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 7887 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.

Further Reference

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.