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Nathan Phillips is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to tattooing. When he was first learning to tattoo in South Africa the concept of specializing in one style wasn't really a thing, so in order to succeed he needed to learn to do it all. We spoke with Phillips about how he found his style, the inspiration he finds everywhere around him and more. 

Inked: When did you first discover a love of art?
Nathan Phillips: I was very fortunate to be brought up in a very artistic and DIY family, if you could paint it we would, if we could sculpt it or sow it we would. So it started from very early on and I was always encouraged to push myself further in any and all art forms.

How did you begin your tattoo career? Did you have an apprenticeship or learn on your own?
I did a very South African old school apprenticeship, paid my dues, did the grunt work and was taught the skills that got me to work on skin. From there it was watching artists like Laura Juan and Randy Engelhard at the Cape Town Tattoo Convention, and watching them create 6-9 hour pieces and asking as many questions as they would answer. I studied a DVD seminar by the legendary Andy Engel and Nikko Hurtado that I must have watched over and over for months. With each tattoo I was privileged enough to do, I practiced different techniques and found my way of applying those strokes in my way!


You're a pretty versatile artist, what style did you start with? And if you had to choose one, what is the one style you would stick with if you had to pick?
I try to be as versatile as they can come. In South Africa, especially in my early career, you did not have the clientele to specialise in just one style. People would come in on a daily basis and each tattoo would be so far from the previous one that you have to learn to do it all. I’m by no means a master in any but I still strive to be better than my last tattoo! If I could only choose one it would have to be black-and-grey illustrative, I feel there’s a lot of freedom and expressiveness that comes with the style, and you only need one ink cap, one needle and you’re set to go (Laughs).

What are some of your favorite subject matter to tattoo?
Damn, by far my favorite subject to tattoo is portraits, I love bringing them to life. I love realism and sacred geometry just as much and would be happy if I could do just that every day! Maybe a little traditional every now and then just to bring it back to basics.


How would you describe your signature style?
We always joke around and call it, “Neo-Realist-Post-Abstract-Minimalist-Pointallism,” but I just call it art. We are lucky enough to be paid to draw awesome pictures for people on their bodies, and for that I am grateful, so call it Natelism if it must have a name, but art is always the result!

What are some of the different challenges presented when switching between black-and-grey and color?
Honestly I don’t find it harder or easier, I execute the artwork and apply the color as needed when needed, I love painting so my color theory and practice is always on par with my tattooing techniques.


We love some of the mandala/geometric/stippling work that you've done. Can you tell us a little about the secret behind creating these pieces and some of the challenges you face doing them?
The secret is patience, absolute patience. If you want it fine, smooth and stipples that are crispier than a fresh apple, that is the key. Speak with your client and try to channel their thoughts and likes into a one-of-a-kind piece that is true to them, that is the best advice I can give. I find it challenging that I don’t get to do as many of them as I would like but still grateful for every piece I do get to create with those clients.


What is the tattoo scene like in South Africa?
It’s definitely going through a massive flip, people are becoming far more accepting and willing to get larger and more “risky” pieces, amazing artists are being moulded into some of the best tattoo artists the world has yet to see.


Where do you find inspiration?
In life, in my beautiful fiancé, in the reflection of the morning sun against a glass of water or the sacred placement of seeds inside a sunflower. There is inspiration in everything and anything, the question should be where can’t you find inspiration, and the answer would be, nowhere.

What are some of the most valuable life lessons you've learned from tattooing?
Patience and humility, and don’t get me wrong, I still falter in those, but tattooing always reminds me of those two very important things!