Alex Binnie

Artists - Studios - Issue 14

The one and only Alex Binnie spoke exclusively to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine about his journey from punk rock to Art School and then to tattooing, the reasons why there were always more tattoos in England, being in fashion, how hipster tattoos work, his woodcuts, why printmaking is similar to tattooing and why the tattoo world functions different than the fine art world.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

Tell me about the “Greek” connection.

I think, actually I guess as it’s been such a long time ago, that Mike, Yorg and our friend Tek who is half Greek half German – he does our internet now – knew somehow Jenny Bellstar from the Bell Stars (ed. an 80’s all female British band) and I had a little thing with her at the time, so when she mentioned that she’s seeing this guy called Alex Binnie, Mike went like “oh my God, Alex Binnie!”. Mike had somehow heard of me. I remember they all came down to the shop and I ended up tattooing Mike and we ended up becoming friends. We’re on the same wavelength and somehow we just clicked. I’ve tattooed him quite a lot; I’ve done his back and a bit of his arm. And then there’s Tas of course. I’ve known Tas since he was a young boy (laughs). I’ve got photos of Tas looking like a sweetheart. He was Mike’s apprentice. I remember tattooing Tas in Amsterdam Tattoo Convention years ago. I was tattooing there and Mike brought Tas over and he said, “this is Tas, my apprentice, and you must tattoo him”. So I tattooed him. And now Tas works here, I am still good friends with Mike and I go on holiday to Greece. I love it.

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How did you get involved with tattooing?

I always wanted to do it. I had a fantasy about tattooing since I was a teenager, but I didn’t think that it was ever going to happen. I got my first tattoos in the 70’s in the punk rock days here in London. I was a punk rocker back then. It was the first time I felt really free. I was lucky because I was the right age; I was seventeen when “Anarchy in the UK” came out. It was then that I first met people I was in tune with. Later, that happened again when I started tattooing and met people I admired. In the early tattoo days, everyone was really enthusiastic; it felt like a proper underground scene. It was really exciting. It felt like punk rock. Because there was the older people and it was just starting to have the younger people, like Mike and me. We have been tattooing for the same amount of time, since 1989. I think that we were lucky to start at this time; it was the right time. 

Where did you get you first tattoos done?

At some hippie guy at the “Great Gear Market” in King’s Road when I was seventeen. I got one more in another tattoo shop - they are both covered now - and then I stopped. I was an art guy and I knew that tattooing was going to get better, so I waited and then I started getting tattooed in the mid 80’s and in the late 80’s I was tattooing myself. 

What were you doing before tattooing?

I went to Art School and then I did some jobs, including working in a hospital as medical illustrator. I was hanging out with artists and we had a big squat at Russell Square – squatting in London was big at the time – along with filmmakers, performers and fashion people. It was a fertile place. And it made sense when I started tattooing. I was in my late 20s. I saw tattoo as an idealist thing. I didn’t see tattoo as a trade or a job to earn money. In a way I was giving the finger to the art world, my parents, or whatever (laughs). I never thought of it as career choice. Nowadays, without wanting to be horrible, some people get into tattoo because they think is a good job, and that they will make a lot of money. I saw it as a statement; that I am going to be a tattoo artist. It felt a really radical and outrageous thing to do. There was no one else tattooing in my social scene. 

When I was starting in 1989, I visited the tattoo convention in Amsterdam, which was run by Henk Schiffmacher, aka Hanky Panky, who is very well known in the tattoo world. This convention was happening every three years and it was legendary. I met a lot of tattoo artists there, like Ed Hardy. I was widely enthusiastic. It was such a small scene back then, so much better. 

After the squat I got a private studio and then in 1991, I went to America and I ended up staying for two years. I initially worked in LA, then in Seattle and San Francisco and traveled around a bit. I had a great time and learned a lot. Then I returned to London in 1993 and opened Into You Tattoo. Into You Tattoo Brighton started in 2006.

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Do you think that tattoo in England has a vaster tradition compare to other countries of the western world?

England and America have always had a tattoo tradition. Most medium sized towns in England had a tattoo shop. The British have always been more heavily tattooed. There’s also the seafaring link. One of the traditional stories about tattooing is that Captain Cook discovered it in Polynesia. It’s not really true. He was English of course. I am a big Captain Cook fan; he’s one of my big people I read about. There’s always was tattooing everywhere. For some reason, the English tattoo tradition went from the late Victorian times right through the 20’s and 30’s, when it was fashionable here in London. We had George Burchett and people of the Royal Family getting tattooed and it carried on through the war years.

While a lot of Catholic countries like Italy and Spain didn't have tattoos and probably Greece too. Tattoo did almost not exist. I think that in those countries the only people with tattoos were people in the prison system. Which sounds like a cliché, but it’s probably true. If you see an old man in Italy with a lot of tattoos, the general assumption would be that he got them done in prison and that he’s part of the criminal underworld. 

In what way has the tattoo scene changed the last twenty-five years?

The big change for me was that years ago you could have felt a common bond with people that had tattoos. It was a statement. It was a part of what I call an “alternative culture”. To me it was part of punk rock and other music scenes and it was likely part of the fetish scene; those sort of fetish type clubs like Torture Garden. Whereas now that’s gone, as “straight” people get sleeve tattoos. I’m not saying that it’s necessary bad. It is different. But luckily I am older now and I don’t care.

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How would you describe your tattoo style?

I don’t have a style so much as other people do. When I first started tattooing, just the fact that you were tattooing was enough. The scene was so much smaller, that if you wanted to be working, you did what people wanted. So to a large degree my work is like that. People always used to say to me that they could tell a tattoo I’ve done. But even if that were true, I would still adapt my way of doing it to what they wanted. I’d always ask the client “what do you want and where do you want it”. 

I haven’t got a style as strong as Duncan or Tomas has. I often use those two people - not only because they are my friends and they work here – but because they got very strong and strict styles; completely different form each other of course. Now because tattoo is so popular, some people only do dragons, or only do Mahakalas, which is what Tas is currently doing and he is happy, but would be bored in a bit (laughs). Or they do only crazy little drawings, like Duncan does. Duncan has a style that a lot of people are copying now. 

I like quite big, body-changing tattoos. I am not that interested in imagery. I like big backgrounds and more organic flowing things. So I am happy to use bits of Japanese and bits of whatever. At the moment I’m not tattooing that much, because I’m busy and I don’t want to tattoo all the time anymore. So I am in lucky position, almost cutting out all the smaller pieces and just do the few people that still want me to tattoo them, cause I’ m not “fashionable” anymore. My days been in fashion are over (laughs). 

When were you in fashion?

In the nineties (laughs). If I was ever in fashion. I even said to Duncan “I am a little jealous, you get all the attention now. No one cares about me anymore”. It’s fine. He works for me. I get my percentage (laughs).

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The last five years tattoo has become more fashionable and global. Have you perhaps noticed some severe changes in tattooing? 

Forget Europe and America. The biggest change in tattooing that I see now comes from Eastern Europe, Russia and China. Poland and Russia are throwing out some incredible talent but not to my taste. I still think, no matter what everybody says, that Colour Realism is not going to last. The tattoo looks amazing when they’ve done it, but it won’t last. No matter how good the inks are and how great the artistry is, human skin is human skin. It will always react the same way it always did. 
When I was in America in San Francisco in the early 90s you got people like Bill Salmon and Marcus Pacheco that were really pushing the envelope and they were doing a lot of stuff with light blue and orange. I remember thinking… If you want to use light blue, use a bit of light blue. If you want to use orange, use a bit of orange. But if the whole tattoo is based on the contrast of light blue, orange and subtle greens and there’s no proper black line or shading, it’s not going to last. And it didn’t last, and after that the whole wave of Neo Traditional came, going back to heavy shading, black line work, and classic tattoo style. When it comes to tattooing, you need contrast. I like very dramatic things with a lot of contrast.

In the last five years, there’s some outrageous work coming out from China. Since China opened up a little bit to the West and relaxed some of their cultural restrictions, they just got absolutely mad. They just burst into the tattoo scene and technically it’s amazing what they’re doing. 

The paradox is that Japanese people largely came from China and Japanese tattoo is of course massive. So the Chinese are semi – copying Japanese tattooing, but I’ve seen some mind-blowing stuff where they’re using their own Chinese myths and subject matters. Which are essentially the same as Japanese subject matters.

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Apart from tattooing, you’ve been involved with other art forms and have realized several artistic projects. Is it a personal artistic need that drives you to create art outside tattooing? Are there things that you can’t express perhaps through tattoo?

I’ve always played around, doing other art. I used to do performance art. I think that tattoo artists got to do other art, because tattooing no matter how cool it is, no matter how much you do your own thing, no matter how free it is, you ultimate do what the customer wants. The bottom line is that in tattooing you are working for somebody. Which is fine. But that’s why I always did other things. 

I started printmaking in 2000, I’ve already have done some while in Art School and I enjoyed it. So first I did screen-printing. I learnt how to do it and have spent a lot of time doing screen prints all by myself. Both in tattooing and printmaking, you’ve got to think what you’re doing. You have to be specific in your thinking. You have to have a decent tattoo machine and “build” the tattoo – that’s how people used to call it in the old days. You make a tattoo, like a construction in a sense. Likewise that’s what you do in a print. You do it step by step. There’s a process. 

What I also like in printmaking is that you haven't got an original. A lot of Fine Art is so precious; you’ve got to worship the holy temple of the “original” that is worth extra amount of money. And tattoo again gives the finger to that, cause tattoo is art, but you can’t resell it. It’s on someone’s body. It’s got no value. Tattoo has always been seen as a working / common man’s art form. Printmaking is too. And of course I was always inspired by the Japanese printmaking / tattoo connection, which is massive.

After I did a lot of screen prints, I then did the woodcuts, which I’ve got a book out off. It came out in May 2013 and there was an art show with them here at Into You London. I initially thought of doing it in a “proper” gallery, but I couldn’t get one for my solo show. Truth is I didn’t try a lot; maybe I should have tried harder. There was a very trendy small gallery in East London and the guy was so trendy that I was like do I really care? We argued couple of times and I was like you’re younger than me and I’ve got a tattoo shop in central London and in fact just the front of my shop is twice the size of your gallery. Why am I sitting here licking your ass? Someone told me that I don’t realize what I have, a hype tattoo shop, and why not show my art works there. Now we actually show other artists’ work.

I’m never going to try and break into the art world. I am not interested enough. You got to work socially so hard. 

Are there any tattoo artists that actually made it on the art scene?

Hm, not really. I think that Thomas Hooper might be pushing it towards that direction. I don’t know if he’s got a real interest or not. He is really talented. I don’t know if he would be bothered. I think that he might prefer to go to work and tattoo people and hang out at the tattoo shop than try to make it at some pansy gallery. When I was looking for a gallery, it made me remember why tattooing is really cool. The people that are into it, are properly into it. Whereas a lot of these art guys are kind of into it. They’re into it for the money, for the fashion, and for the show off. There is no real passion involvement. It is all a bit casual. 

In the Fine Art world like in the music world, a few people make it really big, but almost everybody else doesn’t make it at all. In tattooing everyone can actually make it. No one is going to become immensely big in tattooing because it’s a one on one craft. It affords though a lot of people to have a very nice lifestyle; socially and financially.

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How do you see the “hipster” scene here in London when it comes to tattoo?

Well, some of those people wouldn’t look at me and think, “he’s cool, he’s got tattoos”. They’d look at me and think, “he’s got the wrong sort of tattoos” (laughs). Tattoo now has gotten so big and much more fragmented. It’s natural. It’s human nature. All tattooing is a reflecting. Social hierarchy and stylishness in terms of looks has been going around since Neolithic times. Tattoo is a form of expression, so it’s natural that tattoo would be used by hipster people to separate themselves of from non – hipster people. The only thing is that tattoo doesn’t go away.

When I was in LA in 1991, the tribal tattoo style of Leo Zulueta was the hipster tattoo then. Then of course that became more normalized and now builders are getting those. Then in the late 90’s – early 00’s Japanese sleeves were big among the San Francisco hipsters. Now hipster tattoos are what Duncan does. Duncan was one of the originals of that illustration style and he is aware that more and more people are doing that now. It is guaranteed that after few years, that would no longer be the hipster tattoo. It’s human nature; it will move on.

In your opinion, what is the future of tattoo going to be like?

I think tattoo now it’s out of the bag and it’s not going to go away, because tattoo is beautiful. The fact that you can mark your body is an amazing thing. Nowadays, tattoo is an available option. It’s no longer looked down upon and it’s no longer seen, as been the mark of the criminal or the prostitute. Among many others, we tattoo heavily schoolteachers, doctors and lawyers. So tattoo would always be around, but eventually I think that it would not be as fashionable as it is now.

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Into You Tattoo.

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Alex Binnie Woodcuts and Art.

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