Tattoo trends: The inking of London from the Victorians to the present day

By Ros Taylor
BBC News

Image source, Museum of London
Image caption,
The exhibition offers a window into the world of the professional tattooist

Sported by luminaries from King George V and Winston Churchill's mother Jennie to David Beckham and Samantha Cameron, the tattoo has been in and out of fashion since Victorian times. As a new exhibition opens at the Museum of London, the BBC looks at how tastes and trends have changed over the generations.

Exhibition curator Jen Kavanagh has a mallard duck tattooed on her forearm. She had it done recently in memory of her husband.

"I was widowed last year," she explains, "and he used to call me duck, as a nickname." It's a way, she says, of keeping a bit of him close to her.

It's the same impulse that led to a surge in demand for Blackstar tattoos - the five-pointed star that appears on the cover of David Bowie's final album - on the weekend after his death, according to tattooist Lal Hardy.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A woman with an Aladdin Sane tattoo visits an impromptu shrine to David Bowie in Brixton

The death of Motorhead frontman Lemmy prompted a similar trend. With a tattoo, "sometimes you feel you've got a piece of that person with you", says Hardy.

London music and street style have driven the capital's tattooing fashions ever since the 1970s.

Hardy, who has a "bodysuit" - about 80 artists have worked on him - started getting tattoos in the 1970s, inspired by the rockabilly revival in London during that decade. "All the Teddy Boys had tattoos and that's what really pushed it.

"And then a guy that I was friends with who lived in Finchley… he came to my bedsit to tattoo me and brought his suitcase with this tattoo stuff. And I saw the stuff there and I thought 'I can do this'."

Setting up as a tattooist has always been easy. No qualifications or training are required - only a licence from the council. The biggest problem back then, says Hardy, was other tattooists: "There was quite a lot of intimidation, it was very territorial." He set up a little shop in a back street in Muswell Hill, north London.

Then punk took off, and pictures of Catwoman and punk girls were suddenly in demand. "Not a lot of studios were catering for the subculture."

What has changed, Hardy says, is the diversity of clients. In the 1970s, 18 to 35-year-old white men made up the vast majority of people walking into his studio.

Image caption,
David Dimbleby is tattooed with a scorpion at the Vagabond studio in east London during the making of TV series Britain and the Sea

Then there's the internet. People can download highly detailed pictures for tattooists to copy, and share photos of celebrity tattoos. When the first image of David Beckham's guardian angel - the first of his 40 tattoos - appeared, it caused a frenzy: "The moment that went online you saw it over the world."

Tattooing - which used to belong to London's subcultures - had gone mainstream.

Sailors had been coming back to London with tattoos for centuries. Historian Matt Lodder says the crew returning with the 15th Century English seaman Martin Frobisher, who sailed to the New World, probably had them.

Tattooed men were working at the port in the 1750s. Yet there is no authenticated record of a tattoo parlour in London until the 1890s.

Lodder says reports that a DW Purdy opened one near Holloway jail in the 1870s are untrue. He has scoured the records and found the only D Purdy in the area at the time was born in 1870. He was probably a postman who did a bit of tattooing on the side.

No photographs are known to have survived of George V's famous tattoo. But according to Lodder, it was the royal family who inspired the fashion for tattooing in the late 19th Century.

In 1881, the future king was tattooed with a blue and red dragon during a trip to Japan. It was not the first time a royal had been inked: his father, the future Edward VII, got a Jerusalem Cross tattoo during a pilgrimage.

Image source, Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Image caption,
Londoner David Beckham is perhaps the world's most famous tattooed person

But Prince George and his brother Prince Albert Victor (who got a stork) helped start a trend for all things Japanese. When Britain's first tattoo parlour opened above a Turkish bath at 76 Jermyn Street, it was decorated in the most lavish Oriental style.

The building, which would be destroyed in the Blitz, boasted "luxurious cushions", a divan and "needles with gaily decorated handles… not to mention the ever-ready box of cigarettes and the accompanying cooling drinks," according to a description in fashion historian Alistair O'Neill's London: After A Fashion.

Military officers visited Sutherland Macdonald, who drew inspiration from a Japanese contemporary called Hori Chyo, to have their regimental crests inscribed on their skin. Snakes, lizards and frogs were so popular that Macdonald kept a vivarium in Surbiton so he could study them.

A 1902 article in Pearson's Magazine claimed the "slight pricking" of the needle was so painless that "even the most delicate ladies make no complaint". Macdonald claimed he could give women an "all-year-round delicate pink complexion" by applying red ink to their cheeks.

Image source,
Image caption,
Pearson's Magazine depicts some of Sutherland Macdonald's designs in 1902

Other Edwardian ladies plumped for butterflies or birds. Winston Churchill's mother had a serpent tattooed around her wrist by Tom Riley, Macdonald's rival in London. Both had started using electromagnetic coil tattoo pens - a new technology adapted from electric doorbells.

Yet by the middle of the 20th Century, tattooing in London was in the doldrums, with backstreet operators working with dirty needles and without stencils.

Hardy recalls tattooing a sex worker in the red light district of King's Cross when he was starting out in the 1970s.

Image source, Museum of London
Image caption,
Lal Hardy in his studio

"So I said, 'What do you want?' She said, 'A rose.' So I did this rose on her and I'm sure it looked more like a cabbage and then she said, 'I love it, I love it.' And then she was like, 'Right, I want a skull on the other arm,' which I did. I was sort of sweating, all nervous - it looked probably like a light bulb."

After punk fizzled out in the early 1980s, Hardy says, there was a vogue for patriotic iconography like Union Jacks and Falklands tattoos. Londoners developed a penchant for Victorian aesthetics, which had its roots in the fashion for architectural tattoos in the 1890s: Tower Bridge and the now-forgotten Great Wheel of Earl's Court both opened in 1894.

Claudia de Sabe, another of the tattooists who contributed to the exhibition, has inked Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral. Mo Coppoletta, who runs a studio in Clerkenwell, says compositions based on London buses, taxis and red telephone boxes are popular.

"The ornaments, the buildings, subconsciously they influence you. I could never become minimal, not in this city. It would have to be flourished and full of details, and that nod to that Victorian ornamental overload of images is ever present, you know."

Image source, Oli Scarff/ Getty
Image caption,
A tattoo studio in Camden Town, 2013

Successive waves of migrants brought their own styles. Shiva and Ganesh are popular among Hindus, says Hardy. "Eastern Europeans are very much into tattooing. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, a lot of tattooing was very amateurish, done in prisons. They're into ultra-realism or black and grey tattoos, so it looks like a photo."

By the 1990s, Camden Town had become the go-to place for a tattoo in London. Now studios in Soho and Shoreditch attract a hipster clientele, with visiting artists and designer parlours.

Image caption,
EastEnders: Kush shows Shabnam his tattoo

Many of the new wave of tattooists have trained at art school in London and go on to learn the skill informally. It's a good place to try out experimental designs, Kavanagh says. The city has an "open-minded, forward-thinking" approach to tattooing.

"No-one wants their dad's tattoos, everyone wants their grandad's tattoos," says Lodder. Oriental and naval designs are enjoying a renaissance. "They're living in this wonderful kind of postmodern world."

"Part of the reason why it's so popular," he says - one in five Britons has had a tattoo, rising to 30% of 25 to 39 year-olds - "is because you have to go and sit and talk to someone, and you can't throw it away."

Tattoo London opens on Friday 29 January at the Museum of London.

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