Tattoo London: The Museum of London is about to go inside the studios of four of the city's best tattoo artists

By Ben Miller | 26 January 2016

Original art, new works made by tattooists for the exhibition and photography and film aim to show life as a London tattoo artist in the new Museum of London show

A photo of a man standing in a tattoo shop wearing a stern expression
Lal Hardy at London's legendary New Wave tattoo temple© Kate Berry
The origins of tattooing, at least in London, are often linked to Captain Cook’s voyages to the other side of the world, when he returned with talk of Tahitian tattooed savages. "That's a very persistent myth, but it simply isn't true," points out Dr Matt Lodder, an art historian and tattoo expert who says the story has been one of constance rather than "neglect and rediscovery" since then.

"Captain Cook categorically did not bring tattooing to England. Tattooing has been present back to the 16th century and likely before." Further afield, in prehistory, the bodies of Egyptian figurines were used as funereal canvases, and then the practice spread into Asia, frequently being linked to skin branding and criminality, which it also had associations with when the art began to flourish in 19th century England.

A photo of a man having a tattoo drawn on the back of his body inside a tattoo shop
Claudia de Sabe working at Seven Doors© Kate Berry
“Tattooing in London, certainly from the kind of professional era onwards, never really got stigmatised in the same way as it was elsewhere,” observes Dr Lodder.

“And so London becomes this kind of really important hub, bringing influences from all over the world, from America from Japan, and turning them into something that’s very particular about this city. London has been this real cauldron of tattoo culture and the story of that is not that tattooing was once one thing and is now something else. It’s always been this sort of strange, beautiful and romantic, weird, wonderful medium.”

A photo of the inside of a tattoo shop with various colourful bits of art on the walls
Inside Seven Doors© Kate Berry
The Museum of London has formed a needle-whirring alliance with four of the city’s tattoo studios - New Wave, Into You, Seven Doors and The Family Business all reflect the diversity of the business, as well as its relative ubiquity compared to the first practitioners of the 1880s - for an exhibition about “people turning up, buying a tattoo as a commodity”, according to Lodder.

At New Wave, Lal Hardy is into his fifth decade as a tattooist. He is, by his own definition, a press favourite (most recently the Daily Mail and Timeout). But he considers all his clients as important as the footballers from his beloved Spurs who have called upon his services, not to mention a few players from Arsenal and elsewhere.

A photo of various bottles of coloured paint on the shelf of a tattoo shop
The ink bottles of Into You© Museum of London
Hardy put Jen Kavanagh, the exhibition’s curator, in touch with Lodder, who works from the University of Essex. “That led me to speaking to Claudia De Sabe, who works at Seven Doors,” says Kavanagh.

“That’s the newest of the studios that we represent in the project – it only opened in 2014. When I first started we did a little bit of research to identify who the most historic studios in London were, who was still operating having been quite well established.

A photo of the inside of a tattoo shop with various colourful bits of art on the walls
A view from The Family Business© Kate Berry
“Through those conversations, it almost became a chronology of tattoo studios in London. Each of the artists is showing tattooing of clients, which is very up-close and personal but is also a really interesting insight.

“This exhibition is a really nice way to be able to celebrate their amazing work. It’s the scale of the industry today which is just so significant.”

A photo of various instruments used to create tattoos on shelves
Tattoo machines at The Family Business© Kate Berry
Alex Binnie, who Kavanagh initially contacted, established Into You in 1993. He got his first tattoos around the same time Hardy was starting out, began giving them to others from a central London squat, and moved to the then-more-happening Los Angeles, also working with Ron Athey, the Pentecostal-raised performance artist who lets audiences watch a metal hook penetrate his scalp and saline solution circumvent his scrotum.

When Binnie returned, he made Into You one of the first tattoo shops in London where you could order a custom design. More recently he’s made woodcuts inspired by the woodblock prints of Japanese tattooing, as well as becoming a printmaker - a typically dextrous artist whose skill shouldn’t be hidden in studios and beneath clothes, says Lodder.

A photo of a pair of hands drawing out designs for tattoos on a sheet of white paper
Alex Binnie thinking of a masterplan at Into You© Museum of London
“It’s really kind of important that museums like this one are taking tattoo practice – and actually popular culture of all kinds – seriously. To put this stuff in a place where it’s going to be looked after and kept is really heartwarming,” he feels.

“When you see these images on there and they’re in a row and we move from the 19th century to the present day, I think hopefully that will shift people’s perception. It is a real pleasure for me as a historian to have been able to help these four incredible artists to tell their stories.”

  • Tattoo London runs from January 29 - May 8 2016. Visit tattoohistorian.com for more on the history of tattoos.

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Read Culture24's pick of the best art exhibitions in London this year.

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