Title Card: How did you first get involved in the tattoo industry?
Lal Hardy: My first involvement in the tattoo world was on February 8, 1976. That’s when I got my first tattoo done at a small tattoo studio in Wood Green in North London. By the time it got to 1978, I was doing some hand-poked tattoos and had got some rough equipment. And I always say 1979 is when I really began to start. It was quite a different journey then as opposed to the artists now. No Internet. No readily available equipment. It was very cloak and dagger, very secretive. A lot of the equipment was second-hand or hand-made, not that good quality.
But it was always interesting to find new ideas, new techniques, new little secrets. All the tattooists you met, they all kept their cards close to their chests. So you had to try and glean little bits of information out of them and gradually you kind of build up a recipe book of tattoo information, if you like. And that’s what I did.
The mid-70s to the early 1980s were a very interesting time for me, particularly in London music. We’d had the big Teddy Boy revival and rock and roll revival, which then branched out to become rockabilly. Then punk came along. The two of those began to fuse together and we got psychobilly. So there are all these different cult groups going on. At the same time, we had Madness, the Two Tone thing started. You know, at various times I was into all those scenes. I mixed with people from all of them.
And a lot of the tattoo studios at the time just did flash off of the walls. That’s the way it was back then. You went in, you picked something off the wall, had it done on you. I was fascinated by older record covers. There was lots of artwork going on, lots of independently-published fanzines, singles, albums. Used to be a record shop up the road here in North Finchley called Arcade Records, and every Thursday all the picture discs would be in the window. I was mad on punk music so I used to buy all of those. And then if people came in with the Anti-Nowhere League first or a Pushead mohican skull, I started to do this work, and a magazine called Punk! Lives did a double-page feature. Back then it was quite unusual to see big spreads on tattoo, and there weren’t any tattoo magazines available. And I was just inundated with punks from everywhere who wanted to come and get tattooed.
Also, 1982, I went to America to the Queen Mary convention, which was a big expo to Ed Hardy [that] Ernie Carafa put on. While I was there, I met Leo Zulueta, who’s a punk tattooist and now very famous for his tribal work, but at the time he was designing fliers, posters for punk bands. And he gave me some Borneo designs he’d drawn. I came back to London and this really stunning girl called Edie Grimmer[sp?] , she had a big red mohican, she asked me to tattoo these on the side of her head, and back then it was massively radical, you know. As I said, she was a very stunning-looking girl, and she was picked up to be photographed by a lot of photographers and I was very very fortunate that those pieces of work got so much prominence in books and magazines, and with it publicity for the shop, really.
Title Card: How has the tattoo industry changed since you started? Especially considering the current proliferation of tattoos.
Hardy: Well, tattoos in 2014, we’re seeing them absolutely everywhere, on everything. Eventually this will finish. Tattooed models, so in vogue now, won’t be. It’s like, we’ve had curvaceous women, we had the Kate Moss type, we’ve had the heroin chic look. Things change. It’s similar to punk. Punk was an underground movement. Then it started to gain more of a following. Then it was picked up by the advertising media, people like Matt Belgrano with his big mohican and that. Fashion houses started to pick up on watered-down punk kinda clothes, and now, yeah you see punks down in Camden Town, you see a few at revival shows or specific concerts. But it’s not the force it was then. Tattooing now is massive, worldwide. There’s so many unbelievable artists out there. But I just think human beings, being the way they are, they will come to a point where it’s not as trendy and not as popular as it is.
The rise of tattooing has been interesting because so many other contributing factors need to be brought in, and the Internet has to be one of the biggest, and also satellite television, reality TV shows, celebrity, sport. Before, you wouldn’t see any sports people with tattoos. Then we started to see the NBA players in America. Which then influenced in this country, the same as hip hop, the black community to get tattoos. When I was a kid, very few of my black friends had tattoos. It just didn’t seem to be something that they had done. And then suddenly people are influenced. They see 2Pac, they see Dennis Rodman, see people with tattoos.
So it’s been very interesting to see from the early days of Tit-Bits magazine or News of the World running a little article on tattooing to seeing, next door in the little Asian shop there, where the top shelf used to be full of soft-core porno, now it’s just full of tattoo magazines. There’s over twenty different ones on the shelf in there, which is phenomenal. You’ve got TV shows on all the time showing it. But, lots of people do get tattooed for fashion, or they’re influenced by the media, things they see in the media. And in the end I just think that you’re going to find a lot of companies that make lasers are going to be selling a lot of them. There will always be a demand for tattooing, always. Human beings will always mark their body. But I’ve been saying it for twenty years, when is the bubble going to burst?
But I can’t honestly see it keep going, going, going, because the equipment is so easy to get now, there’s so many shops opening up, that in the end everyone’s digging into that pie. And I just think it’s going to be very hard for some people to still make a living at tattooing, especially if they’ve got expensive overheads for things. For every tattoo studio, there’s two people working out their houses.
Title Card: Is it tattoo “studios” or tattoo “shops”? Tattooists or tattoo “artists”?
Hardy: There’s always been a debate to some degree in tattooing over tattooists and tattoo artists or dermagraphic artists, whatever they want to call themselves. Tattooists, I think, are probably people like myself who have some artistic skills. We often will work off of stencils or work off of flash or that’s how we first started in the business. And tattoo artists are probably people with perhaps more of an art background or more artistic skills. Whichever way. Some people call us tattooists, some call us scratchers, you know.
As for tattoo studios, tattoo parlor, tattoo shop, I don’t really care what they call it, you know. I call it a studio. Some people call it a parlor. Some call it a shop. Doesn’t make any difference. It’s what goes on in there that’s important.
Title Card: How true a picture do reality television programmes present of tattooing?
Hardy: The reality TV shows have been a blessing and a hindrance, I think, to a lot of tattoo artists. They certainly caused great interest in tattooing. And the public lapped up these shows. You’ve got channels that show them all the time. The reality is, reality shows aren’t real. But they do make people aware of tattooing. And when Miami Ink first came out, Ami James did a koi carp on one episode, everyone I spoke to said, “God, people keep asking for koi carps.” It kept shops going, but it then also influenced people to open shops. Look how many shops opened up that just punk “Ink” on the end of their name. We were always tattoo, and now it’s ink. That’s one of the changes that we saw within it.
The reality shows, though, the new ones now, Tattoo Masters and Best Ink, and America’s Worst Tattoos, and Tattoo Nightmares…but that’s because the general public just lap up reality programs of all different genres and types.
Title Card: What does tattooing mean to you?
Hardy: Tattooing to me… I had an interest in it from being a young child, I think, through members of my family that had been in the military. My great grandfather was 97 when he died, he got his first tattoo when he was 12. I had uncles that had traveled the world. What were were saying about the Internet, I’m 55 now, which even going back 50 years to being like 5, or 45 years to being 10, when I used to see…because telly wasn’t on all the time. We looked at books more, and at home we had encyclopedias and things. And you’d look and see different countries around the world, everything seemed a million million miles away, you know. And I think looking at my uncle’s tattoos, they all had sailing ships who had been in the Navy, or the Army, my dad’s brother had pyramids with “Egypt” on it and the Maltese cross with Malta places that he’d gone. My other uncle’s Hong Kong. So I think there was a kind of wanderlust in my head about what these places were. I probably thought my uncle at the time went to Hong Kong on a galleon, not on a battleship. So I’ve always had this interest in it.
I’ve also been attracted to…I don’t know, what some people may describe as the anti-social side of life, or underground. I always enjoyed being in the company of, like I said the punk rock scene, with movements that aren’t quite so mainstream. I always describe it as Keeping Up Appearances in my life. My mum’s side of the family were the Hyacinth Buckets, and my dad’s side of the family were the fighting Irish, if you like. So part of me’s very conservative in how I live my life and the other side can, or used to be, a bit wild, or quite a lot wild. And tattooing and the people, the different groups that had it, I found myself gravitating towards clubs that were like that, to gigs, to that kind of lifestyle, if you like.
Then, when I first started tattooing, it gave me an opportunity to do something that I liked, and doing it there’s been good times, bad times. Most of the times have been really good for me. I have to always say that if I die, go to Heaven and against my better beliefs there is a man with a white beard there, I will shake him warmly by the hand and thank him for the chance that I had to do this for a job. I’ve traveled. I’ve met lots of people. It’s given me immense opportunities. You have to put the hours in. You have to put the time in. There can be lots of frustrations with it. But most of the time, as I said, I think I’m really really lucky and I do appreciate it, and I just feel that I was lucky to have the opportunity. Now that door’s open to lots more people, and I would hope that they really appreciate the fact that some people go to work 9 to 5 as wage slaves, and we do have quite a bit of autonomy, really, to be able to listen to what music we want when we’re at work, dress how we want, use our mobile phones and whatever. I think we’ve got a lot of freedom with it, so I’m always grateful that I had the opportunity to do this as a job.
Title Card: Have attitudes changed towards people with tattoos? Does positive discrimination exist, with for example bars and clubs actively hiring tattooed employees?
Hardy: The positive discrimination or however they want to call it… I used to call it multi-color discrimination when they wouldn’t let you into a club or a bar because you had tattoos, it’s just the way it is now. When I first started tattooing, not many women got tattooed. Nowadays young girls that are heavily tattooed, tattooed models, tattooed porno sites for girls, tattoo glamour sites… It just seems to be if you’re a tattooed female now there’s lots of opportunities out there, modeling agencies and things.
But as I keep saying, we’re enjoying this upsurge at the moment, but people will get bored with that. You’ll find that bars suddenly want women with no tattoos showing. And the funny thing is I’ve got friends that’ve got pubs, like rock pubs and that, and they wanted girls with tattoos and barmen with tattoos. That was the thing because they were serving people who were the same as that. Now it’s really mainstream. And really it shouldn’t be a consideration whether you’re tattooed or not. It should be how you do your job. That’s the real truth of the matter. One of the big burger outlets didn’t used to employ people that had tattoos on their lower arms. But they would serve lots of burgers to people with tattoos on their lower arms, so it’s quite interesting, that side of things.
Title Card: Have there been any occasions when you haven’t agreed to tattoo someone?
Hardy: People ask me if I’ve ever refused to tattoo anyone or any designs and that. And yeah, lots of different things. First of all people that are underage, that’s one of the no-nos. I don’t do political tattoos or racist tattoos. We don’t do genital tattoos in this shop. If a design, maybe something that someone’s brought in that is just not actually suitable as a tattoo—it might be too small, too complex, I always try and explain to them maybe we can redraw it or we can make it into a tattoo style. And sometimes people seem perturbed by the fact that you don’t want to do it.
But I always say to them, “Listen, I could lie to you, take your money off you, do the tattoo, and you will never be happy with it. Or we can tell you the truth.” And we’re not worried if they decide they want to go somewhere else and see if that person can do it for them. But as I said, facial tattooing, no. Genital tattooing, no. Racist, political tattooing, no. Because there’s so many other people who come in and do want things. There’s shops that cater for absolutely everything now.
It just happens to be that for me, the reason I don’t do facial tattooing, and it’s quite interesting, is Derek Ridgers has just had a new book published of his old photos called 78–87 London Youth, and there’s a guy in there who’s got his face tattooed, and years ago when I first got into the business I was working in a psychiatric hospital. I was also working at a tattoo studio at weekends. And the owner told me to tattoo a guy’s face and I refused to do it. And the owner was like, “I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.” And he did it. And then a couple of months later I went into a locked ward, which was where the patients that were a danger are kept, and there was the guy with the facial tattoos, locked in this ward. I’m not saying the tattoos made him mental or the guy did it, but for me it became a taboo then.
I just have always had that that I wouldn’t do facial tattooing. It’s very popular now. It seems to be much more socially acceptable than it used to be in the 1980s when the skinhead movement revived and changed from the reggae-influenced one more to the sort of more aggressive type music. There were lots and lots of people with their faces tattooed. There were two tattooists in London at the time who were actively tattooing young kids’ faces. One of them could put on really good tattoos, which probably made it harder for them to be removed. And the other guy just put on absolute rubbish and garbage and was a very dubious character, but you know. You see some of these guys, the ones that are still around, begging outside Kings Cross station. I don’t really feel that I want to take responsibility for doing that to someone. As I said, it’s just my personal view of how I work.
Title Card: How have your clients changed over the years that you’ve been tattooing?
Hardy: When I first started tattooing, I would say that the clientele was predominantly white, mainly male, probably 18 to 35 year old age group. A few girls. Living in North London around this [way?] we’d always get a lot of Turkish and Cypriot people, because there’s a lot of people in Haringey that used to come and get tattoos, and at the time there was the conflicts, so some people’d get a Turkish crescent and star, some people’d get the map of Cypress or a dove. And then gradually over the years, we’ve seen it change that lots of people from different ethnic backgrounds now get tattoos. People of different ages come in. It’s still quite a young person’s game, but we’ve had people that are in their 70s and 80s that’ve come in, and I think that shows the acceptability of it now. Years ago people would still get tattooed occasionally. You’d get people that were older, or professionals, but they would keep the tattoos hidden.
And you know what the funny thing is? I speak to a few of my peers and a few of the other old-timers, and because tattoos are everywhere now, we’ve all kinda got the same jokey thing, wouldn’t it be good if you had to keep them all under your sleeves and all that, so that when you went to a show and someone revealed it you’d be like, “Wow!” Now, they’ve got what they call hipster body suits where somebody’s got their throat tattooed and their hands and nothing else. But it’d be interesting to see in thirty years time when a filmmaker goes to talk to a young tattooist who’s then an old-timer, to see their views on things and to see where tattooing is in the future, and artistically where it’s going, you know? Because it is on the up. It’s amazing. But it’s interesting to see.
This interview was conducted by Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez as part of the requirements for his Master of Arts in Creative Media, at the University of Brighton, 2014, and portions were used in his documentary Tattoos: Perceptions & Perspectives.
There’s a Punk Lives group on Facebook, with complete scans of of all 11 issues.