YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW
a year, the tattoo world's epicenter is the city of London. It is
then that the best artists on earth gather in England's capital
for the annual tattoo convention. Entering its fourth year, this
event has?along with the general globalization of tattooing through
cheap air travel, TV shows and the Internet?established London's
rightful place on the map of international tattooing. London was
one of the first locations in the Western world where commercial
and artistic tattooing took place and, after a hiatus of several
decades, the city is coming back to life as one its significant
ships still ruled the Seven Seas in the eighteenth century, explorers,
traders and Navy men brought back permanent souvenirs in the form
of crude tattoos they had, in order to fight boredom at sea, inked
on each other by hand. Retired seafarers set up shop in port cities,
where they started tattooing their peers in dingy dives, while,
in the West, the art form got off to an awkward start. But then
something very strange happened: tattooing suddenly became fashionable.
In fact, skin art went all the way to the top of society. It was
the British royal family that made getting tattooed a "must"
among the noble elite of London. In 1862, the Prince of Wales, who
would later become King Edward VII, got (according to age-old tradition)
a pilgrim tattoo in the shape of a cross, while he was visiting
the Holy Land. Some years after, his sons, among the soon-to-be
King George V, received ink by Japanese master Horichyo, as well
as pilgrim tattoos in Jerusalem. At home, as is human nature, they
showed off their tattoos to friends.
And just as
it is today, the royal family was England's biggest trendsetter.
Their passion was imitated by rich young men on their "grand
tour," as well as officers, who got tattooed mainly in British
colonies like Burma or India. On the other hand, the society ladies
of London did not want to be left behind. Since they did not travel,
they flocked into discreet salons, which sprang up around the city.
Fancy ink parlors lavishly decorated in the Victorian style with
prices to match.
As George Burchett
remembers in his Memoirs of a Tattooist: "I knew Professor
Riley and Sutherland Macdonald had taken London's high society by
storm, and I did not see why I should not join in the wind-raising."
clients were charged up to fifty guineas, a true fortune in 1904,
mainly for permanent makeup work. Burchett opened a salon in fancy
Bond Street, while still keeping his more down-to-earth abodes in
Waterloo Road. He was not the first to take financial advantage
of tattoos as a fashion fad.
The first recorded
London tattoo studio was owned by a D.W. Purdy in Holloway, North
London. Even more famous was the above-mentioned Tom "Professor"
Riley (allegedly a cousin of Samuel O'Reilly, inventor of the electric
tattoo machine) and Sutherland Macdonald, who dominated the London
tattoo scene well into the twentieth century. Macdonald's work,
especially, was of an outstanding quality that would hold up even
by today's standards.
tattoo fashion faded out some time between the world wars, while
George Burchett kept the tradition alive into the 1950s. When he
passed on in 1953, Burchett left a vacuum that was only partly filled
by his family and other London old-schoolers like (among others)
Cash Cooper (who worked at Piccadilly Circus from 1947), Stan Davies,
Benn Gunn, Jack Ringo, Terry Olden, Dave Cash and Jack Zeek.
of that era, Tattoo Jock of King's Cross, made a mark in London
tattoo history, not so much because of the (rather mediocre) quality
of his work, but for his showmanship and his being the mentor of
a Swiss hippie named Felix Leu (father of Filip).
no fault of its own, London tattooing had arrived back where it
started?at the bottom rung of the social ladder. By that time, at
the end of the 1970s, punk and gothic rock had arrived, a new era
that brought along two tattooists who are now widely respected living
legends: George Bone (now with forty years of tattooing under his
belt) and his protegé Lal Hardy, men who would lead the local
tattoo scene into the present, a time when skin art is coming back
into the mainstream, thanks, in no small part, to London Ink, the
British reality TV tattoo show that was shot at the newly built
"London Tattoo" shop, owned by Dan Gold. It will be interesting
to see where the mass media is leading the inimitable tattoo scene
of England's only true metropolis.
During several visits to London, I went into numerous tattoo studios,
some of which are among the most important in the world. Following
is a short overview of those shops, while others (for lack of space)
I had to omit. Therefore, also check out, among many others, these
cool places: Matt Difa at Jolie Rouge Tattoo in King's Cross, George
Bone at 58a Boston Road, as well as London Tattoo at 332 Goswell
Road near the Angel tube station.
EVIL FROM THE NEEDLE
Artists: Jeff Ortega, Kamil Mocet, Dave Bryant, Brent Ryan, Kanae
and Ed Perdomos
232 Camden High Street
NW1 8QS London
Ph.: +44(0)20 7482 2412
Evil from the
Needle is now in its twenty-second year. Started in 1987 by the
Frenchman Bugs, it quickly became THE place to go for tattoos when
living in or visiting London. Not only because of its convenient
location in trendy Camden High Street, but also because Bugs was
pushing tattoo art into new spheres. First with his outstanding
Celtic knot work, a reference to a common European heritage, then
later with his adaption of modern fine arts (namely cubism) into
tattooing. Although Bugs has relocated to the States, Evil from
the Needle is still one of the hot shops in London, with a great
crew and an excellent captain, Jeff Ortega. Ortega took over the
reins from Bugs in 2004 and soon managed to get hold of Polish sensation
Kamil Mocet, who was one of the shooting stars of the European scene
in 2007. Kamil holds a fine arts degree in sculpture and painting,
and is well-known for his gruesome images, executed to perfection
in a very painterly style, all custom and freehand, of course. When
he joined Evil a few years ago, Jeff had already bought the shop,
but Bugs was still working there. The French master kicked his butt
real bad and shaped a great but undisciplined talent into a fine
young man and outstanding tattooist. Kamil now divides his time
between London and Paul Booth's lair in Manhattan. Ed Perdomos is
the latest artist to join the legendary shop and even widens the
talent roster. Perdomos from Colombia worked in China for several
years. When I visited him at China's Shanghai-La Hotel a while back,
he had already won me over with his manga-influenced style incorporating
Chinese images. Back then he told me that he wanted to work in a
great shop in Europe one day. Jeff Ortega has made that dream come
Mocet has now opened his own shop, Kamil Tattoo, at 25 Cheriton
in Queens Crescent, London and can be contacted through his website,
Artists: Mo Coppoletta, Saira, Diego and Dom
58 Exmouth Market
EC1R 4QE London
Ph.: +44.207 278 9526
finds himself in a unique position in London. The artist from Verona,
who actually went to law school before he decided to tattoo, worked
for both of the most influential tattooists of London's modern tattoo
scene. In 1997 he was apprenticed by Bugs and later joined Alex
Binnie at Into You. Even though both influences can be seen in Mo's
work, he found his niche in a decidedly European style of Asian
tattooing and Christian imagery. When he opened Family Business,
an allusion to his Italian heritage, in 2003, he was quickly joined
by a fine selection of young artists. Every one of his coworkers
does outstanding work, and they all have definitely listened to
Mo's expert advice: "With all the attention to details that
is needed in modern tattooing, one must never neglect the overall
image, the readability of a design."
The Family Business
is often visited by guest artists and can claim to have brought
a much more international crowd into the London scene. Mo often
travels to his native Italy to visit family and get inspiration
from the great architecture and art south of the Alps. He can now
enjoy Italian food in the immediate surrounding of his shop as well,
since Exmouth Market has the reputation of offering the finest Italian
cuisine in town.
Artists: Lal Hardy, Adam Da' Punk, Sylvia Z and Wayne Grace
157 Sydney Road (off Colney Hatch Lane)
N10 2NL Muswell Hill, London
Ph.: +44(0)20 8444 8779
Lal Hardy is
an institution in the London scene. Not only has his shop, New Wave
Tattoo, been in the same location in a North London residential
area for twenty-nine years, he has also been on the top of the game
the entire time. When he opened up in this quiet area, nobody would
have thought he could be successful there, not even Lal himself,
since he had to work as a garbage man in the morning, before he
would open his shop later in the day. Coming out of the punk and
Teddy Boy scene, he has seen all the ups and downs of London tattooing
and has constantly worked on his skills. Even after thirty years
in the business, Lal simply loves his job and hangs out with colleagues
in his free time. Whether it's attending conventions with his best
friend, tattoo veteran George Bone, or simply popping into a shop
in town to give invaluable advice to talented newcomers, Lal Hardy
is the London tattoo scene. He is immensely respected by everybody
and, as an elder statesman, respects new artists.
always try to improve yourself as long as you live," says Lal.
"Some of those guys now, their work is so fantastic that I
wouldn't stand a chance in hell to know how to do that. If I tried,
it would look terrible. That's why I support the young guys out
there. And of course, those who work with me." Lal's was also
one of the first shops in England to host guest artists. Paul Booth,
for example, worked with him even back in the 1990s. Lal is also
well-known as a hilarious practical joker. Once, when Paul fell
asleep over a drawing, Lal quickly drew a penis into his design
which, when Paul woke up again, utterly confused him. Kat von D
will also probably never ever forget her stint at New Wave. While
she was working on a client, Lal jumped into the studio wearing
a theater costume of a tiger and loudly claimed, "There is
only space for one cat in my shop!"
FRITH STREET TATTOO
Artists: Aaron Hewitt, Piotrek Taton, Danny Kelly, Claudia de Rossi,
Xam and Ian Flower
18 Frith Street
W1D 4RQ Soho, London
Ph.: +44(0)20 7734 8180
Street Tattoo, formerly known as Angelic Hell, was taken over and
renamed by tattoo enthusiast and collector Dante in 2005. Despite
not being a tattooist himself, Dante has an excellent standing in
the London scene and has been respected by other shop owners for
his true dedication to the art of tattooing and his reputation as
the owner of Deluxe Tattoo Supply. "I already had a successful
business when I opened Frith Street, so the money clearly isn't
why I got into it. Even as a kid, my primary goal in life was to
hang out in a tattoo shop," he jokes. Frith Street, the entertainment
district not far from Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, certainly
needs an excellent location for great tattoos. With a few other
tattoo places in the immediate vicinity, the situation of Frith
Street is very competitive and customers come into such a reputable
shop with the highest expectations:
is fantastic for our tattooing, but the pressure on the artists
is immense. Nowadays, clients expect instant sketches and outstanding
custom work. The high standards and creative environment let the
artists push each other to get better and better," says Dante
with his usual fervor. He is clearly proud of his crew and definitely
has the right to be.
Apart from being
the home to a first-rate choice of artists, it is one of the favored
guest spots for international tattooists en route through London.
Thomas Hooper, who has been there since the beginning, recently
relocated to New York Adorned in Manhattan, but comes back from
time to time for his regular British customers.
Artists: Alex Binnie, Xed LeHead, Duncan X, French Thomas, Nikole
Lowe, Lucy Prior and Tas
144 St. John St.
EC1V 4UA Clerkenwell, London
Ph.: +44(0)20 2535 5085
This shop is
a legend, and not only in London. It's done an invaluable service
to English and European tattooing. When Alex Binnie opened the shop
in 1993, not much was going on in the English scene. Alex had worked
at the Gauntlet and with Pote Seyler in Los Angeles and realized
that he needed to go home, where he had first tattooed in the late
Binnie and Curly
single-handedly changed the image of tattooing. With their large-scale
tribal work inspired by traditional tattoo patterns from Borneo
and the Pacific, Binnie and company significantly contributed to
the development of tattooing from the underground into the mainstream.
Nowadays, Alex tattoos about two to three days a week and divides
his time between London and another Into You studio in Brighton.
His own work is still large and bold, be it tribal, Western traditional
or Japanese styles.
"I'm not into details," says Binnie. "Tattoos have
got to look good when you get old, too. And besides, my eyes are
going now," he jokes. "I would call my style 'crude and
Into You, which
is located in what is now a fancy area of Clerkenwell, simply breathes
creativity. If you walk into this shop, you are overwhelmed by the
buzz of the machines of up to six artists at the same time, all
of them true characters at the top of their trade. Alex characterizes
his coworkers by adding, "I am definitely up for strong personalities
and extreme views and lifestyles. I love the guys and hope they
It all seems
to work out. As Xed LeHead says, "There is no one breathing
down your neck and no pressure to make a certain amount of money.
Each one of us is granted the freedom to explore tattooing to the
full extent of our capacity and beyond. We really are a family."
Duncan X and French Thomas are the masters of dotwork, while Tas
(from Greece) specializes in Tibetan and other Oriental mythology.
Nicole Lowe does amazing Japanese work and Lucy Prior is fond of
Western traditional. Any given day, Into You, especially after the
last artist has put down his or her machine (which can be quite
late), can have the feel of a mini tattoo convention. It is one
of my personal-favorite tattoo studios in the world, a place where
tradition and the avant-garde coexist. And it's great fun too. The
pure essence of London!
Saga, who was an integral part of the Into You team, sadly, passed
away on March 21, 2008. His work will remain as a legacy on the
skin of hundreds of his friends and customers.