Interview: Tony Unwin, Ink King tattoo studio

Tony Unwin tattoo artist
Tony Unwin tattoo artist

‘My hobby is my job and my job is pretty much everything I do’, Tony Unwin tells me.

Tony, 46, runs Ink Kings tattoo studio at the top of Nottingham Road in Ilkeston. He started the business six years ago and it has become so successful that he is now planning on opening a second studio.

“We moved from the bottom of Nottingham Road to the top and have continually grown every year,’ he said ‘It was quite challenging as I didn’t know how it would go in such a small town, there were a lot of seven day working weeks.

“You live or die in this industry by your reputation. I’ve been blessed with good artists with good strong commitment to what they do. I specialise in a particular style of work: Maori Kirituhi, a representation that Westerners can wear without causing offence.”

Tony, who has a degree in design from the University of Derby, also specialises in Somoan - black based work- and Polynesian. He does shows every year where he gets to show off his designs earning him recognition nationally and internationally.

But it is his reputation locally that has secured Ink King’s success. “People can see when you are doing quality work and putting the time in” he said, “All of our tattoos are 100 per cent customised, we don’t do anything off cards or off a wall. We aim to be 100 per cent original all the time.”

Tony became a tattoo artist 12 years ago but was a street artist from an early age. He discovered his talent for tattooing while living in Canada. On moving back to Kirk Hallam he worked at Egg in Derby for a time before turning his hobby into a full-time job.

He said: “I started from nothing, just me and a small licenced room in the back of the house. The first one (tattoo) I did is always one I will remember because of the fear of it all, the act of putting ink into someone’s skin is quite a nerve wracking thing at first. The control you need to learn is something that comes with time and experience.”

Tony, who naturally has a number of tattoos himself, has noticed a change in the tattoo world over the last five years. The stigma has gone and now ‘everybody wants a tattoo.’

He has people of all ages coming through his doors, including an 86-year-old woman who had made a £5 bet with her friend while on holiday in Skegness. She loved the tattoo so much that she went back for another one.

“She felt she couldn’t have it done before,’ said Tony, ‘It tells me that the walls have started breaking down a bit and social attitudes of having ink on your skin have changed. We have people that come in on their 18th birthday who have been waiting to be tattooed. With younger people we try and slow them down a bit so they don’t make the mistakes that generations before them have. Saying that, we do a lot of repair work from other studios that may not have done such a good job.”

There are two other tattoo artists at Ink Kings and more are needed for the second studio. “It’s quite a hard industry to get into, you’ve got to be of a certain level and way of thinking to deal with people,” said Tony, who also does customised paintwork for helmets, whether it be for skydiving or motorbikes (of which he has two). “It sometimes feels like you are a bit of a therapist but it is one of the most enjoyable jobs ever. It’s very challenging but very rewarding. It took me a long time to realise the worth of what I did.”

In 2012 Tony, who has customers from as far as Paris, Canada and Switzerland, won an award at a show for his tribal designs, at a time when tribal was the ‘in thing’. He has noticed a change in trends with portraits popular at the moment. Last year it was pocket watches and roses. Some larger tattoos can be worked on for up to two years. More information can be found at or on their Facebook page.