I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday, from Dennis Cockell’s studio, which was then (1985) in the Finchley Road. I knew I wanted to mark my official passage into adulthood, but I only had a vague idea of what to have done. I settled on a Chinese style tiger. The tattooist, Kevin, used the outline of a panther and drew the stripes in freehand. I told him to use every colour he had available, and for years it was a beautiful mass of yellow, orange, black and red. The colours faded over the years, of course, and at one time I was tempted to have it redone, but decided against it – after all, it was a signpost to my 18 year old self. I later noticed that Kathy Acker had a very similar piece, done at the same studio. I was in good company.
Not long after I came out (1994/5ish) I had my left thumb tattooed. A tattooist at Sacred Art in Stoke Newington did a freehand image in black ink, which looks like a cross between a piece of jewellery and an insect hugging my thumb.
My third tattoo is my favourite. It’s also the most powerful one I have. I had moved deeper into Hackney and life was getting heavy there – homophobic attacks were on the increase and there were regular shootings over drug turf. I needed some protection. The Helm of Awe was a fairly natural choice; it’s a striking image, an extremely powerful symbol originally used by Viking warriors, as protection, to induce fear in the enemy and also, I believe, as a compass. I added an eye at the centre to further enforce the reflection of the bad energy that was flowing around the streets. Steve at Into You tattoo studio in Clerkenwell took my scrawled drawing and turned it into what you see in the photo. It was he who added the glint in the eye.
The finished piece, on the top of my left arm, had an incredible affect on me. It took me some time to get used to the power of it. I could clearly see a projection of the tattoo some inches away from my arm and the blue-white shield it cast all around me. Bad energy flowed around, instead of through, me.
I had a fourth tattoo done by Beth at Shoreline in St Ives when I moved to Cornwall. It was a celebratory piece; three spirals surrounded by splashes of sea water. Placed on the top of my right arm, it nicely balances the fierce Helm of Awe. It signifies a more peaceful era of my life.
Photos by Teresa Knight