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Lionel's Tattoo Studio

After leaving school Lionel began his working life as an apprentice Mechanic at a Volkswagen dealership. At the end of the apprenticeship Lionel changed jobs and went to work on commercial vehicles, bluffing his way through the interview with the knowledge that he learnt at college.

 

His father has two small tattoos, and this got Lionel into thinking that one day he wanted tattoos as well. It was the apprentices Lionel was now working with at his new job that led Lionel into getting his first tattoo. Some had come into work on a Monday morning sporting new tattoos that had been done over the weekend. So Lionel got his first tattoo done in Oxford at the beginning of the 70s.

 

Two years later after getting an addition to his tattoo collection from the needle of Bob Smith in Oxford. Fate took a hand, when Lionel walked into an old curiosity shop in the London Road, Headington, Oxford.

 

This old shop with a large pair of buffalo horns over the door, full of military memorabilia, unbeknown to Lionel, belonged to ex-tattooist Tony Malo. Who used to tattoo in Oxford in 1962, and noticing the tissue and tape wrapped around Lionel's arm he knew that he had just had a tattoo done and asked about it.

 

They started to talk about the art, Malo expressing surprise that someone was tattooing in Oxford, because it was the lack of business that made him give up the needles in 1963. He went on to tell Lionel that he still had his tattooing equipment at home and that he wanted to sell it, and asked Lionel to tell his tattooist the next time he saw him.

 

Well, Lionel got thinking about what it would be like to be the other side of the needle. Lionel asked how much Malo wanted for his gear, and a price was agreed at 25 pounds - so he put down a 5 deposit with the balance to be paid the following week.

 

Now 25 was a lot of money in 1972, Lionel by this time was a fully qualified mechanic earning 35 pounds a week. The following pay day could not come quick enough, pay day came and Lionel went back to the shop to pick up his new goods only to be told that extra items had been found and the price had increased to 30 pounds. He only had 25 pounds on him so he had to go back home and ask his brother to lend him the 5 that he needed.

 

His brother lent him the money and Lionel became the proud owner of two tattoo machines, some colour, needles, design sheets and other bits and bobs. Like so many tattoo artists, he used his own skin to work on until he was confident to work on others.

 

The extras to the kit included a flyer from Spaulding & Rogers, this flyer had endorsements from Terry Wrigley of Glasgow and Les Skuse of Bristol. Lionel later made contact with Terry Wrigley which led to a long friendship.

 

After a while Lionel became confident enough to start to do tattoos on his friends, many of these were apprentices from where he was working. This led on to them bringing their friends to Lionel, and soon the word went around there was a new tattooist in town. He soon began to see some work being done by another tattooist who used to work in Oxford in the 1960's, this was "Matt" a Scottish painter and decorator who also did some tattooing.

 

Lionel started to ask around and try to track down the address of Matt. He tried knocking on a few doors in the district of Oxford known as Wellington Square. As when still at school, Lionel had heard that there used to be a tattooist in the centre of town in this area. Eventually Lionel tracked Matt down to Marsh Road, and went the local pub the Marsh Harrier to see if anyone knew where Matt lived.

 

Matt sold Lionel some designs and more importantly he sold him names and addresses of tattoo suppliers and that was the key that opened the door (somehow if you paid for information it would show the tattoo world that you were serious about the art).

 

Many times Lionel would pay a tenner (10) just for a name on a piece of paper and that's how it was in those days, you paid for everything, much the same as a magician pays for tricks nowadays

 

The first tattoo that Lionel did was a small cross on his left arm. This was followed with two tattoos on his legs. He came to the conclusion that he was not happy with the machines that he had just bought and made a couple of new ones during his dinner break. Also luckily for Lionel was the fact that the fitter that Lionel had been teamed up with at work, was able to get the parts chrome plated as his father worked at a local company with a chrome plating plant.

 

This task didn't come hard to him because apart from being a mechanic, his great passion was engineering, which it still is today and its this that gets Lionel away from everything, engineering being his hobby. Also Lionel has the plans and drawings for a rotary four stroke petrol engine designed by him whilst he was an apprentice, but that's another story!

 

Lionel's first customers were his work mates who had to take their shoes off at the bottom of the stairs under the watchful eyes of his mum, this being a condition of him being able to use his bedroom to tattoo. The room consisted of a wall covered in designs, a table with his gear on, one chair and the bed. Lionel used his room for about two years.

 

In early 1974, he was on holiday from work when he saw an ad in his local newspaper for a room to let above a hairdressers near the city centre. He thought this would be ideal for a tattoo studio. But first he had to win over the lady owner who was none to happy about renting the room to a tattooist. In fact she told him that she had already turned down someone else who wanted to use it for tattooing. Lionel did not give up easily and eventually persuaded her to let him have it for two weeks and if she was unhappy after that time he would move his gear out.

 

The two weeks turned into eighteen months of non-stop tattooing. The only trouble being that the hairdressers closed early on Saturday's, but Lionel's clients had to go through the shop to get to the stairs that led up to his studio. Silly things would go missing, like the odd bottle of shampoo, the lady who owned the shop was very understanding and packed everything away that was on the shelves each Saturday afternoon. Lionel also decided that on a Saturday, he would have to let his customers in two at a time, and lock the rest out.

 

This was a situation he didn't like, and it was not fair on the landlady. When the chance of a shop on the next corner became available, he took his skills from number 70 to new premises at 66 St Clements Street. Lionel was now using a large double fronted ground floor shop, with it's own front door and things ran along perfectly, until the landlord there decided to turn the shop into two separate units, and sell them off. Because business was good he bought one of the units and the small flat above and stayed there until 1983.

 

Then lack of space made it necessary to move to his present location at 389 Cowley Road, this was to become the headquarters of the newly formed Tattoo Club of Great Britain, and home of Britain's first Tattoo Museum.

 

One of the main things that disappointed Lionel was the fact that so much of Britain's tattoo history was leaving our shores. Many items of interest were going to San Francisco, where the home of the worlds premier tattoo museum is situated. It was Lyle Tuttle, the owner of the San Francisco museum, who was instrumental in the setting up of Britain's Tattoo Museum, because it was Tuttle's book 'Tattoo 70' that Lionel read and it got him thinking that England needed a home to keep its tattoo history.

 

With this new shop Lionel now had the space. Lionel still had the old machines that he bought from Tony Malo. He phoned other tattoo artists and explained what he was doing and was delighted to find others who felt the same. Memorabilia soon came flooding in, and not just from the UK but from all over the world. Today the museum has everything you ever needed to know about the history of tattooing. Lionel decided to call it the Tattoo History Museum, Lyle Tuttle suggested changing the name to the British Tattoo History Museum to avoid confusion with his Tattoo Art Museum.

 

Over the years many people have visited the museum including Students, Press and Television. The actor Robert de Niro made a visit doing research into the art. If you would like to visit please phone first.

 

Lionel has organised a series of very successful tattoo convention, the first two were held in Oxford. Because he is now occupied with other duties like running a busy shop and producing a newsletter which is now in its 20th year, as well as running The British Tattoo Artist Federation, he decided he no longer has time to organise any more conventions.

Barbara.

 

Lionel no longer works in the studio, resident tattooists now are Barnaby and Curly who can be reached on 01865 716877.

 

studio email - ltsoxford@hotmail.com

 

 

 

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