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Sex, Drugs & Tattoo Shops: Soho’s Tattoo Scene

London’s vibrant district of Soho is considered to be one of the most creative places in the world. I was itching to explore if Soho’s tattoo scene played any part in its bustling identity.

It goes without saying that good art can be found anywhere. Some of the world’s best artists can be nestled in the most unexpected, un-artistic places. Because of this, I used to think that there was no correlation between what an artist produces, and the place they work in. You’ve only got to spend 10 minutes in London’s W1 district to realise this isn’t the case at all. Since the mid-19th century, Soho’s had a reputation as a place of excess and artistry. It’s buzzing with the creation of art and for the last 150 years has been a mecca for poets, musicians, artists, designers, dancers, directors and writers. But its creative mastery sits alongside its status as the infamous red-light district of London.

The combination of the sex and art industries means Soho has an extremely unique atmosphere. It’s reeks of experimentation, creation, intoxication, hazy nights and living for the moment. The stench of pure craftsmanship is particularly strong in the dark corners of its tattoo-land. Diamond Jacks Tattoo Parlour and Gypsy Stables Tattoo are both situated on the famous Berwick Street in Soho’s red-light district.

Darryl Gates is Diamond Jack’s current owner, but it was Dennis Cockell who opened the studio originally in the 1980s. Back then, and still today, it sits perfectly in the landscape of Soho. A tiny, dark entrance nestled amongst a sea of sex shop signs. Back in the day, this is exactly where you would find your local tattooist, hidden away down an alleyway, out of sight from the rest of the community who didn’t want a tattoo shop visible on their streets.

Most studios I know today have an open front, a clearly visible entrance and clean walls. Now, every step is taken to make new clients see that the place is friendly, accessible and hygienic. Shops are keen to move away from the way people used to think about them. All shops, that is, except for Diamond Jacks, which holds its title today as the longest running tattoo parlour in the West End. As you enter, from the doorway down below, right up to the third floor, it’s wall-to-wall completely covered in images, photos and flash from the last 30 years. “The shop still has most of Dennis Cockell’s original sheets from the ‘70s,” says Diamond Jack artist Charles Wicks-Stephens. “We have always been an old-school street shop, and the nature of the area has definitely dictated this over the years.”

“The old-school traditions of a tattoo studio like walk-ups and flash sheets, are a massive part of our identity. Not a day goes by where we don’t meet someone unusual or interesting.” When I begin to dig deeper, Charles laughs. “What happens in the studio, stays in the studio. Plus, there are far too many stories to tell.” It’s because of these clients that the studio naturally specialises in smaller traditional pieces, walk-up business and quick turnaround tattoos. The ethos inside the shop comes directly from the vibe of Soho’s streets and their atmosphere of opportunity and possibility. In Soho, whatever you’re on the look out for – food, drink, gambling, sex, ink – it can be catered for 24/7. You can do anything. You can end up anywhere.

Living in a tattoo world where we are constantly urged to plan our decisions and book appointments as far in advanced as possible, I’m completely exhilarated by the concept of making an impulsive decision as Diamond Jacks’ clients so regularly do. Working in the area for the last two years, I have made my own personal memories of Soho. To retain some of my dignity here I won’t divulge the full details to you, but let’s just say I have had many a sore-headed morning. Wanting to mark my Soho nights, I make a decision there and then in the middle of our conversation. Charles rushes upstairs to design me something and within the hour I have a brand new tattoo of the word SOHO in a heart.

There’s something about a creative area that can bring out the best in you. You can’t say that the look and feel of the surroundings hasn’t impacted on Darryl’s designs. Take one look at his artwork – cosmic drawings of neon flashes, blazing lines and the glowing colour of Soho’s streets. Streets that are loud, full of character and have something to say, just like Darryl’s designs. There’s also a sense of community between the businesses and tattoo shops that I’m not sure you would find in every UK city or town. “We all get along great,” says Charles. “We help each other out when we can.” Down at the other end of Berwick Street, past the fragrant food stalls and sparkling fabric shops, sits Gypsy Stables Tattoo. You guessed it: behind a dark black door, down a narrow staircase, in a gorgeously dingy Soho basement.

Owner Bruno Jardim moved to London nine years ago and has been working in Soho for six. For him, Soho was an easy choice when it came to deciding where to open the shop. “Nothing is classed as weird in Soho,” he tells me. “There’s always a general air of acceptance.” He’s right, no two people look the same around here. There isn’t a tattoo scene, fashion or stereotype like there is in Camden or Hackney. There’s just a load of people doing exactly what they want, dressing however they want, getting tattooed when they want. “Soho is everyone,” says Charles. “It’s tourists, it’s pimps, it’s prostitutes, it’s the guy that works in the sex shop, it’s hipsters, it’s rockers, it’s anyone.”

Soho’s renowned for it’s LGBT scene because it’s always been seen as a place where you can be free to explore your sexuality and identity away from any judgment. Isn’t that just the perfect place for a tattoo scene to exist? That’s what getting inked is. It’s the decision to do whatever the hell you want, and look however the fuck you want, despite what society’s impression might be of it. That’s why I’m yet to find a tattoo studio in Soho that won’t tattoo partners’ names, or particular parts of the body – rules that many studios elsewhere today are starting to put into place, in an attempt to protect their customers from any regrettable decisions.

Down at Gypsy Stables, things are less about impulse and more about courage. “We do get a few impulsive customers,” ponders Bruno, “but mostly we get people who have been contemplating the tattoo for years, and only now have they plucked up the confidence to get it done.”

By bringing out the passion in someone to do what they’ve always wanted, Soho works its magic once again.

So it’s all bright lights and happy memories, then? Sadly not. Soho is changing, and some of its creative businesses are disappearing at a fast pace. The increasing cost of rent means closure of some of Soho’s most exciting buildings, and inevitable creation of new expensive (I would say unaffordable) homes. “They want Soho to look more like other parts of London,” says Charles. As with so many areas of our capital city, the creative communities are being pushed out and Soho is at serious risk from losing its soul.

A recent campaign, Save Soho, intends to fight for Soho’s artistic identity. I’d like to say that the passion and stubbornness of the people I have met during my time in Soho means that they aren’t going without a fight. Charles sets the record straight. “We aren’t going anywhere.” Diamond Jacks has remained the same for the last 30 years. With the world moving fast around them, they’ve stood their ground. “We have got to where we are by sticking to our guns,” smiles Darryl. “I never follow the trends in tattooing and this has paid off and kept the studio a reputable one.” Charles looks over at a Kiss themed flash sheet from 2010, and says, “to quote Paul Stanley

Credibility is someone else’s idea of what I should be doing.”

Down the road, Bruno’s ethos is the complete opposite and there’s a focus on learning new techniques and trying new ideas. The artwork coming out of his studio is completely different from Darryl’s. Two studios, almost next door to each other, running similar businesses in contrasting ways. One embracing the old, one embracing the new. Does this mean there is no solid link between the area and the artwork?

I’m pausing in the doorway as I enter Diamond Jacks for the final time – what have I learnt? Suddenly I notice that the flash in the hallway isn’t just from the ‘70s… it’s being constantly added to with new designs. Old meets new, existing together. It doesn’t really matter how the area is creatively influencing the tattoo studios within it, what matters is that it does, and they can all be free to form different identities from it. All artists exist together in the same community with different styles, just as we do as inked (or non-inked) humans. Do what you want, create your own self, there’s no right or wrong. It doesn’t matter if your style is new or established, if you’re gay or straight, young or old, if your art is impulsive or planned.