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Personal Post: How The Tattooing Began

Folk who know me in the flesh-and-blood world would probably not call me “heavily tattooed”, and that’s because most of those folk know the same selections of people that I do, people with full sleeves and the like. But I have a reasonable number of tattoos – upwards of twenty – and it would probably surprise the teenager I was, because fifteen years ago I was adamant I wasn’t going to get any.

Of course, fifteen years ago I was fourteen, and the majority of tattoos I’d seen were on my school friends in my dingy, worrisome lock-up school: they were self-done, with sewing needles and India Ink purloined from the art room (my art teacher had already started dosing the black ink with iodine when I arrived, and keeping it in the locked cupboard where the scalpels and huffable substances were stowed), and they were uniformly ugly. There was a horrid blotchy yin yang the size of a 1p coin on the cleavage of one friend, a sickly-looking and patchy “MUM” on the upper arm of another. My conclusion was, therefore, that tattoos were ugly and vile and the province of idiots, because I was also judgemental as hell at that age.

Perhaps if there had been a book of tattoo art knocking about our art room I might well have changed my mind; I was rather suggestible back then.

At any rate, I had no more intention of tattoos than of drinking, drugging, or engaging in lewd acts with members of the same sex (the opposite sex were fair game: I was a loser, not a nun). This might have remained the case had I not visited the hallowed land of Hay-on-Wye shortly after watching Velvet Goldmine and becoming obsessed with queer history.

Hay-on-Wye was on the way to my grandparents’ house, and we’d stopped there several times (when I almost invariably had to be pried away from the bookshelves and manhandled back into the car), but on this occasion I was milling through the upper rooms of what was clearly an entire house converted into a book heaven, when I stumbled across Who’s A Pretty Boy Then?.

I didn’t have enough money to buy it (I was 16: I didn’t have any money and my mother had already kicked up a stink about buying the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde for £3.50), a fact which becomes more and more annoying to me as I can’t seem to find it for a non-gouging price anywhere, but after I’d been pulled out of the bookshop and returned home, I ordered it from the local library.

Who’s A Pretty Boy Then is an odd miscellany of queer history, art, photography, ephemera, and notes – it was from here that I copied into a notebook the basic vocabulary of Polari – and one thing which struck me in particular was a linocut called “The Lord’s Dogs.” I have no access to the book, and have never been able to find the linocut anywhere else, and thus no idea who the artist might have been (if anyone does know I’d be really grateful to learn!). I’ve not had any luck so far, but did recently turn up a poem I’ve been hunting after for more than twenty years (All Along The South Coast by Jeremy Taylor), so I’m still holding out hope.

Captivated by this image, which showed in thick black a smirking angel urinating onto a hillock of bound men, I originally intended to paint it onto a t-shirt the way I had with the logo/title of Hole’s first album, Pretty on the Inside. Unfortunately for that plan, I am not blessed with a steady hand or the patience for cutting stencils, and so I merely photocopied the picture and traced over it, sans bound men, and sellotaped it to the inside front cover of my school diary.

I got my first tattoo on a Tuesday afternoon in a tattoo parlour called Eclipse, in Plymouth. I was 17, and it was spring. I had no classes between eleven in the morning and five at night, but the bus home took hours and wasn’t worth the effort. Purely on a whim I walked into Eclipse, clutching my traced design, and asked for a quote.

The beginnings of the Polytypch

the far left was the first: this photo was taken in 2002

It cost me £40 (which in the job I was at was two weeks’ wages), and I had to wait an hour for a slot to come up, which I didn’t appreciate at the time was an astronomically fast turn-around for a tattooist!

I scampered back to show it off to my classmates, this first tattoo of an angel pissing on my left shoulder-blade. My mother, naturally, was revolted – “Why couldn’t you have got something nice?” – but then she’s always borne body modification of any kind, including hair dye, with the aggravated patience of a lover of All Natural.

The next tattoo I got, which I had not intended to get either was – and this is why I mentioned it above – the logo/title of Hole’s first album, on my left hip. Since then I’ve been crawling along, adding designs: a whole polytypch of angels in different styles and poses across my back, a smattering of quotes over my arms, a cryptic number behind the ear, a vast black-and-white painting of St Sebastian down the leg. Every time I think I’m finished, I have another idea. The list of tattoos I want is long, and whenever something is knocked from it, something else takes its place.

The only problem I can see with it is that I will probably die long before I’m finished with this work in progress that is the canvas of my body.

EDIT (03/03/2012): Thanks to the delightful and always-helpful Cindy Rosenthal, who owns Whose A Pretty Boy, Then and looked up the name of the artist for me. The linocut The Lord’s Dogs was the work of one Robin Whitmore.

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