Interview by: Ellen Gurley
April 7th 2013
E: Nicholas, you are a man of many talents. First, let’s talk art. When did you first start creating? When did it become more than a hobby? And when did you decide to put your art on others (tattooing)? I know you were the first owner of Ace Tattoos; did you apply your tattoo skills at another business before beginning your own shop?
N: According to my mom, I first started creating with the contents of my diaper on the nursery wall before I could talk. LOL. I’ve seen various family photos of me on the floor drawing and I did art at school. I guess in the technical sense, it stopped being a hobby when I sold my first piece which was in 1976 (pen and ink on board). I put my first art on others at school by drawing hula girls on guy’s wrists with a regular medium Bic pen. When they flexed their fists and forearms it would cause the girls to “dance” so I had quite a client list. LOL
Tattooing wasn’t really on my radar until years later when I got my first one (age 17) which was the symbol of the karate school I trained at. When everyone got their black belt they’d mark that milestone by getting the symbol tattooed. I put mine under my arm to hide it from mum which was a fruitless exercise and I quickly found out how useless my karate training was against her when she got mad. LOL. I thought about it (tattooing) then, as a possible career choice, because I knew I could draw but the industry was extremely secretive and jealously guarded so no information was forthcoming.
Many years later while bodyguarding “Warrant” (I met John, their tattoo artist who worked out of Charlotte), I broached the subject again and he was much more receptive after looking at some of my drawings. I’d been getting jaded with bodyguarding and thought of going back into the French Foreign Legion and tattooing seemed a perfect way to enhance my paltry income by working on a captive audience in the barracks every night. Unfortunately, the Legion reneged on their promise to take me back at my old rank due to the cold war being declared 'over', so I started tattooing in bars outside the Legion camps. I’d give the owner of the bar a percentage of my take every night, set myself up in a corner and ink drunken legionnaires 'til closing time. It didn’t take long to tire of that and I called John to ask the requirements for setting up a shop. He told me to get over to the States and work under his wing to learn the ropes before attempting my own venture. And so I grabbed the next plane out of France.
I worked for John at his studio “Alternative Arts” for about a year before we had a difference of opinion about how to run a business and I left to set up Ace. I’m happy to say I was right and my studio won “Best of Charlotte” in both readers and critics categories (no other shop had ever done that) and we won that and similar awards until I sold the shop to the legendary Rodney Raines nine years later.
So, in order, first tattoos on my girlfriend and her brother and his mates, then drunken Legionnaires in bars in France, then from Alternative Arts to Ace.
E: What are your fondest memories of Ace Tattoos and how many now-seasoned artists had you mentored there (and since)?
N: Wow…fondest memories of Ace….there are so damn many where do I begin? Winning that award our first year in the business was a big one…and winning it (or similar) every year after that was also pretty cool. Next would have to be the enduring friendships with both artists and clients over the years. I have met so many damn people that I would never have interacted with in just about any other business which is nice. Sitting on the stoop during quiet times at the shop and people watching; chewing the fat with clients and artists; the near war with the Outlaws; meeting my now ex wife (she was interning at Creative Loafing and I went up there to put an ad in the paper), the inside jokes that endure about some of the crazy clients and what they’d get into. And who can forget watching Colin juggle his never ending stream of girlfriends. LOL
Regarding my mentoring artists…while it’s true I may have mentored some in the how to run the business side of tattooing I never taught any of my guys a damn thing about slinging ink. In fact, I’m pretty sure I learned more from all of them about tattooing than vice versa. I made it a policy – still do – that I’ll never hire an apprentice or anyone who isn’t already really good. So, the Fritz’ Colin La Roque, Chad Stewart, Rodney Raines, and Chris Stuart were already light years ahead of me when they came to work.
E: I have seen some of your water colour paintings. How much time do you have in your busy schedule to dedicate to this? Or is it the case that you wouldn’t be able to focus on your other tasks unless you give a little time to this (as it is meditative)?
N: No time at all, which is why I haven’t painted any in a while. That’s about to change because I’m going to be painting one for a veteran’s group that’s to be raffled for their particular charity. They did this last year and a print of mine was the 3rd highest bid upon item, so they’ve asked me to help again. I don’t find it any more meditative than tattooing…in fact I’d say it’s fairly stressful. When you’re getting to the end of a fifteen hour painting and there’s a possibility one wrong move will ruin it; I don’t relax at all. LOL
E: You now own your own tattoo shop in Lake Norman, Sinners and Saints (18059 W.Catawba Ave., Unit #3, Cornelius, 28031, 704.655.2550). When was its inception, how many artists are in house and do you always see yourself practicing this trade?
N: “Sinners and Saints Tattoos” was born 3 years ago. I wanted to open another studio in Charlotte with someone I thought was a friend. He didn’t feel comfortable working in a shop across the road from where he was already employed so we came up with the idea of the Lake which is very close to where he lives. After spending extra money building the shop the way he liked and wanted it, he stabbed me in the back and decided to change his mind and stay where he was. It nearly buried me because my old client base was in Charlotte and I’d counted on his local connections. To add insult to injury, he tried telling mutual friends he never actually said he was coming to work with me.
Currently I’m working it on my own. I had one artist for a while, who shall remain nameless, but he turned out to be weak bastard who couldn’t handle the fact that his friend, who he brought into the fold, could out tattoo him. I may look for another artist during the busy summer months but it’s hard to find anyone willing to make the daily commute from Charlotte and there are no really good locals here unfortunately. No, I don’t see myself always practicing the art of tattooing. While I’ve been told I’m good at it and I have a reputation as the lightest hand on the Eastern sea board of the US, I don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling I do (like) when I teach someone how to defend themselves and they come to me later with a tale of surviving an altercation that would probably see them dead without my instruction.
One very successful businessman trained with me in Charlotte and walked from a club up town to Jackelope’s on 7th St. During the walk, three kids tried to mug him and while inebriated and dealing with at least one blade he was successful in defending himself, saving his very expensive watch and making it home safely to his two lovely daughters and appreciative wife.
I’ve have another student who’s a cop in Concord who told me my training in how to identify pre-fight indicators saved him and his partner. The kid (that they got the jump on) had a bayonet in his back pocket and a RIFLE down his pants. The kid subsequently admitted he was planning on killing them.
Even though I tattoo people with designs that commemorate a deceased love one or tattoo a breast reconstruction after a mastectomy and make those clients feel really good, it’s just not the same as keeping someone alive.
E: I have heard you refer to Sinners and Saints as the only ‘real’ tattoo shop in Lake Norman. What does this mean? Aren’t you concerned about insulting your fellow artists with this statement?
N: What that means is we care about the craft and we care about our clients. My goal is to put great work on someone, improve my craft at the same time and send them away with something that will look good for years. It means working with the client and helping them come to the right decision and sometimes it means turning them away rather than do something they’ll regret later on down the road. I typically talk more clients out of tattoos than into them. Someone comes in here wanting the girl they met last night's name on them, the girl who wants something round her belly button not thinking about down the road (if she she gets pregnant); someone wanting something so small that eventually, when the lines bleed, they’ll run together and it will look like a misshapen blob, etc. I don’t think doing those is good for the client or the industry but I seem to be in the minority.
The other shops tend to be interested in making money only and will do anything on anybody to make a buck. What proves I’m right is that a) I fix a lot of the other shop’s work and b) two of them are out of business after opening after me and trying to compete. Some people just have no business being in the business and no, I have no problem insulting them. They can get over their hurt feelings; their clients on the other hand, unfortunately, are stuck with their nonsense.
E: Ok, let’s talk about your business of martial arts. You own Krav Maga (14125 Statesville Rd., Huntersville, 28078, 704.299.0681), which operates mostly out of Rock MMA Gym. When did you begin this venture and who is your average client? You define Krav Maga as an “Israeli self-defense system, bourne out of combat” (with no forms, uniforms or kids). But you also offer classes in self-defense and fitness classes with soft skills (avoidance and awareness) and hard skills (dealing with violence). What does “no forms” mean? In addition, do you practice other martial art techniques?
N: I’ve been involved in teaching people self defense in some way shape or form since 1976 but I began the Krav School when I moved to the Lake back about 3 years ago. My average client is a professional person who realizes the folly of sport combat styles to deal with what we’re facing in the real world. In other words the MMA crowd et alia train to beat one person who weighs the same as they do, who’s unarmed, without friends and it’s all prearranged. My client is more concerned with a gang of kids with knives, someone robbing them at gunpoint, or some big guy attempting to rape a small girl. They tend to be a little older and a little wiser than the kids who think fighting is cool. LOL
Krav Maga is the unarmed combat system of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) but I’ve adapted it to reflect a civilian market who lives in the most litigious country in the world. For example, in the military version once you’ve escaped a headlock you punch the attacker in the throat which is considered a killing technique. Try doing that over here in a fight over a spilled beer and you’ll end up in prison. What is required on the battlefield to prevail is not normally necessary in day to day life. The other stuff I’ve added comes out of my bodyguarding days. Most self defense classes begin with “okay, you’re in a fight and…”, but bodyguard training was concerned with the skills of avoidance and awareness and specifically NOT fighting. I always wondered why no self defense teachers were teaching their students that aspect of self defense which, according to my research, is about 75% of the fighting game.
In other words criminals follow the SIVA acronym as a model. They SELECT a victim, they ISOLATE the victim, they VERBALLY distract the victim and then they attack. Soft skills teach my students how to recognize predatory behavior and how to either lower their profile or harden the target, so they’re less likely to be selected. Next, it teaches them how to spot the bad guy and be hyper-vigilant anytime they’re leaving the safety of numbers. And finally, how to differentiate between the legitimate approach and the predator’s approach when someone wants to engage them in conversation and/or invade their personal space. If we can get them doing that, the fighting portion of the program (i.e. the hard skills), become almost unnecessary. Regarding “forms,” in traditional martial arts we learn prearranged patterns to develop certain techniques at various levels of training. They’re actually brilliant when taught properly and pre-date a lot of sports psychology training that’s available today. Sadly, most instructors have absolutely no idea what’s contained within and students know that, so they end up rehearsing what is essentially a dance routine, while hating every minute of it. In unarmed combat training, we dispense with such training due to time constraints and a lot of students like that approach better.
Regarding fitness etc…a byproduct of the high intensity training I do is that we get people in shape really fast. If you join a gym you might get in shape but that’s not going to do you much good dealing with a home invasion or some tooled up gang bangers. Our training will do both: get you in great shape and teach you how to defend yourself at the same time. I’ve had students lose 45 pounds in pretty short order which obviously they’re very happy about. Other arts I’ve studied and practiced are Goju Karate, Combat Karate, Shito-Ryu karate, Yoshinkan Aikido, Judo, Ju-jitsu, Filipino Stick and Knife fighting, Boxing, Unarmed Combat, Wing Chun Kung Fu, and Tai Chi.
E: You have had so many ‘followers’ that you have become an author, not just on your blogspot, but you have published books (and articles) and are working on others. What prompted you to become an author and do you always imagine that you will do this? (What are your book titles, where can they be obtained and for what publications have you contributed?)
N: I wrote my first book “Hands Off” on ladies self defense when I was eighteen and gave it to my instructor to publish under his name (he was famous and I wasn’t). It was a way to reach out and provide the information to a broader audience than we had in our classes alone. Years later, I wanted to do it again only under my own name so I wrote and published “How to be Your Own Bodyguard”, which is available on Amazon around the world as an e-book. (I’m in the process of putting out the hard back version). It’s about avoidance and awareness and tips and tricks that the professional bodyguard use to keep our charges safe in hostile environments. I did write several articles for various magazines over the years, most notably “Fighting Arts International”, but I always worried that the information contained within would be lost once the magazine was tossed. By writing books, I figured it would be a constant reference and remain in someone’s library forever (assuming they treat their books like I treat mine).
Yes, I’m pretty sure I’ll continue writing. Because I have no kids (that I’m aware of) my books will be my legacy. I have a bunch of rough drafts that need editing and polishing and re-writing and the only thing holding me back is finding the time to put the final 'polish on'. For the record, apart from “How to be Your Own Bodyguard,” there is one on my time in the French Foreign Legion; there is one on my career as personal protection agent; one on my time as a bouncer; it's called “Nine Lives” about the nine times I’ve nearly cast off my mortal coil while working around the world; one about marketing for tattoo studios; one on business and success (which are lessons gleaned from my very rich clients) and finally a novel which remains a secret as to what it’s about and one called “On Fighting” (which will focus on the hard skills of an altercation). I also, as you point out, blog and I have expert Q&A sections on different self protection forums around the globe.
E: You have lived in (over) seven countries. How many languages do you speak (fluent or not) and how many more would you like to learn? In addition, what would you site as your favourite place to live OR next place?
N: I’ve lived in Australia, France, Corsica, Djibouti, England, Russia, and the States and worked in over twenty more as both a soldier and personal protection agent. I speak English and French fluently (though the latter is getting rusty), tourist level Spanish and German, and smatterings of Russian, Somalian, Arabic, Ethiopian, Yugoslav, Japanese and Greek. I’d really like to get both the German and the Spanish up to “like a native” and then start on Mandarin Chinese. I’m convinced if you want your kid to be a millionaire, you should teach them to speak Mandarin. My favorite place is undoubtedly the U.S. I just wish more of the (apparently ungrateful) natives would realize what they have in the place and appreciate it more. It speaks volumes that immigrants come here from Asia and years later are millionaires whereas the locals don’t seem to give a shit. I really wish every American kid was forced to go work in a third world country (for a year after high school). Watch them rush to get back home and kiss the tarmac on their arrival.
If I couldn’t live here, I’d be happy in the South of France or back in Africa. I’ve got some more exploring of the US to do yet…I want to hike the Appalachian Trail (I’m waiting for them to open the new bit), paddle board the Mississippi from the source to the mouth, ride my bike across the Trans America trail and do another tour of all fifty states. If I can get that done I’d like to take my bike and ride from here, through Mexico and Central America, down one coast of South America to Tierra del Fuego and back up the other side and eventually home.
E: You have been employed as a body guard (SWAT / executive protection). Let’s talk famous clients and favourite (or scariest) memories? And while we’re at it, tell me what it is that you did in the French foreign legion.
N: Well, to be precise I’ve been employed in celebrity protection and as a bodyguard for the rich and famous. I’ve only trained some SWAT teams in executive protection because the logistics of them sending the entire emergency response team away to school is nigh on impossible.
Clients have included members of the Saudi Royal Family, emirs from various Middle Eastern countries, the American artist Peter Max and his collection while it toured behind the Iron Curtain, Warrant (Cherry Pie), Boeing during the Paris Air Show, a bunch of celebs (too numerous to mention) and businessmen worried about the threat of kidnap/assassination and or physical harm.
I can’t really delve too much into specifics (as that’s not considered cricket) but I saved Peter Max’s exhibit from being stolen while being driven from St. Petersburg to Moscow (replete with bullet holes in the big rig). And sat on a briefcase with over half a million pounds worth of uncut diamonds while waiting for it to be picked up. Hands down, the nicest guy I’ve met in that world is John Travolta and the most problematic were some of the Arab emirs due to cultural differences and their being so used to having their own way back home. One has to be very diplomatic when trying to explain that his Excellency can’t take a dump in the hand basin of the Inn on the Park in London. (And yes, it happened and the maids, understandably, didn’t want to clean it up.)
I had several roles in the Legion. Every Legionnaire is trained in both a combat skill and also a regular job role for times when we’re not at war. My combat role was as a recon diver and Para Commando with the Legions’ famous 2nd Parachute Regiment based in Corsica. I also worked as a military policeman back at the headquarter regiment located near Marseille. My non combat job was as a signals tech which meant sending coded messages back and forth via various means ranging from Morse code to encrypted satellite burst technology.
I probably would have done the whole five years as a paratrooper, but I was eventually kicked out of the regiment for being too big for the French parachutes. I was over the safe weight limit due to tiny French chutes and so I kept spraining and breaking my ankles and amassing stress fractures.
E: Okay, you have a technique, in which you teach people about self-defense and preparedness called “Take Ten”. Can you tell our readers about this now?
N: All that means is to take a minute to assess your surroundings before walking to your car or getting out of your vehicle and heading into work or home. In the military we’d never go into an operation without gathering intelligence and figuring out where everyone was and what defenses we were likely to run into. As a bodyguard I’d never take a client into somewhere without knowing where all the exits were and what threats were currently on the ground. Equally, civilians need to adapt the same behavior.
Let’s say you’re about to walk from the mall to your car. Instead of blundering on, stop for a second and look around; where is the car in relation to where you are? Who’s in between it and you? Do any of them look suspicious? Is there a van parked next to your car? Can you see if anyone is in it? What about when you pull up at home? Take a second and look around. Is everything the way you left it? Is the front door still closed? Are any windows broken? Is there a ladder propped up against the side of the house or any other signs of forced entry?
This is the sort of simple behavior that falls under the definition a soft skill and, if you get into the habit of doing it, will prevent you from walking in to the ambush zone where you now have to try and fight your way out of.
E: Okay, now we have to discuss threats to your safety that are close to home. Your fellow Aussie mate, Chris Radok, passed away in January of 2011. How prevalent is this concern and what can we do as civilians to prevent this atrocity? And needless to say that this was a horrible incident that a lot of Charlotteans will always remember.
N: We may never know if Chris had advance notice of his killer being inside his house, but it’s a common occurrence whereby a home owner comes home, finds the front door hanging open and then charges in to confront whoever might be inside. Robbers surprised like this can quickly become killers and far too many home owners have been murdered or seriously injured in similar situations. Again, I’d like to stress I don’t know if Chris was guilty of that or not. For all I know the bad guy came in via the back door and ambushed Chris when he walked inside, but the point is that the average homeowner, without training, will come off second best to a seasoned criminal. There’s a reason the police send in an entire team of very well equipped and trained men, typically two per room, to ferret out bad guys ensconced inside. A lone homeowner trying to do it solo is pure folly. I always chuckle when I talk to some overweight forty plus year old homeowner at a party who waxes lyrical about dealing with bad guys inside his home, neglecting the fact that he, the homeowner, has zero training and his last fight was in high school. His opponent on the other hand is desperate, has trained on the weight pile during his latest stay in the big house, and has fought tooth and nail for his very survival every day in prison and is the veteran of hundreds of life and death fights and is more than likely a sociopath. Who would you put your money on?
E: What’s next for Nicholas Hughes? (Anything you wished I’d asked that you’d like to share with our readers?)
N: What’s next? World domination methinks. LOL. No, in seriousness, I have a slew of projects in the works. During the filming of Spike TVs “Deadliest Warrior” (in which I represented the Legion against Nepal’s Gurkhas) I made some connections in LA who want me in a movie with The Rock. (Apparently there is a dearth of big stuntmen and bad guys in the movie industry and it doesn’t look good when someone Dwayne’s size beats up little guys.)
I’ve just launched the world’s first online Combatives University at www.NickHughesCombatives.com in which our target market (law enforcement, special forces, private security details, military personnel and select civilians) can train with me regardless of where they live in the world and/or are currently deployed.
I’ve just got done filming an instructional series on French Foreign Legion Unarmed Combat for Paladin Press at the Crucible in Virginia. I’m about to launch a shooting school to augment our unarmed training in Krav which will teach clients all the stuff they need to survive a confrontation that they can’t get at the local shooting range. Things like drawing from concealment, arcs of fire in their home, dealing with being shot, off hand shooting, one armed reloads, shooting from a vehicle, pistol Combatives, misfires and engaging multiple targets etc.
We’re looking to open a full-time martial arts academy (with multiple arts under one roof) providing real self defense, as opposed to the nonsense usually taught and therefore mislabeled.
I’m involved in a pilot program to put martial art schools in every Wal-Mart across the country (currently running in five Wal-Mart supercenters) as their self defense expert.
The books are going to come out over the next couple of years starting with the print on demand version of “How to be Your Own Bodyguard” and I’ve got several articles scheduled to appear in various magazines as well as an impending interview on a Boston TV show that appears right after “Meet the Press.”
I have some smart phone apps that I need to get out that nobody is currently doing. Finally I want to launch a business whereby I coach executives in performance psychology, public speaking and goal setting while working as their accountability coach.
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