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Tattoo London: Under the Skin

The history of tattooing

Image: © Kate Berry

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Premiere of the new Tattoo London: Under the skin exhibition, which delves into the history of London’s tattoo pioneers, showing historic photos, interviews and a short film that shows life as an English tattoo artist.

From port workers of the 1750s with crudely drawn tattoos to what nowadays we know as the “Tattoo Culture” there is a massive step that you will be able to discover through the work of the most relevant tattooist of the country.


All along my visit, I could find some answers about the history of tattooing in London and find out about how professional skin art made its way to the capital. This could have not been possible without the presence of Matt Lodder, art historian and tattoo expert, followed by discussions with artists on contemporary practices and artworks commissioned by London tattoo studios Lal Hardy at New Wave, Alex Binnie at Into You, Claudia de Sabe at Seven Doors and Mo Coppoletta at The Family Business.

Apparently, everything started with Captain James Cook, at least in England. After the exhibition, I dedicated my time in a proper searching and discovered that the tattoo world is also and as any other subject, full of myths. So, as I know so far, everything about how the English history of tattoo started involve James Cook and his voyage to the Pacific Ocean, more specifically, Polynesia, in 1771. There, he got in touch with the “tattooed savages” and came back introducing the new word “tattoo”, derived from the Tahitian “tatau”, into the English vocabulary.
After that, all is history. Famous brits, from David Beckham to George V have all had needlework done. Yes, it seems that the King of the British Dominions and Emperor of India took his first steps into the skin ink following the move of his father, Edward VII, who got a Jerusalem Cross done in 1898.


Official portrait of Captain James Cook

New Zealander Tattoos

A lot of things happened during those days; from the first electric tattooing machine, based on Edison’s electric pen, to the first parlour opened in London in 1894, which was sadly burnt during the Blitz.

Anyway, by the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of town. Heavily tattooed people travelled with circuses and “freak Shows.”

Betty Broadbent, the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers Circus in the 1930s

During the years of and between the two world wars, tattoos declined in popularity. The general population held tattoo parlors in disrepute. The cultural view of tattooing was so poor for most of the century that tattooing went underground. There were no magazines or associations and tattoo suppliers rarely advertised their products.

Since the 1970s tattoos have become more socially acceptable, and fashionable among celebrities. Tattoos are less prominent on figures of authority, and the practice of tattooing by the elderly is still considered remarkable but they are definitely more popular and accepted than it has ever been. This rise in popularity has placed tattooists in the category of “fine artist”, making them garner a respect not seen for over 100 years. Current artists combine the tradition of tattooing with their personal style creating unique and phenomenal body art.

Words by Naomi. Project Manager at 400.

Tattoo London: Under the skin is a free exhibition running until the 8th May. It is located at the bottom of the stairs by the front entrance of the Museum of London.

If you are still hungry of more tattoo experience, there will be another taste of it at the Art Macabre life drawing salon, again at the Museum of London. This one will be on the 4th May and what you can expect is a life drawing salon session led by Art Macabre. You will be able of drawing on the model’s tattooed bodies, and the curator of the Tattoo London exhibition, Jen Kavanagh, will be giving a speech along with the chance to see the exhibition after-hours with an evening bar.