Doc Price is 86, but he still remembers the first tattoo he ever saw. It was a blue butterfly on the back of a sailor’s hand. “I thought, how magic is that? That you can make something that is put on somebody else’s skin for ever.”
He also remembers the first one he had done. Darrell Price, as he was then, was walking down Bute Street in Cardiff, aged about 13, when he saw a sign for tattooing in the window of a cafe. Inspired by the butterfly, he went in. The tattooist was called Billy Knight (whose daughter Jessie would go on to become a leading tattoo artist – and many years later tattooed an eagle on Doc Price’s arm). That first tattoo – a common first inking that cunningly incorporates an antidote to parental disapproval – was the word Mother. Doc Price remembers his mum’s reaction: “You haven’t been ta … oh yes, that’s lovely!”
Seventy-three years on, you can just about make it out. He rolls up his right sleeve and there it is, on his forearm, more of a smudge than a word. But then he licks a finger and rubs it so you can read it. He does the same on on his other arm, spitting a bunch of roses back to life. That is where Jessie Knight’s eagle once was, now covered up with the roses. The roses were done by Doc’s son Bill, who is on the other side of the room, inking a boxer on to the calf of a young man named Ben.
I am spending the morning at Doc Price & Bill Price Tattooing, their studio on Union Street in Plymouth, where father and son work together. Doc has worked on Union Street for almost 50 years. During this time, tattooing in the UK has gone from subculture to mainstream. It is estimated that one in five Brits have them – including David Dimbleby, Felicity Kendal, Helen Mirren and Jacob Rees-Mogg … OK, so the last might not be true, but he has been the subject of one.
Doc’s studio is in one of the most deprived areas in Plymouth; the shop has yellow ironwork over the windows to protect the glass – and the Prices – from flying beer bottles. Across the road, the Palace Theatre, once magnificent but now disused, begs forlornly for love and attention, and, mostly, money.
Inside the studio, though, there is colour everywhere. Along with masks and a didgeridoo, the walls are covered in pictures, designs, ideas and motifs: theirs, others’, old school, new school, simple, intricate, monochrome, Japanese, religious, pagan, comedy, memorial, crucifixes, swallows, panthers, butterflies.
“Try one,” Doc says, flashing a wicked smile full of gold teeth. “Have something on your throat, like a big bat. Your colleagues would be so impressed.”
I have come open-minded, not planning to have a tattoo done, not ruling it out, but almost certainly not diving in with a big throat bat. Not being tattooed has always been a regret. Fifty-three is not too late to start, says Doc, but Bill says my fair, freckled skin could only take something simple.
Doc looks younger than his years. He has practised judo, aikido and kendo most of his life, is interested in all aspects of Japanese culture, wears a tenugui (a Japanese cotton cloth) around his neck. He is not sure if he is the oldest tattooist in the world. There was a tattoo artist in New York, Thom DeVita, but he died last year, aged 85. And there are rumours of a woman in the Burmese mountains who is said to be 101. Doc is definitely the oldest in Europe, he says. And he reckons he has covered around 28 acres of skin.
He wasn’t much of a learner at school: he is dyslexic, he says, although they didn’t know about dyslexia then. But he liked drawing and was good at it. “I thought I could use my skill at drawing to become a tattooer. I say ‘tattooer’, not ‘tattoo artist’. Artists are people capable of making art – a tattooer is just a man who makes tattoos.”
Doc Price with his son Bill outside their tattoo studio in Plymouth. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian
Before coming to Plymouth, I spoke to Matt Lodder, senior lecturer in art history at the University of Essex, who put together the British Tattoo Art Revealed exhibition now on in Bristol. Lodder says if art history is about understanding people and culture from the art they made and the responses to it, it is even more true of tattooing than painting and sculpture, because they are “the images that really matter to people. They tell things about their most fundamental sensibility, whether it’s their love and lusts, or hate, or patriotism, or the art they really engage with, or the music they love, or whatever.”
Lodder cautions against, and is frustrated by, the misconception that tattooing used to be for sailors and that it has only recently become something the upper classes or women do. He gives me a potted history of tattooing in Britain, starting with pilgrims returning with religious tats from the Holy Land in the early 17th century. “There’s an idea that somehow Captain Cook discovered tattooing in the Pacific in the late 18th century, but that’s absolutely not true; there was plenty of tattooing in Britain before that.”
In the 1870s and 80s, says Lodder, Japan became a popular destination for wealthy travellers, who would return with tattoos, and the fashion spread so that, by the early 1880s, tattoo shops were opening in London for the upper middle classes, mainly men, some women. Samantha Cameron was nowhere close to being the first posh woman to get inked.
“People who aren’t tattooed always find tattooing slightly strange, and that will always be the case,” says Lodder. But in this country, at least, he says, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that a heavy stigma developed.
In Union Street, Doc Price – who Lodder calls a “legend” – is giving me the history of his working life. Self-taught, he began by tattooing workmates at the building sites where he was employed. “I’m a qualified bricklayer,” he says. “Kind of qualified,” he adds, flashing gold again.
His first shop was in Barry Island in South Wales. What kind of things was he tattooing? “I always stayed mainstream: Mother and Father, love, motifs really, all the sort of stuff you see,” he says indicating his designs on the wall. “Roses, eagles, skulls, tigers heads, horses, medieval symbols, panthers, swallows.”
He married and they had Bill. Then the family moved to South Africa, but the ship with all their stuff aboard hit a reef coming into Cape Town and sank. Because of the biscuit tins of pigment in Doc Price’s luggage, the sea turned red and green, he says – he saw it on a newsreel. Then it was off to Sydney, where Price had a shop called Bucket of Blood.
Around 1970, the family came back to Britain and settled in Plymouth because, although it was a big naval town, there weren’t any other tattooists working there. Well, there had been someone, but he wasn’t any good. “He used to do a swallow that looked more like a coat hanger,” shouts Bill, now 57, from across the room.
Then Bill got into tattooing. Of course, he had a choice says his father: “The back of a dustcart, working hard, outdoors in the winter, or he could come and sit in the warm with me.” At the age of about six, Bill did his first tattoo, on his dad. Here it is, not far from Mother, licked and rubbed back to life, a swallow as it happens, not bad, but not entirely un-coat-hanger-like. The boxer on Ben’s calf is coming along nicely – a delicate, intricate drawing in a retro style, more of a 1920s gentleman pugilist than a boxer.
Doc Price did get a lot of sailors coming in, and “pavement princesses” (around the corner, there was a brothel, now a hostel for the homeless). The strangest thing he has done is to tattoo a man’s will on his back. Then there was the well-spoken man who said he was from the secret service and wanted a scar tattooed above his eye because he was going to Northern Ireland. Price saw he had a handgun in his case and called the police; it turned out the man had been in the army, but had gone off the rails.
Any mistakes? Too many “m”s in “commando” once (or was it too few?) on a marine. It had to be covered with a garland of laurel leaves. These days, a lot of Doc Price’s time is spent covering up bad work, or names of people no longer loved. There was a woman in this morning who had just got divorced and wanted her ex’s name removed from her body. Doc Price recommended roses – you can get a lot of colour and different shapes into roses and they are much cheaper than laser treatment.
They have more women than men coming in now. Price reckons the ratio is about 60: 40. “Now, if a girl hasn’t got a tattoo, she’s not important to herself,” he says. “It’s very powerful now, with all the social media, the telephones and the tweeting and all the rest, influences of partners and friends and peers. Tattooing right now is probably at the zenith – in this town there’s nearly 30 shops.”
It’s about self-identification he says. “It’s a bit difficult to describe, but the reality is there is no person here, only the one that you think exists, and this establishes identity. A tattoo identifies the person I think I am.” He recommends I look up the work of a man named Tony Parsons – not the journalist and writer, who may have had the name Julie covered over a with a rose at some point – but another Tony Parsons who teaches something called the Open Secret, about nondualism.
Lodder isn’t much fussed about why people get tattoos. “There are as many answers to that as there are individual people,” he says. “Some people get tattooed to pass the time, some because they’re drunk, some get tattooed as therapy, as memorial, and there’s obviously been tattooing in places where uniforms are present, whether that’s prison or the army or premiership football. Some people get tattooed because they just love the aesthetic and the culture of it, and all the kind of mythological romance that goes with that, which is where I guess I’m from. Most heavily tattooed people are like that. They just fall in love with the magic of this picture you can’t rub off.”
Lodder gets a little tired of the permanence question: what are you going to do when you’re older? “It’s paradoxical, because it often comes with sort of: ‘You’ll regret it when you’re older, change your mind, how dare you be so in thrall to fashion.’ But then the implication is also: ‘How dare you be so not in thrall to fashion that you’re doing something that’s going to go out of fashion and still be with you.’ You’re sort of being accused of contradictory things.”
Lodder is more concerned by what people are having tattooed, how those images relate to the times and broader visual culture, such as the rise in patriotic tattoos – bulldogs and flags – around the time of the Falklands war, for example. (He hasn’t researched how Brexit has affected the nation’s skin.) We have been through a few years of very black, scratchy-looking stuff that came from some books that tattooists brought out in the early 2000s. “Now, the super-cool kids are getting 90s tattoos again, spiky, tribal stuff. Like 90s music is coming back and 90s haircuts are coming back.”
I’m not a super-cool kid, so Lodder recommends a nice old design, postwar, working-class, classic Doc Price – daggers, panthers, ladies’ heads, that kind of thing. No mention of throat bats.
Price won’t tattoo someone’s face, he says, unless he’s known the person for years, and they have had a lot of work done. “If they’re just coming in to impress someone, obviously we wouldn’t.”
Why does he think someone would want to tattoo their face? “I don’t know. I think again, it’s lack of self identification: this is my tattoo, this must be me and ‘me’ must be real. There is no real me in anybody, but there is a sense of being real.”
Nor will he tattoo anyone who is drunk, but that might have more to do with self-preservation than morality. “If you start, you regret it instantly because they’re sick over you. We haven’t had a drunk in four years, have we Bill?”
So, Doc Price, asks: “What’s it to be, Sam?” He shows me his enormous collection of tattoo machines, some of which he made himself. I’m torn. I was thinking of an anchor, because I like ships and the sea, and this is Plymouth. But now I’m also thinking about a panther, given that it is his speciality, and he says he could knock one out quick. Could I carry off a panther? Could my pale, old, sun-damaged skin take it, or would it end up as a smudge? Or what about a beautiful magical blue butterfly that came with me everywhere? I’ve waited this long, there’s no rush. I need to think about it a little more.