Tattoo artist Martha Smith transfers her mark making skills to beautiful linocut prints

Broadstairs-based tattoo artist Martha Smith has found another outlet for her illustration and printmaking background by carefully carving a stunning series of linocut prints.

For ten years, Camberwell College of Art graduate Martha Smith has been putting needle-to-skin as a tattoo artist in her private Kent studio. And just as inking the bodies of her customers requires a confident hand, so too does her other creative outlet as a linocut engraver and printmaker.

The two might seem like odd artistic bedfellows, but for Martha, they appear to be intertwined in her journey as an artist. "I always loved to draw and would obsess over the pen section in the local Woolworths as a child," she tells Creative Boom. This obsession led to her studying illustration at a higher level, where she developed her own dot work style as a nod towards the traditional engraving and etching techniques used by artists in the 1800s.

Ever a fan of learning new skills, it was during her time at Camberwell that Martha first discovered the joys of the print room and felt the desire to test out its facilities. "My year at Camberwell seemed particularly interested in screen printing, so that department was always fully booked," she explains. "The relief press was unoccupied, so I jumped at the chance to experiment. I immediately fell in love with the permanence of a linocut: once a cut is made, you've got to roll with it. I can see how this gave me the confidence to learn to tattoo."

And just as her tattoo designs are populated with floral motifs and animals – inspired partly by her interest in botanists and naturalists – so too are her linocut prints. In them, we see the human form contorted into the shapes of food such as lemons, tomatoes and oranges. Whereas in other, more intricate pieces, Martha's classical printmaking background makes itself apparent.

The two disciplines help to support one another because, as Martha explains, there are plenty of parallels between the crafts. "Both tattooing and printmaking are created through a series of marks, whether hatching, carving or stippling. In both mediums, your hand is guided by the surface, whether that's skin or lino.

"In printmaking and tattooing, everything you do has to be intentional, and any mistake must be embraced. The key difference between the two crafts is that in tattooing, you are drawing the dark; in printmaking, you are cutting the light. Switching between the two keeps me on my toes!"

Martha's featured collection of prints displays the variety of techniques she employs. Negative space is used expertly in her images of stacked figures and prints where bodies appear to peel off the page. Then there are here more detailed prints, like her Anchovy piece, which communicates the scaled nature of its fishy subject. Cleverly blended colours add an extra dimension to Martha's prints, such as in her heatwave piece, where a curled-up body seems to melt and run off the paper.

According to Martha, the secret to making a good linocut print depends on a good balance of light and dark. "Too much cut away can suddenly ruin an image," she warns. "A confident hand should be seen in the final print. Every mark needs to look intentional, the print must appear clean, not over or under-inked, and you must apply a correct amount of pressure. I'm also learning more and more that simplicity done well is key."

Out of all the prints in her collection, Martha reveals that Citron Ella (My Lemon Lady) is her favourite. "I created this in lockdown," she explains. "I was incredibly anxious about my partner getting Covid, so I was very militant in not going outside, etc. This created its own anxiety, knowing we weren't getting exercise or sunlight.

"One thing I could actively control was eating as much fruit and veg as possible. This was a real joy, and I loved cooking for us. My lemon lady is a celebration of all the vitamins we were lucky enough to consume!"


Get the best of Creative Boom delivered to your inbox weekly