Last night I spent a couple of hours speaking to Traphouse Tyler about his life, his past, his tattooing and his music. Coining himself as ‘The People’s Champion’, Traphouse has amassed a large following mainly through his Instagram which exhibits his tattoo jobs, A4 sheets of art sketches, a masked face and a gleaming gold set of grills.
Traphouse has tattooed thousands of people over the past couple of years, including some big names such as A$AP Rocky and Skepta. He says that grime has played a large role in his life. It fuels his art and music. His city, London, is the canvas for his creativity. He connects with its culture and its heritage, making him the man that he is today.
As a former drug-dealer Traphouse prefers to keep his identity concealed. The incognito look can be intimidating, that’s for sure. And yet, when speaking to him that all becomes secondary. He creates strong bonds with the people he’s interacting with by being open about where he’s from, what he’s seen and learnt, and the trials and tribulations that came along the way. That initial intimidation swiftly turns into ease.
He recently released a mixtape called ‘The People’s Champion’. He told me that he produced and recorded each track by himself. Traphouse will be performing his songs at the MASS APPEAL event this Sunday, in aid of victims and families affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.
WG: When did you start tattooing? And did you know how to do it when you started?
Traphouse Tattooer: Yeah, and about two years ago, March 2016.
OK, and what made you want to start doing that?
I think I’ve always had an interest in tattooing but just never took the time to pursue it and believe in it until then.
Do you think it’s hard, especially in London, to break into this whole ‘creative’ industry? Has the competition ever scared you?
Nah, because I’m from here and born here. I think, for me, it’s more just to do with myself, know what I mean? I don’t have competition. There’s no one that’s doing what I am doing.
You can measure competition in a particular realm or a particular field. But what I’ve done is I’ve created a thing of my own, it doesn’t exist in the same format as other artists. Say for example an exhibited artist would have a relationship with a gallery, it’s the gallery that sells the paintings, so they have to make a painting for the standard of the gallery for them to sell it. And even with my music, I released a mixtape on my own website with no middle man involved. There’s no Spotify, there’s no iTunes, there’s no mixtape website. It’s just direct.
The same as the tattoos. It’s straight me and you.
That seems like an approach that not many people are taking, and that may have been the approach that made you stand out. The honesty, the no middle-man aspect to it, do you not think you knew that that would work for you?
Mm, but then again I’ve spent most of my life making money for myself. I’ve had my own business and my own empire that I have built for myself. I create a product that people are already interested in, but it’s still the same independence. I’ve seen that you can build a business based on your own hard-work and dedication.
It’s kind of sad but it’s engrained into a lot of people and they grow up thinking that if they want to be something they need to appeal to the people who are already successful in that thing.
Oh yeah, 100%, I feel that there is so much competition because of social media.
Use it as a tool to connect, not to compare, because the other thing you’ve got to take into consideration is that, well, the things that feel nice, the symbol of the love-heart, how many people have pressed the love-heart on your picture or your post? How many people have commented? These are things that psychologically make us feel like we’re fucking achieving something.
Yeah, raising the serotonin levels.
Mm, we see that shit.
I see that if you’re doing something authentic and it’s interesting and you really believe in it, like what I do with my music and my art, although I don’t have the super big following… I’ve seen the results from it. Someone that has over a hundred thousand followers, they can’t get the same level of human interaction. How many people physically turn up to come to their show, or how many people will interact with them and give them an opinion?
The point that I am making is that the value, for me, is more in those connections with people than having a million followers and thousands of likes and comments. That doesn’t change anyone’s life, it doesn’t make anyone happy. It’s just a picture of his fucking Rolex or something.
I’ve heard people speak about you and I think there was a gap in the market that you filled unintentionally, the authentic Londoner with the background story.
Yeah, that’s the other thing that’s happening a lot now. Marketing and me being a brand and a product and people talking about me as if I am not the person.
The things that you’re saying you hear is very nice. But it has both sides to it. There’s nothing that I regret, but I can see how publications and certain forms of media think, people want something interesting and exciting, you know, a headline for the article. I guess the things that excite the people the most are the worst things about it.
It also can be detrimental, it has been detrimental to certain ventures and opportunities that I could have had.
At the same time it’s all cool. Everyone who’s met me has respect for me and they appreciate me, right? I think certain people can’t handle the mystery and can’t handle the blank spaces of information and they fill it out with the worst. The only people that feel the way they do about me don’t know me. I don’t think there’s anyone – well they haven’t made themselves known – that’s met me and interacted with me and had a tattoo off of me and then dislikes me.
Do you care if people dislike you?
Ah, I couldn’t give a fuck but it’s all part of it. I did in the beginning. I wasn’t new to people disliking me but at least when someone dislikes me in my old life, I say my old life like I’m a new person, but there was a reason for it. I think now, because what I am doing is in the public forum, it’s up there to be criticised. People will express their opinion because there’s an option to leave a comment, there’s also an option to talk to your friend about it and there’s an option to behave in a certain way.
I think a lot of people that say hateful shit or behave in a negative manner are insecure. They feel inferior and that makes them resent what they see. I’m talking about this from a position of experience. I’ve been in a position where I am absolutely flat-broke, not a penny to my name. I’d see someone with some sort of material possession that I want, that I would like to have, or that they’re just doing better than me. My initial response is ‘fuck that person’. If I had the opportunity I’d hurt them or do something negative towards them, know what I mean?
But when you break it down, they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong to me. So I understand, I’ve been in that position. When I was first tattooing there were people that were busier and more popular at the time. I looked at them like ‘I want to be that level of busy, I want to be that level of popular’. When you’re viewing it from an insecure state you can look at that in a negative way. Like fuck them, why do they deserve that? What’s so special about them? You tried to make all these assumptions like ‘they’ve probably bought all their followers’.
When you’re secure in your position and you’re comfortable with yourself, you see it as motivational and it puts more wind in your own sails. I think that’s all the difference is. I can’t be upset about people that don’t like me because I understand that they’re inferior, they’re not in a positive state, they’re not in a good way. There’s no one that’s happy that does sad things.
People are bitter. It’s easier to talk about someone than do something with your own life.
Yeah, it’s just unhappy people. If we go into like what people’s psychology is, everyone wants to be popular, regardless of those people that claim they have no interest in it, that’s bollocks. Everyone wants to be popular. Everyone aspires to be successful in whatever they’re interested in.
London is very dear to you. Did these references to the city come from any distinctive memories from your youth?
The art that I like is what I can understand it’s communicating. You can get more emotion across through music easier and quicker. I think that’s why we respond the way we do to certain pieces of music that immediately grab the emotion that’s being communicated. I think the inner process of creating anything, if you’re just being the channel… [pauses]
The opposite of what I’m doing now, I’m trying very hard to explain something to you. I’m looking for words to describe something, but I could draw it very quickly and very easily. I can make a song about it. That’s the difference.
I like shit that I feel I relate to, that I understand. We like things that make us feel part of something.
So is London a language for you then?
It’s the same thing. In December I did Miami, New York and L.A., and I did Manchester and Bristol just recently. And I’ve been to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff… Stockholm as well. I’ve been to a lot of places and seen that there is a certain set of things, it’s all the same. Different branding, but it’s the same product.
It’s like the city life. I still get a big response in places like Australia that I’ve never been to and I don’t know anyone there.
It’s interesting. You haven’t directly catered to that but they’ve connected with it.
I think it’s more than the city, it’s the generation. It’s me trying to communicate now, like right now. It’s going to be one of those things that 40 years in the future, when you think about what 2018 looked life, it looked like these tattoos and it sounded like these songs.
I was wondering if you thought you had a unique selling point, but I have a feeling you’re going to say no.
[Laughs] Why not?
You’re going to say that people connect with what you do because it’s them and not you, or something like that.
Of course I have a unique selling point. Me. I am unique. There’s nothing else like me.
What are you? If you had to write a paragraph explaining who you are, how would you do it?
That’s such a big question…The answer is too big.
How come you’re so open about your past?
Because you don’t know who I am, I’m wearing a fucking mask! There’s no consequences, is there?
Do you not think that was your niche?
My niche was that in society now no one’s comfortable to be themselves. I say society but I’m talking in a creative format, that people are happy to put their works out there but not happy to attach themselves openly and truthfully to what they do. I am at this point, as a consumer now, more interested in the people involved in the product and whether I like them or not more than I like the product.
When it comes to what my USP is and me saying that it’s me, it’s because I am also allowing you to see me and get to know me. I think that through what I’ve done with my life and how I am and who I am as a person, I’m fucking more interesting than John and Dave and everyone that you are seeing do this shit.
How many fucking songs are you gonna hear where it’s just like ‘oh my god, make your own shit man!’ Everyone just wants to have that same hit; they want to recreate someone’s success. They want to follow the same steps and hope that it leads to the same direction.
Before I came about there weren’t many doing these kind of things. People were drawing the traditional sailor tattoos, the swallows, the daggers, the skulls…
So say Dave, let’s say Dave came from…
Alright, Sunderland… well Sunderland is popping actually.
Shout out Sunderland.
And so, Dave has lived in a townhouse his whole life, and he has very expensive art in his dining room, then Dave went to a public school, but then Dave also realises he’s very into grime and he wants to do what you do. Who will be more successful, you, who has that backdrop or Dave, someone who seemingly isn’t authentic?
That’s different though. It’s being honest about what you’re about. If he came through saying that he’s from a gutter estate full crack heads and whores then you’d go no, you’re not, you’re from a lovely estate and you have a stable of horses. If he came out with them bars and you did the background check and in his music videos he’s on a horse, that’s bossy. I’m a fan of him. I’m more a fan of him than I am of these rappers now talking shit.
Everyone wants to be hard. This is the other thing right; this is what you have to take into consideration. What I have done through being so open about myself has presented a vulnerability. But I am able to do that because I am secure within myself. I can look in the mirror and be happy with what I see. I am very happy. I know myself.
You look at a rapper that is telling you that he’s so hard he will do this level of violence to you and he wants to show off his material things and his superficial life. When you’ve met people in life who have really possessed those same behaviour traits and behave in that kind of way, you know the ones rapping about it are covering up for an insecurity. They’re only bragging about how expensive something is because they can’t really afford it.
I know, I’ve got golden diamonds on my teeth. I’ve grown up with less than a lot of other people so I want to be perceived immediately, as soon as you see me, as someone with money around him. That’s me being real with the insecurity. I know that me growing up in the financial situation that I was in led me to do the things that I was doing just to make up for that void of not having.
Any real violent person, anyone that I’ve actually seen carry out such violent acts, they don’t speak about it. They don’t brag. They were secure and comfortable. The people that know 100% when they look in the mirror and they know “I will shoot someone today if they fuck with me”, they don’t make songs about shooting someone if they fuck with them. They know it, and they’ll do it.
The same thing for artists. They replicate and they draw a lot of reference from what they consider to be successful, and the art that they see is making money at that moment. They want the same popularity and notoriety, so they emulate because they’re not secure about what their success is. I think to myself that I know what I want from what I do.
So going off of the whole idea of emulating. Do you think when things get popular they are easier to emulate? Grime now is a popular thing to be into now. It’s like photography a few years ago, everyone was trying to be a photographer.
Oh yeah I remember that.
And now it’s DJing, it’s the cool thing to do. Might also be happening to grime, talking about the ends etc.
I don’t know, that’s not quite how I’ve seen it. For me, when grime came about I was going to the youth club and all my pals were listening to it and we were tuning into Pirate Radio and swapping tapes and shit that we’ve recorded. There was a music programme for us at the youth club. They’d teach us how to mix vinyl. It wasn’t a thing where it was like “here’s an option of songs, would you boys want to listen to it? Are you lot into American hip-hop, are you into garage, or are you into this grime thing?”. It came at the time before I had the selection, before I had the choice of what to listen to. It was presented to me. It was naturally around me. We all had bars.
Yeah but whereas that was your lifestyle, now people are picking that lifestyle for themselves.
We’ve seen this though, we’ve seen this with American pop-culture. We saw what happened with Eminem. Eminem was the white rapper that just made all these suburban kids feel very open about expressing how much they’re into the culture. It’s spilled over to like everyone. It’s not just inner city youth and kids in the poverty areas that are making this rough music and this rough sound. It’s now more widely accepted.
For something to be successful it needs to be readily available to everyone, it needs to have that scope. If you think about who’s buying these albums, who’s streaming these Radar Radio views… it’s not all hood brehs. A large portion of people that are listening to drug dealer music aren’t drug dealers. It won’t thrive if that was the case, it won’t be commercially viable. It won’t give people careers and it won’t be as healthy as other things are.
Yeah, I agree.
And let’s go into the grime thing, the guys that want to do grime. They’re also funding the culture, and I don’t mean just financially, but I am in general they are fuelling it by wanting to be involved in it. If grime was only exclusive to people who have grown up in it like I have then it would be shit.
Would you say your music is grime?
Yes. The same way if I was in America and I grew up in that hip-hop/rap lifestyle then I’d call my music hip-hop. I think grime should have been all-inclusive for anything that came out around here. The same way Americans did. In America the difference is very clear and distinctive between the sounds, between East Coast hip-hop, the stuff that Biggie Smalls, Wu Tang, Mobb Deep, and all the thing that they were making, in comparison to the West Coast stuff, the Dr Dre and Tupac. Get what I mean? And then you had the down South stuff as well. Those are three completely different sounds, different tempos, different vibes.
But they all mutually agreed, I don’t know whether it was a conversation, but they all just knew that it was hip-hop. That was it. Here there’s been this thing of UK rap, UK drill, UK hip-hop and then you have grime. I think grime got too heavily associated with the select few people. It wasn’t inclusive for other people to be a part of, and that’s what’s been detrimental to it. If it was up to me I would have said, from ‘Walk in da Park’, that Giggs is grime, certified, even though it’s the tempo of rap, even though the flow is different, regardless. This breh is definitely grime.
Yeah I see that.
And Americans… the way people embrace them, they get endorsed so strongly into the culture that is a multi-billion-dollar industry. It has so much invested in it, financially, emotionally and culturally, that it’s a big fucking deal.
Americans are a lot more open to building a superstar. When I was in New York I saw how they support an up-and-coming rapper who is starting to show promise, how they behave with him. Like, “he’s fucking New York”, they all fuck with him.
People are different here in London, a lot more reserved. People are a bit too funny about openly going ‘I like this person, I like what they do’. Look at how Americans behave. When they see something they enjoy they go WOOOOO. They are naturally so much better at expressing their enjoyment for something and that’s why they thrive so much.
Culturally, my music is grime. How’s that for a final answer?
As a musician yourself, do you want people to like you and not your music?
I reckon that’s how it’s worked from the beginning. The amount of downloads that I’ve got and the amount of streams that I’ve got to those songs, like, I’m gassed that I got that for my first project. That’s more than brehs get who have been doing this for a while. The attraction to my music has been through people who have been attracted to the person that they’ve got to know through social media.
I had fans of my music before they even heard it. There’s thousands of people that would say “yeah I’ll buy his album” that had never heard a single thing.
So how are you going about all of this then?
Look at it this way. I’m going to be around forever, if I’ve tattooed you I will be a part of your body for the rest of your life. I will be relevant in your life until you die. That is some serious shit. 10 years from now someone’s going to look at their arm and go ‘I wonder what that breh is up to? He was on some shit! What was he on?’.
The connection I’m going to have with them is so different to…who the fuck is going to give a fuck about your turn up 808 heavy base booming shouting song about some meaningless shit? No one gives a fuck about that, but they just really wanted that. Record label push me, get me exposure really quickly, get other people to collaborate with me that already have a big following. They want this quick turnover, that fast success. They’re going to burn out fast as well.
Something that’s gradually built bit by bit like what I am building for myself is a solid foundation. It is a strong fucking valuable powerful thing. You can’t compare what I am doing to these other people. I am aware of how you can do it but there’s a downside to that. The downside to what I’m doing is that it’s a lot more difficult. It takes a lot more dedication, a lot more physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, it takes more. I think that these are the kind of elements of people that I respect, that I’ve seen that in their journey and what they do. We all feel a certain way about people that want to take shortcuts and want to claim what they haven’t earned honestly, know what I mean?
I’m the People’s Champion.
Why are you the people’s champion?
I changed the game. What I did for tattooing has changed the face of tattooing. It’s one you’re really going to have to let time show how much of an impact I’ve had. What other tattooer, globally, in history, has had the same level of interest, notoriety and excitement around them in such a short space of time?
Well no one, but you have a cult following, it isn’t just the art but it’s you as a person and what you represent.
How I’m behaving is from the perspective of that end of it. I had bare tattoos before I tattooed. I have tattoos on my face and on my hands. These are things I did way before I became popular with what I’ve got going on now. I did this before I myself was interested in it.
So I’ve been at that end where I am shopping around for tattoos, I’m going around to the tattoo shop to get something done. And the same with music, I’m a huge fan of it, I listen to music all the time. I’m a big fan. I have a lot of interest in it. What I make and what I do is obviously a lot more connected to the people because I know what being the people is, get what I mean?
Through what I’ve been through in my life it’s really come into fruition in what I am pursuing and doing now. I’m not the average passer by, that’s the thing.
Inspire and motivate – these are two valuable outcomes from my creativity – as opposed to people creating musical art for the purpose of monetary gain. Like me, follow me, make me feeling famous, wank me off.
So what are you doing about that? Finding your own space within that or working around that?
Look, I’m fucking tattooing. That makes money, and that funds what I’m doing with music. It doesn’t work without money. In regards to music, I know rappers that are popping off and getting millions of views and that, but before music is paying, they need to be earning money. It’s difficult to pursue both. You’re either making money or you’re making music. But there’s going to be a period of time where you’re not making money off of your music, so how do you sustain that transition?
Yeah, that’s why some people sell out.
Right. I see the behaviour in crack heads. They’ve stolen something valuable, an electronic device or whatever it is, and they know the retail value is £500 but they ask for £200 and you say to them, no way, I’m not giving you £200. They don’t have money, they’ve got something but they don’t have money, so they’re going to take something that’s the value of £10 for what was originally a lot more because they are in a position where they need to survive.
That’s a good analogy.
It’s a pretty grim one. Rappers are in a similar position. You can’t be on the roads and be putting in work and doing all that and successfully pursuing music and making that cross-over in making that a full-time career. There are still rappers that I know that are still heavy in the roads and make fucking sick music, but they’re not going to be making a living and being professional.
So do you think it’s hard not to sell out?
Hmm, that’s hard. I think it has to be because a lot of people are fucking doing it. From a listener’s perspective I personally don’t think it’s fair to abuse the attention that I am giving so that you can make money. If I like your music enough and if you’ve made music that’s made me feel like I should support you then I’ll do it.
I’ve got a certain thing that I like, like the Stone Island thing. I loved Stone Island before I had an Instagram account. There’s no type of brand affiliation between me and them, I just like them.
You invest in things that you like.
Yeah, and the reason that I have the relationship I do with people is because I am invested in them. I appreciate them and respect their involvement in what I’m doing. I don’t take any of it for granted. I don’t expect people wanting to get tattooed or wanting to listen to my music. I know that I have to earn that. I have to create art that’s fucking good. I know that I have to make music that’s fucking good. I treat people differently. I say different because of how I feel I’ve been treated by artists and musicians in this industry.
So the MASS APPEAL show at Oval Space on Sunday. Excited?
I have a really good feeling about everybody involved. I support behaviour that supports others. I like the guys at Stone Island Talk. I also think it’s a very good cause, it’s very close to home. I wouldn’t be the People’s Champion if I didn’t. It seems right.
It’s going to be fucking sick. I think I need it at the moment. People have caught on to it quite slowly, know what I mean? Just because I have X amount of followers on my Instagram doesn’t mean that all of them will immediately go and check my music out. This will be good for that.
You can buy tickets for Mass Appeal, in aid of the families affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, here.
You can listen to Traphouse Tattooers mixtape here.
Written by: Marianna Mukhametzyanova.
Photos by: Harry Conway
Styling by: Mr Sharps Menswear