While browsing a 1917 volume of The Graphic magazine yesterday, this blogger came across a fascinating article introducing readers to the day in the life of a wartime tattoo artist, along with this lovely illustration. Mr Burchett, the artist in question, occupied a small studio just a hundred yards from Waterloo Station, a propitious location considering the constant stream of soldiers and sailors leaving for and returning to the Front via the terminal.
'Quite an unpretentious place,' writes the author, Margaret Chute, 'full of weird pictures and simply furnished with a big clean table, a few chairs and a shelf full of colours in small boxes, cotton wool in big rolls, a jar of vaseline, several cakes of soap and small white china palettes for the ink which is used to decorate human flesh.' Of the designs and photographs lining the wall (a patriotic British lion, and maple leaf are visible in the accompanying illustration), the writer describes one photograph of a lady, 'gorgeously clad in a series of brilliant figures, flowers, birds and flags, which in reality are pricked onto her skin never to be erased.' Intriguingly, the lady in question was apparently the wife of one of the most popular military artists of the day, though there is no indication of who exactly it was. Certainly, it was no unknown for society ladies, particularly those with a bohemian streak, to have tattoos.
Mr. Burchett recounted the changing trends to the interviewer. Before the war, he was much in demand to tattoo the English aristocracy with crests and monograms, and even carried out cosmetic work; his own wife had her eyebrows and lips tattooed seventeen years previously. 'But the war has changed that,' says the tattooist rather wistfully. 'It's a busy life now - one long rush; but the customers chiefly wear khaki or blue - except a few ladies, who come to have "his" regimental badge put on their arm for keeps.' Among his stranger requests was a man who asked for a portrait of the King to be tattooed onto his bald head and a small girl of nine, brought to 72, Waterloo Road by her father who was departing for the Front, who received a shamrock and thistle on each arm according to his instructions. 'Without a flicker that child put her little arms on the table,' says the tattoo-man, 'and never even winced.' Proud as Punch she was when it was all over, because "daddy wanted it done".'
I am told by tattoo historian, Dr Matt Lodder, that George Burchett went on to become the country's most famous and in-demand tattoo artist. On further investigation, the 'King of Tattooists,' could boast a client roster that included European royalty and travelled the world gathering inspiration for new and exotic designs. His autobiography, 'Memoirs of a Tattooist,' was published in 1958. Here, dapper and business-like in a starched collar and waistcoat Burchett is pictured in his modest shop, at work on the forearm of a burly Tommy, while a female customer stands admiring his handiwork on her own arm. You can almost hear the hum of his electrical brass needle and smell the tobacco smoke curling up from the soldier's cigarette. The artist (who has initialled the work A.G.) has portrayed an unusual, but everyday occurrence, drawing us in to Mr Burchett's cosy looking studio to the point where it almost tempting to choose a design, take a seat and offer one's own arm for inking.
Read more about George Burchett here http://www.tattooarchive.com/tattoo_history/burchett_george_charles.html