In 1985, I paid a visit to Jock Liddel at his tattoo studio in the Kings Cross area of London, England – For an article I wrote of which appeared in ‘Tattoo International’ magazine issue 96 – At the time Jock was 65 years of age.
Jock has been tattooing for some 44 years now – with the past 15 years in his present location on the Pentonville Road, North London – And the first question I asked him was to how he first became interested in tattooing…
‘It was my Father who got me into the game as he was a part-time tattooist – and it used to fascinate me when I was a wee lad’
Jock first began tattooing in his native Scotland in a time when there were only a couple of tattoo artists working there – with Bert Vallar being the most well known.
‘I first started tattooing when I was 16 years old – And I used to go with the old man who travelled the fair grounds all over Scotland…and before that I was in the merchant navy from the age of 14′
And after Jock moved to London in 1948 – he began visiting George Burchett at his Waterloo Road address – and with Burchett’s help Jock soon began his professional tattooing career.
‘I purchased my first tattoo equipment from Burchett – but in those days there were very few colours and to get different shades you had to mix them yourself – With the one machine I bought from George being one of his machines that he encased in a wooden box – And the bloody thing would occasionally catch fire – It cost me about 3 or 4 quid back then’
Jock warmly recalls many of the great times he spent in George’s company.
‘He was without doubt the king of the tattooists in England – and he was the perfect gentleman – He tattooed kings and Queen’s from all over the world – He also tattooed the famous showman ‘The Great Omi’ – who I had the pleasure in meeting – And he was a lovely old man himself – Actually there’s a funny story how the name ‘The Great Omi’ came about – He was in Burchett’s studio one day and asked Burchett if it would be ok to pay for his latest tattoo the next week – and with that Burchett was supposed to have said as the Omi walked out ‘There goes the great omi (owe me) and he will be owing me until the day he dies’.
Jock also went on to say that…
‘After George (Burchett) died – his son Leslie took over the shop on Waterloo Road – and often after I had finished tattooing on a Saturday evening, I would call in to see Les – and a couple of times I found Les on the floor after he had beaten up and had his days takings stolen – which was bloody sad I tell you – seeing an old boy suffering in that way’.
Jock spent his first years in London working alone – until he struck up what was to be a lifetime friendship with two of the great characters of the British tattoo scene.
‘I tattooed for years in my house – and one day out of the blue I met Jack Zeek and Charlie (Cash) Cooper and we became known as the ‘Crazy Threesome’ – because I was a drinker and Cash was a better drinker then both me and Jack put together – And me and Cash got on so well that we tattooed together in a little shop in the Piccadilly Arcades in London for nearly seven years – before I decided to branch out on my own and I moved just around the corner from here and then to my present address where I am now in Pentonville Road – So I got my tattoo education from my father…Cash Cooper and Jack Zeek’.
Jock who at this time (1985) had been in his present location probably longer then any other tattooing studio in the centre of London and I asked him what sort of clientele visited his studio and what sort of work they go in for…
‘I get all sorts in here and the main stuff they go for is the tattooing I love doing the best – Love hearts…Mum & Dad…True Love and so on – very traditional style of work…I like seeing all the Japanese tattoos of course – but I don’t do any of it as it takes to long and my customers come in and want to spend around £10 to £15 pounds and be away again in 10 or 20 minutes – I keep my price’s reasonable because I do not believe in exploiting anyone – I’ve seen people come into my shop who have spent £70 to £80 pounds in the ‘Finchley Road…when I would have done the same design for £15 quid – And if you look around the tattoo scene today you will see all of the old timers like myself and Jack Zeek are all roughly in the same price range – where all the young ones coming up may one day price themselves out of the market’.
Tattoo artists all have a funny story to tell and I asked Jock what was his funniest tattooing experience…
‘One of the funniest things I remember was when I was out walking with my Father one day – when this bicycle came towards us and it had old Jacob Van Dyn riding it – with blood streaming down his face – as he had just been to Burchett’s place and had a red love heart tattooed on his nose’.
So having met ‘The Great Omi’ and ‘Jacob Van Dyn’ who were in their day two heavily tattooed showmen who had the rare distinction of having the whole of their face’s tattooed – I asked Jock what his views were of facial tattoo’s…
‘When the Omi…and Van Dyn were having their face’s tattooed (there was also some bloke in Manchester with tattoo’s on his face) – they were quite unique and if someone came in here and said they had seen someone on the South Coast with his face tattooed you knew it would be the Omi they were talking about – who I believe ended up living down Hailsham way somewhere – with the same being said about Jacob – if someone had seen a tattooed face in London – as he lived in Salvation Army hostels and was quite well known man in the area – Where as today you can leave my studio and walk around the streets of Kings Cross and you will come across both men and women with a ‘Doctor Martin’ boot…swallow or cobweb tattooed on their face – which not only do I think is totally wrong – but it annoys me that there are people out there who will do this sort of work just to make a quick few bob – which can in affect ruin a young guy or girls life – I can give you an example…
One day a skinhead came into here with a big plaster down the side of his face and I asked him if he had been to a football match thinking he had been fighting…but he said no…he had been trying to take a tattoo off his face of which he had done a couple of years before and was now wanting to get rid of it…by cutting it out with a razor blade – leaving him with a terrible scar – It looked terrible and getting back to today – I do believe the punks around here getting their face’s tattooed – is a case of just follow the leader with a lot of them’.
So getting back to ‘The Great Omi’ I asked if Jock knew why he had his face tattooed…
‘I don’t know why he did it – but I believe he was just an introvert who wanted to an extrovert…but of course in his case he want on to become one of the world’s highest paid showman’.
In all the years in the business Jock has seen many tattoo artists come and go…
‘One of the saddest things I can remember was seeing the way Cash Cooper went down…people used to go into his shop and sponge of him…as they all knew he liked a drink…So they would get him drunk and I heard stories that he sometimes paid his rent twice…plus other tales of him handing out money to his so called mates who never paid him back – So in the end I used to go his place (shop) and take his takings off him and give it back to him the next day when he was sober…which made me popular with a few of his so called friends – I can tell you’.
Jock then went on to tell me…who the tattoo artists he considers put on the best work he has seen…
‘In the old days…I would say George Burchett…Jack Zeek…Ben Gunn and Richie Mingins – With the present day artists being Pete Tracy of Stanmore and probably the best I’ve ever seen being George Bone in Hanwell, West London – You notice I have not picked any American artists…as you would have to pay something like £200 to £300 pounds for a tattoo where you would find in two or three years time that the outline and colour would have dropped out – You can come into my studio and believe me you’ll get a tattoo that will stay there forever’.
Jock who made some pretty controversial comments in this interview and to be fair and to save the publishers being sued I’ve had to leave a few things out…but Jock did go on to say what really bugged him in today’s tattooing world…
‘What really gets up my nose…is not the fact that people are starting up in their house’s…It’s how easy it is for them to get hold of tattooing equipment from the biker magazine’s and such like – Where as in the old days you never saw a book or a magazine advertising tattooing gear as it was a very secret organisation.
The way we used to do it…the way to buy equipment… was from another tattooist…and you had to prove to them that you really wanted to come into the business for all the right reasons – For example…if someone came to me asking where they could get tattooing equipment I would tell them they could buy it from me…but I would never sell any gear to anyone from Romford because ‘Cockney Paul’ works there or for that matter anywhere near an established tattoo artist – But I would sell stuff to someone like Felix Leu who came over to see me from Switzerland – And I’m glad I did because one day Felix’s son Filip will be the best tattoo artist in the world if he keeps it up…and it’s very satisfying for me to know that I started them off in the first place.
‘I’ll tell you another thing that gets up my goat…is when I hear that other tattoo artists tell people not to go down to Jock’s because he’s an old bastard – when I’m probably the first person who will help anyone out…when they need some help – My door is always open to anyone who wants to come in and talk sense – I’m not into people coming in here and saying I’ve seen your picture on someone’s wall…personally I don’t give a dam where they’ve seen pictures of me…but I welcome anyone who wants to come in for a smoke and a chat’.
I also asked Jock about some of the famous people that he had tattooed over the years…
‘I have tattooed a few famous people sure…but I don’t believe that they would appreciate me saying who they are and what and where they had their tattoo’s done’.
Jock also had to own opinions on tattoo conventions and for that matter tattooing museum’s…
‘I never go to conventions because of all the back stabbing…which incidentally it’s not the tattooists but the tattoo clientele who start the rumours and trouble…I had a guy in once who said that he was in Lal Hardy’s tattoo studio and Lal said I was an old bastard – and I agreed with him and then said…yes I phoned Lal up the other day and called him an old bastard too – and it shut the bloke right up…as he was probably just trying it on to get a cheaper tattoo from me his new found mate…Of course it was a load of old bollocks as me and Lal have been friends for years and if anything was said it would have been said jokingly anyway – As for museum’s…I believe the best way to benefit out of it…would be for Lionel Titchener (British Tattoo History Museum in Oxford, England) to pack his collection up in boxes and take it round to various exhibitions and show it off…..so all the public benefit out of it – But it is good that Lionel has gone to the bother of opening a tattooing museum in this country…because when I die none of my collection…which dates back some 40 years…will never go to any museum overseas…and it will definitely stay in Britain’.
It must be said that Jock came from the old school of tattooing – where you not only got tattooed – you also became privy to some good old story telling – surrounded by the magic and mystery of getting yourself marked.
And every time I sat in Jock’s shop – it was magical and I was mesmerised by the great man – who sure was larger then life – but a man who captivated me with his tales of tattooing history including the very famous tale of the skull that hung in his studio that Jock claimed to be his grandfathers – with Jock telling me that he was sitting in the shop one day when the phone rang and it was the local cemetery in Scotland where his grandfather was buried – and he was told that the graveyard was being dug up and new house’s were going to be built on the new cleared site and did he want his granddads body back – with Jock going on to tell me that he told them he would just have the skull and they could keep the rest of the bones – And thinking back – I never ever saw a working telephone in Jock’s and if there was one it never rang in all the time’s I visited the studio – Even the skull hanging up behind Jock with it’s long black hair reminded me of one of those dodgy plastic ones you used to see and win at the fun fair when it rolled into town.
But saying that some of my happiest times where spent at Jocks – which included me going and picking him up on a Wednesday evening to take him to my home where he would have dinner with me – my ex-wife Shelby and my baby daughter Nikkea – who Jock loved as she did him.
And it wasn’t hard to love him like a brother as although to be fair he wasn’t the greatest tattooist and his shop wasn’t the cleanest around – but he was a real tattooist and it was a real shop in regards to the history on those old walls – If only they could talk.
And many a time I would go to Jocks studio and sit there all day where we would just chat – whilst every old tom (prostitute) drug addict or wheeler and dealer dropped in to say hello or try to get something for nothing or sell us whatever they had to flog – and boy you wouldn’t believe who would pop in and who Jock looked after by throwing them a couple of bob or pleased them with a cheery word or two – including a woman I came to know as bootsie because of the tattoo’s on her face that consisted of ‘Doctor Martin’ boots (hence her nickname) – and I can still see bootsie in my mind now (25 years later) – As at one time she would have been a real looker – but back in the day I used to see her up at Jock’s she was working the meat rack just up around the corner – where all the pros and drug addicts used to ply their trade…and not only that – but I never ever saw her straight and every time she came into Jock’s place she always seemed to be in some fifth dimension.
Jocks price’s were fair and ok – So the tattoo’s weren’t a Robert Henandez…Paul Booth or an Ed Hardy – but to us back then a tattoo was an experience and a chance to sit with guy’s who smoked – chatted and listen to many highly unlikely stories and have a magical time….Jock was good to his customers and you knew you could go and get a dragon or a dragger done at his place and still have charge out of a twenty pound note to go and spend in the pub…or if you were like me and a good few others would save and use the change for the next tattoo whenever the mood took us.
Jock never did leave his tattooing collection to Lionel Titchener’s tattoo history museum – but he did near the end of his life go to a couple of tattooing conventions of which he thoroughly enjoyed. Jock also used to say that if ever he lost his shop it would be the end of him – and it wasn’t long after ‘British Rail’ who owned the building decided to move everybody out and redevelop the area in the mid 1990’s – when Jock passed away – taking a very big part of tattooing history along with him…A truly great man.
Other interesting little footnotes about arguably one of London’s great characters was that in the late 1980’s…I got to interview the great Felix Leu who recalled on tape that he…
started his tattooing career at Jocks tattoo studio in Kings Cross, London, England in 1978 – and Felix went on to recall that it was after a chance meeting with two guys in Yugoslavia – who for some reason or another thought that he was a tattoo artist and offered him money to tattoo them – that prompted Felix into phoning the only tattoo artist he knew of – and that artist was Jock – and Felix asked if Jock would teach him – Jock agreed and Felix set off for London with the whole of the Leu family in a van – arriving at Jock’s place – a few days later.
And in another taped interview I did with Jock in 1992…
He told me that he was sitting in his studio one afternoon when all of a sudden this tribe of people walked in – and it was Felix and his family – who asked him for a job as a tattooist – but he had never done a tattoo before – and according to Jock – he told Felix that he would teach him if he painted his studio – and this is what Felix did – after which he started to tattoo in Jock’s for a couple of days a week – as well as doing other odd jobs for Jock while he was there – And it must be said that Felix (sadly no longer with us) and the Leu family always have very nice words to say about big Jock whenever they are asked about this period in time – and the Leu’s would always visit Jock’s studio whenever possible…
Jock always used rotary machines and he told me once that his son Bill used to make them for him…Jack Ringo another old school British tattoo artist and legend – once said that he used to make rotary machines with Jock back in1961 – but I never did find out if Jock had a son called Bill or if this was one of his stories to stop anyone from asking about the machines – not that it mattered much as Jock would tell and sell you anything you wanted – you only had to ask – I do remember a guy called Bill who used to be Jocks driver and who cooked the grub in the studio as well as doing odd jobs around the place – Big lad he was…blond and over 6 feet tall…but whether he was Jocks boy or not I will never know.
Other honours bestowed on Jock came via the ‘Jock Liddell lifetime achievement award’ that was awarded to people who had done a great service to the tattooing industry at the ‘Dunstable Tattoo Expo’s’…And he once appeared on British TV’s quiz show ‘The Sale Of The Century’ where not only did he win…he also took all the prize’s home with him…something very few ever achieved.
Jock also tattooed part of the design on (at the time – the world’s most tattooed man) Tom Wooldridge ‘The Leopard Man’ and he also appeared in many newspaper and magazine articles…including clippings on how Jock (As did so many others) had the rights to the tattooed head of Jacob Van Dyn upon his death – Saying that of course…Ben Gunn, Cash Cooper, Jack Ringo, Ron Ackers and Micky Bloor also paid Van Dyn £5.00 pounds for the privilege of buying his tattooed head and face after his demise (no one ever got the head of course) – which got everyone a bit of cheap and free publicity in the newspapers of the day…Jock also appeared in the ‘Syracuse Herald’ on the 24th of December 1967…under the headline ‘Tattoo’s express inner self – London’s largest artist says’ which included a picture of Jock tattooing a customers arm.
Before John (Tattoo Jock) Liddel took up tattooing full time; he ran a coffee stall with his wife Peggy in Amhurst Road, Stoke Newington, London. And it was when Jock moved his family into 31A Yonge Road, Finsbury Park, N4 – that he decided to take up tattooing on a more serious level by going full time and calling himself Prof. Jock. With his most famous shop was being at 287 Pentonville Road, Kings Cross, London WC1, where he tattooed for many years…He also once worked from St Annes Road in the North London area of Tottenham…and nearing the end of his career he tattooed at 46a Alma Street in Sheerness, Kent. But it is the studio at Kings Cross where Jock is fondly remembered and known.
Jock also liked a sign or two in his studio…with one that always caught the eye being the one stating ‘Any woman entering this studio must expect to be treated with the same disrespect that I give my male customers’ which was really just a joke because believe me Jock might have looked like he could rip your head off…but he was one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet…and over the years I can recall Lal Hardy – Derek Campbell – Jimmy Jack – Ted Zeek – Andy Barber and a guy called Alan – who all worked the studio at one time or other including yours truly…and you can be assured that there was probably one or two others who got their start at Jocks place.
And if you can imagine what it was like in Jocks place…then read on – which is believe me a true story…I remember me and a couple of Jocks hanger-on’s all sat around one Monday and not a sausage came through the door until about half six that evening – and after Jock tattooed the guy he gave the twelve quid he took off the bloke to one of the guys and told him to go and get a big bargain bucket of ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ – Oi Oi we were going to eat – well that’s what we thought…until that is Jock polished off the whole lot without even offering any of us a chip…Then there were the stories that still to this day make me laugh whenever I think of them…With the first one being – when a young lad was in getting tattooed and Jock picked up his spray bottle and strayed the guys arm and washed it down…with the lad asking what was in the bottle with Jock replying ‘Rattlesnakes’ piss…to which the guy said where do you get that from – with Jock going on to tell him that he had a mate who worked in ‘London Zoo’ and each morning before he got to the studio he would stop off on the way and pick up a bottle or two…And another time when he told a woman – after she asked him what was the hardest tattoo he had ever done…that it was tattooing a tartan on a Scotsman’s balls…then there was the time this guy came in and started to look at the designs on the walls and after a good few minutes Jock asked what the guy was looking for…with the guy replying something not to big before picking out a small eagles head…in which Jock told him would be a fiver – but then the bloke said he had no money and Jock looked at him and said well what are you doing in here with no dough.
What’s in the bag…pork chops – the bloke replied…I’ll do the tattoo for the chops – and when the fella sat down to get himself ready – Jock told him he would have to wait and pulled the chops out of the carrier bag – before going over to his little ‘color gas’ cooking stove in the corner – and cooked them then ate them while he did the bloke’s tattoo – And you should have been there – as you could see the fat of the chops on Jocks fingers as he tattooed the guys arm…who I must say wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered by this strange sight…And there was plenty of other weird and wonderful things that went on there – including another time when this guy came in one afternoon and he asked Jock if he could get a tattoo for a butterfly badge that he had and all he had on him…and amazingly Jock looked at it and said – aye ok sit down and a couple of minutes later the guy who looked like an overflow hippy who had never quite got over ‘Woodstock’…No not the Woodstock just outside Oxford in England’s green and pleasant land – but the one near New York State in the sixties…left with the studio his new very little blue bird (just outline) tattoo on his hand of all place’s…with Jock preceding to spend the rest of the day trying to affix the butterfly to the side of one of his machines…And when you add that Jocks studio that sat above Kings Cross underground tube station…shook like an earthquake was taking place every time a train left its platform…just about sums up this place of so much tattoo history that it should have warranted a book being written about it and it’s proprietor instead of a short article…but there you go.
There are two other memories that always make’s me smile whenever I think about them – With the first coming via – who for me was and still is my tattooing God – Rob Robinson – who told me once that he used to go up to Jocks from time to time and on one occasion when he was there he asked him if he could get a tattoo and Jock replied yes of course he could – but in return Jock wanted Rob to tattoo him as well – So Rob did this elaborate neat tattoo on Jock’s arm and afterwards Jock returned the favour – which was all well and good until Rob looked and discovered that he was now wearing the tattooed words ‘I love Jock’ up high on the back his arm – And I remember seeing a wonderful photograph of Jock doing the tattoo on Rob – hanging in Rob’s studio in New Malden, Surrey many years later.
Then near to the end of Jock’s life there was the story that still to this day makes me laugh – And it is after Jock moved out of the studio and the place was being cleared – one of the guys clearing it noticed in one of the corners of the room where Jock tattooed – there was a plank of wood that went from the floor to three quarters up towards the ceiling and when the wood was pulled away – they found what they thought was a concrete block behind it and they couldn’t work out what it was until they started hitting it with a hammer – discovering that it was old dried up tissue paper – and what Jock must have been doing – was throwing the disregarded tissues up into the gap at the top of the wood – after wiping up the blood and cleaning down the customers arms and using it like a giant waste paper bin – Something that Jock must have been doing for years – For when it was finally removed it came down in lumps rather then in small piece’s and was rock solid – And I’m telling you that this stuff couldn’t have been made up as anyone who ever visited Jock’s will also have a story or two to tell.
The poem below is what I wrote when John (Jock) Liddel passed on into tattoo heaven in the mid 1990’s…Oh yes – Jock and his place was more then a tattooing studio to me – It was magic…
To think that I did know you
And what the tattoo scene has lost
That old Scottish roughen
Who tattooed at kings Cross
With the words I knew instantly
When I heard them on the phone
Can you spare some black ink
See I’ve left all mine at home
Designs too would be handy and needles if there free
Try to get here early as dinner is on me
And the stories that you told me made me laugh alright
Long after I was home and well into the night
And as hard as it is to say it – I don’t feel sad that’s cool
Because knowing you like I knew you
You’re probably laughing at us all
As in your life you did it – you did the bloody lot
You made yourself immortal you will never be forgot
So all I say is thank you – thank you for what you did
You helped me out a lot you know when I was just a kid
So ride off now to heaven knowing who you are
Yes big Jock from Scotland – Yes you were a star…
British tattooing legend Jock Liddel died on the 16th of February 1995 at his home in Kent, England – And he was cremated at ‘Vinters Park Crematorium’ Maidstone on the 24th of February (95).