The work of Jess Yen, Wapping 2011.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


My mother lives in a small town in Surrey and in her local newsagents, I recently counted 40 different magazines devoted to the art of the tattoo.  It made me realise quite how popular tattooing has recently become.

It wasn't always that way.  Thirty years ago, when I worked on a big article on tattooing for the Face magazine, there were no such magazines.

At that time, it was still fairly rare to see decent examples of the tattooist's art in the UK.  And very little of the work one saw on the streets back then was particularly sophisticated.  Much of it had probably been done after the recipient had spent an evening drinking.  And by the looks of it, often the tattooists too.  In London, I photographed many skinheads who'd been subjected to the dubious attentions of one infamous, very ham-fisted scratcher (amateur tattooist) who worked, or so I was told, for a couple of cans of beer, from a room in a council flat.  His work was uniformly awful and there was an awful lot of it around.

Another tattooist interviewed for the Face article had worked in a travelling fair and only became a tattooist when a fairground friend died and he inherited his equipment.  I don't know if he'd ever learnt to draw or not but his only practise as a tattooist was from day one - on his customers.  In what would be very rare these days, he had only one tiny tattoo himself (under his wedding ring).  In my layman's view, his work wasn't too bad but that was probably more by luck than judgement.

Other than sailors and certain members of our Royal Family, adherents of the art back then were still mostly confined to recidivists and society's more fringe groups.  Or so it seemed.  The Face journalist and I visited the late Mr Sebastien (aka Alan Oversby) at his salon in Earls Court.   His clientele was almost exclusively gay and he showed us several thick portfolios of polaroids of men's tattooed genitalia.  There must have thousands.  But his clients were generally not from the same social demographic as the recidivists, bike gangs and the like.  He told us a lot of his clients were from the middle and upper classes.  Apparently a lot of his customers  worked at the British Foreign Office and this was at a time when homosexuality was still very much outlawed there (which didn't change until July '91).  I guess those tattoos might have a been a sort of covert signal.  Of course, if those signals were confined only to the genital region, any question regarding sexuality may, by the time they were seen, have been somewhat moot.

Back in the early '80s, besides Mr Sebastien, there were very few tattoo artists whose work stood out (no pun intended).

Lal Hardy and Dennis Cockell were two who were at the forefront of introducing tattoos to a younger, hipper crowd.  They were the fashionable tattooists that many of the pop stars and sportspeople of that era sought out.

Though I've never pretended to be any sort of expert, when I saw the work of 'Ian of Reading', about 1985, it was the first time I'd seen anything from the UK which seemed to me to take tattooing onto another level - a level which included more subtle colours, photorealism and far more delicate shading (as opposed to simply line work).

These days that standard of work seems to be everywhere.  At last months 7th International London Tattoo Convention, held at the Tobacco Dock in Wapping, there was some simply stunning work on display.

To my eye, far and away the best work on show was by Jess Yen (see above).  Originally from Taiwan, he now operates from his 'My Tattoo' shop located in Alhambra, California.  If you're thinking about having any work done, in my opinion you'd have to go a long way to find anyone better anywhere.  Mind you, Alhambra is quite a long way.

But hurry, his website suggests that he's booked up to two years in advance.  I trust you can see why.