Our incredible Spring exhibition, Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, has been installed in our No.1 Smithery gallery but, a week before we were due to open the doors and celebrate our blockbuster show, Britain went into lock down due to COVID-19 and the Dockyard sadly had to close its gates to the public. The exhibition currently sits in the dark and only a handful of staff have had the pleasure of viewing it.
Whilst there is no substitute for physically visiting the exhibition and seeing it through your own eyes, we will aim, over the next few weeks, to bring you a virtual snap shot of the show and shine a spotlight on some of the fascinating artists and objects that are involved. We’ll also delve a bit deeper into the stories relating to Chatham.
Make a date with our social media channels and enjoy a weekly (virtual) private view when we take you from A – Z with Tattoo.
About the exhibition:
Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed offers a ground-breaking insight into the history of British tattooing. Featuring over 400 original artworks, photographs and historic artefacts, it tells a story that challenges the most deeply-held myths and pre-conceptions about tattooing.
From ruffians to royalty; from sailors to socialites; from pilgrims to punks: tattoos have been etched into bodies throughout British history. Displaying the work of major tattoo artists, including George Burchett, via the Bristol Tattoo Club, Alex Binnie and Lal Hardy, the exhibition showcases the largest gathering of real objects and original tattoo artwork ever assembled in the UK.
Cutting edge designers, leading academics and major private collectors have all come together to tell a story that challenges long-standing myths and preconceptions. The exhibition features items from three of the most important private collections of tattoo material in Britain – belonging to Paul ‘Rambo’ Ramsbottom, Willie Robinson, and Jimmie Skuse.
Delving into previously unseen private archives that reveal hidden histories, the exhibition includes the incredible story of Britain’s pioneering female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight, who was mentored by the world-famous, Chatham-based, Charlie Bell.
Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed has been curated by Dr Matt Lodder, lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Director of American Studies at the University of Essex, supported by co-curators Stuart Slade and Derryth Ridge of National Maritime Museum Cornwall.
In Tudor times, artists and writers created grotesque, fanciful images of ‘Ancient Britons’ with bright blue bodies and fierce body art. These were inspired by fantastical accounts of Pict warriors by Roman historians, who were horrified and fascinated by accounts of these apparently barbaric tribes.
Although this was probably non-permanent body painting, the idea of ‘ancient Britain’ and tattooed bodies was so powerful that it became fixed in the popular imagination.
The modern history of tattooing in Britain begins with pilgrim tattoos.
From the 17th century into the early 20th, it was common for wealthy travellers to the Holy Lands of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and holy sites in Italy to return home with tattoos. This could be considered the first sustained commercial tattoo trend for Westerners.
These religious images served as powerful markers of the depth of the pilgrms’ piety and faith, as well as souvenirs of the voyage of a lifetime. In 1862, even the future king of England, Edward VII, was tattooed as a pilgrim in Jerusalem.
These tattoos on wealthy, educated individuals challenge modern preconceptions that tattooing was only confined to particular classes or professions.
Until recently many popular history books claimed that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ tattooing in the Pacific islands during his famous voyages in the 1770s. This is not true. Tattooing existed in Britain long before Cook set sail.
Cook’s crew encountered tattooed populations on Tahiti and New Zealand and wrote about them extensively, to the fascination of those back home. Several of Cook’s crew were tattooed in the local manner. Some European travellers to the South Seas in the 18th century also chose Polynesian tattoos. But this had no wider impact on tattooing in Britain.
Pacific tattooing did travel back to Britain, though, in a much darker and more disturbing way; on the heads and skins of dead New Zealanders. These were often displayed in museums for the amusement of the paying public. Some sailors, including the draughtsman aboard Charles Darwin’s ship Beagle, even bound their travel boxes in the tattooed skin of dead Maori warriors.
His hands are tatowed, according to the mode in his native country. He is also marked, or tataowed, in some other parts, but they are hidden by his clothes.
Silicone Body Cast
Tihoti Farra Barff
What was your inspiration for this piece?
My inspiration for this piece is the nature in my home islands of Tahiti. This nature and the elements are always my inspiration. It is this nature that gave life to my ancestors and the culture and symbols that come from this that are the tools of my art form. The land and the water give life, the elements effect it, and the sun, moon, and stars are all a part of this and therefore become the basis for the symbols representing life, and the living art that tattooing is.
Every sailor was proficient with a needle. Some turned from darning socks and mending sails to mixing up a little gunpowder to make ink in order to prick marks on their bodies.
More systematic record keeping by the Royal Navy began to note descriptions of any distinguishing marks on sailors’ bodies, including tattoos. These records show designs that are very intimate; marks of love, loss and life events. Others demonstrate deeply held national identities, religious faith, and patriotic pride.
Many iconic tattoo designs still seen today, such as pierced hearts, can be traced back to the visual culture of life at sea at this time. Sailor tattoos reflected images found on coins, tobacco tins and etched onto other handicrafts, such as scrimshaw.
Like at sea, tattooing on dry land during the late Georgian and early Victorian period was an amateur affair, carried out in close-knit groups including among criminals and public schoolboys.
In 1868, Japan re-opened to trade with the West after centuries of isolation. Western taste became enthused by all things Japanese, and the Japanese aesthetic could soon be found on everything from textiles to silverware.
As tourists travelled to the Far East, many returned with tattoos. Wealthy travellers compared the incredible work of Japanese tattoo masters unfavourably with the rudimentary designs common on sailors back home. The interest among people with money created enough demand to make tattooing a viable profession.
In the 1880s, the first tattoo shops in Britain opened. This enabled paying customers to get Japanese designs or copies of their favourite paintings on their arms, chests, legs and backs.
Less exclusive artists copied smaller, more generic designs on all manner of clients. Journalists at the time certainly noticed the difference in quality between the most expensive and the more common artists.
The future King George V was famously tattooed in Yokohama and in Jerusalem in 1882.
Sutherland Macdonald (1860 – 1942) was the first high profile, professional tattoo artist in Britain, and probably the first to run a permanent shop for tattooing the general public. He invented an electric tattooing machine and achieved global fame as ‘the finest tattoo artist in the world’.
His work was remarkable, beautiful, and often enormous.
During the First World War tattooing established itself as a key part of British cultural life.
Tattooing was carried out at home and in the trenches. It was a marker of patriotism for those serving abroad, and a reminder for the wives and mothers left at home. After the Armistice, tattoo shops bustled with customers looking to memorialise great moments of personal loss.
Tattooing became quicker and easier following the popularisation of electric tattoo machines. Although it fell from favour amond the moneyed classes, tattooing survived as a commercial practice as it moved into wider fashion in the interwar period.
In the roaring twenties, tattooists began to decorate the scandalously revealed skin of young flapper girls. They also turned their talents to creating permanent makeup, rouging cheeks and lining lips with exclusive visitors to upscale London salons.
George Burchett (1872 – 1953) was the first tattoo artist to appear on television. He styled himself ‘The King of Tattooists’ and was often featured in the press and radio, and even on film. Throughout a career covering two world wars, he continued to be the premier artist to servicemen and their sweethearts in London.
Burchett was also a pioneer in cosmetic tattooing.
The fantastical sculpture by Anthony Bennet is inspired by ‘The Great Omi’, a tattooed man who performed at circuses and sideshows across Europe and America until the 1940s.
‘The Great Omi’ whose real name was Horace Ridler, was born in London in the late 19th century. Famously he walked into George Burchett’s tattoo shop in the late 1920s and requested, with the permission of his wife, to be tattooed all over with bold, black zebra-like stripes.
Omi would beguile paying customers with increasingly tall tales of the origins of his tattoos.
Tattooing Revival: Women's latest fad is to have some device tattooed on her arm or shoulders so that it is seen when she wears an evening dress.
Tattooing is rage in London society
When war loomed in the late 1930s, tattooists again found a roaring trade tattooing servicemen, their wives and girlfriends.
Wartime created a boom for tattooing; groups of strangers are thrown together and seek signs of mutual understanding. Starry-eyed young men and women seek to demonstrate the depth of their commitment to a far-away lover. Patriotic fervour spreads across all forms of art and design, and tattooing is no different.
As sailors cross the seas they collected new tattoos in far-away ports.
The movement of seamen around the globe during the Second World War encouraged a creative exchange between British artists and those in the USA and elsewhere, American tattoo styles – like much of American popular culture – spread around the world.
Sailor Jerry (real name Norman Collins) was an American tattoo artist working in Hawaii from the 1930s to the 70s. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, he was kept busy tattooing military men based on the island. Since his death in 1973 he has come to be seen as the iconic mid-century American tattooer. His designs are immediately recognisable around the world as exemplifying the best of the bold, graphic style of American tattoo art.
His work continues to influence tattoo artists working today.
There is something of a run on tattooists just now.
The demand for tattooing among men in the services, and quite a number of ATS Girls, is brisk. Apparently, the girls have a preference for men's names, flowers, and butterflies tattooed on their arms and legs.
Tattoo on body sculpture, 2016
What was your inspiration for this work of art?
I approached this piece with a view to representing the traditional aspects of tattooing. Since the event is at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall it was appropriate to adopt something of a nautical theme. I also wanted to represent Britain and hence I included strong heraldic imagery. Once I received the torso, I dropped my first idea – which was to use stencils – and instead created the design entirely freehand. I considered it vital that the entire design would flow and yet be complementary to the anatomy of the model.
The period after the Second World War was a dark time for tattooing. Tattoos had become stigmatised in society. At best they were looked down on as a disfiguring ‘low’ art. At worst they were a mark of criminality.
As men returned home from war, tattooing became visible to the public in a way it never had been before, but only on people whose bodies could be seen in everyday life – those working in manual professions. Though tattoos were not uncommon among middle and more upper class people, it was unlikely that such tattoos would ever be visible under stiff shirts and business suits. This reinforced the misconception, still common today, that tattooing was something confined to the working classes.
Stories about concentration camp tattooing also horrified the public, adding a stigma to the practice. A general trend away from decoration and superfluous ornamentation in fashion and design also helped tattoos fall from favour.
Despite this, a handful of artists kept tattooing alive as an artistic profession.
In the 1960s, Parliament sought to crack down on a tattooing trend among school aged children that had caused moral panic in the newspapers. Young people had been marking themselves with the names of pop stars, using needles and shoe-polish. Britain banned tattooing on under 18s in 1969.
In 1953 Les Skuse (1912 – 1973) founded the Bristol Tattoo Club. Its ambition was profound; to raise awareness about tattooing as an art form, and improve standards in British body art. Les created a global network of tattoo artists and enthusiasts, laying the foundations for what would become the modern tattoo community.
Les was the first British tattoo artist to exhibit his work in an art gallery. In 1972 Camden Arts Centre played host to an exhibition of his work – both on the walls and ‘in the flesh’.
Jessie Knight (1904 – 1992) was the first prominent female tattoo artist in Britain.
Jessie was the daughter of tattoo artist and circus performer ‘Sailor’ Charlie Knight. They were part of a father and daughter sharpshooting act which ended, allegedly, when he shot her in the shoulder.
She took over the family tattooing business in Wales aged 18 when her father returned to sea. Jessie set up an ran a number of successful tattoo shops and mentored another female tattoo artist, Winnie Ayres.
What will women think of next? Increasing numbers of young women are having spiders tattooed on their backs for luck.
There is all the difference in the world between some crude, inartistic design plastered about the arms of men we have seen (probably done under the influence of drink), and a small, neat design on the shoulder where it would only be seen under a transparent dress.
Charlie “Cash” Cooper was one of the most flamboyant and eccentric tattoo artists in Britain. Stories of his drunken exploits, extraordinary good nature and charisma are legendary.
Cash tattooed throughout the 1950’s and 60’s first in London’s Piccadilly and then in Manchester.
Born Charles John Overington in 1879, Charlie began a career as a comedy singer and dancer and worked the variety circuit. Around 1900, Charlie met James Ivory and they formed a duo known as Bell & Ivory. Ivory was also a tattooist. He tattooed his wife, Ethel, who performed on the circuit as a tattooed lady.
Around 1904 Charlie met Christine Duncan and he persuaded her to become fully tattooed for show purposes. Christine was only 14 at the time and Charlie took her to Southampton to tattooist Charles Knight to have the work done.
Charlie and Christine travelled for the next 30 years where Christine performed as Princess Christina and Charlie tattooed in the slide show. Their first son, Charles, was born in 1924.
Charlie Bell Jnr learned his skills from his father Charlie Snr, who after his colourful life as a showman, opened an amusement arcade and tattoo studio in Chatham. At first, Charlie Jnr didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps but worked as a machinist in the Shorts Brothers factory and later served in the army.
By the 1950s, Charlie Bell (Senior) had opened a tattoo studio in George Street, Chatham. This is where Jessie Knight served her apprenticeship. Young Charlie also learnt here and took over the business in 1957, when his father died aged 79.
Charlie Bell (Junior) was in demand as Chatham was full of sailors, soldiers and marines and, at that time, it was “one town – one tattooist”. The service personnel were sent all over the world, his fame spread and a trip to Chatham was never complete without a tattoo to mark the occasion.
In the early 1970s, Charlie’s business was thriving and, to meet demand, he brought in his son-in-law Andy Jay. At that time they ran two studios, one at the old Mayfair Cafe in The Brook, which was earmarked for demolition, and the studio in Rochester. This studio is still run by Andy Jay’s daughter and son-in-law. They are truly Chatham’s premiere tattooing family.
Charlie retired in 1988 and he spent his time in Spain playing golf. After a brief battle with cancer, he passed away in 2009 aged 86.
We are honoured that Charlie’s family has allowed us to share scans from the original flash that hung in Charlie’s studio. Please note that some images contain nudity.
My name is Terry I was 16 years old when I had my one an only tattoo by Charlie. This was back in mid July 1966. I went along with a friend who had already had the same tattoo. Sadly my friend was to loose his life in an industrial accident.
Charlies tattoo shop (they weren’t called parlours in those days) stood in a residential area which was on the site where the Pentagon Shopping Centre now stands. There was no need to make an appointment for a small tattoo like mine, just go along to the shop and take a seat. It was a bit like sitting in a barber shop, you waited your turn whilst watching other customers getting their tattoos.
Charlie could see I was a bit nervous, and he said “new customers normally let out a fart”.
Although the numbers of shops remained small, with a core client base who were mainly male and working class, the late ’70s and ’80s was a fertile and experimental period.
In the USA, artists such as Lyle Tuttle, Spider Web and Ed Hardy inspired British artists including Dennis Cockness, Ron Ackers and George Bone to get larger more complext tattoos themselves. These artists then persuaded a new generation of their customers to take up an expanded portfolio of design types. In this way, the industry entered its ‘post-modern’ period, where the old design staples found themselves alongside Japanese, graphic and painterly choices.
As designs diversified, so did the customer base. Tattooing was embraced by variety of subcultures, including punks, skinheads, rockers and a newly confident gay scene.
Lal Hardy’s (1958 – ) obsession with tattooing was formed in the 1970’s – an era of shocking, confrontational and vibrant music subcultures. Lal was able to channel the graphic energy of teddy boys, punk, rockability, psychobilly and skinhead culture into his tattooing.
He turned images from record sleeves and fanzine covers into a “new wave” of tattoo styles for a young, rebellious generation.
In the 1990s, the bright, sticker-book tattooing of the 1980s gave way to large blackwork.
Driven by developments in America, art-school trained tattooists including Alex Binnie began to turn Polynesian, North African and other ‘tribal’ designs into graphic art which transformed the contours of the entire body.
The visibility of tattooing in pop culture continued to grow. Pop stars like Robbie Williams and the Spice Girls, TV stars like Pamela Anderson and footballers such as David Beckham ensured that tattooed skin was always in the global media spotlight.
As customers got braver, tattooing became more eclectic and experimental than ever. These developments featured more extensive skin coverage, including the sleeves and back pieces which had been rare in the preceding decades.
Tattoo shops got bigger and brighter, with more artists working per shop, creating the blueprint of the modern studios we see today.
Alex Binnie’s (1959 – ) ground-breaking ‘neo tribal’ designs set the standards for the most popular tattoo style for the late 90s and early 2000s.
In 1993, Binnie founded Into You. This vibrant, multi-artist shop served as the staging post for much of the most innovative, era-defining tattooing in this country.
Tattoos are a living and uniquely three dimensional form of art. The exhibition responds to this by commissioning an innovative installation which literally brings the art off the gallery wall to create a ‘sculptural map’ of British tattoo art today.
The ‘100 Hands’, curated by Alice Snape of ‘Things and Ink’ magazine, is based around one hundred silicone arms, each tattooed with an original design by 100 of the leading tattoo artists working across the UK.
The artists and their ‘hands’ are being shared daily via the Historic Dockyard’s Instagram Stories.
Tattoo on body sculpture 2017
What was your inspiration for this work of art?
Fro the ‘Sun and the Sea’ arm, I was thinking about the Maritime Museum and Falmouth. I would visit Falmouth every summer as a child, so that’s what inspired the sun. But I also like things to be in balance, so that’s why for the other arm I used the moon in the same place.
For the other arm I wanted an opposite/cooler tone. I have the moon on the upper arm, with clouds as the main background and filler. A woman in the same place as the other arm, but a much more tired and sad expression.
The range of popular tattoo imagery began to narrow in the first decades of the 20th century. ‘Flash’ as these standardised sheets became known, provied customers with a selection of images to choose from. Tattooists traded copies of their flash with other artists, re-enforcing thsi small range of designs. As befitted the time, these images were usually patriotic or sentimental.
Don’t miss Charlie Bell’s flash in the section above.
Fraser named his studio after the Dry Docks located on site which opened on May 15 2018 and has had clients visit from all over the world.
What do they do?
The charity’s purpose is to empower and dignify breast cancer survivors with post mastectomy tattooing. They offer the highest standard of nipple tattoos possible from a qualified practitioner from a database of artists they have trained including providing options for funding the specialist treatment for those who need assistance.
How do they help?
The focus of the Nipple Innovation Project is to raise the awareness of the importance of permanent 3D nipple tattoos and decorative mastectomy tattoos being done by an experienced practitioner who is dedicated to providing the highest standard possible.
NIP aims to provide cancer survivors with a directory of artists throughout the UK who have been verified and are able to work within the parameters and achieve the highest standards set.
Find out more: https://www.nippletattoos.co.uk/
Meet our Local Verified tattooist: Nicole de Luna Tattoo Artist, Medway
Ink grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Hello and welcome I am Nicole (just Nic if you like).
I started my apprenticeship in tattooing at the age of 15, while trying to revise for my exams (G.C.S.E’s) and heading off to college to study a Btec in media make-up /Henna tattoo application, Prosthetics and Art media at the college of West Anglia (then called the Norfolk college of Arts & Technology). Upon the completion of this college course I embarked on my journey into the tattoo industry. I have worked across the U.K working at many prestigious tattoo conventions, while also working and guesting in studios worldwide.
I now have over 20 years experience in the tattoo industry, I decided it was time to give back to something that has given me the life I love. I dedicate my hard-earned experience to create realistic Areola restorative tattoos (3d nipple tattoos) and decorative mastectomy scar covering. I wish to honour people at different stages in their life, to help them to keep the memories that matter on skin, a visual record of life as it happens. Memorial tattoos to loved ones lost, beloved pets that are more than family. To help disguise scarring and self-harm, to help people wishing to not have to keep repeating that time in their lives.
Mental health and related issues are very important to me on a personal level, having lost loved ones to suicide and cancer , if I can help in a small way to heal anyone, that is now my life’s purpose.
Find out more here: https://www.lunaphasestudio.com/about
As with the rest of the world, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust is closely monitoring the situation around the global pandemic of COVID-19.
It is with sadness that following UK Government guidelines we have closed our visitor attraction to the public until further notice.
This closure also extends to Call the Midwife Official Location Tours.
Whilst outside of our control, we apologise for any inconvenience caused during this difficult time and would like to thank all our visitors for their understanding during this challenging period.
Last updated: 11 May 2020