Upon entering House of Thieves you are immediately transported to what feels like a kindly Victorian philanthropist’s collection room. In fact, it’s a gathering of trinkets, art and ornaments garnered from travels through America – or rescued from an English loft – and displayed on sumptuous pea green walls. It’s an instant clue that this is no ordinary tattoo studio.
House of Thieves is the venture of husband and wife team Robert and Holly Ashby, who first met at Birmingham University. They both graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Art and, during their 3 years of study, discovered a shared love of tattooing and a mutual dream of opening their own studio.
Apprenticeships followed, with each taking two years. Robert went first, while Holly got a job to pay the bills. Learning that she became a visual merchandiser during that time goes some way to explaining the artistic staging of their shop, but the environment they have created is also driven by what Holly sees as a duty to their customers: “For me, aesthetics are a very big thing and our studio gives a good sense of who we are and what we do. If your job is creative and your shop demonstrates that, it immediately gives people more confidence.”
Once Robert had completed his training it was time for Holly to give up work and begin her own apprenticeship, with the two of them developing their own very distinctive styles that incorporate their core interests from their studies.
Robert, a printer, etcher, sketcher and avid fan of Hogarth, creates remarkably intricate tattoos, mainly in plain black ink, as though some sort of contemporary engraving. Holly, on the other hand, brings a history of casting, gilding and heavy influences of Italian renaissance and Asian art, to create beautifully vivid and feminine works; think Hindu goddess and Oriental blossoms and you’ll be on the right track.
Every tattoo at the studio is custom drawn – this is no place for colouring by numbers – and, alongside Robert and Holly, customers can look out for a series of guest artists who come to work in the shop. There’s an ethical streak running through proceedings as well, with zero animal tested products used in the studio and even vegan tattoos in the offering.
House of Thieves is at The Custard Factory, just under a 10-minute walk from the Bull Ring. Despite being just half a mile out of the city centre, the location – so far – is a bit off the beaten path for most Brummies, and yet well worth a visit. It’s unlike anywhere else in the city, a colourful enclave of former factory buildings (guess what they used to make there!) hosting an eclectic and eccentric collection of independent design, music and fashion shops, along with a couple of cool bars.
Tattoos have certainly made it to the mainstream in recent years, with celebrities and popular culture driving the trend. But Robert & Holly are going beyond current fashion, creating bodily artworks to cherish for a lifetime.
House of Thieves
Unit 14 Gibb Street
Custard Factory B9 4AA