Long slithering snakes and Chinese dragons, lion’s heads, Leonardo di Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, Jesus Christ, angels, skulls, daggers, film stars, Japanese masks, love hearts with Cupid’s arrow joining the names of current and former lovers – these are just some of the many images with which people decorate their bodies through the art of tattooing.
While there is a long tradition of painting and inking skin, going back beyond 1769 when Captain Cook brought back the first reference to “tattaw” from his voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand, it was not until the 1880’s that Sutherland MacDonald established himself as the first “professional” tattoo artist in London at the Turkish baths in respectable Jermyn Street in Mayfair, becoming in 1894 the first person to have an entry under the new category of “tattooists” in the Post Office Directory, the business directory of its day, and the same year in which he also received a British patent for his new electric tattooing machine. Until then, tattoos had been the art of the gifted amateur or other profession such as a barber.
What was the attraction of having a concealed tattoo, something only seen by a chosen few? Why did the rich and famous find it exotic to have a hidden image, while tattoos were proudly displayed by sailors, criminals and natives in far-away countries, so that, while Sutherland MacDonald was “under the patronage of the Highest Imperial and Royal personages in Europe”, information on Royal clients was to be kept secret, though apparently members of the Royal family with tattoos included Edward VII and George V?
From his photograph, Sutherland MacDonald himself appears a pillar of respectability, with his slick hair, bushy moustache, elegant bow tie, starched collar and pocket handkerchief, suggesting nothing sinister or exotic, and no obvious sign of a tattoo in sight.
MacDonald’s mantle as the pre-eminent professional tattooist in London was taken over in the 1930’s by George Burchett the self-styled “King of Tattoists” whose, until his death in 1953, provided clients from all walks of life with images of regimental badges, Japanese patterns and film stars of the day, including apparently King Ferdinand IX of Denmark.
Today the dragons and the snakes have been allowed out and are worn proudly by celebrities such as David Beckham, as can be seen in the photography exhibition at Phillips’ and London has many professional tattooists with their own designs and styles including Lal Hardy at New Wave which now has 8 workstations for artists, Alex Binnie who started his career as a medical illustrator at St Thomas’ Hospital and, at Into You, specialises in large scale works where the human body is a canvas for his art, Mo Coppoletta, from Verona at The Family Business who originally studied law but now works as a designer influenced by Japanese and Art Deco images and Claudia de Sabe from Padua, now at Seven Doors, who is one of the younger generation of artists developing new designs and techniques.
A fascinating gallery of designs, along with photographs and videos of the artists at work and a selection of tattooing equipment and of objects and images which inspire them is on display in the small exhibition “Tattoo London” at the Museum of London. Some of the religious images perhaps have a resonance with Andy Warhol’s work at the end of his life such as “Detail of the Last Supper” (1986) and “Christ $9.98″ (1985/86), confirming that modern art has many streams and engages many artists.