Celebrity tattoo artist Ricky Williams is the brains behind South City Market, one of London's most innovative tattoo studios.
Reader's Digest: Tell us the story of how your business began…
Ricky Williams: I was 29, I'd been tattooing for 11 years and I just didn’t like the way that the tattoo industry was going. It wasn’t accessible to everyone, people found tattoo studios daunting and I didn’t blame them!
It wasn't a welcoming industry and I wanted to create a place where everyone felt welcomed and it was a friendly atmosphere. I’d been thinking this for years but when I unexpectedly lost my best friend, Chris, it really spurred me on to put plans into action.
RD: When did you begin tattooing?
RW: When I was 19. I bought a tattoo machine off the internet and tattooed my mate's boyfriend in my bedroom. Not advisable! It looked terrible.
RD: Was South City Market your first venture? Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
RW: I actually tried to run my own antique business for a while. My house is full of them! I’d also tried to self publish a tattoo book. But I’d say the best venture was a 2D game called Rabbit Thief the main character was so cool, I had him printed on Neighbourhood Watch posters and put him up everywhere.
I guess you can see all these past ventures in the studio, I’ve got a free play arcade game in the waiting room, and I’ve always had an eye for interiors which is why I went down the antique route.
"There are lessons to be learned from everyone"
RD: When did you first know South City Market was going to be a success?
RW: When I looked at all my work stations and they were all full of artists I admire. The constant ringing of the phone is obviously a big reassurance. But mostly it’s the art that is leaving through the doors.
Inside South City Market
RD: What business achievement are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of South City Market. Every day I make another happy memory and it’s going from strength to strength. I can’t wait for what’s around the corner.
RD: Do you have any role models?
RW: I’m pretty no-nonsense and I like people who tell it how it is, so business wise I like [the Belarusian American entrepreneur] Gary Vee. I watch his videos a lot and it helps me a lot if I’m at a business crossroads and I need some advice.
But genuinely we’re so lucky to do what we do, every day we have amazing people and their stories passing through the studio. Whether it be the artists or the clients, there are lessons to be learned from everyone.
RD: What has been the biggest challenge in growing your business?
RW: Tattoo artists! They’re nightmares. I’m fortunate enough to work with a great bunch, but even this lot are total primadonnas sometimes. Artists eh?!
There’s also the challenge of getting people on board with the new contemporary tattooing mentality. Once you’re through the door it all makes sense but for a lot of people I think tattoo studios still conjure up images of taxidermy on the walls and dusty flash sheets floor to ceiling.
"For a lot of people, tattoo studios still conjure up images of taxidermy on the walls and dusty flash sheets floor to ceiling"
RD: What has set South City Market apart from its competitors?
RW: There are so many ways that we’re different. I’ve never seen a tattoo studio with clean and minimal interiors like this, for example.
We also don’t do any walk-ins. All our artists are contemporary and work in black and grey, but it’s amazing the diversity you can have within that sub-genre of tattooing.
Ricky outside his tattoo studio
RD: What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received? And the advice you’d offer to wannabe business owners?
RW: Just do it, there’s never a right time. If you fail, you fail. But if you don’t even try then you’ve already failed. No one knows how to do stuff the first time you do something, just be smart and make clever decisions.
RD: Do you have any mantras that have informed your work?
RW: "Boats in the harbour rise together." I use this all the time at work with the team. If we can’t do something that our client may want, or if another artist could do it better, we always say so. It’s better for everyone that way.
"Don’t rest on your laurels." I’m always having new ideas and starting new projects. You’ve got to keep adapting and changing to stay relevant.
"You can always learn something." I really do believe that and I always want to keep learning. I had no idea how to open a business but I learnt how to.
RD: If you could go back in time are there any things you would change?
RW: To be frank one of the main things I’d do is not concern myself with what others think of me. I used to be bothered by it but by being that way you open yourself up to letting naysayers get into your head.
You can actually do whatever you want, all the stuff that people tell you that you have to do isn’t real.
"I definitely prefer animals to humans"
RD: What does the future look like for South City Market?
RW: Bigger, better, busier. We are launching South City Garments soon—high-end merch, designed in house. We’re increasing our offering. We’re looking around for more premises. Who knows, the sky’s the limit.
RD: And finally, do you have a favourite tattoo that you’ve worked on? And a favourite amongst your own ink?
My favourite [of my own] tattoos is a tattoo [my friend] Chris did of his cat. You always find that artists' favourite tattoos are the ones given to them by their mates because they end up with so many from artists they love it’s impossible to choose between them.
I love doing micro pet portraits. I’m a huge animal lover and I love my dog so much. I definitely prefer animals to humans so when I have a customer coming in with a photo of their pet, I know I’m gonna be in good company.
Ricky Williams owns South City Market in New Cross