From The Guardian
The modern twin-coil electromagnetic tattoo needle was patented in 1891 by one Samuel O'Riley (sometimes known as O'Reilly), an Irish-American tattooist working out of a barber's shop on Chatham Square in New York.
It worked – and, for that matter, still works – essentially like a doorbell, with two coils of wire wrapped around an iron core, two points, and a bar across the top that plunges down when power is applied to the coils, breaking the circuit, then springs back up again to recommence the cycle.
Imagine a sewing machine, without the thread.
What this means now for Will Wright, a 30-year-old landscape gardener flat on his back on a reclining chair in a handsome brick building on High Wycombe high street, is that three fine steel needles are puncturing his skin roughly 150 times a second. That's just for the initial scratch outline of the red kite Wright is having across his stomach. Later, it'll be a pack of nine needles, to darken the line; later still, a spade-shaped array of as many as 15 needles, a magnum, shading the bird's wings and underbelly.
Will doesn't feel much like chatting.
"It does hurt," he says. "I do it because it looks cool, full stop. No deep inner meanings or anything. But it does hurt. Some are worse than than others; it's worst where there's not much flesh, close to the bone. But basically, it all hurts. I really wish it didn't, but it does."
It can't hurt that much, though, because Sean "Woody" Wood, Jammes and Jay, three of the four tattooists in Woody's Tattoo Studio, have full diaries today (Woody and Jammes, in fact, are booked up until January). The fourth, Lee, who's taking care of the walk-ins, has already had to turn two people away. In a bright, white, unthreatening interior, all gleaming surfaces, comfy armchairs and select samples of tasteful tattoo art lining the walls, those machines are buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. "So," Woody tells Will, gravely. "You are about to suffer for my art. Are you ready, sir?"
Behind the counter, jovial Alison in reception is busy doling out good advice: "That Cheryl Cole thing on the side of the hand? Trust me, love, everyone's got one. Everyone. Same for Rihanna's star. And don't even mention Jordan's bow."
Tattoos, suddenly, are everywhere. According to one survey this month, a fifth of all British adults have now been inked (as contemporary usage has it). Among 16- to 44-year-olds, both men and women, the figure rises to 29%. Only 9% of over 60s have one, according to a survey of 1,000 adults by the Ask Jeeves website, but 16% of people aged between 30 and 44 have two. The survey, while not entirely scientific, is in line with a 2008 US study showing that 36% of Americans aged 18-25, 40% of those aged 26-40 and 10% of those aged 41-64 have a tattoo. America, Woody reckons, is "probably about a decade ahead in terms of popularity".
The celebs, of course, are there in force: Wayne Rooney has Just Enough Education to Perform (the title of a Stereophonics album), his wife Coleen's name and a Celtic motif on his right arm, a flag of St George and "English and Proud" on his left, and a pair of clasped palms and angel wings across his back. David Beckham has – at last count – that winged angel, his son's name and Victoria (in Hindi, spelled wrongly). Robbie Williams has several, including a lion, his grandad's name and a Maori tribal piece on his shoulder. Amy Winehouse has many more. Angelina Jolie has the coordinates of her children's birthplaces, "Know your rights" in English and Latin, a tiger, a shelf-load of quotations and a black cross, plus the names of her two divorced husbands (now covered over with new tattoos).
Once, this was a class thing: tattoos were for soldiers, sailors, bikers and criminals. Borderline deviant behaviour. Now the prime minister's wife has one (a dolphin, just below the ankle). According to the Tatler, Clifton Wrottesley, the 6th Lord Wrottesley, has the family crest tattooed on his posterior, which is also where the terribly well bred Emma Parker Bowles opted to have her kitten. Martha Swire, the Cathay Pacific heiress, has a shark on her foot. The artist Rachel Feinstein has "a vagina in her armpit, with ants emerging out of it killing a dragonfly on her shoulder". Although she did confide to Vogue that she rather regretted that.
All sorts of unlikely people have them. Some 14% of teachers are now tattooed, which is more than the 9% of servicemen and women who'll own up to one. Bank clerks, university lecturers, nuclear engineers. Tattooing has become a respectable high-street business. A decade ago, there were 300 tattoo parlours in Britain; now the estimate is 1,500-plus. There's even one in Selfridges. "When I was first setting up professionally, 17 or 18 years ago, the bank refused to lend to me," Woody says. "When I was doing this place up – it used to be the Conservative Club, which I like – the bank manager came back with me. He saw we had customers hanging from the rafters, and asked me how much I wanted and when I needed it by."
The whole business has plainly gone mainstream. The celebs, says the eloquent, prize-winning Mr Wood – who has been tattooing for 20 years and specialises in a sub-genre called Comic Book Biomechanical with special emphasis on Victorian-style Steam Punk – have helped, but they're "just as much symptom as cause". (The principal genres, should you be wondering, are Old-style, which is swallows and ships and roses and Gypsy girls; Tribal, which is Celtic, Chinese, Maori, Polynesian and Native American designs; Japanese, which is koi carp, geisha girls, ocean waves and the rest; and Custom, which is whatever the hell you want.)
For this is, Woody reckons, about much more than mere fashion. Tattooing is a genuine popular artform, and people are only now beginning to realise what it can bring to their lives. "A tattoo gives you something to live for," he says. "Why do you get up in the morning? To wear grey, to have your life ruled by train timetables? A tattoo offers you something personal and fun and exciting in a world that can be drab and grey. People's souls are crying out for that. Tattoos are great for finding out more about yourself, for meeting people, for getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror and thinking: look at that! A work of art, in progress."
Because the other thing that's changed about tatts, Woody says, is that these days people no longer talk about "'getting a tattoo' – a meaningless motif in the middle of nowhere, drifting and directionless. They talk about 'tattooing': a themed, long-term, coherent piece of artwork on their bodies. Something with direction. Something that's been thought about." Lee downstairs is a good example, Woody says: "He used to have the lot, British bulldog, union jack, TVR logo, the skulls, the dragon. Now that's all been replaced by a colourful marine scene. Tropical fish, corals. Over two sleeves, one integrated scene. Totally different story."
Likewise Stephen Burge, a gentle 31-year-old British Gas engineer, in to discuss his next piece of work. He has two spectacular sleeves, one a parade of English patriotic figures including a cavalier, a soldier from Wellington's army at Waterloo, and a second world war flying ace with goggles and cup of tea. "It is," he says, "the most addictive thing in the world. But if people ask me what to start with, I always say: something you can add to. Something that's the start of something." Steve reckons he's spent around £5,000 on ink over the last four or five years: "Less than if I'd smoked 20 a day."
Consequently, your entry-level tattooist these days is as likely to be a fine-arts graduate as a reformed teen tearaway like Lee (there aren't many artistic endeavours, Woody notes, that make you good money from the start). Downstairs, working on a pair of ravens for Fraser "Spike" Hall, a chef, Lee confesses: he got his first tattoo when he was 15 (under the little-known Tattooing of Minors Act 1969, the tattooing of a person under 18, even with parental permission, is an offence. Alison spends a lot of time checking and photocopying young customers' ID). "I've had most of the old stuff lasered off," Lee says. "You don't know what you want when you're 15, do you? Nor really when you're 18, for that matter. Personally, I think they should probably raise the age limit."
Tattoos, of course, go back a long way. Ötzi the Iceman, found in the Ötz valley in Austria, had 57 carbon tattoos – mostly simple dots and lines – and he lived 5,300 years ago. Julius Caesar was impressed by the elaborate tattoos of the Picts. More recently, 18th-century explorers such as James Cook brought back tales (and drawings) of the Polynesian islanders' spectacular inks, known as "tatau" and intended to ward off evil spirits. In common with increasing numbers of sailors, the mutineers on the Bounty had some fine work done; Fletcher Christian's buttocks were, apparently, a sight to behold.
Tattooing then underwent a brief wave of popularity among Europe's aristocracy: as a young prince, the future King George V had a large dragon tattooed on his arm on a visit to Japan in 1882, and Winston Churchill's mother, Clementine, had a discreet snake on her wrist. But it was the lower end of the market that really got the craze for ink: by the late 1800s, 90% of the British navy was tattooed. A complex iconography developed: a turtle meant you'd crossed the equator, an anchor the Atlantic, a dragon that you'd served on a China station. Bikers, and criminal gang members, followed suit.
Spike, 29, is wincing. He's having a couple of crows done on his back. "They're the Celtic guardian of love," he explains. "There's also a crane, which is long life and wisdom, and a phoenix, which is self explanatory. I got that one after my divorce, when I started to feel myself again. My tattoos tell the story of my life. I had the little thistle on my 18th, and my friends designed the tribals for my 21st. They're the story of me, really."
Jay's working on Tom and Susannah, 36 and 33, who teach in the Middle East and don't want their names known. They're having "Tom and Susannah" tattoed on their insteps, in Arabic. Carina Mehns, 28, from Germany, is a restaurant manager; she wants to record each of the countries where she's worked in an intricate floral theme going on down the length of her back. She's drawn it herself: a protea for South Africa, a cornflower for her native Germany, a moon orchid for Indonesia and a fern for New Zealand.
They'll willingly do the Rihanna star or the Rooney Celtic cross if they're asked to, but Woody's tattooists tend, in general, to prefer the customers in their late 20s, 30s and 40s: people who've given the matter a bit of thought. "Although," says Jay, "even that's changing: I had a lad come in a few weeks ago who booked a full day for his 18th birthday. He wanted to start work on a full sleeve. You'd never have seen that 10 years ago, or even five."
Thinking about it – about not just what you want, but whether you really want it at all, and why – would certainly prevent the extra pain of laser removal or reduction treatment, which is booming, business-wise, almost as much as tattooing itself.
Woody has a £60,000 Q-switched laser machine in an upstairs room, and both it and its operator, Sharon, are booked pretty much solid too. Lasering, which works best on darker tattoos, breaks down the ink particles under your skin. It's long (up to 15 10-30 minute sessions, at eight- or 10-week intervals), it hurts (those who have had it say it feels, at best, like someone repeatedly pinging your bare flesh fast and hard with a thick rubber band), and it costs money (starting at £30 per session). Even Woody describes the process as "like cooking sausages in a microwave". And then you'll probably only have reduced the tattoo enough to have another, more artistic one applied over the top – not removed it altogether. But lasering, too, is hugely popular: some 23% of British adults say they now regret the their tattoos. Jay is one of those: he once tattooed the name of a former girlfriend on a very personal part of his anatomy, then had to get it lasered off. Ouch.
Another is Cesc Martos Martinez, 38, who works in customer services at RBS. He was 17 when he got "a big tiger" tattoed on his upper forearm, badly. Then he got some tribal stuff done around it, to try to get the whole thing covered up, which went disastrously wrong. So now he's having laser work, which hurts like hell, but also starting work on a full sleeve, taking in lower and upper forearms and most of his underarm. A glutton for punishment? "I'm having a beautiful blue girl, surrounded by flowers," he says. "And in two stages, she's going to turn into a robot." Why, exactly? "It will look really, really nice."
Because Cesc's tattoo experiences have been so unhappy, Woody spends a couple of hours with him, probing, discussing options. He does the same with most customers, he says (in theory, Woody charges £80 an hour but works, mostly, by the day; his full sleeve or major back pieces can take up to six full-day sessions, once a month: perhaps 30 hours of tattooing). "It's a delicate negotiation, a very psychological business," he says. "You have to save the customer from himself, but also save yourself from heartache. The customer has to feel in control, that it's his idea; but you have to feel what you're doing is worthwhile. Tattooing still has a lot of maturing to do, and one of the things holding it back most at the moment is tattooists doing what customers want, without thinking, without creating."
After much redrafting, Woody transfers the finished drawing to a stencil and applies it to Cesc's lower forearm. The working surface is disinfected and sealed with clingfilm, the single-use needles taken out and slotted into the machine, the ink is in miniature plastic cups. Woody flexes his foot on the pedal, and the machine buzzes. "Ready?" he asks. "Let's start." The blood, tiny pin-points of it, seeps from Cesc, who smiles. "It's going to look really nice," he says.
Because for me Tim Commerford's are some of the best I've ever seen ;)