Title Card: How did you first get involved in tattooing?
Paul Sayce: I got my first tattoo in 1973 when I was thirteen, and that was done by a guy called Rob Robinson in New Malden in Surrey. It was in the days when in 1969, we had the Minor’s Act come out, where you couldn’t be tattooed unless you was eighteen so of course we all lied about our ages and that, and he didn’t know we wasn’t eighteen or what we might have done.
I just fell in love with it. I was like a drug. I needed it more and more each time. I was going down there every weekend. I just fell in love with the magic of it, everything about it. It was a bit rebellious and a bit dangerous and the guys who were in the shop were a bit on the edge. And it was just the sort of people I liked to hang around with, you know.
Title Card: Has tattooing changed? Is there a different dynamic around tattoos now.
Sayce: No, it’s still the same for me, and it’s a different dynamic in regards to, ie. lots of people say there’s no characters in the game no more. But for these youngsters in it now, all their characters are going to be in thirty, forty years time when I’ve gone. And it’s like the characters I grew up with will always be characters to me. It’s still the same, it’s just relevant, you know. To me personally, I think the art form is the best it’s ever going to be and the greatest it’s ever going to be, because some of the kids I’m seeing who we haven’t even seen in the magazines yet because they haven’t been discovered, they’re doing absolutely fantastic work. Whereas when I first got into it, it was more like stamps. It was like love art, anchors, eagles. But to me, that’s always tattooing.
I mean, I love the new stuff today, but to me it’s not really tattooing, it’s more of an art form, where to me I still love the old geisha girl sort of…like I say, the love art and and the anchors and the things, true love mum and dads. That’s what a lot of my work, people regard it as not very nice work, but it’s the sort of stuff I like.
Title Card: Why do people get tattooed?
Sayce: There are all sorts of different reasons, really. Most of it, I believe, is to belong to something. It’s like joining the Freemasons or joining a bike club or a motorcar club. You just want to belong to something, and as you probably could see yourself this is like a little world and we have our own conventions and people interview you on tape and talk to you on radio. It’s a wonderful world when you can be in something where you can see yourself in a magazine or on the telly. It’s quite fascinating, really. That’s always fascinated me, how it’s become so popular. Because when I first got involved, I was regarded as a real lowlife. My friends were out collecting football cards and football programs, and their parents were telling them to keep away from me because I was the weirdo down the street, because I had fourteen tattoos by the time I was fourteen and the school wanted to expel me and things like that. And I went to an [?] school, it was quite a good school, public school. But I was a good rugby player. I was there for the rugby more than the academic situation.
Title Card: In your experience, have attitudes changed towards tattoos in the last 30 years?
Sayce: Well, myself personally, I think it’s changed because people like David Beckham and pop stars and, you open a newspaper nowadays and you see it everywhere, and you see it on the TV. It’s not so mysterious no more, and it’s when people don’t understand something, that’s when they’re scared of it. When I was nineteen, I could walk into a post office and the old girls would sort of move out of the way. But now I walk in, they all say, “Oh you must’ve been in the Navy,” because I’m older. That’s what I mean. When people are scared of something, it’s like talking about motorcycle gangs now. People think, “ooh!” But if you’re in a motorcycle gang, it’s okay. It’s hard to explain, really, why people get it and why people do it, because it’s not pleasant—well, it’s not pleasant for me getting them done. It’s puts my teeth on edge even when I get a little tattoo now. I think what am I doing here?
Title Card: What do members of the tattoo community have in common with each other?
Sayce: Under the big umbrella, we’re all in the same sort of gang. If you notice at these conventions you’ll get black people, Indian people, you’ll get all sorts of different gangs and cultures who probably wouldn’t even talk in real life, but under one roof we’re all the tattooed tribe. That’s what I’ve noticed about tattooing. It’s always been sort of like a real big community, and there’s never really been any trouble because we all belong to the same thing. But, primarily, it’s like in New Zealand with the Maoris and other tribes out in the South Seas, it’s a religious thing. And it’s tribal but when we’re all together it’s like we’re all together. I can’t explain it, really. It’s like when we’re all together it’s a big club, but when we’re separate we’re in our own clubs.
Title Card: How much do you find that people are aware of the history of tattooing?
Sayce: How can I say it? Half of us are into the tattoo history and tradition, and half of us are into the rock star and sort of wannabe scene. But there’s still an awful lot of people out there who are into the tradition of tattooing and, and as you know it goes back—well I can go back to 325 AD myself personally, when it’s banned as a pagan practice and it went underground til about 787. Then of course when Captain Cook and William Dampier and all that went to the South Seas and brought it back.
It’s always been one of the oldest art forms known to man, as well as cave painting. We always sort of marked ourself to change ourself, whether that’s like today, scarification, tattooing, or even body modification, even women with only silicone implants, we’re still changing our appearance, and I’m sure we’re the only animals that do that apart from chameleons and that.
Title Card: Are exhibitions featuring art by tattooists like the recent one at Somerset House in London, changing public perceptions of tattooing?
Sayce: Well, it’s making people look at us as true artists moreso than just tattoo artists, because there’s still that stigma, “Oh, you’re just a tattoo artist.” But believe me, the majority of people downstairs and what you’re going to see when you’re filming, they can paint and draw. It’s just because it’s on the skin, and of course skin goes when we go. In fifty year’s time when those three are dead, this building’s still going to be here. That’s the way I look at things. That exhibition at Somerset House, absolutely fantastic paintings but you’re not going to get many tattoo fans buying them paintings, but they would buy them if they could have it on the skin. But to me, absolutely fantastic because I’m into a lot of art in general.
Title Card: What do you think about modern artists like Damien Hirst creating tattoos?
Sayce: I like it, because I mean, like Jeff Koons out in New York, obviously, with the Andy Warhol connection and all that. I knocked around around with Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 80s because I used to go over to The Factory. But that’s another life I’ve got. But Damien Hirst, fair enough. He’s doing it and he’s putting it to the public’s attention, but he is getting into it to jump on a bandwagon. Although you don’t really need to jump on a bandwagon when he can sell a skull with £95 million of diamonds in it, why does he want to muck about with tattooing? It’s just a fad. I’m sure you’re going to get a Tracy Emin tattoo soon.
But of course you’ve got to understand that, because every piece of art is a fad. It’s going to be something else in five year’s time. That’s why tattooing can be a little bit dangerous if you see it as a fashion statement. Because it’s not like a t‑shirt, where you can buy it now and throw it away in a couple of week’s time. You’ve got it for life, and no matter what they say about how they can take a tattoo off, you’re still going to have marks. Even if they cover it, you’re still going to have the mark. That’s why I do say to kids who want a tattoo, if you want it for a fashion statement have it done where it can’t be seen.
The only trouble is nowadays a lot of these kids want it on their necks, hands, and on their faces, and nothing on their bodies. When I first got into it, if you ever had your hands tattooed or your neck, you had to make sure your body was covered, because a tattoo artist just wouldn’t entertain you. No matter what you do, you’ve got to consider other people in this life. I know a lot of people say no you don’t, but to me you do. If I was offending you by sitting here like this, I would put a shirt on if we was in company. Not because I’m sort of…ashamed of my tattooing, but it’s just to be fair play.
Title Card: You are a big collector of tattoo memorabilia, what do you have in your collection?
Sayce: I’ve got the Guinness World Record for the biggest tattoo memorabilia collection in the world. But I’ve got 125,000 slide photos, 9,000 paper photos, just over 900 machines, and various other bits of paraphernalia. I collect a lot of articles and books and things like that. But everyone who knows me, they know I’m a bit of a fanatic for it. But I actually like it because it’s took me all over the world, and I go to many exhibitions and museums, and help curate exhibitions and things like that.
Title Card: From that whole collection what is your favorite piece?
Sayce: The first business card I ever got, when I went into Rob Robinson’s in 1973. I’ve done the Collector’s Lot program, and they said to me, “What’s the most valuable thing in this room?” And I said, “That business card.” And they said, “How much is that worth?” And I said, “A penny if it’s worth anything.” And they said, “Well why is it…?” I said, “Because it’s not how valuable it is, it’s what it means to me.” And I remember Rob Robinson to this day giving me that card, and I’m thinking, “This is magic.”
And I’ve got some real expensive stuff. I’ve got machines worth three and four thousand dollars and things. But I would swap them every day for that card.
Title Card: Is that what a tattoo is like?
Sayce: Yeah, because a lot of people have said to me over the years, “Paul, you know all the best tattooists in the world, and you’ve got all rubbish on ya.” And they say, “Why is that?” And I say the same thing, it’s because I only get tattooed of people I like. And I’ve been tattooed by members of my family and people who’ve never tattooed before, because I just want the mark. To me, the tattooing is more of a mark than an actual picture. I’ve got tattoos of ex-wives and things like that mean more to me than what an Ed Hardy piece would mean, even though I’d love to have a big Ed Hardy piece. But you know, I’m more in it for the history and the memories. To me it’s like an inky diary. It’s like, if you said to me, “When you had that done at fourteen, what was you going for?” And I’ll look at it. It’s got “rock and roll.” I was into rock and roll music. And I love art. I love rock and roll music. Whereas everyone expects to see me with a beautiful Filip Leu dragon and things like that. I’ve been tattooed by Filip, but I’m more into it for a mark as a piece just to say, “Look at me. I’ve got the best in the world.” It’s like having a car and thinking, “I’m quite happy with a Rover. I don’t need a Rolls-Royce.” Even though I haven’t got a Rover, but you know, to me it’s just a car. It’s just another vehicle to get you somewhere.
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.