On the cusp of celebrating the 20th anniversary of his iconic tattoo studio Inkadelic Ibiza, Neil Ahern was well aware that a pandemic was about to take over the world. As someone who follows current affairs closely, the renowned tattooist had been watching the Coronavirus crisis unfold since the initial outbreak in Wuhan, and had no doubt it would cross continents and arrive in Spain, completely shutting down the country, including the island of Ibiza, temporarily – and his business with it. “I knew it was coming,” Neil explains, from his Dalt Vila home, where he lives alone with his little dog Lil Bit. ” Why would we be any different to the rest of the world? China doesn’t live behind closed walls anymore, and the amount of trade they do, the amount of travel, and movement of people between regions, and the increasing population growth in the world – for sure, this virus was going to move.”
Being locked down before his season could even begin didn’t faze Neil – rather, it was people’s attitudes (worldwide) to things like 5G, micro-chipping and government conspiracies. “This isn’t your big worry,” he says, pragmatically. “The effects of this are going to go a lot deeper – how are we going to live, what’s going to happen to currencies and world markets, debts and banks. It affects us all, and this is the big problem.” Rather than be all doom and gloom about the situation however, Neil has embraced his alone time and describes it as a blessing. Here, he shares his experiences during lockdown in Ibiza.
Describe your Ibiza lockdown situation?
It’s been amazing. For me, this has been a momentous time in the history of man/womankind. It’s an incredible luxury. Being able to spend time with yourself without feeling bad about it, experiencing a time with very little stress (for me, anyhow) – it was an amazing time and still is. Because I’m on my own, I’m OK with myself: the good the bad and the ugly. I accept myself, so for me, this hasn’t been difficult. I’ve got my dog, maybe without her it would be more difficult. I’m very blessed because I live up here in Dalt Vila, I have space and light, there are no police around here. I know a lot of people found it hard – they find being themselves very difficult and hide behind various social media platforms. Basically, I don’t hate myself so for me, it’s a very beautiful and interesting time.
What is your daily life like now?
Man, my time just goes. It totally goes! I’ve been drawing a lot. I’ve been painting. I’ve been going through lot of photographic material to make new portfolios. I’ve been spending 10 minutes to cut a tomato if that’s what I want to do! Having that luxury of time – that’s what I’ve been doing. I spend time with my dog. Walking her every day, and rather than walking, walking, walking, walking and then coming home, I walk, and I sit. I watch and I look. I follow the mindfulness tools that my doctor told me to do after I had a serious health scare recently. I breathe and take time with myself. I visit my studio. Whether I’m walking or creating, cooking or thinking, or musing… It’s like nothing really changed and we’re still in winter mode – well, the only thing that really changed was not being able to hug people.
How are you feeling on a personal level?
After having some health problems earlier in the year, I feel a bit cheated. Literally three weeks after I got positive results [that a lesion in his brain was not a tumour], my whole thing was giving extended hugs to people, being lighter than I normally am, and this came down on us. I went from finding lightness, familiarity and closeness – now that was all deemed in the lands of Mordor, not allowed and frowned upon – to even having to lower your eyes in case it could be transmitted through your eyeballs.
Who or what do you miss most right now?
I don’t have a partner, so that hugging had become a kind of closeness – and then we were made to feel very un-close. That’s what I miss really, the hugging, and the closeness. I felt like I’d just found this ability, and it was taken away from me.
What’s been most the challenging thing for you throughout this experience?
It’s a craft to be alone. It can be a very hard thing to learn and accept. I went through part of the winter beating myself up about seemingly wanting and making situations so I could be alone. So that I wouldn’t have kids. But this time has made me realise that wasn’t in vain. I’m glad I’m not bringing a kid into this world. And it’s not just about your kid not being allowed outside for two months, playing on their iPad or with plastic toys from China – I mean, what are they going to be left with? What’s coming? It’s not about a little chip in us, god forsake us. It’s about what’s going to be here. We don’t hear about plastic pollution anymore – imagine how many reports are going to be coming up about the ingestation of plastic gloves soon. People throw them all over the ground – the consciousness of people is so low. I see people wearing gloves but spitting in the street. They wear masks so they don’t get in trouble from the police. We went from loose, farm-fresh vegetables being cool to encouraging people to buy multipacks in plastic. All of those issues that were in the media have been forgotten about and now it’s just feelgood things, like Colonel Tom – god bless him!
Has there been anything about the lockdown experience that you’ve enjoyed?
I enjoy being up here in Dalt Vila. It’s a different vibe up here, no aggression or fear. There’s a lot of light and movement up here, I have easy access to the cathedral and down to Los Molinos where I walk my dog, and I see the sea while the dog can run. I have a letter from my doctor that allows me to walk further than just outside the house. I was never a roof terrace person, and when I bought this house, I never used the outside space. During this time, I made the most of it, I used come up around 5pm with the dog for our sunset sessions – I’m tanned from it! I really enjoy that time – I’ve been rescuing cacti, I prune [his late dog] Scratch’s tree, I play music, watch the birds and swallows fly around. So that’s been a positive thing that’s come out of it – I want that to last, so I want to develop the space more, get some shade and spend even more time up there.
How do you keep in touch with the outside world?
I’ve been reaching out to more people that I haven’t spoken to in years – even my own brother. I don’t have his phone number but I sent him a message on that demon Facebook! I’ve spoken to a friend in Australia – it’s interesting to get the perspective from other countries. And I still speak to my dad every day. He’s very English – Carry on!
What’s been entertaining you during this period?
Music – thank god for Giles Peterson. He’s always been provided an amazing source of decent music through Radio 1, and now Radio 6, and for some time he’s had an internet station – worldwidefm.net – and done some amazing programs. He, for me, took over the reins of icon status after John Peel died, bringing that massive in-depth knowledge of music online every day. Every day he has Louie Vega – who is an ambassador of proper music, just like Giles, he’s a personal friend of mine and a really nice guy – from 7pm to 9pm, so I tune in and they’re up there with me for sunset sessions on my terrace, overlooking the Ibiza Necropolis.
What’s made you laugh during this time?
Donald Trump! And Americans. It’s just ridiculous, his lies, his blatant lies and the state of society there. The reason I don’t go to America now is because I don’t want to under the current administration, this whole thing about not letting immigrants through, your wife is one! I don’t get it why a lot of things like this aren’t hammered home on the news? Ivanka – really? Is that a good American name? Melania? Not Melanie. Anyhow… what else makes me laugh? My dog. The Office.
Where do you get your news from?
Various forms, from all over the place, even Al Jazeera is interesting. But nothing from David Icke! There’s always been so much out there, and even more now with evils of the internet. Before it was hard to get hold of information and now it’s all out there. We’re so easily swayed and motivated, hence why Brexit happened – it’s all based on fear: of jobs, of a bed in a hospital, a chair in a school, jobs being taken away by foreigners. And it’s how idiots like Trump can get in – the manipulation of facts and figures and playing on people’s fears. You deal to the lowest common denominator – hence, discrimination. It’s the same as how this virus is working – it’s preying on people’s fears. Discrimination and fears – nothing’s changed. People say we’re going to change from this event… are we fuck! We’re still bigots and racists, and it’s getting worse. We have very short memories as humans. We forgot very quickly about the economic crisis in 2008 – it’s about not living beyond your means, being true to yourself, not living on credit and not putting stress on the financial systems. It’s about being who you really are. The world we live in now, everything is all fake. Social media, people living behind façades, not being who they are and other people lapping it up! And influencers – influencing what? It has to stop.
What’s your feelings on conspiracy theories?
Man, do you think the government wants to be on its knees? It’s bad for re-election. Do they want 0% growth? Do you think they play with lives like this? And the thing with microchipping – listen, we have dogs with chips. So, what’s the problem? You might have a new iPhone – and Google have been tracking you forever through this. The funny thing is you will pay 1500€ for that phone. I think if they made a phone that was implanted into you, people would be queuing up to get it. If it means I don’t have to walk around with my passport, and have the paranoia of losing it all the time, I’d get it. My dog’s got it, I’ll have it. Microchips don’t have an instant portal into your heaviest moments, or see everything you’re doing, or the size of your penis! Do you really think your life is SO important that someone will analyse every little thing you do?
How is your general health and wellbeing right now?
Generally, it’s better. Of course, I’m taking more vitamins, drinking more tea, eating healthier. I’ve actually lost some weight – I know some people have put it on during this time, but I’ve lost it! I’ve always walked and cycled (which had to stop) a lot, but I think it’s because I’m drinking less beer, and eating less shitty food from restaurants. The amount of money I have given to restaurants over time! Everybody does it – then we complain about the inconsistent food, bad service, or overpriced meals, but we keep going back. Again, we’re human and a bit stupid. We pretend we’re very intelligent and very advanced, but we’re actually not. We don’t learn from our mistakes. I’m just as bad as anyone. We should be cooking more at home, and eating better, which this has forced us to do.
What are you eating habits these days?
I already didn’t eat much meat, I’m very selective of the meat I eat. I tend to eat a lot more fish and rice, I like Japanese. And now, I’m cooking it myself it’s become healthier, I know what’s in it, how much oil is in there, how fresh it is – and you know it wasn’t made a day earlier and is still being spooned out. I was pretty good and gave up all sugars, and Digestive biscuits… although I’ve been letting that fall recently. I’ve just gotten into Twixes again! I was also guilty of drinking too many beers socially – and paying 3.50€ for them! That’s all stopped. I do have a little fridge on the terrace for beer, but I’m not drinking as much.
How has the lockdown impacted your business?
We’re yet to see. Inkadelic was able to open from May 4, 2020, by appointment only – which it always has been – and with one person in the studio only, with the tattooist and the client both wearing masks and gloves. It’s fair. The studio is a hygienic place anyway, and we’re used to wearing that kind of stuff – we’ve always been scared of the client! When I was taught to tattoo, I was told to think that everyone was either HIV positive or had hepatitis, which was a way of being careful and really safeguarding yourself – not presuming that person doesn’t have anything. It’s very much like now. Everyone is a potential carrier, so it’s that same thinking. That thinking then cares for me, and the knock-on from that is that it cares for the client.
Has that changed the environment in the studio?
I’ve never been one for having friends and family in a tattoo shop – we need to be able to concentrate and the extra noise, extra bodies, don’t make it a professional environment. Ultimately, it’s better for the client, even if they don’t realise at the time – it keeps them totally in the zone with me, not being distracted by people asking, ‘does it hurt?’ or showing them stupid YouTube videos.
How do you manage stress during such uncertain times?
I don’t really feel stressed, although I feel a little stressed for the people working for me who will go through tough times financially. You can’t fight it – it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Me, I always save for a rainy day – even when I was a kid, I realised that money was freedom. It gave me the power to get away from my family unit. My mentor Felix Leu always said money – if you use it properly – is freedom. If you use it badly, it’s your jail, and that’s what people with stinking debt are in now. But I’ve always saved for a rainy day. I spent money but I also kept money. So no, I’m not stressed. I got thought the financial crisis and I will get through this.
What are your hopes for Ibiza in the future?
I hope the island comes off its high horse a little bit. We need to understand there are bigger things than Ibiza, its inflated prices – it’s not the only place people can go for a holiday. It’s not a never-ending fountain of wealth and popularity. People who just want to come here and party and get high – it’s very short sighted. We’re very blessed to be living here, and we shouldn’t take advantage of that. Even myself, as a tattooist – we have to always remember to keep assessing ourselves and try to be good to our professional craft. I hope there’s going to be a culling, of inept, disrespectful, unprofessional, practitioners. And that goes for tattooists, concierges, hoteliers or restaurateurs – everything.
Do you have any fears for the future of the island?
One of the things I’ve always said about Ibiza is that there are a lot of people here doing jobs they shouldn’t be doing, that they are unqualified for. Saying they were a chef at Nobu when really, they were a dishwasher. Saying they were a DJ in Ibiza, but really it was at some birthday party. People lie about who and what they are, they come here because this is Ibiza and they want to live the dream, but they’re not giving anything to the island. The effect of this virus is that businesses will fail, people will go back to where they came from. To live here, you have to really want it. I think this summer, you’ll see the people who really want to be here – they’ll travel somehow, by hook or by crook, the same as the people in the winter are the ones who really want to be here. So hopefully, it’s going to become a cleaner place… and we’re not talking about recycling! I think this summer could be a bit like a summer in the 1960s.
What about your own future – how is that looking right now?
I moved to Ibiza in 1999 and got the shop in 2000. It’s the 20th anniversary this year but I’m going to delay it. If the Olympics can do it, I can do it! To run a business for 20 years anywhere, not just Ibiza, is quite a feat. I must be doing something right. People call me a grumpy motherfucker, but I’m doing OK! To do any job for this length of time takes a lot of willpower, a lot of desire, a lot of motivation and a lot of picking yourself up from the floor… People have always gotten tattooed, through every major event. Tattooing is a luxury and it always has been (well, some of us need it!), but people find the time and money for luxuries. They always have and always will. It’s about doing something for yourself – something that gives them comfort, solace, or makes them feel better about themselves. When people really want something, they’ll wait – I’ve always used that as a filter for choosing my clients. I’m not in a rush for us to go back to normality – but we’re open – come and get tattooed!
How do you feel Ibiza has come together (while staying apart) during lockdown?
It’s hard to say, as I don’t see much. But the one big thing in Spain, and Ibiza, was that everyone would say hola in the street. After I had my health scare, I went through a phase of trying to smile and say ‘hi, how are you?’ to 25 strangers every day. One of the reasons I left England was all this sternness – shaking hands, like my dad does, instead of hugging and kissing. It will be a shame if that disappears – and for sure, for some time it will. Who knows if people will even do it behind closed doors? They’re so fearful – this virus and government policy has forced people into the fear and paranoia of touching someone. Then you risk becoming these austere societies like China, after generations of Communism…
Have you seen any differences within your direct local community?
One of the things that’s nice about being up here in Dalt Vila is that it is more of a community. Having the time to spend talking to your neighbours for more than five minutes is nice – we have that luxury of time, to smile and share some kindness, take an interest in each other. There are a lot of older people up here – the local policeman, his mother lives up here and she knows if she’s in trouble, she can come and knock on my door. I cook for the cat woman who lives up the street, I try to help the older women with their groceries or rubbish, but they are too matriarchal and want to do it themselves. But they know they can find me if they need anything. It’s enough that they know. I’ve always been this way, but this situation has pushed it up a bit more.
Do you feel safe here? Is there anywhere else you’d rather be quarantined than Ibiza?
Dalt Vila has been the scene of many raids or potential raids and attacks over the years. I feel like the biggest risk is the distance between my studio and the start of the ramp – once I put a foot on the ramp, it’s like ‘ner-ne-ner-ne-nerrr, you can’t get me!’ Once you’re behind these walls, you’re very safe – just as groups of people before us have felt very safe from marauders through the ages.
What are you most looking forward to when the restrictions are lifted?
Riding my bike. I’m really going to enjoy doing the Cala d’Hort and Cala San Vincente roads – it’s my main form of exercise and it’s really good for my head too. I miss that a lot.
Is there anything you might miss?
Yeah. Myself. Well, I always have myself because I always wake up alone, but at this level. I honestly don’t have any stress right now because I’m not dealing with other people’s personal problems; their psycho girlfriends or the inconsideration of clients and associates, who don’t show true consideration to commitments – all of the stuff that goes with the madness of a summer, the combined craziness of the people, the energy at the end of summer after no sleep, the lack of kindness. I’ve done a lot of seasons here and for me, this is going to be a very beautiful one. A time when I can enjoy the island, and to have that calm – I need it after my medical issues. I will miss no one wanting anything from me, being cut off from the world. I had the same experience after I was in hospital, I really missed it after a week of being taken care of. It was like a retreat for me (apart from not being well!) – I called it my Spa Club Rosario.
What lessons have you learned during this time?
People have to change. But it’s human nature to stick with what you know, the routine, making money, pretending to be a certain way on social media. I’m not grumpy – I’m just a realist. I don’t live in cuckoo land. This is why everyone was so unprepared. I saw it coming, and I was sitting pretty. What we need to understand is that this ain’t over. If it’s not called Coronavirus, it will be something else. If it’s a financial crisis, we need to be prepared and know that something like this WILL happen again. Get some good masks – decent, proper masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. Have food stocked up somehow. And most importantly, have some savings. People with gardens should be looking to live sustainably, and prioritise bringing up their families in a nice, self-sufficient way – even I grow things on my terrace! I can’t understand all these hippie chic people in amazing villas, all nicely pruned with gardens, but nothing is growing there. We need to keep the population down. Buy second-hand, use hand-me-down things for your kids. Stop buying crappy things from China when we could be buying better quality things from Germany or our own countries – even if they cost more, there’s less pollution, landfills, shipping. But are people going to change?
Any other reflections you’d like to share?
Everyone is like, woe is me, I can’t go and drink wine with my girlfriends and get high at a party. I hope this puts some perspective on things. When we step out of the house to go to the grocery store at the moment, we run out in fear – once we’re home, it’s fine again. Imagine people in the first or second world war. You would have no choice but to be conscripted and go out and fight the war. Look at what’s happening in Syria, in Yemen. These people go to bed and don’t§ even know if they will wake up. Think about the refugees leaving war-torn countries, coming to Italy and Spain seeking a better life, people who pay traffickers to being them over, families being split up – now, instead of thinking ‘that’s not my problem’, maybe we can associate better with their plight. I feared for my family, getting this virus, but other people are fearing getting taken into social slavery, or their kids dying of malnutrition. Ignorance is bliss, and I hope that is what changes.