In Conversation: 'Henry Hotrocc'

Posted by Benjamin Caplan on

Words and Photography by Jamie Moses

Ahead of his two day residency tattooing in Bankrupt’s Store, I spoke with vandal turned tattooist and photographer ‘HENRY HOTROCC’. Through the course of the conversation we explore his intriguing life chronologically. Looking deeper into the various creative exploits he surrounds himself, amongst topics of travel, authenticity, friendship.


We met in Henry’s Camberwell based home studio, a space packed with numerous sketch books, friend’s art pieces, artefacts from a wealth of trips and an impressive collection of photography books. After an introduction to Henry’s methodologies and exchange of music suggestions we began, starting from the beginning.


[Memphis Rap playing in background…]


 So growing up, where were you based?


So originally South-West London, round Twickenham way. When I was younger I also spent lot of time down at Kingston skatepark. When I began to leave South-West it was mainly because of BMX, but it was picking up Graff from my brother that kept me out and active. But yeah firstly it was definitely down to BMX, we’d bunk the train to Waterloo meet at Southbank and from there ride wherever.

From chilling there obviously I ended up meeting people from all over and then from that point on I started going everywhere really. I found a lot of the Kingston heads would stay there whereas I was always more on seeing other places.


From your work it’s obvious you have broad interests, did your brother contribute to this aside from graff?


Growing up it was mainly my mum, brother and me and I’d say pretty much everything I’m into now would be via my brother in some way. He always had his eye on everything going on whether it be graff, music or art. I’d say the biggest impact though was the music, what he taught me about that was really what routed everything.


He’s 4 years older than me, so when I was super young around ‘99/2000’s I used to nick cassettes from his tape packs and be listening to Kenny Ken and Nicky Blackmarket on the sly at school. At the time I didn’t really know who these people were, but I just thought it was sick. A little bit later on some of the kids I knew started listening to Slipknot and other shit and straight away my brother was like, “Nah! That’s bollocks don’t listen to that.”


Instead, he was telling me to listen to people like The Melvins, Butthole Surfers, MDC, Dead Kennedy’s, Sonic Youth and all that shit. So I got plugged straight into that thinking, ‘yeah this shit is sick!’. From there he started showing me weird bits of Electro stuff. He put me onto this thing called the CBS Top 100 and that had loads of mad Italo and a bunch of other stuff that was pretty unconventional.

Obviously, with the Punk stuff too he just had a mad appetite and put me onto loads of wicked American bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag. With the British Punk stuff I was listening too, that came mainly through riding bikes, when teams dropped their videos obviously you’d be really tuning in thinking, “Oh what’s that song? Who’s that by?” and all of that.


But yeah, my brother definitely showed me a lot growing up.


When you were going out back then would it have been raves or Punk gigs?


I guess a mix of UK Hardcore gigs, so UK bands like Deal With It, Dirty Money, NineBar and others like Cold Ones from Liverpool. But I’d also go to places like ‘Cable’ for drums nights with Metalheadz and that type of thing as well as squat parties.

I remember going to Psy-Trance nights pretty young and just being like, ‘what the fuck is this weird music?’ and I didn’t really get it at the time. But yeah for me with music it’s always been about absorpbing loads of shit at once.


With your various interests as a teenager, did this cause you to begin taking photos?


I first started taking pictures again, because of BMX stuff. It’s always been one of those things where you end up taking snaps of your mates whilst riding. Graffiti then kinda overtook everything, completely. I can’t really remember exactly what I’ve said in court as to when this transition happened, but around then I would always roll with a small camera. BMX for me had a few too many rules and rolling with writers was just fun and people were always on doing stuff.

From then, I started travelling lots to paint so I’d go from bringing a camera to snap what I had painted to then just photographing my experience of the city. This was pretty important for me in terms of opening up my perspective. My brother again pretty much inspired this when he would show me Dash Snow photos where it combined stuff like ‘SACE’ doing a throw up with other parts of life aside from graff. That’s what really did it for me and made me think to shoot things with a less singular viewpoint.


Travel seems to be a major part of all of your creative exploits, whether its graffiti, tattooing photography or music. Is there any reasoning behind this?


Yeah it’s all travel related to some degree… I read about this thing called ‘Ontological knowledge’, which basically says that you can only gain knowledge through direct first hand experience. When I read about that I really felt it resonated with how I’ve lived my life. It’s always been important for me that I see shit for myself and go to places and do things just to see what’s going on.


From a curious perspective…


Yeah! The more places I went… the more I saw and then more people I met, the more fun stuff I did and it just kept growing. With zines too I just found it made sense as a central focus. You’re in a city, it can be a theme, it’ll have its own unique characteristics and it’s broad enough to give you freedom alongside some degree of focus. You know…


When I had some problems in London for graffiti stuff a while back, it was a lot mentally to take on.


I started travelling more and more back then just to feel that freedom, because being on bail here was really doing my head in. When you go to another country you can just relax and you’re anonymous again. You can blend in just like any other geezer in the street. When you go places it offers the chance to draw your own conclusions.

With Paris, I’ve been more then 30 times and Paris is fucking hood. However, you could easily go there and see a pretty sanitized version of the city if you don’t stray beyond the recommended central areas, but go a few stops further and man… Paris is a fucking jungle. I feel like with knowing how raw a place can be it makes you feel like you truly know it and that sensation is something that will come through in the work you make about a place or a group.


I hate saying the word authentic loads but for me that’s what really matters. With all the photography I’ve done it wasn’t with the intention of making anything from it, it was purely what I was just doing at the time. If it does happen to come together as something afterwards then that’s sick.


With ‘The Act of Graffiti’ book that I made with BOMS, it took a long while for me to feel able to release something of that nature. Whatever you think of my graffiti and whatever you think of me personally, you can’t take away from the fact that these things have happened and these stories are legitimate. That for me is what makes something a true project. Regardless of what you think it’s lived experience, that’s what it was and that’s what it has been. All I’m doing is just showing you, through images.


I’ve got to name drop Emma Williams here… Her work on the traveller site is unbelievable because you can feel the relationship with her subjects through the pictures. Getting close enough to unlock a valid relationship with these people is what really makes the work so special. To get in close enough to create work with a community that isn’t your own takes a lot of fostering of relationships and it’s the strength of the social connection that is more often the mark of a good photograph.


Did you begin getting tattooing at a similar time to getting into graff and photography?


I actually started tattooing really late! I had already turned 30 when I began… I had quite a big period of doing all sorts of nonsense and random jobs before haha. I had tattoos on myself though from fairly early, think it was  near my 18th when I got my first one done and continued to get more fairly steadily. I met a guy called Simon Erl around 2006-ish and started to get a bunch of tattoos from him just because he was really sick at tattoos but also a really cool guy to chill with, super, super nice! Fast-forward to now and he’s like 100% skills with the craft and I’m super happy to have so much done by him, but he’s also been inviting me to have guest spots at his shop which is super mad to me! It might sound like some gassed nonsense but he’s someone I’ve always held in really high-esteem as an artist, so it really means a lot.


What style of tattoos did you get in the beginning?


My first few tattoos were definitely more classic style, but that’s because back then there wasn’t as much scope in terms of design. So yeah, initial inspiration was definitely more along the lines of Sailor Jerry and other more classic bits and pieces.


With my work I’ve always liked drawing characters and have been into cartoons and comics since I was a kid. Not bait shit like Marvel and all that haha, but people like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and all of them weird sorts of hippie druggie comics. Also shit like Viz and reading the Beano when I was younger definitely had an impact.

Going back to Simon who I mentioned earlier, it was his spontaneity that really got me going. I remember there was this one time where I literally sketched something out on the train on my way to meet him and he was like, “Yes mate that’s sick, that’s what we are gunna do on you.”

It was that mentality that made me realise, fuck it! You can tattoo whatever you want. Another large inspiration is, a very well respected graffiti writer turned tattoo artist called ‘Fuzi’. He changed the game massively because he had that solid reputation from graff in place already. He’d always done characters in his graff so he just started to translate that into tattoos, reconfiguring this original style to look good as designs on people. It’s people like these guys who for me widened things up and that’s the side of things I find most interesting.


They helped push a more illustrative style?


Yeah that’s it. I think for me personally, my ultimate goal with tattooing is to have the entire craft on lock. So if someone wants a traditional full colour I can just bang it out, but also have my own unique thing going as well. Mainly though, I’m just interested in doing my own drawings really well.


It feels like throughout your work you have a focus on doing things your own way, whilst respecting the broader craft. How does this translate with your zine based work?


So from the beginning actually… With my very first zine which I made about 15 years ago with my Portuguese friend who’s a very sick photographer, we decided to run the project just by using 30ish photos each with no set ‘theme’ if you will. I think that we both felt like, there’s no need to put in place boundaries. We wanted it to be more like two minds documented in one space. That for me pretty much set the ball rolling. From there we just ran with it.


It was a freedom to make something exactly how we wanted it without needing anyone else’s input at all. I hated the idea of a publisher telling me this is good, this is bad or some editor telling me a picture is not worth it. “Nah fuck you!”


If it works, it works, you know? Either way, I’ll be happy with it.


As much as that might sound confrontational, that pretty much the attitude I try to have all the time. If you’re happy with it, fuck it!


Yeah that’s banging attitude. As well within your zines you’re not afraid to put down the camera and work from found imagery. Could you tell us a little bit about how projects like ‘THE WING’ came about?


Yeah so with that one, I basically knew three different people, in three different jails at the same time. I knew some better than others. One of them is very much a mate, whereas the other two I wasn’t as close with.

I knew straight away that they were all very much characters and that their pathways would obviously be different so I thought it would make for an interesting project. One of them especially was always sending my mate jokes pictures on Whatsapp and Instagram. I pretty much just took it from there thinking it would make a sick zine! I’ve managed to evade prison so far haha, touch I’ll keep it that way. From the start I wanted to focus on the more normal parts of prison, trying to steer clear of people posing or the gym shots they use in tv shows.

It was more about focussing on stuff like the shit lunches, the things people have managed to make or like people terrorising each other… You know, just the unseen or mundane parts. One of the guys in it is a particularly loose cannon and would be sending videos of loads of McDonald’s in his cell, just ridiculous shit man.


It’s been one of the projects I’m most glad about making because at the time I just happened to clock that it was only a tiny window into making something really interesting. I managed to get the bulk of the content over the space of a few months, sometime in 2017 and it ended up being successful enough to warrant doing a little limited re-release recently.


In that period you were also releasing under the V.Blocc project?


Yeah so that was joint project with another photographer who I’m very close friends with. He’s been killing it for years, doing projects in The Face ect. We made V.Blocc essentially just as an umbrella to release cool shit with each other and to try and spur us on together. We ended up renting a shop space for a bit in Peckham but unfortunately the rent ended up rising stupid amounts so we had to leave the space behind.

Then gradually, life sort of got in the way of us both. For now we have put that side of things on pause, but I’m pretty sure we will be picking it up again. Especially now that we have both had a break and feel a bit more refreshed and with new a zeal. With Frayser, we go back along way. We met through various other mutual friends over the years and with him specifically, I just know we buzzed off the same stuff. All my friends are weird, and to be honest he was just into the same weird shit as me and we had an outlook that worked with each other’s.


With your work, from an external perspective it seems you have tapped into the wider spirit of modern South-London creativity. Was this something you were aware of?


I think essentially, I’ve been lucky enough to find a group of close mates and they just haven’t really changed. You know what I mean? It’s now pretty much running 15 years deep now, if not longer with certain people. With that lot it’s always worked because everyone is bare different, but all do their own unique shit legitimately. I feel very fortunate that people want to big each other up, there’s never been any jealousy and no one is ever pissed that someone else is doing well. There’s a fully genuine sense that people want to buzz off of each other and in the end, really, that is genuinely very, very rare.


Obviously, with Andres’ Wavey Garms project that totally set pace, but things gained strength all over because everyone is bringing their own thing. I guess because I’m a part of this its less easy to see it, but if I had to put down a root cause it would be how everything has developed so naturally. We were all scatting around and getting up to nonsense for years beforehand and that for me is the biggest driver which shows through in the output. It’s something you can’t force or try to speed up, because it just has to happen…


By being out there and being a part of something, doing your thing, that’s what makes the best things happen.


IG: @henry_hotrocc


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