Pen Pals Interview: London Bellman Shares his Journey in Becoming a Tattoo Artist and Studio Owner

An interview series featuring notable people whose lives intersect with the world of pens. London Bellman stumbled into a tattooing apprenticeship, and has since then become the owner of his own successful studio. He shares his story and inspirations below.

London Bellman

London Bellman

My name is London Bellman and I’m a tattoo artist.

I live and work from my home in Portland, Oregon. I bought our home back in 1999 and moved my studio there a few months after. Upstairs is home, where I do most of my drawings for myself and customers . Downstairs is the Atomic Art Tattoo Studio, where I work with three other talented artists. This will be our 20 year anniversary of being in business.

I was born in the Northwest, around the Seattle area specifically. Around the age of 5 my mother and I moved to Los Angeles, where I grew up in Redondo Beach.

In my youth I worked at a frame shop for a few years, surrounded by lots of art.
I also worked in the toy sculpting industry for about five years, making prototypes out of clay and wax. That was when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the rage, I remember we made lots of those.

It was a great learning experience, but the wages were substandard and the owner and I often saw things differently. Frustrated, I quit on a whim in 1991 and it was the best thing I ever did.

A week later after sitting around pondering my next move, I started looking into tattooing as a possible career.

I had a portfolio of drawings from a couple years of community college art classes, as well as a short stint at Otis/Parsons Institute of Design. I found an artist by the name of Kari Barba (of Outer Limits Tattoo) who had two shops at the time, one on Melrose Avenue and the other in Anaheim, California.

I just called and asked if I could show them my portfolio. I drove downtown to show her my drawings and she was busily applying a tattoo to a client. I thought I could get some one-on-one time to sit down and flip through my work, but no luck.

This was a very tiny shop. While I was awkwardly hanging out and profusely sweating from nervousness, Kari finally says something like,

“I’m kind of busy so if you want to start holding up your drawings I’ll glance over them.”

I figured this was better than nothing, so I flopped open my bulky portfolio and proceeded to hold up drawing after drawing for her to glance over at them. I’d hold one up, and she’d look over for a second and then we would go on to the next one, then the next, next, next, etc.

After running through the entire stack in the portfolio I start to pack it all up, figuring this was all a waste of time. She let me know that she did not have any openings but would call me if anything came up. I was pretty sure this was the brush off.

A week later she called and said one of her guys was moving back to Amsterdam, and if I wanted the apprenticeship then it was mine. I think that was one of the best calls I ever received. I apprenticed with Kari for the next 6 months, learning shop basics and started my tattooing career. Tattooing, as well as working with Kari, gave me the ability to do what I wanted, which was leave LA. I moved to Portland in the Fall of 1993, and now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

It’s everything for me, sometimes customers want what they want, so you give them what they ask for. Unfortunately some folks don’t have a basic sense of design, and you’ll have to try and explain why this or that might not look so good. The best clients trust you and come to you for the work you are known for. Those clients are the ones that get the best work from me.

I always enjoyed drawing from as far back as I can remember, and always knew that art would be a big part of my career. The tattooing thing was seriously dumb luck. I think my inspiration comes from so many places — nature plays a huge role in all things, I believe. Enjoying the little everyday things can be incredibly inspirational, I think that’s why I like gardening so much. You take the time to look carefully at each part that makes up the whole.

There are so many talented artists, past and present. A French artist by the name of Jean Giraud aka “Moebius” is an all time favorite. I remember seeing his work as a youth and fell in love with his storytelling abilities and simple use of line. This was in the late 80’s, and his work was big in the illustrated magazine Heavy Metal. There was a mall in the neighboring city of Torrance, CA that had a gallery featuring his serigraphs. These were large, beautiful, and otherworldly fantastical landscapes with elaborately dressed characters. They were pricey to me at the time, way beyond what a kid could spend on a piece of art… I believe they ran about 300 bucks each. So instead, I would just regularly visit the gallery and stare at the magic he created.

A bunch of years ago I started gathering up some of those same pieces from the 80’s off Ebay, and now they grace the walls of my studio. Rick Griffin is another great comic/poster artist from the 70’s who makes cool, trippy psychedelic art.

Nate Van Dyke deserves a mention here as well and he’s still alive too, so that’s a plus! Nate is an illustrator out of the San Francisco area and has some sick drawing skills. He’s a super talented artist that I did a small trade with a few months back. After following some of his art on Facebook I liked the look of his line work, and saw that he referenced some of the pens that JetPens supplies.

My wife Steph and I have been working on some woodburnings for a few months, just a few small 6×6 pieces that we want to scan and make into prints using our presses. Maybe have some small shows at coffee shops and local galleries, who knows. I started working on a book, kind of an adult children’s story. I have a few illustrations started and the basic storyline written out, but it’s still in its early stages.

Lately, I’ve been illustrating solely for myself. I don’t enjoy taking on projects beyond my basic tattoo client load. Tattooing is my full time gig, so when I draw a completed design to fruition it is usually just for the joy of creating. I mostly draw basic graphite layouts for tattoo stuff. My own personal art varies from woodburned pieces, pen and ink illustrations, letterpress prints, or just making a fun T-shirt for myself and a few friends or clients. I usually give most of the shirts away.

As far as hobbies go, I love gardening, walking, photography, making good food, staring at the ocean…the simpler the better.

We just remodeled the studio last year, and it got entirely updated. My wife and I created a lot of the decorations together. You can see some woodburned art, as well as some found metal objects and collage pieces, up on the walls.

Some of London’s woodburnings and other artworks.

My tools of choice are fairly simple, I have long used technical refillable pens.

Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Ink Pens

Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Ink Pens

Currently, I am enamored by the HI-TEC-C, crazy detail can be achieved from a 0.25 to the 0.5. It’s a smooth, clean pen to draw with and I love it. Over the years a pen will go on the market and you find yourself saying, “This is it, this is the best pen ever!” (Then they stop making it, but hopefully that will never happen). Technical pens do have a drawback of needing constant attention or else they will turn on you and clog in the middle of a masterpiece… so kids, keep those pens clean!

Uni-ball Vision Elite Roller Ball Pen

Uni-ball Vision Elite Roller Ball Pen

I also use Uniball Vision Elites for sketching in my sketch books.

I know people want to hear what the professional guy uses but I’ve always believed that you should just use what works for you. I actually need to branch out and try some new pens but I guess that’s how I ended up here with you folks. If any of you readers out there have pens you prefer, pass it along!

Keep drawing, just keep drawing.

You can find more amazing work on the Atomic Art Studio Website, as well as his Personal Portfolio.

Ever wonder how artists use JetPens products? JetPens showcases artists every month and interviews them to see what their favorite JetPens tools are. Please send any suggestions for Artist Interviews to penpal(at)!