Tattoos can be done anytime, if your budget allows. However, over 100 years ago, prices were not the only concern, you also had to be royalty or the son of a Prime Minister.
Out of the Exit 4 at Piccadilly Circus, on the left side, there is Jermyn Street – a quiet lane with shops on both sides. This is where the first tattooist – Sutherland Macdonald – started the business in the English capital. Fast forward 100 years later, tattoo studios are spread across every high street, particularly Camden High Street and Soho. It is easy to spot people that have been inked on their arms when they roll up shirt sleeves after work.
Nearly one in five Londoners have at least one tattoo and the proportion between males and females who get inked is not such a big difference, according to a survey conducted by Opinium Research. Moreover, nearly 40 per cent of UK office workers admitted to having tattoos, based on a report by the CV-Library a UK job site. Tattoos appear to gain more popularity among people working white-collar jobs, if the data are correct.
“I do not mind people seeing my tattoos,” said Tom Barners, a 39 year-old office worker. He has a couple of tattoos, including a Chinese symbol – for longevity – on his lower back; a Japanese symbol and some other ethnic images covering his entire arm.
“But back to the time when people like Sutherland Macdonald firstly started working, it was very much an elite thing to have,” said Jen Kavanagh, the curator of “London Tattoo” exhibition. To celebrate the once ‘elite’ form of art that has become a normal activity for almost everyone, the Museum of London displays the history of body art from the 1880s to the contemporary society.
A Brief of the tattoo history by Jen Kavanagh/Video: Yiwen Li
At the beginning of the history, the exhibition presents Sutherland Macdonald as the first tattooist in London in 1889. He was the first person to be registered as a tattoo artist at the Hammam Turkish Baths on Jermyn Street.
“Only important people such as royalty and the sons of Prime Ministers were the regular visitors,” Kavanagh said. Given that getting inked was an upper-class form of fashion and it represents an honourable status, the majority of Macdonald’s clients were from the elite group.
This might be hard for the modern generation to comprehend, as they get tattoos for all sorts of reasons. Nadia, 26, is really into tattoos. She got her first tattoo on her 18th birthday – a flower image on her foot. She says it is a symbol of her adulthood. Angela, 22, has only one tattoo – an image of three dots on her left wrist. The tattoo is in memory of her best friend who committed suicide. Some parents would tattoo their child’s name while couples prefer tattoos of places that mean different things to them. Others just do it for the sake of art.
Back in the day, however, in the 1930s to be exact, the restricted tattoo market opened to the general public. It was the time when George Burchett, the capital’s premier tattooist, took over the business from Macdonald. As shown on the image wall in the exhibition, Burchett was captured drawing tattoos on a female client’s tights in a picture. Since then, the people adorning tattoos expanded into the general public, including women and servicemen, and a diverse base of creatives such as the punks, rockers and skinheads.
However, in the following decades, a stigma developed against the individuals wearing tattoos. There were a number of myths that only sailors and criminals got tattoos and women who were inked were seen as sluts. In Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity published in the 1960s, he saw that tattooed people were considered as undesirable or deviant.
Although the stereotype has been inherited, the contemporary society is showing a higher tolerance towards it. Moreover, an increasing number of people in London argue that tattoos are a form of culture. (Take a glimpse of tattoo works and studios at the end of the article) “It is not just a certain type of people who get tattoos, it is men and women, people of different ages and different ethnicities,” Kavanagh said. Tattoos have gradually been developed into something mainstream in London.
It is a shame that Sutherland Macdonald’s workshop on Jermyn Street is no more. Though the tattoo culture expects to imprint further on the city with more people getting tattoos and more tattoo exhibitions taking place in London.
“For me as well as other enthusiasts, tattoos have become a lifestyle and part of the body,” Barners said.
Sub-edited by: Diana Odero
Photo Gallery – Tattoo works and studios: