Title Card: You wrote a the­sis on the rela­tion­ship between tat­too­ing and art, can you tell us about your per­spec­tive on this?

Matt Lodder: Absolutely. My PhD was at the University of Reading in 2010, and it’s called Body Art: Body Modification as Artistic Practice. I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in…actually the metaphors of art, right? We all under­stand this ver­nac­u­lar phrase body art” in terms of what it means. Tattooing, body pierc­ing, some­times cos­met­ic surgery gets rolled into that as well. And it kind of makes some kind of intu­itive sense. I think we all kind of under­stand it’s the pro­duc­tion of a mark on the sur­face or in the cre­ation of some­thing out of the body’s raw materials. 

But not real­ly many art pro­fes­sion­als, or any art pro­fes­sion­als real­ly, have though through what this might mean for art prac­tice and art the­o­ry. How can we think about tat­too­ing as an art form? If we do think about it as an art form, what are the con­se­quences of that for the ways tat­too­ing is nor­mal­ly understood?

So for exam­ple one of the real­ly inter­est­ing prob­lems is the ques­tion of author­ship, because most aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing about tat­too­ing pre­sumes tat­too­ing is, if you like, authored by the per­son who wears the tat­too. So there’s lots of things about mean­ing, about the con­struc­tion of of iden­ti­ty, about the expres­sion of deviance. 

Completely elid­ed in those dis­cus­sions, which comes from aca­d­e­m­ic anthro­pol­o­gists and psy­chol­o­gists and med­ical pro­fes­sion­als, is the role of the tat­too artist. And when you start think­ing about that and how tat­toos are actu­al­ly pro­duced, and how tat­tooists talk about their work, and exhib­it their work in their port­fo­lios, and the rela­tion­ship they under­go with a client, and how that even­tu­al work is pro­duced, you end up with a much more com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry. And it’s a sto­ry which I think art his­to­ry as a set of dis­ci­plines can make more sense of than these oth­er more med­ical­ized disciplines. 

The oth­er thing that this artis­tic metaphor, when you pick at it, you reveal, is that again for most intents and pur­pos­es in oth­er aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines, tat­too­ing is a phe­nom­e­non. So it gets writ­ten as why would you do that do your­self?” and then whole screeds, whole books about all tat­too­ing as a kind of phe­nom­e­non. Every tat­too is the same, phenomenologically. 

Whereas from an art his­tor­i­cal point of view, and almost from a com­mon sense point of view, some­one hand-poking them­selves with (as my old bus dri­ver did) a Wham! logo, and some­one trav­el­ing to Switzerland to see Filip Leu to get a whole back piece done, they’re not the same thing. And they’re obvi­ous­ly not the same thing. The moti­va­tion is dif­fer­ent, the sys­tems of pro­duc­tion are dif­fer­ent, the recep­tion of them is very dif­fer­ent. But if you read a lot of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing on tat­too­ing, you don’t get the sense of that kind of broad, what I want to call art his­tor­i­cal or visu­al cul­tur­al, dif­fer­ence. So that was what the work was about real­ly, prob­ing at that metaphor of art.

Title Card: Are recent muse­um exhi­bi­tions on tat­too­ing or fea­tur­ing fine art by tat­tooists on can­vas, paper, and oth­er medi­ums instead of skin, giv­ing tat­toos new dimen­sions and perspectives?

Lodder: Well, these shows are inter­est­ing. They have a lot of pres­tige in a way. There have been tat­tooists who’ve been exhibit­ing their work in gal­leries in those kinds of for­mats that you talk about. Photography, print, draw­ings, occa­sion­al­ly even arti­facts of the tat­toos them­selves, sten­cils and prints and things. That’s been hap­pen­ing at least since the 1980s. In fact there’s some exam­ples even ear­li­er than that.

But I think what’s inter­est­ing about the shows is that there’s a rhetoric around these shows which sort of say tat­too­ing is artis­tic. Now, what I think is quite inter­est­ing about those shows and why I think occa­sion­al­ly… I mean, I real­ly love the Somerset House show. It’s fan­tas­tic and the work in it is incred­i­ble. But it does­n’t actu­al­ly fea­ture any tat­toos in it. So the actu­al artis­tic sta­tus of the tat­too itself, on the body, in the world, is some­thing which I think is a more inter­est­ing and a much more dif­fi­cult prob­lem. This is some­thing I’ve writ­ten about as well in my PhD, because I think if we’re going to take tat­too­ing seri­ous­ly as an art form, then we have to under­stand it as an art form out­side of these kind of con­texts. It can’t just be art if it’s hang­ing on the wall of a muse­um. What I find inter­est­ing is when the respons­es peo­ple have to tat­too­ing in the world are actu­al­ly real­ly sim­i­lar to the respons­es peo­ple have to oth­er forms of art-making. And we can the­o­rize those with­out wor­ry­ing about it being in a muse­um or not. 

I know a lot of tat­tooists are kind of skep­ti­cal of insti­tu­tions and wor­ried about what being in a muse­um says about the prac­tice. That is some­thing I think is real­ly impor­tant, and I think it’s real­ly good that the tal­ents of these peo­ple, these artists, are shown. That we can hang these things on walls in an exhib­it and say, Hey look, there’s a huge range of stuff. there’s a vol­ume of stuff.” But I think what’s most fun­da­men­tal­ly inter­est­ing for me is the tat­too in the world, and the expe­ri­ence of see­ing tat­toos in the world, whether or not they’re inside a museum.

There’s a real­ly good exam­ple of that. There’s a great gag in Punch mag­a­zine 1915, a hun­dred years ago. The image is of all these kind of guys with their shirts off, big curly mus­tach­es, stand­ing up on plat­forms. And there’s sort of a crowd and they’re peer­ing at the peo­ple on the plat­forms, and they’ve got guide­books. And the cap­tion under­neath says Simultaneously with the pri­vate view at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of Tattooists opens their sum­mer show.”

So this idea of tat­toos as art is not a new idea. It’s a hun­dred years old. But what I love about that image is in the pic­ture there’s a Sergeant Major who’s not part of the exhib­it; he’s not stand­ing there with his shirt off. But he’s rolling up his sleeve to show some­one in the crowd his tat­toos. And that kind shows that the idea of a Royal Society of Tattooists” hav­ing an exhi­bi­tion is kind of a gag, but the idea of see­ing tat­toos in the world an appre­ci­at­ing them aes­thet­i­cal­ly and in all the ways that we under­stand oth­er forms of art is prob­a­bly a much more rich way of think­ing about it.

Title Card: What do you think about mod­ern artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons cre­at­ing tattoos?

Lodder: That’s some­thing that got a nice, deep set of prece­dents, pos­si­bly back into the 1980s, but there’s a good example…well, actu­al­ly peo­ple have been get­ting tat­toos of art­works since there’s been pro­fes­sion­al tat­too­ing. There was a real­ly famous tat­tooed lady in London called Emma deBurgh, who was an American, and she had The Last Supper” across her back. One com­men­ta­tor report­ed, because she’d put on a bit of weight, that it made Jesus a bit fat as well when she was show­ing off. And there are exam­ples of peo­ple get­ting tat­toos of Constables and of Joshua Reynolds por­traits and stuff through­out the 19th century.

In the ear­ly 90s, in 1994, there was a show at a lit­tle inde­pen­dent gallery in Hackney called The Roadside Attraction Gallery. They got loads of artists, includ­ing Wim Delvoye, Sarah Lucas, David Shrigley, sev­er­al of the oth­er YBAs were involved as well. And they pro­duced basi­cal­ly draw­ings, sketch­es for tat­toos, and they were tat­tooed on on human can­vas­es,” so to speak. And then they were exhib­it­ed in the Barbican, where the peo­ple who had the tat­toos lined up for one night and they did a pri­vate view. That’s been going on for twen­ty years. 

After that, Wim Delvoye did a real­ly famous piece called Tim,” where he tat­tooed the back of a Swiss guy called Tim Steiner. The tat­too was done by some­one else but Wim signed it, and then they sold the piece to a German gallery for €70,000. [They] split the prof­it, so Wim Delvoye the artist got €35,000 and Tim got €35,000 on the con­di­tion that he now has to stand around in his under­pants a cou­ple of times a year at the behest of the col­lec­tor. There’s great pho­to of him stand­ing next to a label with peo­ple peer­ing at him.

So this idea of artists pro­duc­ing tat­too designs is noth­ing new. Really inter­est­ing because it does also com­pli­cate the medi­um of the tat­too because this is almost the same prob­lem that the Somerset House show has. Is it the image that’s impor­tant? Or is there some­thing about the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the tat­too which trans­forms a par­tic­u­lar image into some­thing dif­fer­ent? There was a case in Oklahoma about five, six years ago where there were some quite restric­tive zon­ing laws on where tat­too shops could be opened. And this artist sues the city say­ing they were inter­fer­ing with his free speech rights, his First Amendment rights to be an artist and they were look­ing down at him. 

There was some prece­dent to that back in the 80s. Another tat­too artist called Spider Webb had tried some­thing sim­i­lar. He’d been banned from tat­too­ing in New York because of a hepati­tis out­break, went and tat­tooed in front of MoMA, and called the police, tried to get him­self arrest­ed, got arrest­ed, went to court. The judge threw it out and says, even if tat­too­ing in an art and I’m not sure it is, I’m not sure we should allow that to over­rule oth­er con­cerns of the city. 

But twenty-five, twenty-six years lat­er, this case in Oklahoma went to court and the defense on the behalf of the city was, if this guy’s an artist why is he not just sell­ing t‑shirts or doing posters? We’re not inter­fer­ing with his artis­tic prac­tice because he can still draw on what­ev­er he wants, just not skin and not with­in x‑100 meters of a church or a school or what­ev­er it was. The judge actu­al­ly said in the case there’s some­thing mate­ri­al­ly dif­fer­ent about a design on skin and a design on paper or on a t‑shirt. So that was in essence the rul­ing that over­turned the zon­ing laws in that par­tic­u­lar jurisdiction.

And I think that’s real­ly inter­est­ing, because again it gives you some­thing to think about. There are whole aca­d­e­m­ic books about tat­too­ing which have noth­ing in them about the images. Where these images come from, where they’re pro­duced, how they’re relat­ed to broad­er visu­al cul­tures, and actu­al­ly what them being tat­tooed on the skin does, as a process. So I think we have to be care­ful of reify­ing any artist who scrib­bles on a bit of paper and then declares it to be a tat­too, because I think there’s some­thing more inter­est­ing about the rela­tion­ship between a tat­too artist pro­duc­ing a work designed for skin in con­sul­ta­tion with a client, which you don’t get by just trans­fer­ring an image drawn on a dif­fer­ent medi­um onto the skin with­out any of that kind of thought.

Title Card: Have pub­lic per­cep­tions of peo­ple with tat­toos altered over the last 30 years, and if so what are they currently?

Lodder: This sense of the per­cep­tion of tat­tooed peo­ple is some­thing which real­ly inter­ests me as a his­to­ri­an, main­ly because it seems it’s such a com­mon trope. I work pri­mar­i­ly on what I call the pro­fes­sion­al era of tat­too­ing, so the late 19th cen­tu­ry when tat­too shops first opened to the present day. And through that whole peri­od, and actu­al­ly to be hon­est even before that, but cer­tain­ly since the 1880s, news­pa­pers, tabloids (In many cas­es the exact same tabloids that we have today; the Daily Mail being a pri­ma­ry exam­ple.) are writ­ing sto­ries about how tat­too­ing’s a brand new thing. About how every­one’s doing it now; about how women are get­ting tat­tooed; about how it’s fash­ion­able; And always in with that about how peo­ple are going to regret it when they’re old­er; how the fad’s near­ly over; and how awful and bar­barous it is.

So these two strands, about how it’s new and excit­ing and fash­ion­able and cool, and also how it’s kind of awful and degen­er­ate and wor­ry­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing, run in par­al­lel for the whole peri­od we have for pro­fes­sion­al tat­too­ing in this coun­try. Which makes it quick dif­fi­cult to answer the ques­tion as to whether or not it is real­ly more pop­u­lar or not. Because if you believe the news­pa­pers, it’s always been new. Which obvi­ous­ly does­n’t make any sense log­i­cal­ly. I’ve tak­en to send­ing jour­nal­ists who write those arti­cles exam­ples from a hun­dred years ago, some of which get quite annoyed when I do that. So what you have to try and do is work out from oth­er sources, or read between the lines and work out how things have changed. 

I think cer­tain­ly the low point for British tat­too­ing in terms of its social accept­abil­i­ty is the late 1950s, actu­al­ly. During World War II, it’s cer­tain­ly the case that tat­too­ing was very very preva­lent amongst enlist­ed pop­u­la­tions pri­mar­i­ly, but also in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. The Captain of the sub­ma­rine fleet, a guy called George Creasy had a big tat­too on the back of his neck, which is immor­tal­ized in his sculp­tur­al bust in the National Maritime Museum. 

People came back from the War, and tat­too­ing became by the 50s very asso­ci­at­ed with a par­tic­u­lar class of per­son. Lower class peo­ple. And the rea­son for that is because it’s sort of a vis­i­bil­i­ty prob­lem. If you’re bank man­ag­er has a tat­too on his back, on his leg, on his arm, you will nev­er see it because when you meet him he has shirt­sleeves on and a blaz­er. If your gar­den­er has a tat­too on his arm, you will see it. And so pri­mar­i­ly, I think, due to a vis­i­bil­i­ty prob­lem, the upper ranks of the British mil­i­tary that got tat­tooed a lot dur­ing World War II, their tat­toos sort of fade into…not into his­to­ry so much as they fad­ed from view. But the peo­ple who were hus­tling on the streets after the War and forced to work in man­u­al pro­fes­sions were the ones whose tat­toos you saw. So a per­cep­tion devel­oped dur­ing the 50s that tat­toos were for a cer­tain kind of person.

Linked in with that was a gen­er­al trend in visu­al cul­ture towards mod­ernism, towards stream­lined, towards the removal of orna­ment. It was fash­ion­able to— There was­n’t so much dec­o­ra­tion, there was­n’t so much chintz, in every­thing from archi­tec­ture to fur­ni­ture. And so gen­er­al­ly this idea of dec­o­ra­tion fell from favor. So these two forces, plus as well the stig­ma of tat­too­ing in the Holocaust—the tat­tooed num­bers on the con­cen­tra­tion camp victims—led to a real decline. So peo­ple who were chil­dren, my par­ents, who chil­dren dur­ing the 50s, have a real­ly real­ly stig­ma­tized sense of what tat­too­ing is. I think that’s large­ly the per­sis­tence of why we still have a sense in gen­er­al that tat­too­ing is of a par­tic­u­lar kind, despite the fact that we’ve had the same kind of arti­cles I’ve just been talk­ing about, the same kind of arti­cles that tat­too­ing’s a brand new thing all the way through that peri­od, even.

By the time you get to the mid 60s, late 60s, it’s start­ing to pick up again. There are inter­est­ing tat­tooists in London. But they’re hav­ing to work in a way that their pre-War coun­ter­parts weren’t. So tat­tooists in the 60s, they were tat­too­ing teenagers. The Tattooing Of Minors Act came in 1969 in response to a big moral pan­ic about kids get­ting tat­tooed. So it was very fash­ion­able in the 60s, but it was linked with this moral panic. 

But by the 70s, cer­tain­ly by the late 70s in America, you have what some peo­ple have called that tat­too Renaissance. People like Ed Hardy, Zeke Owen, Leo Zulueta (not Zeke Owen, sor­ry, I meant Leo Zulueta), Cliff Raven. These guys were real­ly inter­est­ing artis­ti­cal­ly, real­ly push­ing the art form. 

That starts fil­ter­ing through to Britain by the ear­ly 80s. Now, in the 80s there aren’t many tat­too shops in London, but those that do exist are tat­too­ing old­er guys who were tat­tooed dur­ing the war, and young kids who were fash­ion­able kids. Punk kids. And of course that leads to the stig­ma. And basi­cal­ly this is the rhythm. All the way through the 80s, 90s, 2000s, you get these rhythms of tat­too­ing comes and goes, and styles come and go. When Into You opened in London in 1990 by Alex Binnie, it was in response to all that 80s tat­too­ing. Alex had been to America, worked in San Francisco, actu­al­ly for Ed Hardy, and came back to London with all this cool black­work. Alex had been to art school, he was one of the first art school-educated tat­too­ers in London. Although there was some­one before him, a guy called Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian), who was an art school guy. 

But by the time you get to the 90s, again there’s this fash­ion­able move, art school kids. And it’s real­ly hard at that point to work out exact­ly what’s going on. My hypoth­e­sis is, real­ly, that there is and always has been two types of peo­ple: peo­ple who get tat­too­ing (and I mean that on an empa­thet­ic lev­el), and peo­ple who don’t get it. And if you under­stand the desire to mark your body…even if you don’t want to get a tat­too your­self, if you get why oth­er peo­ple do that, then you get it. If you don’t get it, it can nev­er be explained to you. And if you don’t get it, it’s always going to be weird, always going to be sur­pris­ing, always going to be shock­ing, always going to be strange, always going to be slight­ly hor­rif­ic because it involves blood and strangers touch­ing you.

And that’s the sto­ry that I think is the per­sis­tent one. Some peo­ple get it, some peo­ple don’t. Journalists are always going to find it sur­pris­ing. And yeah, there are moments when it comes and goes, and it booms and busts. I think basi­cal­ly since Into You opened in 1990, it’s been a con­tin­u­ous, con­tin­u­ous, con­tin­u­ous increase, and there are cer­tain­ly more tat­too shops now than there have been ever in this coun­try before. Back in the 80s, Lionel Titchener, who’s a tat­tooists in Oxford, esti­mat­ed there were no more than thir­ty or forty tat­tooists in the whole country. 

There’s a great let­ter with peo­ple writ­ing in the 60s and 70s. There’s a guy who wrote to his news­pa­pers in Nottingham and said, I real­ly want to get a tat­too but I can’t find a shop. Is there one?” And the news­pa­pers says, We can’t tell you if there is one.” Then some­one writes the next week and says, There is one but I can’t tell you where it is.” So there weren’t many tat­too shops.

Now there are loads and loads and loads. So undoubtably, even though I don’t real­ly believe this idea that tat­too­ing is not just for sailor any­more,” that the demo­graph­ics have changed, the num­bers cer­tain­ly have. More peo­ple are get­ting tat­tooed now. I don’t think the demo­graph­ic split has changed at all, because I think there’s always been young and old men and women, fash­ion­able and inter­est­ed. So that’s a long answer to a short ques­tion. But I think a focus on the demo­graph­ic or on the nov­el­ty is the wrong focus. I think quan­ti­ty is prob­a­bly inter­est­ing, and vis­i­bil­i­ty.

Just to kind of wrap up this thought, vis­i­bil­i­ty’s inter­est­ing because in the 19th cen­tu­ry if you were tat­tooed, you did­n’t show it off because you were wear­ing heavy cloth­ing all the time. A woman called Edie, Marchioness of Londonderry, got tat­tooed in Japan in 1900. Big drag­on on her legs, fam­i­ly crest. No one saw it because if you were a Victorian woman you did­n’t show off your ankles. By the 30s came around, skirt lengths were a lit­tle bit high­er and peo­ple were shocked to see the tat­toos on her legs. 

And there’s a sim­i­lar thing now, as it’s becom­ing more and more accept­able over the last twen­ty or thir­ty years, cloth­ing has become a lot more casu­al at work, peo­ple can roll their sleeves up at work. And tat­too­ing’s becom­ing much more vis­i­ble. And now also in the past ten years, maybe, there’s lots more tat­toos on hands, necks, and faces. Which I don’t think are accept­able yet in a gen­er­al sense. I think you’re still going to strug­gle to get a job in lots of pro­fes­sions if you’re as vis­i­bly tat­tooed as I am. But it cer­tain­ly is the case that you see tat­toos a lot more now that you did­n’t before.

Title Card: Are a wider cross-section of peo­ple get­ting tat­tooed nowadays?

Lodder: Well, I think tat­too­ing’s over­whelm­ing­ly been a young per­son­’s game. I think that’s the rea­son a 100 year-old granny get­ting tat­tooed’s always been a news sto­ry. It’s not a new news sto­ry. There’s exam­ples of that a long way back. But it’s cer­tain­ly been a young per­son­’s endeav­or. But I think that’s in a way fair­ly obvi­ous, isn’t it? Because when you’re in your youth you’re exper­i­ment­ing with your iden­ti­ty, and you’re exper­i­ment­ing with your aes­thet­ic. Most peo­ple, the hair­cut they get when they’re 25 is the hair­cut they stick with for the rest of their lives, more or less. Certainly for men that’s the case.

So I think in gen­er­al, I haven’t got any spe­cif­ic fig­ures on that, but it’s prob­a­bly skewed younger. But it’s not always been the case. Certainly the big­ger tat­toos, the kind of things that I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in, the big, what I want to call artis­tic” tat­toos, the very inter­est­ing back­pieces and things, they’re expen­sive. And they always have been expen­sive. Again to pick an exam­ple from the 19th cen­tu­ry, peo­ple were buy­ing sea­son tick­ets to their tat­tooists. They were spend­ing tens and tens of pounds in the 1880s and 90s to get big tat­toos. So that requires a cer­tain amount of cap­i­tal. So I think you’ll find the peo­ple that are very heav­i­ly tat­tooed are prob­a­bly in their late 20s, ear­ly 30s. Most peo­ple who I know, men and women, who are very heav­i­ly tat­tooed who aren’t in the tat­too indus­try, tend to be in their 20s and 30s because that’s just when you can afford it.

Title Card: Are tat­toos pub­lic or private?

Lodder: That’s a real­ly good ques­tion. People often ask me why peo­ple get tat­tooed on their backs, because you can’t see it. And I’m not exact­ly sure what the answer to that ques­tion is, oth­er than to say that in the same way that plen­ty of art col­lec­tors will buy things and lock them up in vaults…it’s cer­tain­ly a step a head of that. I think most tat­toos for most of tat­too­ing his­to­ry have been, let’s call them semi-private.” I think there’s an assump­tion, cer­tain­ly among the com­menters on news­pa­per web sites, that peo­ple who are tat­tooed are exhi­bi­tion­ists. But that’s of course what we might call the toupée fal­la­cy. You only think toupée’s look awful because you’re nev­er going to spot a good toupée.

And in the same respects, the only vis­i­ble tat­toos you’re going to see are on peo­ple who want to show them to you. Now, my tat­toos are very vis­i­ble. I’m quite hap­py to have my sleeves rolled up. If your bank man­ag­er has a tat­too on his back, to come back to that, you’re not going to see it. But some­one will; his lover might see it, or his fam­i­ly might see it. Or he might look at it in the mir­ror in the bath­room and nev­er show any­one him­self. And for most of tat­too­ing’s his­to­ry, at least what I cant to call the con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry, mod­ern his­to­ry, that’s how tat­toos have been. You showed them off to peo­ple who you’d show your skin off to, but you weren’t show­ing them off to the gen­er­al pub­lic. So they’re semi-pri­vate, I think, much more so than might be oth­er­wise assumed.

Title Card: How does it feel to have suc­ceed­ed in com­bin­ing two of your passions—tattooing and art?

Lodder: It’s great, you know. I love tat­too. I do what I do… I’m an aca­d­e­m­ic art his­to­ri­an, I teach about con­tem­po­rary art, per­for­mance art. I teach that stuff and I’m into art because I love tat­too­ing. And it was­n’t the fact that I got into acad­e­mia and then got inter­est­ed in tat­toos as an aca­d­e­m­ic sub­ject. It was the com­plete­ly oppo­site way around. I’ve loved tat­toos all my life, and it was lov­ing tat­toos that sort of drove me to won­der where they came from and what they’re all about and to try and find stuff out. And the more I looked the less I found that made sense to me, which has led me onto this research career. And it’s fantastic.

I think, in a way, and right­ly so, lots of tat­tooists and peo­ple who are into tat­toos are very skep­ti­cal of acad­e­mia and aca­d­e­mics writ­ing about what they do. Because I think most of the time it’s been quite voyeuris­tic and quite exploita­tive. And cer­tain­ly I’m sure some peo­ple think even what I’m doing is unnec­es­sary. Tattooing does­n’t need me to defend it, and I don’t want to make the case that I want to say tat­too­ing is art that’s been ignored for so long, because that’s not the case.

What I want to do instead, I think, because com­ing at it from how I do, being heav­i­ly tat­tooed, hav­ing at least some access into the tat­too world and being able to chat to tat­tooists who are will­ing to show me things that they would­n’t oth­er­wise show oth­er peo­ple, and be will­ing to put the work in where oth­er aca­d­e­mics maybe haven’t done that before… Because a lot of the this stuff that I research and write about isn’t in pub­lic col­lec­tions. It’s not in archives. It’s in peo­ple’s sheds and the back rooms of their tat­too stu­dios. And to get access to that stuff you have to have a certain…you have to have them trust you. Tattooing’s again a very kind of closed world, in lots of ways. For all it’s pop­u­lar­i­ty and for all its vis­i­bil­i­ty, it’s still real­ly a kind of old-school guild in lots of ways. It’s taught by appren­tice­ship. It’s passed down from per­son to per­son. It still has its foot in some inter­est­ing areas of social practice.

So it’s hard for aca­d­e­mics to get into it, so I feel real­ly blessed, actu­al­ly, that I’m able to put some­thing back into the world that I love so much. It’s so nice when a tat­tooist says to me, I real­ly appre­ci­ate what you’re doing and thank you.” And I can show a tat­tooist some­thing that I found and to have them be real­ly thrilled about it. It’s a real priv­i­lege. And it’s real­ly nice to know that every day, really…my job real­ly, and what all aca­d­e­mics do, there’s lots of stuff around it, but real­ly what we do is read books and then tell peo­ple about them. Find stuff out and then tell peo­ple about them. 

And I love being able to go and sort of say to peo­ple, Hey, every­thing you thought you knew about tat­too­ing isn’t right.” And when I do talks to places like… I mean, recent­ly I’ve giv­en quite a few talks to Rotary clubs, these clubs for peo­ple the same age as my par­ents, these peo­ple who were born just after the War and who have a par­tic­u­lar sense of what tat­too­ing is. And when I can say to them, Hey, did you know Edward VII had a tat­too?” or, Are you aware that this is how tat­too­ing’s always been, and actu­al­ly these things you think about tat­too­ing aren’t quite right?” And it’s real­ly nice to have peo­ple come up to me after those talks and say, I nev­er knew that, that’s real­ly inter­est­ing.” They might still hate tat­too­ing, and they cer­tain­ly will nev­er get one them­selves. I’m nev­er going to con­vince some­one, nor do I want to, who has­n’t got a tat­too that they want one. That’s not a pos­si­ble task. But to have some­one say I did­n’t know that” is kind of what I do this for. 

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.