I had my first tattoo at the age of 14, which was the age limit at George Burchett, who was an old man. It was quiet in his studio, and he talked to me whilst doing the tattoo. I thought it was great, and I liked what he did. I don’t remember feeling any pain at all.
Then the war started, a month later (September 1st 1939) I went to see him again. I was surprised I couldn’t get near the door there was crowds of guys, older than me who had volunteered for the army or navy, who had to get a tattoo on before being sent away.
I never did make it that day. I had to go up again later when things had toned down a bit. Instead of the 2/6d I went with first time, I had 7/6d for a big one. I got quite interested in tattoos and talked to the older men who I met up there. I visited several other old-timer tattooers around that time, but they were pretty poor generally.
Then I heard about George Bigmore who was a serious and good worker and clean. Pre war he had permission from the military to tour the army and navy camps working on the men. He never talked to anyone at length, but he took to me, and I used to see him every week. Eventually he sold me my first two machines and some colour, with strict instructions what to do or not to do.
He helped me a lot. He lived at the top of the road so he could see his shop from a distance. During the winter I used to go to his house to get him out, as during Nov, Dec, Jan, often I was the only person he saw that day as a client. He never used the thin flexible beading needles that most did then,
He did a single line with one thicker needle a non-flex type and used a cluster of 6 needles for shading and colour, carefully tied on the rod with cotton and he then covered over the cotton with sealing wax. It was easier to clean the rod of surface colour.
I never met any other tattooist that did that 40 years ago, it was a revolutionary idea, and all the other tattooists then tied the needle on with cotton and let the surplus colour dry on over it.
During the winter he had plenty of time to talk to me and instruct me. Eventually I went into the army and took my little box of gear with me. For 4 years I got my practise in on the other guys as I did it for nothing. I had plenty of clients and they couldn’t ask for their money back. The army didn’t object to me doing it, some places demanded money from me to pay for sports gear (a likely story) when I said I did it for nothing they said I’d better start charging or pack the tattooing up.
So I always put in for a transfer and usually never got bothered again. Particularly if I could get a corporal or sergeant interested, a few buckshee designs got me out of a lot of night guards and lousy jobs. After the war I had to do tattooing part time for a year or two because with so many men suddenly back looking for jobs there wasn’t the interest or the money for tattoos. It took several years before I could get any locals interested as tattooing as it was linked with war and conscription.
I took a chance and opened a small shop in a downtown-shopping lane. The rent was (30/-) £1.50. It seemed a lot at the time. Colours were very limited all English, mostly red and black and brown by mixing the two and a dubious yellow which always raised up in the sun.
There was an olive green a very dark Brunswick green you almost had to put your foot behind the machine to get it to take under the skin. Most clients didn’t want green anyway. Bigmore used to do all leaves with the outline and line out all the veins in the leaves and lightly grey shade over the top. So did I, it looked ok and was easier. It wasn’t until well after the war finished, that the USA colours started being used, which was for superior to ours.
Meanwhile I had progressed to a larger shop in Wenlock St. where I was for about 15 years or so, till redevelopment struck and I had to move to a shop on a very busy transport road. Handy for clients with pubs sweet shops cafes fish shops almost next door.
Hitchin Road for me was much better but it had its snags. I had a Pakistani landlord who was always sending members of his family round. If I had more than 6 guys waiting he used to want to put the rent up every other week. I also didn’t know until I had moved in and got things ready that a little old dear used to live in the rooms over the shop.
Weekdays she used to bring me down cups of strong tea and biscuits very nice, until the weekends when she used to get stoned. She would come staggering down the stairs, unwashed, hair standing up on end, looking like the bride of Frankenstein to tell me her life story. As she was over 70 it used to take a long time. She’d sit clutching a wine bottle until she passed out on the floor.
I used to get anyone who was handy to carry her back upstairs; we dumped her on the floor amid the empty bottles. One drunken weekend she tottered down when I was just finishing a tattoo on a young guy, when she saw him all pale skin and blonde hair, she started stroking his chest and fair hair. It frightened the life out of him. He told me later, the tattoo was nothing but “when that wrinkled old tipsy bird, got her hands on me I thought I was going to get sexually got at. I was lucky to escape with my trousers still on.”
I said “you’re lucky the other week I was putting a small bird on a girls chest and she came down and wanted one as well.” She was taking her blouse off when we had to restrain her, I said for gods sake don’t take your bra off, or the contents will drop down to your knees, and I’ll have to pick them up as well as you. Even the landlord wouldn’t go upstairs to collect his rent he got me to do it.
I didn’t realise what I was letting myself in when I took over his shop and trade was ok it was the side effect. I may have had quite times during the winter but it certainly wasn’t dull. What with drunken football fans coming in the front door and a wino women at the rear it’s a wonder I didn’t look 90.
After 6 years there I was under redevelopment again, they pulled all the shops down as my father was dying I stayed home to look after him. I may restart again, but I need a fresh town and faces, so I will move on shortly. After 38 years in the biz, I’ve had a fair crack of the whip.
In the past the prices stayed the same the labels got so grubby you could hardly read the prices. I’m amazed how they have gone up lately. I was doing full back pieces for £30 or less. I once tried to talk to the Great Omi about 1950 I thought he looked like a walking zebra, it was enough to put anyone off tattooing for life. I knew he had been done by Burchett he had Omi’s picture in his shop but he wouldn’t admit it, insisted it was forcibly done by barbaric Indians. I saw him several times after that but knowing I was a tattooist he wouldn’t even speak to me.
The above information, are taken from letters written by Len Wolf to the Tattoo Club of Great Britain in 1983-84. In one of these letters Len said that he stopped tattooing in 1980.
First published in Tattoo International Issue 153 June 1994.
Copyright Tattoo Club of Great Britain 1994 – 2009