Skin: Tattoo, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

“When we said about having my back tattooed, Dave’s first words to me were – you only have one back, are you sure?”


Bryn chose to transform the skin on his back with a large tattoo. David from the Crows Nest tattoo studio in Brighton made a design based on a painting by Salvador Dali. The tattoo was applied in stages over a number of weeks. The process was documented with a series of photographs and interviews, made before, during, and after the tattoo was done.

What’s it like being a tattoo artist? 

The first thing you do in the morning is open everything up. Clean the place, the ink does tend to get everywhere, so you have to clean the floor and the work surfaces.  The needles we make up, use once and dispose, so they have to be made up in the morning and that involves soldering different types of needles together in different configurations, then soldering them onto needle bars, running them through the ultrasonic which cleans them, then put them into the autoclave oven along with all your tubes and your tips so everything’s sterilised for the day’s work.

To do a tattoo properly you’ve only got to break the surface of the skin. It doesn’t actually go in that deep and all you’re doing is moving the needle to a little pot of ink and then putting it on the skin. You do a line one to two inches long, wipe it down with some antiseptic or just a cloth, a wet cloth, put some more ink in the machine and carry on. It’s not like drawing, that’s the difference. People will say “I want to do this I’m a good drawer”. So what? It’s not like drawing. It’s a completely different form of drawing.

You have to work in stages of an inch or so at a time. Working usually backwards from where you’d rather finish. If I was to draw a face on a piece of paper I would start perhaps around by the eyes, whereas if I was to tattoo a portrait of a face on your arm, I’d probably start around the bottom of the neck working up towards the chin. The process is completely different.

When I’ve finished a tattoo I break the needles off, throw them away. I also throw the caps away. I put the needle bars and the grips and the tips into the ultrasonic for fifteen minutes. As I’m doing people I build up stuff in the ultrasonic jet throughout the day and then halfway through the day, or at the end of the day, depending how busy you’ve been I put it into the autoclave which runs for about thirty minutes and that goes up to something like two hundred and sixty degrees centigrade and there’s no virus can survive that.

People think it’s a dark, seedy world and it’s not – we’re just normal people. Just doing a job, you know, it’s just a job, it’s what I do.

It’s nice as the years go on and I get more into it and get a little bit more philosophical about it. I mean, you are touching people’s lives, you’re doing something that’s with them forever and it’s only the last few years that it’s really occurred to me that these forty-odd thousand people that I’ve tattooed, there’s a bit of me in them forever.

I take it very, very seriously, there’s not enough people in this business that do take it seriously. I do my absolute best, whether it’s a little devil on someone’s bum or it’s this picture. I’m tired of doing devils, I’ve done about ten thousand of them, but I try and do my absolute best every single time and that’s what it’s about.’

Who gets tattooed and who doesn’t? 

‘I’ve met my best friends through tattooing. I’ve met some wonderful people through tattooing. My regular customers are eighteen year-old lads to people in their late fifties. I get people coming in every week for six months to a year and then I don’t see them for one or two years and then they appear again, you know, it’s something that comes and goes, there’s no regular type of person.

Tattooing is like a drug. Once you’ve had it, you know – what I hear all the time is “I only want the one, it’s all I ever want” and no one’s ever walked in my studio and had one tattoo, ever. Once you’ve had that feeling, you want to have it again. I don’t care what anyone says.

The whole concept of it, the thinking of having it done, the anticipation of having it done, the nerves, the actual having it done, which is uncomfortable, then the finished job – the exhilaration that you’ve done it, you’ve actually done this thing, and then if it’s a good tattoo and you’re looking at this piece on your body. People leave the studio a different person, they leave happy.

When I hear people knocking tattoos it upsets me to a level that they’re not thinking about. We don’t mind people not liking tattoos. I don’t care if you like tattoos or not. If you don’t like them you don’t like them, you know, but I don’t think people are really thinking about what they’re saying.

There’s always someone’s got to come up to you and say “I don’t like them myself” – well, there’s several answers I can give depending on my mood, you know. I don’t walk up to someone who I don’t like the look of and say “I don’t like your hair myself but…”. That is rude, that is ignorant.

Tattoos have been with us forever. As long as mankind’s been here he’s been decorating his cave walls and himself. It’s always been here.

This attitude that seems to have grown up over the last half a century about tattoos being bad, I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t know.’

‘I’ve always been interested in religious icons and symbols, although I’m not religious myself. And I’ve loved the Dali painting, I think it’s superb, so it kind of came to me straight away to do that.

We thought we’d write something in Latin above the top of his back, which took quite a while to work out what we were going to have. It needed to be something that would fit in basically. Something simple, something that got to the point, and finally came across “Ecce Hora” which is “behold the hour of destiny”.

I thought it would take seven or eight hours, but I think in the end it took about five to finish because Bryn is very, very good. It is quite painful on the back especially down in the centre, but he was very good, he took it very well. Once I get going I do work very fast, but the initial first hour was horrendous, it was really frightening.

The actual nerves of doing any tattoo is frightening but this was it in this black and grey sort of form. I’ve never done anything this size before in that style. I was fairly confident and then the minute I started it, like I do with all tattoos, I thought “what am I doing, you know, this has got to be right, this is going to be seen by so many people”, I did get very nervous about it. But by the second hour I was well into it and enjoying it.

You kind of want to do it all at once, like a sketch, but with this I can only do like his right hand and arm, and then the next session the other hand and arm, and then the legs and then the hair, so it was very difficult to get into that routine each time. I think I just did the arms and shoulders over the next couple of hours. The last session on the actual main figure was his hair, which I was very worried about because hair’s very difficult to do. But once we got going it was all fairly easy really. Whenever you do any tattoo, I think anything that looks good on paper, once you put it on the skin it tends to look a hundred times better.

I had an idea what it would look like but when it’s actually on the skin, and a figure this size, as Bryn moves his body the figure moves – I think it looks better than I thought it would to be honest.’

How does it feel to be tattooed? 

‘The actual feeling to start off with, I think as soon as the gun starts there’s an initial (sharp gasp). It’s the sound of the gun initially and it’s sort of like “oh, this is gonna hurt”. With all my tattoos, the initial touch of the skin, I know that I do flinch, it’s sort of like “woah”. After the tattoo’s done there’s a buzz, it leaves me with a buzz that I’ve achieved it, you know. I achieved that, I got through it. It’s like not giving in and thinking “no, I’ve got to ask him to stop because it’s too painful”.

Every tattoo I’ve got does mean something to me. Many times I actually sit and look at my tattoos and I go back to the time when I had the tattoo done and it brings back memories of what I was doing at that point in my life and why I had them done. It’s like a living diary you know. I can’t lose it, its there. It’s me.

It’s not like a piercing, a piercing you can take out, piercings close up. Tattoos, they’re there, you know, they’re not easy to get rid of – and if you do want to get rid of them it costs you a lot of money.

A lot of people will look at somebody if they’ve got a lot of tattoos, they will look and think “Oh no, stay away from him – he could be trouble, he could be a hard lad, into fighting”, or whatever. But they don’t actually know what you are underneath, they don’t know the reasons for why you’re tattooed.’

How did you decide on this tattoo? 

‘I met Dave about three and a half, four years ago. Walked into the shop and he obviously came out to greet me and that was it, we just hit it off. I didn’t actually go in to have a tattoo done, I actually went in there to view the studio. To view the people in there for myself, and just to see what it was like, you know because I’d heard quite a lot about it. I actually did come out with a tattoo.

I think Dave’s much as excited as I am because it’s a piece of work that we both like and it’s a piece of work that Dave himself really wants to do. I think that’s very important that the tattooist wants to do the work as well as you want the work because then David is achieving something as much as I’m achieving something.

Dave asked me what I would like on my back and that’s when I said some form of crucifix. Dave said to me about this piece of work by Salvador Dali, which I went out to have a look at. I liked it and then over the last few months we’ve been talking about this piece of work, so we’d get it correct. It’s on my back for the rest of my life, I need the right piece of work here.

David actually showed me the artwork that he has traced out. They will be the tracings that are applied to my back, so they are the outlines. A couple of weeks ago Dave called me into the studio and basically stuck them on my back so he could see that my back is the right shape, that everything fits and also for me to see that this is what it’s going to look like.

When David works he likes to do it in two-hour stints otherwise, well it’s like anybody, it’s your attention span. You know, if you work solid for a couple of hours, you need a break, you need a substantial break. It’s a lot of work. Dave got it in his mind that he’s marking me for life so he’s got to do it right, there’s no corridor for an error, is there? Let’s face it, it’s got to be right. So, you do it in two-hour sessions.

I do feel scared. I know people that have had their back tattooed and they’ve told me that it’s painful, but then I’ve been tattooed in other places where people have said it’s painful and I haven’t found it painful. But, I have got a high pain threshold. I was in the army, I was involved with a bombing in the army, well I tend to look back to what pain I was in then and I put all my pain back to then and if it’s not as bad as that then I don’t worry. I got through that, so I can get through most things now.’

Can you describe your finished tattoo? 

‘In total there was four sessions. Each session lasted slightly different amounts of time. Every session had a different feeling, I think obviously because there were different parts of the body – or different parts of the back – that was being tattooed, it was just different. The response I was getting from other people on each stage was amazing, saying how fine the work is, and the detail and stuff. I’ve got to admit it was quite frustrating, it still is quite frustrating, not to be able to spin your head round completely and see it, but it’s nice to know it’s still there.

The second session, as far as I can remember was a very heavy session, because Dave wanted to get a lot of the work done. He’d done the outline of Christ in the first session, and the shadow across the back, which took ages to do the shadow. The second session was the actual detail of Christ, you know, all his body, his hair and I can remember Dave was panicking, kept panicking about doing his hair, so he done the whole piece, apart from his hair. It was very intense work, he worked very, very fast. There wasn’t a lot of talking actually, on that session, because usually me and Dave have a good chat while he’s tattooing me, but I can remember the second session, it was quite a quiet session, it was just Christian, the photographer going around, taking a few pictures. I think that was the hardest session for Dave, he knew he had to get a lot done, so, and he finally finished off doing the hair.

Because it was quite a big piece, each day I noticed my back was getting tighter, as if somebody had like a bulldog clip, and it was tightening my skin, that was the only thing I really noticed.

I was getting my partner just to keep piling moisturiser into my back, and it just went from like a stingy, burning sensation and then overnight, midweek, it just stopped, and it was just like, oh, it’s fine now, and that was it. It was a bit tender at first. I’d say probably between seven and ten days after each session to heal, but then obviously after each session, I think we were leaving it sometime two weeks, two – three weeks between each session so I was fully healed by the time the next lot was going on, so, it was good.

It’s a very important part of my life. I know some people say “oh, it’s only a tattoo”, but to me, it’s something I always wanted doing. I wanted this back piece for years, but I never knew what I wanted, I never knew that I’d ever get the chance to get it done, and it’s lovely. And having Christ on my back, I love it, I feel very safe.

I’m still growing into the tattoo. I know that sounds really strange, but because it’s something new on my body, I’m still getting used to it. It’s as if I’m growing with the tattoo now.

It’s got wonderful memories, really wonderful memories. When I do see it in the mirror now, those memories just flood back, they really do. If I sit and look at the pictures, it just all comes back, and I can guarantee that I’ll walk away with a smile on my face, even if I’m feeling down, I just think about it and it just cheers me up.’

Find out more about the Skin:Tattoo Project 

Tattoo: An Oral History and Photography Project for The Body Gallery

Tattoo is an oral history and photography based project developed for the Body Gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The project developed through working closely with the Crows Nest Tattoo Studio and one of their customers.  It was based on a series of interviews with David the tattoo artist and Bryn who had a large tattoo done by him over several weeks in summer 2000.  The project is presented as a series of photographs and a selection of quotes from the interviews on a listening post in the gallery.  These complement a display of tattoo equipment donated by David in 1999.

Why the Skin: Tattoo Project?

Tattooing was a theme that we wanted to address in the gallery.  Even though it is a popular and long standing activity in Brighton, our selection of objects was limited and needed development.  Rather than attempting an overview we decided to work with one studio, focusing on one person’s experience of having a large tattoo done over a number of weeks.  David Williams from the Crows Nest tattoo studio expressed an interest in the project.  We displayed a notice in the studio asking if anyone having a large tattoo done would consider having the experience documented by the Museum, and Bryn Lane came forward.  The different stages of Bryn’s tattoo were recorded with a commissioned photography project, and through interviews with David, the tattooist and Bryn, the customer.  They talk about tattooing in general, how they both got into it, and then focus on their experience of working on the one particular tattoo.  The tattoo studio donated a selection of tattooing equipment that will be presented in the gallery alongside the photography project and a listening post with quotes from the interviews.

Oral History in The Body Gallery

Oral histories are being collected as a new way of interpreting the collections at the Museum, based on the themes of the new galleries and the objects being displayed. The oral history projects have contributed to the development of the collections, through the acquisition of directly related objects, archive material (photographs, letters etc.) and unique contextualising information. The projects involve diverse members of the community, creating insights into society and history and the role that the museum plays in this process. The interviews have generated a wide range of opinions, emotions and memories that help contextualise the objects. Contextual information in this form encourages personal reactions and often dialogue from the visitor, far more than a removed “museum voice”.

In the Body Gallery this use of oral history has been developed in two ways. Firstly through a community project based on the gallery theme of transforming the body, and secondly through projects directly related to objects on display.

Collecting Objects and Oral Histories – projects based specifically around objects.

This has been done on a number of levels, one is developing our knowledge of objects in the existing collections – using oral history as a research method. Another is acquiring new objects for the collections through oral history based projects. Our knowledge of objects already in the collection has been given a real sense of depth and often transformed through oral history research. Interviews have been carried out with artists, others involved in the creation and use of the object, and donors. This will become an ongoing part of developing the collections at the Museum.

All of the oral history based projects in the gallery celebrate the potential of first hand information, letting people speak for themselves about their experiences and opinions.

The focus on individual experiences reflects the overall approach in the gallery, to take a selection of individual objects and use them to introduce different ways that we transform the human body. The gallery looks at how people used each object on display rather than introducing an overview. We hope that the gallery will inspire people to think for themselves about the concept of choosing to change the human body and encourage debate about the issues around it.

This blog post was previously published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ website.

9 Responses

  1. ed

    brilliant to find this! David Williams was a great tattooist. one of Brighton’s best ever, and founder of the new tattoo movement in Brighton. much overlooked but never forgotten, great to see this!

    • david

      Hey! Just saw this! This is david. Try contact me on facebook, my name is artful dodger on fb

      • Des Keech

        Hi David, only just saw your reply in March. I’ll try artful dodger. Des

  2. ade

    Hi,did anyone get back to you about Dave?! Been friends for years,can’t find him anywhere!! Ade

  3. david williams

    Hey Adrian. Stop changing phone numbers! Facebook, artful dodger

  4. Minina Pixie

    I need to speak with Dave as a matter of urgency. You tattoed my brother Bryn’s, Salvador Dali Christ, on his back. Please can you please pm me on FB. I’m Minina Pixe.

    • Marion Castle

      Hi this is Bryn’s did my dad’s back tattoo..could you please add me on Facebook..Marion’s about my dad and it’s pretty important

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