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.

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.