year because of Covid, so I thought why not try.
Have you missed doing tattoos? When do you think you’ll be able to go back to it?
I miss tattooing SO much. It’s an incredibly frustrating situation not being able to do what you love because of your health, especially when you spent so many years trying to make it happen in the first place. I originally stopped tattooing in March 2020 because of the lockdown and because I’m classed as a clinically vulnerable person so it wasn’t safe for me to be back in a close contact environment with strangers. Even now I don’t know how safe that would be. Then my health got extremely bad waiting for an operation for Endometriosis, this had a horrific impact on my M.E and sent me from mild/moderate to severe and mostly bedbound, so working was impossible. I finally had my operation in January this year, and I am seeing improvements, but it is going to be a long recovery. Even when my M.E was mild/moderate, I couldn’t manage it full time and would spend my days off/evenings recovering and building up the energy for the next working day. Because I am self employed it does mean I have some freedom and can be flexible to work around my health which is really important. I really hope to be back tattooing before the end of the year.
You draw on your love of nature and animals in your designs – what is your design process?
Yes a lot of my designs are based on nature and animals, in both my printing and tattoo work! My design process depends on what it is for. If it’s a tattoo specifically for a customer I will design something based on the idea they have, and draw it within my own style. Otherwise I create designs that I would just love to tattoo!
For my prints, it’s pretty much whatever I fancy doing! I have SO many ideas, and I have a folder on my iPad full of ideas that I haven’t had the time to make yet. I have to be very sensible with how I spend my time because of M.E, I do find the concentration of art can be exhausting both physically and mentally. So I try to break it all up into manageable bits, and I do most things except printing from bed. I draw all my designs on my iPad. I’ll then transfer the image onto the piece of Lino. Then I’ll carve, this can take me days or weeks. Then once that is finished I’ll print. But from start to finish it takes me weeks. I know some printers who produce a piece within days, but they are healthy and it’s just physically impossible for me so I try to work around my limitations. I love printing, it brings me so much joy and peace, but it is incredibly physically demanding and my body really struggles with it.
Would you be happy to share something about your health and how it impacts on your daily life and your career as an artist?
My health is a bit of a long and complicated story, so apologies in advance but I will try to simplify it! I have a number of chronic illnesses; Endometriosis, M.E, Fibromyalgia and Neutropenia. I did also have Adenomyosis, where the endometrial tissue grows into the uterine wall, unfortunately I had to have a hysterectomy for it 2 1/2 years ago because it made me so ill, so luckily I don’t have that anymore. All of these illnesses impact each other, and when I have a flare of one it causes a flare in the other. Managing them all is incredibly difficult, I’ll be honest, and I do really struggle with it, especially as none of them have decent viable treatment options. Not for me anyway. All of them cause intense fatigue, incredible amounts of pain and so many other daily difficult symptoms.
I have been dealing with M.E specifically since I was 18 following a traumatic brain injury, that was my trigger. I had no medical support for it, but I was very lucky as for many years it was mild/moderate and I managed it well for the most part. But at the time I didn’t understand M.E at all and I spent my 20’s pushing to keep up with everyone else, ultimately I think this caused a lot of damage later on. Then in my late 20s Endometriosis took over my life. 15 plus years of that ravaging my body had done so much damage, and I needed major operations to remove it, and with each operation my M.E got worse and I developed Fibromyalgia. I hate that the treatment to improve one of my illnesses has a direct negative impact on my M.E. My body just isn’t strong enough to try and deal with all these things! I’m now at a point where I’m better than I was last year, which I’m incredibly grateful for, but these conditions impact every day and my M.E is now moderate/severe. I’m learning my new baseline.
Tattooing is a very physical job, I don’t think people realise, and at the moment it’s just impossible for my body to manage. I try to create prints as and when I can, but there are many times health takes over and it’s just too difficult. But I try to do what I can, when I can, because I love it. I love art and being creative, some weeks are better than others and sometimes you have to do something for your mental health that might negatively impact your physical health. I think all of us with chronic health problems understand that dilemma!
Ultimately when you look OK people assume you are OK, and so much of my struggles are hidden to the world because they are not visible. Even now that I use mobility aids, at my age people assume you have had an accident, not that you are disabled. The world doesn’t have a clue what it is like trying to navigate life with a chronic illness or disability, especially when it is invisible. I’m more open these days about my health than I used to be, mainly because I spent so many years trying to figure out what was wrong with me that if me being open can help even one person, then it’s worth it. Through the online community I have made dear friends who are my genuine lifeline, who understand me on a level nobody else in my life can. I appreciate them so much and they also inspire me in my art pieces.
The photos used in this article are courtesy of Alex Flower.