LONDON'S TOP SHOPS
—YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW
By Michael Laukien

Once 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 capitals.

When Albion's 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."

Some wealthy 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.

The English 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.

Another tattooist 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).

Through 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.

THE SHOPS
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
http://www.evilfromtheneedle.com

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 true.

Note: Kamil Mocet has now opened his own shop, Kamil Tattoo, at 25 Cheriton in Queens Crescent, London and can be contacted through his website, http://www.kamiltattoos.com.

THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Artists: Mo Coppoletta, Saira, Diego and Dom
58 Exmouth Market
EC1R 4QE London
Ph.: +44.207 278 9526
http://www.thefamilybusinesstattoo.com

Mo Coppoletta 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.

NEW WAVE TATTOO
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
http://www.newwavetattoo.co.uk

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.

"You should 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
http://www.frithstreettattoo.co.uk

Frith 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:

"The location 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.


INTO YOU
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
http://www.into-you.co.uk

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 eighties.

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 effective.'"

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 like me."

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."

Xed LeHead, 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!

Note: Jason 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.