What’s happening in the tattoo world in 2021, thanks to the pandemic?
Lew: We've all taken a knock. Even now, we're still struggling to recover. Those that didn’t have money put away for a rainy day, they've lost their studios. Had I not saved for 2 years (Lew was planning to establish a studio in Cape Town), we would have lost everything. The downside is that I no longer have a Cape Town studio. The upswing of that is that I didn’t starve and I still have a roof over my head.
So what has happened to your relationship with Rumble & Hum as a Studio?
Lew: In 2016-2017 we wrapped on S1, and I was always running a year-long waiting list. I worked 7 days a week, and we averaged that I worked 348 days a year, so I was reaching burnout. The thought was that when the show aired I would hire more artists and I would take a step back, but then incidentally (because of the show), people started liking me more and I had a 2-year waiting list after that. And then, unfortunately, when you run a tattoo shop, it has very little to do with tattooing. You're always putting out fires, you're balancing books and working out finances and doing stock counts. My tattooing started taking a hammering because I was more focussed on the running of the business. So you’ll see in S2 that Tyron Hoffman, who's a very dear friend of mine, comes onboard as a co-owner, and helps me with the financial, decision-making thing while I can get on with the tattooing. He's an accountant by trade, but he's been ensconced in the tattoo world since cavemen were painting on walls. Ty made the move to the UK in mid-2019, and it had become too all-consuming, so the decision was made that I would sell Rumble & Hum and I would work on until June the following year (2020) and as we all know, March the following year something else happened…
Getting into the season itself, what had to happen well in advance of filming S2?
Lew: There's a lot of behind the scenes pre-emptive stuff. The way we chose the people was we would look at that week's schedule 'cause obviously that that had been booked a year in advance so we couldn't change that, and we would see what was coming through what the story was, if it was a good tattoo, if they were personable. We were lucky in S2 we had no one say no. Then a lot of the places that we go (in S2) are quite popular places visited by many people. We go to the very first Comic Con in South Africa, which was frequented by hundreds of thousands of people. It was one of my dreams to go to a Comic Con to see figurines in their natural environments and to dress up and not be reported to the police! So you have to call the event co-ordinators prior to the time and get the sign-off from them. I’m probably a director’s worst nightmare because I will say and do things on a whim and off-the-cuff and they’re always trying to play catch-up. Like, “Okay, well, we've shot that now. Can we now go and ask them if we are allowed to use it?” Usually, people say yes. There were times when I had to cajole people with my winning personality and say “Please, we can’t redo the scene elsewhere”. Every scene, every shot, we got permission. Usually kidnapping was involved but we got a yes. There is absolutely nothing you will see that I do or say in S2 that anyone has scripted or predicted. Damien (Brown, Rumble & Hum’s Executive Producer) who's the owner of the company that actually shot Rumble & Hum, would probably still have hair if they scripted anything I said or did.
What did you learn about making TV on S1 that affected how you approached S2?
Lew: I think the biggest lesson that I learnt was having to do retakes with my humour because my mouth writes cheques that my bum can’t cash! That’s probably the biggest lesson – getting it right the first time and watching my Ps and Qs. I host and present for Formula E Racing, which is electronic racing that's on live TV, with 4-and-a-half million people watching, and you'll see in S2 we go abroad, working for ESPN (DStv channel 218) and FOX1, which are huge sporting channels. So had I not done S1, I don't know what would have come out live when I was doing Formula E Racing! It was a godsend. And I think also taking other people's feelings and emotions into account when they're in front of the camera. Eventually it becomes so commonplace you don't see the director, you don't see the camera crew. But the people that are now coming in for the new tattoo, they’re woefully aware of it. They're getting tattooed, which can be quite painful, and a lot of the time that there's less clothes involved (usually from me, Lew jokes). I think just making them more comfortable in S2 as well and being mindful of the fact that it's new for them. That's basically what I learnt.
Who did you end up speaking to most on the production team and what sort of things did you have to discuss?
Lew: We actually switched up quite a bit with the crew, but the director is probably the most important person because it’s really his neck on the line. A lot of the time, if we were going to go away and do something, or I'm going to shoot off location for a lifestyle segment, we would be chatting to them. Then while we were filming, the camera crew becomes part of your family. They're usually sitting in your lap. You'll see in the first episode of S2 we talk about just how invasive they are (Lew jokes). And sometimes you’ll get in the way of their shot and they’ll ask, “Hey can you do that part again?” And well, no! No, it's a needle in the skin and it’s permanent! No I can't. So camera crews are the most spoken-to people and then the second most will be the director.
What’s different in S2?
Lew: I've always been a fan of Deadpool (the comic book character) and his humour. Normally, anyone in a narrative in a book or on-screen never acknowledges that there's an audience watching. You never break the fourth wall (Deadpool, however, does this to great comic effect). I wanted the people that were watching the show to know that they are part of it. So in S2 there's a lot more video on the cellphone. And there's one scene where the camera crew and I are in New York and we're racing luggage down a ramp in a car park and we’re chatting to the audience while we were doing it, or I’m tattooing and talking to the camera with the quips and the side notes and the other jokes that I’m making.
Tell us a little more about what we’ll see in New York!
Lew: There is one scene in particular which is the summer solstice that happens in New York – “Manhattanhenge”, it's called (between May and July the sunset aligns perfectly with the New York City street grid). And I just happened to be there at that time. Alex the cameraman and I had become great friends, so were shooting off the clock. And so you see things like that. Then there's a very heartfelt thing that happens. I go to the 9/11 monument. And I won't tell you too much about that 'cause you can see it. I had spoken with Alex to do this… what they call a backwards presenting, where you walk backwards talking into the camera, presenting a slot, and something else happens. So it's, it's… all very heartfelt and sincere and genuine.
You also got to work in a studio there for the show…
Lew: I didn't have a visa to work, but Damien had family in upstate Albany and I was going to New York City (both Albany and New York are in New York State). I had no idea that about 35 minutes outside of Manhattan, there's no buildings, it's forest as far as the eye can see. The Adirondack Mountains start there so it's nothing but mountains and forests. And that's my love, mountains and forests are my passion. So I ended up in their studio which is the Dead Presidents Lounge in Albany. We were busy filming segues, which is what you intersperse between scenes, so I was just doing interviews with the artists there and the owner of the studio came up and said, "Well, you're here, why don't you work? (in exchange for lunch and dinner)" They put it out on their social media that there was a South African artist/TV artist that was there and shooting a reality show. Would anyone be interested? And we booked about 12 weeks’ worth of bookings in the first hour-and-a-half of being on social media! So I said, "Look I can do one tattoo." They wanted a style, which is completely not mine, Traditional Americana. Being a realistic artist, it's very difficult for me to do thick, bold lines and strong, bold colours. There's no subtlety. So, we kind of maybe melded realism and Traditional Americana to a rose. I had none of my machines there, none of my equipment, because obviously I wasn't planning on working there, so we used and borrowed, and stole from all the other artists there, and that's how it happened.
How do you get used to a new machine you've never used before on the fly?
Lew: You don’t! And it's on someone permanently. If they ever see this interview, I am so sorry. But a machine is a machine, you can work out the tolerances and give on it, you can kind of work out how to stretch the skin, the angles that you have to work at, the hand pressure and angle. The inks and the shades and the variances took a little bit of getting used to. But it was about 10 minutes and we were au fait with what was about to evolve.
We’ll also see highlights from your Comic Con trip. What did you really nerd out about?
Lew: I was at Comic Con! The end. In South Africa, the comic book scene and the figurine scene, it's very niche, so what I geeked out about it just being around other geeks. They had pro-gaming there, so I ran into some of the guys that I used to work with who were hosting an event there and we touched base. It was just being surrounded by like-minded people.
How did you decide what to wear?
Lew: Basically anything that covered my nether regions without, you know, letting too much be revealed on reality TV was winning! Wonder Woman was taken, so Tyron and I rock-paper-scissored it and he won, so I got Ant Man and he got Spider-Man and the rest, as they say, is awkward history.
This season we see you work with Brad Wood from Big Brother SA…
Lew: Brad's got a lot on his body from various artists. We sat and chatted about what it is he wanted to get. Portraiture is one of the things I specialise in, so we brainstormed around it. To do a female pin-up was really where Brad's mind was at. He didn't want to get anything too soft and mushy and girly. Bradford is an individual unto himself 'cos he's opinionated about a lot of things. And he carries himself so that you have to shut up and listen – you don't wait your turn to talk. So when he came to me and said, "Look this is what I want, this is what you'll do," it was a very, "Okay, that's what you want, that's what you'll get, Brad.”
When you have someone in your chair, what kind of attitude don't you like seeing and what can you do to fix that?
Lew: What a lot of tattoo artists do is, they'll put in headphones and they won't even interact with their clients, especially if you're working abroad when you’re doing the convention scene. A lot of those clients don't speak English. I would always use an interpreter because I like speaking to my clients. But it happens that you catch someone on an off day, or they are just sort of abrasive people. The best way you can deal with that is to eat humble pie and listen to what they have to say. Everyone is fighting their own struggle. Yeah, you could take offence, but you put your feelings aside and realize that the person in your chair is being like that for a specific reason. It was like that before you got there, it'll be like that after you leave. So just endure it with them.
Not necessarily in your studio, but have you looked at someone's art and thought, "That is the tattoo equivalent of spitting in someone's coffee"?
Lew: Almost hourly. Yes, yes! There's three types of people in my industry. There's tattooists, who are people who can replicate work really well and their technique is good, their work quality is good. There are tattoo artists who will both replicate work but also be creative and generate their own masterpieces. And then there's things called scratchers. Scratchers are people who, with any luck, will have disfiguring accidents in both their hands. Unfortunately, people will go to them based on their hourly rate and there's no getting around it. Some people don't collect art, they collect invoices, and the fact that they are getting a tattoo at the same time is almost irrelevant.
Do you have a favourite tattoo reality series?
Lew: Like most people I saw Miami Ink yonks ago when it first came out. I watched them all, New York Ink (Wooster St. Social Club), Miami Ink (Love Hate Studio), LA Ink with Kat Von D (High Voltage)… Now, being on the other side of the curtain, I have a completely newfound respect for them. There's a whole magical show that happens behind the scenes that you're unaware of, 'cause you’re just sitting in on a tattoo appointment watching art unfold. Now I watch them and think it's tough to be charismatic every single time. And a lot of it is interspersed with drama, which wouldn't really happen in the shop. There are abrasive people that they hire because they work their way in, but if that was a real shop in the tattoo world, they would last an hour-and-a-half and then they would take their stuff and have a “sexual departure”. I enjoy them because you also get to see great work, you get to see artisans ply their trade at the top of their game. And you also get to see the layouts of shops, and architecture is one of my passions as well. They do it so much better than I ever could hope to do it, to be congenial and all the rest of it.
Finally, if you could plan out your body art from zero what would you get?
Lew: I would get a bodysuit that encapsulates all the things that I love. The comics universe, realism, the struggle between good and evil. I would design it as a homogeneous thing and get the guys and girls that I know now, I would call them three years in advance because they are booked up. Whomever I go to would be of the ilk that would do the most amazing, realistic work on me. Most of them are Russian artists and Eastern Bloc whose names I couldn't even pronounce. But there's Victor Chil, there's Victor Portugal, her tattoo name is Val Tatboo – Valentina Riabova is her real name – and she does a lot of colour realism. There's Paul Booth, who's sort of the founding father of Black and Grey work that's of a dark arts nature. There is Bob Tyrrell... It's both the most inspiring and soul-destroying thing I can do as an artist, is every morning to wake up and see what they did the night before. It's tough enough to paint or draw something to look real, but then when you strap a vibrating brick to the back of a needle and try to do it on moving skin, it becomes so much more difficult. 15 years later (into Lew’s career), I still go through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and look at what they do and think, "I am but a minnow, in the grand scheme of things."
Episode 1 We catch up with who’s who, who’s new, who’s having babies and what’s been happening at Rumble & Hum since S1. One client is dog crazy, while the other is dating his sister… kind of.
Episode 2 Tyron takes Lew for a yoga session and the clients are looking for wildlife tattoos, including one awesome hyena.
Episode 3 Long-time client “Bad” Brad Wood (the former Big Brother SA contestant) is back for more body art, and Lew tells the studio that he’ll be out of the country for a while, so there’s a lot to organise.
Episode 4 Lew heads to New York City as an official commentator for Formula E racing, and we see Tyron try to keep everything ticking over at the studio.
Episode 5 Lew visits a studio in upstate Albany, where he does a tattoo exchange with a local artist whose style is Traditional American.
Episode 6 Adie, Cole’s sister from S1, has had her baby and she’s back in the studio as an artist. Lew is expecting great things from his former apprentice.
Episode 7 A client who’s recovering from drug addiction celebrates his victory with a special tattoo. And are Judy and Bianca being paranoid, or is the Rumble & Hum studio haunted?
Episode 8 It’s time to meet some of Rumble & Hum’s most out-there clients, like Darryl, aka Nightmare, a famous Indian wrestler. And the guys are headed for South Africa’s first-ever Comic Con!
Episode 9 Tyron gets an interesting leg piece to add to his full body of art, and we get an update on Lew’s Addison’s disease, which gave him a major scare in S1.
Episode 10 In this season finale we enter the MMA octagon with Lew and his team for the last event for the year.
Watch Rumble & Hum S2, Saturdays & Sundays from Saturday, 17 April on CBS Reality (DStv channel 132) at 19:30
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