I've thought a lot about tattooing over the years, what it means to me and how it sits within the wider culture - here are some of my attempts to make sense of it. All previously published in some form or another, they may throw some light on my thinking about this ancient, and hopefully still relevant art that we love.

Introduction to Tomas Tomas’s book “Explorations”

“As Ancient as Time, as Modern as Tomorrow”
Milton Zeis - tattoo artist and supplier, 1920’s

Tomas’s tattooing has to be some of the most interesting and innovative being done today, somehow it embodies it’s purest potential like nothing else. Almost like music, this is a tattooing that flows and ebbs endlessly over the body - leg, armpit, finger, breast, throat. The hollow in the small of the back gently opening out onto the smooth curve of the buttocks; temple, groin, knee; patterns that are at home anywhere. These geometries seem to outstrip the body they live on, growing endlessly, twisting out into the world in endless arcs and arabesques, colliding and reforming over limbs, necks and hands. They work so well because they are the patterns we all see when we close our eyes, when we stare too long in any direction, when we dose ourselves with psychedelics. They are also the patterns that nature provides - the camouflage on a fish or a tiger, the striations in rocks and crystals, what we see through a telescope or a microscope. They mimic nature without in anyway representing it or copying, but in the blink of an eye could they not be like flocks of birds swirling in the sky? Like spider webs in the morning light, like the sound of the trees rustling in the forest? They surround us constantly if only we care to look, and so, as in all the best art, Tomas isn’t really creating anything new, but bringing out and drawing our attention to what is already there.

Techno-primitive; this work spans the 10’s of thousands of years from when we slept in caves, squatted by fires and sought the divine in the intestines of animals, to a possible future in the stars. Our bodies re-engineered, our minds cyphers preserved in crystal banks, our future on a planet yet to be discovered; this work bridges that gap and brings the two somehow closer together. Tattooing has always involved blood and pain, it’s essential nature remains the same now as then; the impulse remains the same. Now, sitting in offices, on airplanes, clothed in synthetic fabrics, surrounded by machine made products and spending our time gazing into a screen isn’t tattooing all the more necessary? This work bridges that gap. Many of these patterns have come from within that screen, yet they are imprinted on the bodies that wear them in much the same way as it’s always been done; a needle, some ink and a willing body/mind.

Although Tomas’s references are almost entirely from without what we think of as traditional tattooing, this is without doubt “proper” tattooing. There is much being done today that draws references from many and varied sources, but some of it doesn’t really ring true. This does, aesthetically it’s all about the body - things fit in the way that the tattoos from Japan or the Pacific islands do, but without in any way copying them. Tomas has learnt his lessons well, and taken his work in an entirely new direction. He is intensely respectful of what has gone before and manages to pay homage to those traditions, whilst letting the work absolutely stand on it’s own. Yet whilst radical and innovative it manages to be unobtrusive and natural. Like a minimalist music that flows endlessly, it doesn’t have to shout out its presence, it brings you in, rewarding our attention rather than demanding it. So gaze at this collection of work and be amazed, be inspired; imagine yourself, one foot in the past, one in the future, spanning the history and possibilities of this, our chosen and much loved art – Tattoo.

From my piece in the Ron Athey book “Pleading in the Blood”

I remember the first time I saw Ron in the flesh so clearly (I’d seen him in print a number of times before). I was fresh off the plane from England on my first U.S. trip in around 1990. I was in L.A. to meet and get tattooed by my Tribal tattoo hero Leo Zuluetta and generally suck up the scene that I had seen and read about in London. The first night I was there I went to the famed Club Fuck, and there was Ron, naked apart from knee high boots, tight jocks, and afro wig. Tattooed up of course. What a combination! Tattoos and drag, sweaty and hard, dancing his ass off.

I’d been tattooing only a short while, but getting tattooed and thinking about it quite a few years longer. I’d been around in some of the 80’s clubs in London, Kinky Gerlinky and the like. I’d done my time in Torture Garden, I’d performed naked rolling in paint and blood for my artschool degree show, so I wasn’t totally naïve, I was just searching for the right people. I’d seen Ron and his gang in the likes of TattooTime magazine (seminal tattoo magazine published by Ed Hardy) and the book Modern Primitives, but here, right in front of me was the perfect representation of what I’d been looking for. An alternative way to be tattooed - not piece by piece, but as a whole, not a man with some tattoos, but a tattooed man. Ron particularly encapsulated that L.A. scene, he was, and remains, the perfect ideal of that time and place. A time when tattooing was still dangerous, when it was for criminals or outlaws; either literally on the run from the law, or placing oneself quite deliberately and permanently outside what was acceptable in polite society. For artists like ourselves it was the ultimate challenge,

I arrived, fresh, young and keen on the LA scene, and Ron and his compatriots were ripe for fresh influences and visions themselves. An added complication was Ron’s H.I.V. status, some of the more established L.A. tattooers were scared and unwilling to penetrate his tainted flesh. My previous flirtations in the messier side of performance art, coupled with my brief stint as a medical illustrator made this an irrelevance to me (I knew the score and Hep has been around forever and is far more contagious). Those were the days when H.I.V. status pretty much amounted to a death sentence, certainly in the popular imagination anyway. We had both watched friends die, those with “aids” and those willing to hang with such people were considered half dead already, so it was an environment when anything was possible and permitted, for what had one to loose? On the run myself from my British middle class background, and a London that bored me, I was hooked. As fellow artists both looking for fresh new territories we hit it off immediately, sealing the pact with an impressively large Borneo style throat piece. Followed up with my first major backpiece on his then lover’s (“Baby” Brian, R.I.P.) back, my entre into the L.A. tattoo scene of the time was assured.

Ron’s tattooing totally changed the ballposts. His arms by Leo Zuluetta are the perfect collaboration that good tattooing has to be. The ability of the artist to make the work, coupled with the vision of the wearer to push the boundaries of what has been seen before. It’s still rarely achieved, and it takes a rare combination to make it happen. It’s hard now to truly appreciate how groundbreaking Ron’s tattooing was at the time. The tribal tattooing being pioneered at the time was the “punk rock” of tattooing, a reaction to the overblown super detailed and slick, fantasy style tattooing that was prevalent at the time (there are those who think the time is right for that again! But that’s another story) Tribal work seems truer to the idea of what a tattoo should be, true to the medium, not trying to be something else. It’s raw, dramatic and visceral; it looks like what it is, like the skin has been punctured, like it HURTS, unlike some of the super slick work being done both then and now, which may as well not be a tattoo, but a computer graphic. Stripped of it’s essential power, it’s not a tattoo anymore, but a “skin illustration”.

Ron was willing, and has been throughout his career to really put himself out there in a way that remains really quite unusual. I would say that Ron undoubtedly used tattooing as part of his “work” - he was well aware of the effect it had on the people around him, and as a punk rock performance artist, living in the underbelly of the L.A. scene at the time tattooing was definitely one of the tools available. But looking at Ron, at his work, the stark drama of it, he definitely took it one stage further than just “getting a tattoo” He’s a good looking boy, and well aware of it, he has an imposing physical presence is very charismatic and powerful, he’s definitely the sort of man who turns heads, and probably did so from a young age. The decision to get heavily tattooed, including on the face (the first tattoo Bob Roberts did when he first moved back to L.A. from New York) took all that a step further. He was, and is, and pioneer in many ways, he has caused, and delighted in controversy. His tattooing has definitely played a part in that. The mainstream (and tattooing is now 100% a part of that) comes from the underground, in almost every field that’s the route, Art, Fashion, Music, even sport, environmental concerns. Ron getting the work he did, at the time he did, influenced the visual culture of the time, and that spread.

All art tries to move forward and better itself, as do we as humans, it’s a natural instinct. The question is how do we do that? As humans we try to be happy, or rich and famous, or wise. And we, as artists, struggle to perfect our work, to move forward, to find its essence, its purest form. For Ron his body and how it looks has played a big part in all of that, how he appears, his physical presence, the effect he has on the people around him is central. Whether we like it or not the way we look influences everything around us, it’s always been that way, it’s the human way, and Ron has taken that, worked with it and pushed it down our throats in a dramatic and very beautiful way. Ron’s tattoos are there on display all the time, so he is “working” as he walks down the street, making people think, challenging their expectations, and as the man that did some of his more visible tattooing I’m proud to be a part of that.

Ron, I salute you.
Alex Binnie

Raw Power - first published in “Sang Bleu”

Tattooing has gone in so many directions over the years; it’s hard to know where to begin. Where did it all start? What is the essential power of tattoo? So let’s get back to basics; tattooing is the breaking of the skin and the introduction of pigment so that it permanently marks it. That’s pretty potent stuff. The permanent altering of the body, rearranging its surface to suit the wearer’s personal inclinations, or the cultural context in which that particular body finds itself. It’s really quite unique in the spectrum of human experience, there’s nothing quite like it, so no wonder it’s so popular! It feels like we’re so overloaded with tattooing, and tattoo imagery these days that it’s easy to loose respect for it. It’s become so common it’s almost normal, it has been mainstreamed to a degree that is probably hard for those in their 20’s to fully realize. Tattooing now is literally everywhere. It’s weird! But at root it still holds its incredible power over us; just what is it that makes tattooing so compelling? We are born blank, a tabula rasa, empty, open, waiting for meaning and decoration. How amazing that we have this ability to change ourselves. Tattooing is something that has pretty much always been with us, changing forms, styles and meanings in different times, but always there as part of the human experience, it’s like a chameleon, changing its colours and forms over the years, re-arranging itself to suit time and circumstance. Like an actor with many faces it changes its function and values according to who is using it, depending on the context. It’s endlessly versatile, like a lover who can change her costume to suit the moment, tattooing has always been with us, and certainly always will, whether embraced or prohibited, because we have bodies, with minds and hands, and ink.

This issue is supposed to have a bit of a slant towards tribal tattooing, my feeling has been that over the last few years tribal work has been somewhat overlooked in the mad scramble for the super slick special effect, but for me tribal is where it’s at because it’s where the essential power of tattooing is at it’s rawest and most basic. There is less distraction by the super smooth technical side of the art where the viewer is overwhelmed by special effects, and we can come to a closer appreciation of what tattooing actually is. Ink in skin; in a Samoan Pe’a, or a Thai Buddhist tattoo you can actually see the individual prick marks, you really get a sense of how the ink has been forced into the flesh. Tattooing is by its very nature violent. It hurts, it’s messy, and your mother doesn’t like it (or at least she didn’t; now she probably has one!) Christianity and Islam have both banned it, so it’s pretty much ingrained in our consciousness that it’s bad. Hence of course it’s current popularity, because we all want to be bad now don’t we? Bad is the new good, look at Iggy in those awful insurance adverts. The good wants to suck up the bad and make it good, or make it seem bad by association. But because we have the idea that marking the body permanently is basically “wrong” we have to try and atone for its dark associations by making it beautiful, or slick. All that dark, gothic tattooing done by some artists HAS to be perfectly rendered, it has to be beautifully done, otherwise it’s just too much, too shocking, way too strong. The mallet of boars tusk, the shark tooth needle, the thorn bound to a stick, the thread of soot coved sinew drug though the skin, the stick bound with up to 48 needles; the pigment made from the scrapings inside a cooking pot, from mixing soot or boot polish with urine, from burning whale fat, these are some of the ways that tattoos used to be done. There is something so beautiful about a hand done Pe’a, or an old school Japanese back-piece, the fact that it’s a TATTOO , it’s clearly been punctured into the skin, its roughness is what makes it so beautiful.

Tribal work, and other traditional styles, seem truer to the idea of what a tattoo should be, true to the medium, not trying to be something else. I like my tattoos to look like a tattoo, some of the super slick work seen today may as well not be a tattoo, but a computer graphic–somehow it’s been stripped of it’s essential power, it’s not a tattoo anymore, but a “skin illustration”. I always loved the Bob Roberts line “that’s not tattooing, that’s taxidermy”, tattooing is more than JUST the introduction of pigment into the skin, some styles of work embody the idea better than others; the medium is inherent in the form.

Punk rock! We all love it; it’s almost the foundation of the culture that modern tattooing comes from. Punk reacted against what it saw as the over produced and slick early 70’s rock that preceded it, back to basics music, the idea that anyone could do it, the ideas and the raw power were what was important, not slick musicianship or production values. And here we are come full circle, with too much tattooing becoming more and more like overblown visual gloss, empty of real meaning or relevance, mere escapism. Plato says that everything is always seeking to perfect itself, to somehow find its perfect form. All art tries to move forward and better itself, as do we as humans, it’s a natural instinct. The question is how do we do that? As humans we try to be happy, or rich and famous, or wise. And we, as artists, struggle to perfect our work, to move forward, to find its essence, its purest form. Too much tattooing seems to do that by trying to be being technically perfect; clean lines, perfect colour, soft shading, unusual light effects. It feels like the only criteria on which people judge a tattoo is how well it’s done. Too much peering close up to inspect the smooth quality of the work, not enough standing back and feeling the force. Somehow the slicker the tattoo is the further removed it feels from its essential power–the ink and the blood, the raw physicality of cutting the body and introducing the pigment. Sometimes it feels like the only criteria on which a tattoo is judged is its technical mastery, which seems a shame since there are so many other ways to look at it. Is this REALLY what tattooing is all about, or is it just a distraction, a vanity? For me the more rough and ready styles–tribal work, prison tattooing, old school Japanese, come much closer to what tattooing actually IS. They embody its essence more clearly; they are truer, more real. Super clean tattooing seems too sanitized, like it’s trying to deny it’s self, trying to over prettify itself. I think the current popularity of palm of hand tattooing is attempting to address this, it’s bringing it back to basics, it clearly hurts a lot and it’s impossible to get a super slick result. It seems incredibly hardcore to the uninitiated, it’s a way of taking it away from the MTV crowd, it’s kind of like neck tattooing was 20yrs ago, something the mainstreamers wouldn’t dare get. The pain is cathartic; it makes you feel alive, real. Somehow the overblown slickness of some modern tattooing is attempting to deny its visceral reality, to over sanitize it. It’s always been a problem in art of how far you can take it, and in tattooing, like much other art it’s possible to take it all the way. That’s almost the problem, if it can be taken all the way, then where to go with it next? In fine arts the blank canvas, or throwing paint randomly at the canvas, John Cage and his 3 minutes silence, the Viennese actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s rumoured suicide in the name of art, or our own Lucky Rich’s tattooing his whole body black. Where to go? How to take it further? What is it in essence?

For me a real tattoo has a gutsy raw quality; it’s primal, basic, and probably a bit rough. Your mother (whose tattoo, if she has one, is all a bit clean and small and well done) still won’t like it, because it’s too big, too prominent, too real. It looks like what it is: punctured skin with ink rubbed in; it looks like it hurt, it looks like you earned it. It really IS a tattoo.

Sticking it to the Man - from “Handpoke Tattoo”, edited by Charles Boday

In common with plenty of my generation, my first encounter with tattooing was the self-administered handpoke. Luckily my first attempts in the back row of the school room mostly dropped out, but I was hooked. A decade or so later, after I’d received my first few machine tattoos, and when I was toying with the idea that this was something I could DO, I again turned to the self-made handpoked tattoo, this time with considerably more success. Using a tight bunch of sewing needles tied to a chopstick, I made a fairly large spiral tattoo on my calf. I’m still very proud of it. My first encounters with tattooing in the 70’s, which included being fascinated with the crude homemade tattoos on the arms of the fairground workers who came to our local town, and reading what is still one of my favorite books, Papillon, which has numerous tattooing references, primed me to admire these relatively crude, handmade marks.

Tattooing has gone broadly in two directions over the last couple of decades, since it has become more mainstream and commercial. On the one hand, it has become increasingly technically sophisticated: color realism, fancy shading techniques, and the use of computers in the design process. The other direction is towards what some have termed “low fi”, and in this it mirrors other contemporary art forms, where people are becoming increasingly bored with an over-reliance on technical wizardry. The handpoke tattoo embodies that perfectly; it’s a natural reaction to the other polarity: the slick and overblown. Call it punk rock if you like, it’s tattooing stripped of the superfluous. No electricity, no machine, no autoclave (you can throw the needles away), no color (generally). If you tattoo yourself - no gloves, no customer, no money. You could make your own ink (piss and burnt newspaper) and use any sharp implement. It’s stripped back to the basics, it’s the same as it was practiced thousands of years ago, and it can make you feel really connected to all of that history. All it retains is pain and permanence, the two fundamentals of the art.

To me, part of the beauty of handpoked tattoos is that in some sense you are “sticking it to the man” as well as in your/her/his leg/arm/head. As tattooing is being appropriated by the mainstream and becoming increasingly commercialized, to many it is no longer the mark of the outsider or rebel, but the unthinking mark of the sheep. Outside commercial interests are continually making inroads into “our” world. The endless process of taming, of dumbing down, of corporate thinking, seem to be taking over, and the handpoked tattoo is one little way of taking that back. It’s a way for us to re-own tattooing, for no matter that the handpoked tattoo can in fact be delicate and less painful, it has a rawness and immediacy that is compelling.

If tattooing has somewhat lost its edge, maybe these handpoke tattooers represent some kind of an alternative path, and if it all “goes down”, then these guys have the skills and techniques to keep on working!

My Introduction to “The Woodcut Portraits”

I have been tattooing for around 23 years, got my first tattoo around a decade before that, and had been thinking about it since my early teens, so tattooing has played an enormous role in most of my life. Goodness knows why or how that strange combination of art, permanence and transgression (for that was what it seemed when I was a child) captivated me, but it did with a vengeance, and has woven it’s way through much of my creative life ever since.

Printmaking has many parallels with tattooing, some most definite, some more tenuous, and this project has, in my mind at east, tied the two together.
Certainly tattooing is well connected to the Japanese print; the Japanese woodcut was possibly the pinnacle of the art, reaching it’s height of sophistication in the late 1800’s. Most Japanese style tattooing, which emerged around the same time and has continued until the present day, has it’s visual roots in the woodblock print. When Kuniyoshi published his illustrations for the incredibly popular 108 heroes of the Suikoden in 1827, he depicted many of them with fanciful full-body tattoos. These were then admired and copied by his public and became the template for the tattooing still being done today.
Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries would have had their first exposure to tattooing by viewing prints of natives drawn by the artists on board Captain Cook’s exploratory voyages of the late 1700’s. Cook took with him naturalists and artists to record what they had discovered, which included the exotic and often tattooed peoples encountered in such places as Tahiti, Hawaii and the Marquesas. These voyages into the unknown were well known and talked about by the general population. Books and printed illustrations (dry point engravings and later lithographs) were hungrily devoured by an eager public who were fascinated by stories of strange new lands and their exotic peoples. An illustration of a semi naked, tattooed native would have exerted a powerful fascination over an 18th century gentleman, and it is generally agreed that the history of modern western tattooing, along with the very word itself, originated at this time.

The black and white woodcut deals strictly in two tones. Black or white, it’s a binary code, an on/off switch. There are no mid-tones, no shading: it’s mark or no mark. One of the main ideas in this project is to see how a series of essentially abstract marks can build up a representation of reality. We know that our brains ‘make’ reality; our nervous systems collect the information around us and turn that into a concrete world, the world that we perceive. We also know that when it comes to faces, we are programmed even more strongly to interpret whatever stimuli is there into a face, so a fundamental idea of this project was to see how far I could push it and still have the design recognizable as a face. Will a series of lines, of squares, of much looser, almost random marks, work?

And why faces, why people? As an artist my impulse is to make work, and I wanted to get away from the drawn image, rather than WHAT shall I do next, I wanted it to be Who shall I do next. I wanted to work with the photographic image, so that the images lie somewhere between the mechanical and the handmade. This is my journey of learning this new medium. They are studies, variations on a theme, and so there is no need for any of them to be final, or complete; there is always the next one, and that gives a lot of freedom. Ten years ago I published 23 Sleeves, my 23 sleeve designs, which again allowed me the freedom to experiment and try out ideas without either committing them to skin, or feeling that one piece had to be final. Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations, 32 studies for keyboard, famously interpreted by Glenn Gould, and it seemed fitting to use that for inspiration. The very idea of the print is of the multiple, it is it’s essence; they’re about being more than one. They are indeed variations on a theme. Many of the print artists from Edo period japan produced large series of prints on a theme, and I wanted to align myself with that tradition.

These are “my” people, our family. Some I have known for decades, some just a few years; some very well, having worked alongside them for a long time, some much more casually; but all are people I have felt some real connection with. The vast majority are tattooers themselves, and lot of them have been heavily associated with my shop, Into You, over the years, indeed without some of these people the shop would not be what it is. Either through working with me, or being around, hanging out and influencing me, these people have shaped my world.

Of course this is not an attempt at a complete record of such people in my life, there are many who never made it in front of the camera; nor is it an objective record of tattooed people in the 21st century. But it is, in a way, a social document. A record of tattoo artists who clustered around the shop at this time, and could be looked at by future generations in much the same way that we look today at prints of tattooed people from the past. I started with the people that were immediately around me and slowly widened it from there. As the people I knew and liked entered my life I made a record of them. It had to be the right photograph of the right person, so plenty escaped, and though they are for the most part some of my nearest and dearest, there are a few random extras, and plenty of big fish who got away too.

I have come to love printmaking almost as much as tattooing. In both there is something about the medium that grabbed me, and in many ways it is the medium, and the processes involved in it, that has been my main inspiration. The medium interests me probably more than the message, and in my mind the two mirror and match each other well. They are both traditions with a long and complex history, both requiring a similar level of craft, skill and dedication. They are both very much about the handmade. They are crafts that require mastery, and they need a long and respectful relationship with their specific tools and traditions before the work reaches the necessary level of competence. They are, in short, not to be taken lightly.

In order to make any consistent work in any medium it is essential to enjoy the process. You’ve got to love it, and for me a big pleasure to be had with this is the cutting of the wood. It’s such a joy to feel the gouge in your hand cutting through the wood like the proverbial butter. Like tattooing, any mark is absolute; there is no room for error or adjustment. You live in the point of your blade, absolutely focused and in the present. Later to roll over the plate with that thick black ink, and to press the block into the paper using that gorgeous old Victorian ‘Columbian’ press, what a joy! The process is all very sensual; the feel of the wood, the sensation of cutting, the thick black ink, with it’s heavy oily smell. The thick piles of delicate Japanese paper, and that 19th century press, used by generations of craftsmen. It’s not a computer, that’s for sure!

So this is a record of my journey of how to make a woodcut. They are in the order in which I did them. So Tomas was the first woodcut that I did. And I loved it, it was a complete experiment and it worked, and I knew I was onto something. I tried to keep that feeling: I love that feeling of excitement that comes with not really knowing how things are going to turn out, and the relief print gives you that every time. Until you ink and print you are never really sure how things will look. As I progressed in the series I tried to push myself every time, not just to repeat a winning formula, and that resulted in some great images. Not every time of course. A few I didn’t like and abandoned, a few I liked enough but knew that a re-cut would get an even better result. But the vast majority I kept as they were: mistakes, blemishes and bits I plain didn’t like that much, intact.

So there you have it. Thirty-two portraits of my friends and colleagues – raw and simple, elaborate and complex; the discovery of a medium. Hopefully something for the time capsule, so future generations can see something of what we were up to!

Alex Binnie, 2012

My Introduction to the “London tattoo guide”

It’s 1977. I’m 17, and getting my first tattoo in a small booth in the Great Gear market on the Kings Rd, London. Home-made bondage strides and bleached hair de-rigueur! Fast forward 16 years: it’s 1993, I’m fresh back from my 2 year stint on the west coast of America, and I’m setting up possibly London’s first custom tattoo shop – Into You in Clerkenwell, EC1.

During my time on the London (and international) tattoo scene I’ve seen some monumental changes. It’s hard for people to realize just how different it was back then. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, pretty much all London tattooers operated as “lone wolves”. Guys (almost always men) on their own, in little booths on side streets, up stairs or basements, in the back of arcades or markets, quietly plying their trade and jealously guarding their secrets. The word ‘community’ didn’t exist; it was every man for himself. Not to say that the work was all bad - some of it by the late ‘80s was pretty amazing. Photos had started appearing from Japan and the U.S. west coast, and the first influences from the “tattoo Renaissance” were starting to be felt in Europe. George Bone and Dennis Cockell were pushing the envelope with large Japanese work, but the working space template was almost always the same - one artist, on his own, just possibly with an apprentice (but probably not! Why teach someone and create future competition?)

That’s hard to believe now when we look at the incredible work being done in some of the studios featured in this book. The norm now in London and other cities worldwide is a collective of like minded souls, sharing a workspace along with ideas and techniques. It seems to make so much more sense to work together with your peers and share not only rent and access to expensive equipment like autoclaves, stencil machines and photocopiers (all now essential; back in the day many “shops” may have had none of the above). To hang out, watch each other work, share tips and thoughts on technique, style, and working practices all seems perfectly normal now and has most likely helped make tattooing the vibrant art that it is today.

The tattoo shop as we have come to know it now was probably conceived in America. That’s certainly where I came across it first. Some of the tattoo shops in busy areas in major cities, or near naval or military bases in the past, needed to have several artists working at once to keep up with demand. As time went by and with the influence of people like Ed Hardy with his ground-breaking shops Realistic and the later Tattoo City, the tattoo shop as we now know it came into being. It seems a bit of a cliché, but at its best the tattoo shop really can be like a little family. The 23 years that I was lucky enough to “own” and hang out at Into You had to have been some of the best of my life. Being able to go to work, and not only do the work that you love, but be with people who really “get” you is quite wonderful. The shop is the best support network anyone could wish for, to hang out, work and party hard, tattoo each other after hours, travel together, it’s a beautiful thing, I’m so grateful to tattooing for having given me that.

Megacity London is one like no other - hard, fast and very expensive. A unique city with a history spanning well over 1000 years, it can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. Enormous malls, beautiful Georgian squares and ancient graveyards nestle next to each other. Crowds everywhere. Cars, lorries, bikes and people all jostling for space, it’s a lot to manage, whether living or working here. London has always been the city to come and make your fortune, or be broken on the wheel. It attracts so many different types. Everyone lives in London - artists, models and musicians certainly, but also museum directors and top flight lawyers. Let’s not forget the builders and cabbies! EVERYONE gets tattooed these days, and London has an amazingly large, diverse and interesting pool to draw from. To make it on the international tattoo scene you have to be in an international city, and London fits the bill like just a few others - New York, Paris, Tokyo. To make it here as a shop owner or worker is no mean feat and not for the faint hearted, the stakes are high, and so are the rewards, so to all those included here I salute you - you made it!

Alex Binnie, April 2017

My Introduction to the “Burning Bright”

My name is Alex Binnie. I’ve been making tattoos since the late 1980’s, a time before tattooing became the circus that it seems to have become now. I was lucky enough to work through, and be involved in, the golden age when tattooing “grew up” and became what it is you see today. Love it or loath it, it’s certainly very different now to what is was back then. I had a shop in Clerkenwell, London for 23 magical years, and now have a smaller one by the coast in Brighton, UK. I still tattoo part time and have always seen myself primarily as a tattoo artist, even though actual tattooing now takes up relatively little of my time. I could draw, so art school seemed a good idea in my late teens, in part to get my parents off my back. In fact I ended up doing performance art and music, just because it seemed more radical at the time, and after that I played in bands and did odd jobs while searching for a path. The most interesting thing I ended up doing was medical illustration. That came about through the odd route of operating theatre cleaner and then AV technician in a medical school. It was cool, no doubt about it, but in reality I was working for a big institution, and I’m a lone wolf at heart. I’d been getting tattooed for a few years, and when I realized I could actually DO this it took me over, and has never really left me. So I see myself as a tattooer who makes prints, and the two are forever intertwined for me.

I made a few silkscreen prints in art school, but it was really tattooing that bought me in a roundabout way to printmaking. The two avenues that opened up for me were the Japanese woodblock print and European engravings and lithographs. Pretty much ALL traditional Japanese tattooing is based on the classical woodblock print that reached it’s flowering during Edo period Japan (early 1600’s to mid 1800’s) and like so many other tattoo artists I ended up buying books on the subject and learning a little of it’s history and techniques. The imagery and technical mastery astonished me and took me on a journey that I am still traveling on today. The other route that got me hooked on the medium were the prints of tattooed “natives” that were produced by European artists from the mid 1700’s onwards. The exploratory voyages most famously made by Captain Cook opened up the eyes of the people at home to the wide world in what would become the colonies, and pre photography, the print was the medium that made that possible. Engravings and lithographs, often reproductions of original paintings, and sometimes rather fanciful portraits of exotic and often tattooed people started to appear in books and print shops in Europe, and in my early years of tattooing I trawled the antiquarian book and print shops in London and started a collection.

Although I liked to see myself as radical when I was younger, in many ways I’m probably quite conservative, and both tattooing and printmaking, paradoxically to some maybe, share rather old school conservative values. They value craft, dedication, constant learning and improvement. To be serious in either, one needs to really get to know and understand the medium and work in that tension between respecting tradition and breaking the rules. Neither one is “pure” expression, it’s not flinging paint at a canvas, or standing naked screaming into a void, they generally require a slower more considered approach. Both print and tattoo also share that quality of living completely in the moment, your attention is focused absolutely in the point of your needle/gouge. In either any “mistake” is permanent, there is no going back. Of course you can throw the block away, unlike a limb, but it’s very different to painting or drawing, where every mark can be quite tentative. There is something about the resistance of the flesh or wood that requires a firm definite hand, and the awkwardness of the tools (to the uninitiated) the firm grip required, somehow makes it work. Printmaking requires a well considered, step by step approach. You need a plan, it’s slow, the thought processes can take days to mature in your head. Both are very different to what many call “fine art” and possibly have more in common with the applied arts – textiles, woodwork, pottery. They exist in that hinterland between fine art and craft, a foot in each, questioning and respecting the values of both.

It is important to realize that I made all these prints, myself, by hand, in a printmaking studio. They are not computer printouts of artwork that was made by me, scanned, and reproduced. I’m not saying that’s necessarily all bad, it’s just not what I’m into. The first part of the book are mainly silkscreen prints (also known as serigraphy). Silkscreen printing originated in China, and came to the west initially in the late 18th century, but didn’t gain commercial popularity till the mid 20th century being used for advertising, posters and increasingly fine art as popularized by Andy Warhol. My work uses a mixture of working directly onto the screen, making paper stencils, exposing artwork onto the screen and making photographic stencils. All the work has been handpulled by me in editions of between just 5 and around 25. The later works are relief prints, both Woodcut and Linocut. The relief print originated again in China even earlier and came to Europe in the 13th century, the famous Gutenberg press being invented in the mid 15th century which revolutionized printing at the time. All the blocks have been hand carved and then printed by me, mainly on an antique press made in 1833. The black and white prints are just one block which can be printed just a few at a time, allowing me to “print on demand”. The two or three colour prints are mainly reduction, or “suicide” prints. The process here demands that you print the whole edition at once, as after each colour is printed the block is then re-cut, reprinted and so on, the block being slowly destroyed in the process.

I present here an overview, and many of the prints, that I produced between around 2000 till 2018. All my key works are here, most now sold out, and these have been photographed from my personal archive. As said, these prints have all been made by my own fair hands, in an open access print studio, in small editions. I have been learning, and following in the traditions of, a long craft tradition. Learning from master printmakers who have been printing, and teaching, for many decades. Although they have all been for sale, my printmaking (like my tattooing) has not been primarily a commercial venture, but an artistic adventure, a passion. One of the things I love about printmaking however, is the fact that they are produced in multiples, and many people can own and enjoy them for a relatively low cost. Although I’m fond of pointing out that they have been made without the use of computers, the new world of social media and online retail have made it easy to show and sell these works directly to my audience around the world in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago. So although the way these prints were made has remained largely unchanged for centuries, their means of presentation and sale have changed dramatically. Like it or not (and I don’t) the small print shop/gallery, like the independent bookshop or record shop have been largely bypassed by online sales, and for the small craftsman/artist like myself it’s incredible how my potential audience has opened up from the relatively small numbers that might come to a show in a gallery, or happen to pass by, to quite literally anyone in the entire world who owns a computer and has access to the internet. How the world has changed in the 30 or so years since I started on this path, let’s see what happens over the next 30.

Alex Binnie, Brighton, UK, December 2018