By Sara Valle-Martínez
I bet if you close your eyes and picture a rock star, some of the first things that come to mind are tussled hair, drugs, booze, fags, and worn-out jeans or leather trousers. You probably also visualised a bunch of tattoos — maybe a skull, roses, or some kind of female looking all dangerous and sultry. Well, let me tell you a lot has changed but tattoos and music still very much go hand in hand.
When we think about tattoos and music, it’s not easy to pinpoint who the pioneer was. Janis Joplin got a wrist piece by legendary artist Lyle Tuttle in 1970, a few months before her passing, and she was pretty candid about it when she said she “just wanted some decoration”. The tattoo has been replicated a million times since then and probably that’s where the fad was born — that is, getting replicas of your favourite musicians’ tats.
Obviously, Joplin wasn’t the only one and Axl Rose, Ozzy Osbourne, and James Hetfield are a few other examples. You’ve probably seen a tattoo of Johnny Cash’s or Keith Richards’s face on someone’s arm. See? It was there even before you knew it. Musicians get tattooed and music fans itch to do the same, although there’s still some pushback from society that might scare a few. For musicians it may very well be a commitment to their craft and for fans to their love for it.
But tattoos are not reserved to a specific music style or urban tribe. Hip hop artists and the much frowned upon (by music purists) reggaeton artists are covered in tattoos from head to toe. One thing rappers Nas, Lil Wayne, and Tupac have in common is their love for ink. They share the same love with reggaeton superstar Maluma, even though their track lists are quite different. So why is this connection between music and tattoos almost symbiotic?
For me tattoos have always been intrinsically linked to music. I don’t remember exactly where my love for music started. Maybe it was when my uncle gave me his small red Casio keyboard, or the afternoons that I spent watching MTV, or when I became obsessed with a famous singer from Venezuela called Carlos Baute when I was twelve. Maybe it started much earlier, but I know for sure it went in full bloom when I discovered Green Day. I was sitting in a pizza parlour, staring up at the TV, watching these men covered in green goo. While Billie Joe strummed his guitar to the rhythm of American Idiot, I just sat there, gawping, thinking to myself: “Who are these men covered in ink and wearing eyeliner and orthopaedic-looking shoes? I want to be like them.”
Tattoos were something I was meant to dislike. My uncle had his initials tattooed in a quite manky fashion and my father had a nautical star tattoo that he got removed in the early stages of laser removal. The smell of burning flesh and disinfectant — not a jolly picture. Definitely not in my plans. But this trio changed the way I saw ink.
“A few friends and I had a small boat and we all decided to get a tattoo to symbolise our friendship,” said my dad when I called him. He drew the design on his arm with a biro and one of his friends hand-poked it with a needle. “I regretted it as soon as I got it. Back then people who had tattoos were kind of thugs. So was I, I guess,” he chuckled.
For most people, tattoos are a form of self-expression or little souvenirs to remember someone, a place, or a memory. Mostly it all boils down to expressing yourself and sharing who you are with the world. Some claim it’s a little bit narcissistic, but others see it as an anarchic move; a way of reclaiming your own body.
“I suppose everyone has their own reasons, some superficial, fashion-led; others deeper and more personal. When I got my first, tattoos were much less commonplace than they are today and still had real resonances of ‘outsiderdom’. I knew I didn’t want to fit back into the life I had had before and so the symbolism of the act of getting tattooed was important. It was a sign (to me, more than anyone else) that there was no way back,” said Mike Chopra-Gant, who works as a Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture and Communications in a university in London. He’s also a photographer and has a past that makes it obvious that the connection between music and tattoos is there, as he played in bands that made Reading and Leeds Festival.
He got his first tat at Sunset Strip Tattoo in Hollywood in 1989 by the legendary British inksmith Dennis Cockell, who passed away in late 2022. In his time, Cockell tattooed Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, English punk rock band 999, Adam Ant, Bananarama, rockabilly legends The Stray Cats and many other icons of the rock ‘n’ roll fraternity who came through his studio doors.
Chopra-Gant decided to get tattooed by Cockell because of his clear relationship with music. Back then Cockell was well-stablished in the music scene, as he had begun to attract his rockstar-crowd when he opened his 265A Finchley Road studio in the late 1960s. Chopra-Gant was in California trying to start a new life and exploring what the music industry could offer.
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