When you began your career body modification was not as common as it is today; what made you get involved with the underground scene?
It was an accident really. I started out as a complete amateur and not a very good one either. I took my camera to a few punk gigs, started photographing punks and also a few teddy boys and never really looked back.
As a photographer, I was almost immediately successful. My punk photos were the first set of photos I’d ever done and they were printed using cat litter trays in my larder, which was only just big enough for me to squeeze into. They were shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and printed in the prestigious European photography magazine Zoom.
It was beginner’s luck. They weren’t great photos but they were very timely.
After which, I wanted to consolidate that success and find other youth groups to photograph. So I started documenting new romantics and skinheads. It was the skinheads and their proclivity for tattoos that led me down that path.
I did a cover story for Time Out, in the very early ‘80s, about the then popularity of the ‘scratcher' (unlicensed, amateur tattooist often working from home) and I made myself a little unpopular with some professional tattooists. A very fashionable tattooist of the time, Dennis Cockell, refused to let me take his photograph.
I do understand why. I wasn’t showing the tattoos in general in a particularly good light. But it was a big story and a lot of young kids had their lives ruined by one London scratcher in particular. I don’t see his work around now at all so maybe the Time Out story did more good than harm. I certainly hope so.
Alternatively, I did hear quite recently of another story about why that scratcher stopped operating. I don’t know if it’s true but the story did not end well for the scratcher.
But of course in the early ‘80s it wasn’t always easy, I’m sorry to say, to tell a professional tattooist from a scratcher. I interviewed a professional tattooist who only became one after inheriting a friend’s equipment. I asked him how he learnt? He told me "by practising." On whom I asked "on his early clients” he said. Maybe a better word than clients would have been "victims". I noticed he had no visible tattoos himself.
Back then, if you’d asked most of them to enter an art competition but to put their designs down on paper, probably 80% - 90% of them would have been pretty rubbish. IMHO most of the tattooists in the UK back then couldn’t really draw. Consequently good work, like that of 'Ian of Reading', really stood out back then.
I don’t think you could say that now. Not at all. Some of the art ones sees these days is astonishingly good, whatever surface it would be put on.
You've spent years photographing underground movements and outsiders. Did you ever think it would become a mainstream look?
To an outside observer, it may look like like I’ve spent years photographing underground movements and so-called outsiders but I don’t think that’s really true at all. I certainly don’t see myself as the English Charles Gatewood. I see myself as a documentary portrait photographer pure and simple. I’ll photograph anyone with either a beautiful or an interesting face or an interesting story to tell. And that is about as deep as I want to go. I just really enjoy photographing faces and what people wear, or don’t wear, and how they present themselves to the camera. And that can be a business man or a school dinner lady, I really don’t mind.
The fact is youth groups like punks and skinheads or outsiders like bikers, fetishists and the heavily tattooed, expect to be looked at and photographed, so my role has a greater legitimacy.
It would be much harder for me to photograph businessmen or school dinner ladies because they’d start off by questioning my whole purpose.
Actually, I did try to shoot businessmen in the City of London once and most of them wouldn’t even stop, let alone listen to what I had to say. A much ruder bunch than punks and the heavily tattooed.
And, incidentally, there are more handsome, good looking young men at a modern tattoo convention that any other event I’ve ever been to. It’s inversely proportional to the sort of men one sees at record collectors fairs.
But to answer the second part of your question - when I first got interested in tattooing I would have had no idea whatsoever that it would become so popular. I worked on an article about tattooing for The Face magazine around 1980/81 and I did a lot of research into the subject. At that time, I could find no magazines about tattooing and only about 3 books in the library.
For that article, I photographed as many mainstream people as I could find with tattoos and there really weren’t very many. I photographed the society photographer Lord Litchfield. He had a seahorse on his arm. He told me it was a family tradition. He was the Queen’s cousin so maybe she also has a seahorse… somewhere?
Recently I went into the small corner shop where my mum lives in leafy Surrey. I counted nearly 30 different tattoo magazines in that shop and it’s a very small shop. That sort of popularity is amazing. Also one of the cashiers in my mum’s local Sainsbury’s has big plugs in his ears. Back in 1980/81 he would have looked like a monster from outer space.
Whilst working on that Face article, the writer and I visited Mr Sebastian at his tattoo shop in Earls Court. Like Lord Litchfield, he’s sadly passed on now but he was a lovely guy and had once been an art teacher but he achieved national unwanted notoriety in 1987 over the ’Operation Spanner’ case.
His clientele was mostly gay men and, according to him, almost exclusively middle-class professionals. Doctors, architects, local government officials and many from the Foreign Office. He showed us several thick books full of polaroids of male genitalia that he’d decorated over the years. A lot of wings making the dicks into sort of flying monsters. And some of them really were. There were a lot of them. Hundreds, possibly into the low thousands. And all of them completely private. Or, one assumes, only to be seen by close friends.
When we got back outside, into the street, the writer, who I believe was an ex-convent girl, told me “I never knew penises grew that big”.
Why do you think tattoos have become so popular?
I think it’s because of the celebrity obsessed nature of modern popular culture. And the way that that has homogenised everything. Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out and twerks and suddenly the whole world is doing it.
With the iPhone generation everyone has a camera and at times it seems that everyone is obsessed by Facebook, Instagram and doing selfies.
So it’s much, much easier than it ever was to be seen in 2013 but it’s much, much harder to be truly different.
Apparently some of the primitive jungle tribes that were completely undiscovered until very recently are now just as computer literate as the rest of us. They’re sitting around twerking and doing selfies all day now too, no doubt.
I think that’s why the ancient arts of tattooing and body modification has now become so popular. It can give people the illusion that they are singular and different.
Not everyone is born beautiful. Or, for that matter, intelligent, talented or driven. For those people, maybe having great art on their body can do something for their self esteem. And why ever not?
What was the most interesting story behind a tattoo that you heard?
I don’t discuss people’s tattoos with them. And in truth I’m not interested in their tattoos and body modifications or the decisions they made before they got them done. My interest has always been in the people themselves and what the camera will reveal about them. That's the profound bit not my opinion of their art. My chatting to them won’t mean much, if anything, and it might hinder the exercise by encouraging people to try to live up to what they think I want.
All that interests me is the vérité quality of the photographic process and it’s better if I keep my rationalising and theorising out of the equation.
What would you consider to be the most extreme body modification that you've seen?
I saw Annie Sprinkle and a friend one night in the Vault in New York in the early ‘90s. The friend had both a penis and a vagina and though I won’t go into detail (in case you’re having your breakfast), both items appeared to be in working order.
Things have come on a long way since then of course. The Japanese Bagel Heads are a step too far in my opinion but I guess in another couple of decades that will surely seem quite tame.
Many people get tattooed on a whim; drunk on a night out or on holiday. Do you think these kind of tattoos differ from the kind people spend years building up?
Yes, of course. And for skinheads and other social sub groups, male bravado is a factor. Or for Suicide Girl type models, it will be a commercial decision. For those groups, becoming tattooed probably doesn’t make them any more interesting or fulfilled than they were before.
Thanks to Facebook, I’ve managed to reconnect with some of the facially tattooed skinheads I shot in the early '80s. They all seem to have regretted it. One, who is about to get his tattoos lasered off described it as being “like a 30 year sentence.”
But that’s not at all like someone who plans everything out and really saves up beforehand. I recently photographed a guy at Torture Garden who appeared to only have one tattoo but it was a kind or architectural design all up one side of his body, legs and arm. That was one of the best tattoos I’ve ever seen.
A friend, who is a very well known performance artist and fetish model, has ‘evil’ tattooed on the back of her left thigh and 'cunt' tattooed on the back of her right thigh. The lettering is about six inches high and it’s done in a beautiful script. She has the Chanel logo in each armpit and has a gorgeous, really big tattoo all over her back. She told me recently that she regretted all her tattoos with the one saving grace that almost all of them were not where she easily could see them herself.
I've also included a photograph form the early '80s because that seems an important part of my story. It won't be in my current show though. Although he had an swastika tattooed on his forehead, which he obviously regretted because he always tried to cover it up, he also wore a yin and yang badge. His name was 'Belsen'. I haven't seen him around in about 25 years.