Interview with World Class Realism Tattooer Ben Kaye


Ben Kaye is a hyper-realism tattooer who works out of the world renowned shop ‘Ship Shape Tattoo’ located in the beautiful Auckland, New Zealand.

One of the many things that I think makes Ben’s work so special is that he takes his own incredibly unique reference photos that he uses for the majority of his work. This has became such a strong passion for him that he decided to share that gift with the rest of the tattoo artist community in a very cool way.

In this interview, Ben talks a little about what the dynamic of their wildly successful shop looks like, the beginning jitters and never-ending pressure of being a tattoo artist, Karen caliber clients, and more. Thank you in advance for reading – enjoy!


So first off, I just want to state the obvious; that Ship Shape is easily and undeniably one of the most talented tattoo shops on the entire planet. What is it exactly that’s in the air over there that’s breeding such talent? What might you guys contribute your overall success as a team to, and can you talk a little bit about the dynamic between you guys in the studio?

First off, you are correct.  We are fucking awesome.  Thank you very much.  Ship Shape is a place to learn and exchange ideas and be honest with each other.  It was started like that by Matt, and has carried with the three of us owning it together.  That kind of mentality towards learning and being open with each other about what we do, breeds good tattooists.  I also don’t think it’s always easy to find a studio where everyone is a real team – there is no pettiness or competitiveness between us.  To keep the atmosphere great, we are selective about who works here.  New artists do a long trial to make sure they are the right fit and won’t fuck up the dynamic.  We are all good mates! 

photography by Carol Howell Photography

Can you describe to me the feeling when you did your first ever tattoo? When was it, what was going through your head, how did it turn out? (Photo please if possible) 

My first tattoo was a tribal seahorse in JB Malaysia.  It took forever!  My forehead was dripping with sweat.  I remember it being fucking huge, but you can see in the photo, it’s tiny. It ended up nothing like the original design, I kept having to change it.  Whenever anyone came over, I would sweat even more.  To be honest, the main thing I remember was the sweat. I sweat a lot less when I tattoo these days. 



It’s no secret that all of the tattoos you create are built to stand the rest of time. If you feel comfortable sharing, can you talk just a little bit about what goes into creating a tattoo that’s truly built-to-last? 

Again, thank you!  I think it really comes down to the basics.  Full, heavy saturation and contrast being the main ones. The more contrast the better especially with colour, when the mid tones fade back over time then the contrast is the thing that will keep it looking good for longer.

I really love what you’ve been doing with @Reference_87. I think it is a groundbreaking and convenient tool for artists who are wanting to take their tattooing to the next level. Can you talk to me a little bit about all that you’ve put into this project?

Reference87 has been a labour of love really.  It’s fantastic to be able to take my passion for tattooing and my passion for photography and bring something new to the community.  It has been a lot of work, and continues to be as we are still expanding and always adding references to the site.  Seeing other tattooists use those reference images and produce something new is amazingly exciting! Reference87 .com 🙂

If you could go back in time to when you very first started tattooing, and give your old self  key pieces of advice, what would they be?

  1. Move to New Zealand sooner! 
  2. There was a period where I worked on my own for 2 or 3 years before I moved to NZ. At the time, it was good.  It would have been a lot nicer if I had worked with people.  If I could go back in time and tell myself not to work alone for as long. Plus, I would have progressed faster. 
  3. Read more art books. Read Art and Fear sooner.

Most bizarre experience thus far with a client?

We play this game at every studio Christmas party – Worst Client of the Year.  I don’t have a lot of weird or bizarre clients.  When I play this game with other people they have clients who want ‘C*MSLUT’ tattooed on their forehead and what not.  I have tattooed some really interesting people.  Back in the day, my worst clients were prostitutes and gangsters wanting terrible things on their faces.  These days my worst clients are just Karens. My clientele has drastically changed over the years.

What are a couple of things that you wish each of your clients knew, things that may save both of you guys headache and frustration?

How much nicer I am to clients who bring food!  Also to trust the process, and know the design will be ready on the day with the requests they have outlined and everything is going to be ok.  Relax and enjoy the experience!  

Biggest change you hope/expect to see in the tattoo industry over the next 1 to 3 years or so? 

I hope everything goes back to normal so I can travel back to the U.S, visit friends and family.  We have already lost a couple of beloved tattoo Conventions that were massive to the industry, I’m hoping they come back in one form or another.

    Most challenging part of being a tattoo artist?

    Most people don’t realize but it is genuinely a very high pressure job.  Especially when you get to a certain level. Every day you have to produce something that lasts forever, every piece has to be better than the last.  Five days a week!  You’re only as good as the piece you just finished, that eerie fact is always there.  Keeping that momentum going, to constantly produce your best, all the time, is a challenge.

      Most rewarding part of being a tattoo artist?

      The people we interact with. Not only the artists but the clients I interact with..  I’ve met some amazing people who have done some amazing things.  Tattooing manages to attract a diverse range of people. It’s by far my favourite thing! 

      Thanks so much for giving me an opportunity to talk with you! – Ben Kaye

      Huge thank you to Ben for doing this interview, and also a big thank you to anyone who took the time to read/look.

      Be sure to follow Ben on Instagram @dbkaye and also check out his exciting new venture @reference_87 if you’re a tattoo artist looking to take your work to the next level.


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