Love Southsea

Interview: Southsea tattooist and Play Dead Studio’s Samo White

Friends of Love SouthseaLouise Whitmore1 Comment

Samo — high achiever in education, distinction in fine art, and a tattoo artist with a big story to be told.

I’ve got quite the obsession with Instagram, and it was on the photo sharing app that I discovered Samo and their beautiful watercolour works of art, started freehand on paper and then realised as tattoos. Imagine my joy when I found they worked in Southsea!

One sunny Sunday, I was on my stand at the Love Southsea Market when I spotted Samo in the flesh, and called their name. To my joy, they bounded over with so much enthusiasm and friendliness, I knew I immediately wanted to get to know more about Samo’s life. So this week, we met up at Play Dead Studio on Highland Road for a chat, and a meetup between our dogs — me with Betsie the Boston and Dexter the Frenchie, and Samo with Morrissey the pug! As they played together, this is what I found out:

Samo and their sister started life in Buckland, Portsmouth with their mother and father. From age seven through age 12, they spent the majority of five years living with their grandma to escape their violent father, who, to this day, they still have nothing to do with.

Samo recalls their time with their granny with glee, and I quote: “she had an old-fashioned telly I wasn’t allowed to use, and instead, I spent hours on end in the conservatory learning how to draw and create art.” Their granny introduced Samo to Monet, their first art love. They loved the way this impressionist used light in his pictures. Other big influencers on Samo’s life have been more contemporary, and include the likes of Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas.

Samo didn’t really like school. Moving from a school in Portsmouth to a ‘posher’ school in Petersfield was quite an alien experience. A fellow dyslexic, Samo could do English, but hated it. In Samo’s head, everything was art, so why bother with English and maths, they wondered?

Luckily, the head teacher took a shine to Samo, and under his wing, Samo left the school in Petersfield with a GCSE in Art & Drama and got a place at Alton College, where they left with a distinction in Fine Art! Samo’s final piece at college was based on labels and teenage pregnancy — their little sister fell pregnant at 15, so again, Samo was channeling life experiences into their art.

Samo was offered places at Brighton and Goldsmith universities, but turned them down, having had enough of education — they just wanted to paint and create.

Another artist who had a huge influence on Samo’s life was Basquiat, a black street artist with a powerful story. Samo loved how he used emotions in painting, and was inspired to go it alone and put on their own art show. To fund this, Samo worked mundane jobs to get the money needed for their debut show — hosted in a funeral parlour! Again, Samo channeled life experiences into their art, and the show’s focus was on the human condition as Samo witnessed it.

Samo, aged just 18 at the time, came out as gay at their Petersfield school — ‘the only gay in the village’, to quote! — and at this tender age, they got married and went traveling to New York and Canada.

They returned to the UK and settled down in Brighton, put the art on hold for a short while, and worked as a care worker in children’s homes, helping troubled teens. This job was right up Samo’s street — they have a huge caring heart, so working with teenagers was a good fit. Through this job, Samo could help the kids channel their anger into art instead of against themselves or their surroundings. It was a perfect role for Samo, but it was still tough — one time, they got stabbed by a child. But the job was, nevertheless, immensely rewarding.

The job took Samo and their wife to Wales, but after a year, the marriage broke down and Samo moved back in with their mum in Petersfield and started drawing again. It was at mum’s vintage shop, when Samo was painting a mural on the side of the building, that they was noticed by an all-girl tattoo parlour that had just opened in Petersfield. They loved Samo’s work, and wanted to see if Samo could take this style of art into the world of tattooing.

Here, with tattoo gun in hand, Samo went for it, and soon built up a huge clientele, with clients coming from far and wide to be tattooed by Samo.

Samo didn’t really have any intention to move back to Portsmouth — their early years still scared them deep down — but happened to chance upon a night out in Southsea about five years ago called Where’s Me Jumper (a My Dog Sighs DJ night above The Kings pub in Albert Road). I mentioned before that Samo was larger-than-life — well, years later, now one of Samo’s dearest friends, My Dog Sighs confided in Samo that they were the scariest motherfucker who’d been to his night!

Little did Samo know then, but that night changed their life. Soon after, My Dog Sighs invited Samo to one of Southsea’s legendary paint jams, where Samo met fellow artists Midge, M-One, Ooberla, My Name Is Leila, freakSTATIC, and many others.

This awesome similarly-minded Southsea collective gave Samo a sense of belonging and security, and so, they invested their passion into opening a shop right in the heart of Southsea, embracing this new-found community.

In 2015, Samo opened up Play Dead Studio on Highland Road, and has not looked back. With a huge smile, Samo tells me this space was to become a hybrid of a cool art gallery in the front and a working tattoo parlour in the back. Currently working alongside Samo in Play Dead are Chris Machin, Connor Tyler, Sam Hugh, Sarah Douglas, and apprentice Sam Perkins, all bringing their own unique tattoo style to the studio.

Samo told me: “Tattooing clients is always a pleasure. Tattooing people to help them feel better about their bodies is priceless.”

The art gallery has quickly become an icon of Southsea, with exhibitions including ‘Pieces of You’ by Léa Nahon and ‘Other Things’ by Stu Linfield and Ooberla. Lea has become a good friend of Samo’s, and in January just gone, she came all the way from Belgium to host her solo show.

This year, Samo said, “it’s going to be huge: more big shows with not only local talent but also international artists. The end-of-year show is big for me, and we also have a show by one of the most exciting street artist duos out there! Don’t want to give away too much away yet!”

To bring this interview to a close, here’s a quote from Samo which really stood out to me:

Fine art doesn’t have to be hidden away in a posh gallery in London. Art should be accessible to everybody, being on the streets for everybody to enjoy.

Stay in the know about Play Dead’s announcements and exhibitions on the studio’s Facebook page » and Instagram stream »

Interview and words by Louise Whitmore • Edited by Jeeves Williams