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James Wise
Senior Account Manager at Assembly Coffee — London, England

I had just finished up working with the NHS and was training for the Royal Air Force, but then I decided the Air Force wasn’t for me. While I was putting together my portfolio to try to find work in a tattoo shop, I decided to just walk into this local cafe to ask about a part-time job. I would always go by the cafe on my way to work when I had been working at the hospital and they always made me feel welcome, so it seemed like a good idea to find a job there for the time in-between.

My interest in tattooing probably came from being into manga and comic books as a kid. I never had any formal training in art. I left school when I was 16 as I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t think it was worth me wasting time. But one of the things that I picked up fairly early on and really enjoyed at school—but completely sucked at—was illustration and drawing. I had always been a really big fan of tattoos. My dad had two of his own, but he absolutely hated them. They were military tattoos. For me, tattooing always seemed like an art form that I could understand, so I naturally liked them.

In hindsight, there were red flags, but at the time, not so much.

I ended up putting the tattooing dreams on pause so I could enjoy doing the coffee thing. My coffee job taught me a lot and I didn’t want to stop there. I went on to become Head of Coffee at a new cafe, which was a hell of a ride. I went there to help them get set up and started working as their head barista, which felt pretty quick for me since I had only worked in coffee for one year. After a little while there, the owner offered me percentages of the business as a way to keep me attached, I guess. And I was like, ‘Okay cool, that’s insane,’ as I was only 21 at the time. So I took over more responsibilities and pretty much handled all the operations of the business, and the owner was really keen on handling the money aspects. Long story short: he basically cleared out the accounts and disappeared into the night. He left me and all of my staff behind. It was pretty gutting, especially as the business was doing so well. In a way, I should have seen it coming. There were red flags in hindsight, but at the time, not so much.

After that I was really scrambling, so I had to go do random shifts at different cafes. It was actually quite good fun, but I would have rather not had it under those circumstances. I helped to find all of my staff members jobs wherever I could. By that point, I had built a bit of a profile within the industry, which was good because I could go to people and say, ‘Hey, you should really hire this person, they are amazing!’ And they’d be like, ‘If he says they’re amazing, then cool.’ So I re-housed them and put them into other places, and I worked shifts wherever I could to make enough money to pay my rent and keep going.

Sonos noticed what I did with the other place and asked if I’d work with them on a cafe. They gave me a space and let me run with it. So that’s how I opened my second cafe, called Silkies. It was a really cool environment because it was the Sonos Studios, so in the evenings we’d have artists come down. But then we voted ourselves out of the EU. Which was good, really good, yeah. Love that, great idea. Sonos said they couldn’t just have a UK headquarters as they are an international company, so they told me they’d be closing in two weeks. I had to clear everything out of the cafe and shut down my second business in two years.

You can prepare as much as you can, but there will always be bends that throw you off the track.

That’s life, really. You can prepare as much as you can, but there will always be bends that throw you off the track. The only thing you can do is get back in the saddle and keep riding. Next time you see the same sort of thing approaching you’ll understand it a bit better and you’ll be able to navigate it a bit more efficiently. Personally, I’ve always taken these sorts of things as a weird kind of win. I think that if you don’t, you’re always going to feel bad about it, but if you can take the experience and use it, you’ll know that if you fall you can always get back up.

Art has been a constant in my life throughout the ups and downs. And now that I haven’t gone into tattooing, I do a lot of illustration just to keep my mind active. It’s a nice thing to do in the evenings. I don’t really sleep—I have insomnia, and not because of the coffee. The evening is when I do my reading, courses, drawing—anything creative to zone out and hopefully get some rest afterwards.

It’s very easy to feel uninspired and not do something creative, so as an exercise I will pick a metaphor or line and draw it.

I draw a lot of inspiration from music, although I have no musical talent myself. It’s been my way of escaping the city and taking myself somewhere calmer, even when I’m listening to some heavy stuff. I grew up in the woodlands so there was a lot less static, distracting, indistinguishable background noise than there is in the city. Here, I constantly have my headphones in and am always on the search for new tracks. It’s very easy to feel uninspired and not do something creative, so as an exercise I will pick a metaphor or line of lyrics and draw it. Trying to create that image is hard, but it often helps me explore new styles and learn something new.