South City Market: Black & Crew

words and designs by belle

In most cases, the bigger something is, the better. But for Ricky Williams, he finds the contrary more befitting of his style. The smaller? The better. A master of fine lines, intricate detail and full control of all the shades of black.

Being a tattoo artist for 12 years, Ricky gained the necessary experience to master the art of tattooing by plying his trade in renowned tattoo establishments in London. When he realised that he was stagnant in his career, he threw himself to the wolves and became the leader of his own pack. Ricky took the risk and opened a studio of his own, carefully curating skilled tattoo artists of a distinct style to be part of his roster. By refusing to conform to the local tattoo industry, he marched to the beat of his own drum, and guided his studio to stand apart from the rest in the UK region.

SCM, short for South City Market, is a tattoo studio located in South London. They hold a strong flair of housing only blackwork artists — tattoo artists that only utilise the various shades of black. Their works contain little to no colour as these guys are certified experts in monochromatic tattoos of assorted styles. Frequently, they house blackwork artists from other parts of the globe to bring their hometown specialty into London.

Curious to know more about this well-put-together collective, we decided to talk to the main man behind the brand. Barging through the doors of our convention, Ricky came as a guest artist alongside his A-team and a few Korean friends to have a go at tattooing their specialty blackwork styles onto ever-ready participants. 

How did South City Market come about, what’s the story behind it?

Well, it sounds quite sad at first, but my best friend died 2 years ago. Tattooing for 12 years, I felt like I hit a wall. I’ve worked in really good shops with a big waiting list. There was just nothing else for me to do. It made me realise that I should take a risk in life. Don’t always try to live under someone else’s roof and have the comfort of someone else. So I decided to open my own shop, well, that’s partly the reason. Half the other reason is… I didn’t like how the tattoo industry was. I can’t speak for how it is all over the world but in London it’s very close-minded, regulated.

There’s a lot of rules that stops you from growing and these rules helped out the hierarchy in tattooing; where they make all the rules, keeping them at the top. I needed to go against them, everything that I’ve ever been taught and do my own thing. I don’t suit the traditional tattoo shops and I wanted to open my own shop that was completely different from all the other shops that exist, so I opened a shop that you can definitely tell is mine.

What made your collective focus on using black and white in tattoos? Is it a self-imposed restriction or a form of challenge to step out of your comfort zone?

Back then when I just started, I began tattooing traditional with colour. I think it was the trend and style at that time. It was narrow-minded because that’s all everyone wanted to do, that’s what they thought tattooing was about. I used to work with this guy who did traditional without any colour, just black. So I sort of followed him. I know this sounds really bad, but kind out of laziness. Tattooing with colour is a lot more time-consuming, so I decided along with my friend who I used to work with, to just tattooing black. I think it rose in popularity, a lot of people eventually only just got black.

Getting black tattoos, they’re more classy, more timeless, and again it’s a personal preference. For me, it’s easier to work with, it’s more striking, I think it just looks better. That’s why I think when I started to push a blackwork shop, all the other black(work) workers wanted to come and join South City Market, becoming a collective of people doing one certain genre of work. Most shops you have one doing of different styles (Japanese, dotwork, traditional). In our shop, though we all do different styles, we’re still under the same umbrella.

You mentioned in a Marie Claire interview that having good mental health is important. Does it affect the way your tattoos appear on a client’s skin?

Mental health is a huge thing for everyone. In tattooing, everyone’s got a little bit of a crazy streak in them. I’m not saying everyone’s crazy. If you’re an artist, you want to ensure that the work you’ve given is the best. Unless you’re arrogant and you don’t give a fuck about what you give to people. With mental health and the way it affects my work, well I have to unbox this a lot when I say mental health because it’s how I view myself in and out of the industry, how I view my work, how people have told me what to do, what not to do. I don’t think it necessarily affects how my work looks on someone.

But if I’m having a really bad week, where I think about the way tattooing is, the way some tattoos are treated, and what that interview is about. How the client doesn’t give you a lot of space, you get multiple emails and messages when you don’t reply them in 10 mins. Which will affect how I am at work, leading on to how I am with the customer, affecting the tattoo’s end result. Mental health is hard to step away from. But if I can leave that at home, and try to put a really strong face at work, I would.

Who’s in your current roster?

I started the shop by myself, I was fortunate to have a friend to help me pick SCM off the ground before she left. Then I grabbed people from other shops that I saw had potential, that wasn’t exposed enough, like Luke Ashley, he only does palms, but he wasn’t working in the best shop. The people that I worked with, well, I wanted to work with like-minded people. Have the same sort of views and outlook as me, same sort of vibe. There’s Laura (@loz_tattooer), she was the apprentice of the shop for a while, she was a friend of a friend who wanted to learn, so I gave her a chance. I gave her the opportunity because I saw potential in her. Now she’s doing really, really well. She’s doing a lot better than what she realises.

We have another guy, he goes by Loz, I call him Lawrence, he’s young and trendy, very current, who doesn’t have that old school mentality. I sort of have that grudge against the old-schoolness, because people with that mindset never treated me very well. So I sort of have a middle finger up for them because you should treat everyone fairly. I like people with a good attitude so we can all come together and put our middle fingers up together.

I notice that your collective charges tattoos for a lower fee than the average price in London. How do you charge your tattoos and why?

I think I’m being pulled at both arms when it comes to pricing. Tattoos should be affordable, it’s also a luxury. It’s not a necessity, you know? You even have people asking for student discount. Yes I understand, you still deserve things that you want but I put a lot of heart and soul into what I do, you don’t only pay for my time tattooing, you pay for my experience and all that stuff. I don’t charge as much as some other famous tattoo shop, but I still want my tattoos to be worth what they’re worth. Tattooing is art, but it’s also a business. It’s how I pay my rent, my shop. You don’t just pay for the tattoo, you pay for the cleanliness, you pay for everything.

It’s hard to judge how much a tattoo should cost because it’s also how much it’s worth to you. I just go based on what I see around me, I know it’s quite rude to ask how much people are charging but from there, I can make it fair the client, but especially me because I’m the one doing the work.

I realised that you’re empathetic to people you work with. Where did this come from?

I think some people when they don’t know me, they take me the wrong way. I have a very tough exterior. I might come across aggressive. I speak with a lot of passion and hand movements. I’m sure some people take that the wrong way though it’s just my persona. Everyone at work would say that they all think that I think I’m a tough guy, but really, I’m really soft, and it’s true. I do come across a certain way but I just care. Why wouldn’t you care.

I’ve worked with so many people and they didn’t show that they’ve cared about me. I was more like money in the bank, a dollar sign. I was doing a lot of hard work and I expect mutual respect. I respect everybody in my day-to-day life, not just in work. I think a lot of tattooers only respect other tattooers if they have a big name or if they’re really cool. But I treat everybody fairly, everybody equally because we’re all the same. I’m not saying that I’m someone who loves everyone, on the other hand, I don’t really like people because I know people can be horrible.

What about Culture Cartel made you decide to attend as a guest artist?

I like the branding. I think it’s current and it’s aesthetically pleasing. I found their Instagram and saved loads of stuff. I was really taken influence by Culture Cartel, I didn’t even know they had anything to do with tattooing. I just saw the trainers, fashion and other stuff. Then I started following them. Then I saw a post that said, “We’re calling tattoo artists”. I looked into it more and saw that you guys do tattoo booths too.

It’s something that I would want to get involved in, compared to the tattoo shows are in England; they’re still really old school. This was something completely different, more current and relevant to my brand and I. It was also an excuse to be in Singapore when I’ve never been here before, to branch out and see how you guys do things and try to take a little bit back with me. I feel like I’m a sponge, taking stuff in so that I can use it for my own brand.

What is the takeaway you’re planning to bring back home to London after the three-day street culture convention?

I want to try to bring back the vibe at this convention. Everyone here seems polite, open, nice, welcoming and that’s something I try to push in my shop, to not be so narrow minded. Over here it’s tattoos, cars, sneakers, toys, fashion to whatever. It’s very open, trying to pull everybody together which goes hand-in-hand. The whole imagery of this place looks and how you guys did everything. Like the panel show. It’s really cool to see the way it was set up, how you have different groups of people to talk about something that aren’t really spoken about. There’s a lot I want to take home, I can’t really unbox all of it right now.

As we uncovered the backstory of SCM and how it has made its mark in the UK tattoo scene, we realise that unfortunate circumstances could lead to something positively impactful.Ricky taught us that the star-crossed occurrence of his best friend eventually led him to vastly contribute to the tattoo scene in his region. With the birth of South City Market and Ricky’s mentality of wanting to stray from the norm, it brought a whole new perspective to the artistic world of tattooing.