You don’t have to like tattoos to admire Rob Richardson’s work. Rob hears a lot from clients whose friends and relatives were dismayed to learn that they’ve been tattooed. Then a sleeve is rolled up or a shirt is removed and these sceptics are converted.

This does not sound like a boast. There’s a quiet confidence about Rob. He doesn’t need to brag. His work reveals how good he is.

Just five years after starting in this profession he is considered one of the best in the world, invited to work at conventions. Companies sponsor him. He even has his own range of ink.

Rob, 25, works from a studio in the centre of Carlisle but is largely unknown in his home city. Most of his clients come from further afield, sometimes much further. One flew from the US to have Rob turn his body into a canvas.

And this is art, far from the stereotype of anchors on sailors’ arms. Rob crafts stunning portraits of famous people and family members. Kurt Cobain, Edgar Allan Poe and Sir David Attenborough are among the diverse faces he has inked.

Increasingly he posts his own designs on the internet and invites people to wear them. Recent examples include a World War II cityscape and a woman deep in thought, with those thoughts visible inside her head. (She is thinking of a tree-lined stream and a gliding hawk.)

Rob Richardson Rob’s first studio was Immortal Art on Castle Street. In 2015 he set up BlackFriars Tattoo House on Devonshire Street with Brad Johnstone and Ollie Wallace. Some people come here purely for an eye-catching image. Others want something more than skin deep.

“Some people want something with a bit of meaning behind it,” says Rob. “I do a lot of portraits of family members. You can’t necessarily carry a picture around with you everywhere. But you can have one on your skin. It’s there for life. It’s a constant reminder of someone.”

Rob can identify with that. His dad, Mike, died of cancer when he was 13. A few years later Rob had lasting reminders inked on his body. “I got some goldfinches – he used to breed them. And koi carp. He used to do a lot of fishing. And a rose on my right shoulder.

“I guess when I was first getting tattooed it was something that had affected me. I did a lot with my dad. It felt like an obvious choice to do something along those lines. It’s nice to have something there.”

Mike was good at art. Like father, like son. It wasn’t until Rob was old enough to get tattooed that he thought of it as a potential career.

“The more tattoos I got the more I appreciated the artwork. I used to draw portraits. I was good at realism. When I started tattooing I went down that route: black and grey realism. It’s quite a modern form of tattooing. Tattooing was very closed. As it’s grown in popularity more people who have studied art at college are doing it. They bring different aspects of the art industry into tattooing. Ink is just a medium, like paint.”

Kurt Cobain Rob’s popularity rapidly grew, largely thanks to posting his work on Facebook and Instagram. He has won numerous awards and worked at conventions in London, Budapest, Venice and Milan. There are invitations to Canada, New York and Singapore.

One of his sponsors, World Famous Tattoo Ink, sells a Rob Richardson brand, mixed to his preference. He holds seminars for professional tattooists who want to improve. Email enquiries from prospective clients flood in, “sometimes hundreds at a time”. Rob charges up to £800 for a full day’s work.

It sounds as if he’s playing in the Premier League? He pauses. “I guess. I’m considered one of the best black and grey artists in the UK and even globally. I can do colour just as well. I don’t enjoy it as much. I just like black and grey. I always have.

“Early in my career I tattooed things I didn’t particularly want to. After that I could choose work that I thought worked to my strong points, that I thought I could do really well. That helped me get better and better.”

Few reach the peak of any profession unscathed. Rob sounds a little weary as he describes his road to the top.

“There was a stage I was tattooing every day. Long, long hours. I just got so busy, I was probably working a bit too much. It can be overwhelming, that response and wanting to meet that demand.”

Lemmy, of Motorhead He has been taking things easier recently and is “getting focused again this year. In terms of style I want to focus on my own artwork and design. Because I’m lucky enough to be in demand I can be choosy. I want to do more with my own photography. I take photographs and put designs online based on them. Usually people are pretty eager to get them tattooed.”

Rob also remains in demand for his portraits. He is happy to keep doing these, partly because he regards them as a true test of skill.

“You’re trying to get it perfect. There’s no room for error. Portraits of family members are probably the most pressure. They know exactly what that person looks like. They haven’t just seen one picture. They’ve been looking at that person for a long time. A millimetre difference to an eye can make it look like someone else.”

It’s a pretty big responsibility: putting a permanent likeness of a loved one on someone’s skin, and making sure it is a likeness. “The first year or two it was quite nerve-wracking. I don’t really get nervous so much. I’m more just focusing on the design and how it fits the body.

“Sometimes you have customers who have an idea that isn’t really possible. Or an image that won’t work really well as a tattoo. Sometimes you’ve got to tell people that won’t really work, with their best interests at heart.”

Rob is used to a range of reactions when a tattoo has been completed. “Some people can get a little bit teary. Some, their face just lights up. Tattoos do have a lot of meaning for people. I’ve done portraits of children that have died. You always have that sympathy for them. I try my best to do a good job for them.”

Often the subject matter is more cheery, and less predictable. Rob has drawn rock stars, Marvel characters, TV presenters. Why did someone want a tattoo of David Attenborough?

Sir David Attenborough “I guess the guy was just interested in nature and animals. So we did a few animals and David Attenborough on his leg. [Author] Edgar Allen Poe was for an English teacher. There’s a guy from Carlisle: on his arm I did a chimp with some colourful headphones on, holding a balloon and floating in clouds. You get such a wide variety that people want. If you can photograph it you can tattoo it. If you can imagine it you can tattoo it.”

He has a wide variety of clients too, men and women, from 18 to 80s. From all over Britain and beyond. “Most of my customers aren’t from Carlisle. The guy from America was here for three days. It’s something people are willing to do these days if someone sees an artist they really like.

“You don’t realise how many people have tattoos. Most people have them in places that aren’t too visible. I remember seeing a vicar at Penrith who had sleeve tattoos. I’ve done doctors and lawyers. It tends to be lower-paid jobs like cashiers that frown on tattoos the most.”

Rob lives in Dalston with his girlfriend Jodie, who has no tattoos. “She’s sometimes thought about having one – it’s up to her.” Rob enjoys a quiet life of fishing and walking, while having the option to see the world with his work. He is confident that his skills will remain in demand.

A wolf “People say ‘Do you think tattoos will go out of fashion?’ They’ve never gone out of fashion. Things only go out of fashion if you stop wearing them. You can’t stop wearing a tattoo. They’ve been around as long as mankind has. It’s just human nature to want to decorate yourself.”

Despite all the accolades Rob is his own biggest critic. This sounds like the curse of the perfectionist. “I’ve been happy with a tattoo when I finish it. But by the time I’ve got home, I’m less happy. I’m always comparing myself with other artists and wanting to improve. I think that’s a good thing or I might stop improving.”

Customers think his work is fine as it is. They are proud to wear his intricate designs, and the faces that look ready to start speaking.