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George Burchett – King of the Tattooists

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George ‘Professor’ Burchett – King of the Tattooists

In writing a previous post I came across the work of George Burchett who was widely acknowledged as King of the Tattooists. Now I must confess I have never seen the attraction of Tattoos but was surprised that what is seen as a modern phenomenon has a long history and the East End was home to one of the most famous Tattoo Artists.

George ‘Professor’ Burchett was born George Burchett-Davis on August 23rd 1872 in Brighton, little is known about his family but according to his ghost written memoirs he got expelled from school for tattooing his classmates and joined the navy at 13. As a deckhand on the HMS Vincent he travelled the world and practised his Tattooing skills. He then allegedly jumped ship and travelled around the world.

edith 1920

His wife Edith 1920s

How much of this colourful backstory is true is hard to say, however there is evidence that he opened a cobbler’s shop in Mile End and carried out tattooing in his spare time. He also got married in 1898 and lived in Bow with his wife Edith.

At around this time he received some training from well known English tattooists Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald. It is also been said he bought a tattoo machine from Riley and started tattooing full time. With a large number of sailors and dockers, Mile End and Limehouse was  probably a good area for a tattooist and there is no doubt that in the first few years of the 20th century, George began to build up his reputation as high class tattooist. In 1910 George is mentioned in a newspaper report  in a strange story about a man who dies in an accident in a lift.

A Tattooed Man

 At the inquest on July 6 on William Charles Mirza Mendo, a cellarman, who was killed in a lift accident at the Carlton Hotel, London, where he was employed, it was stated that he was tattooed all over his body. George Burchett, a tattooist, of Waterloo road, said that he had tattooed Mendo, who lodged with him, and Mendo had intended to exhibit himself. A photograph was produced of the top of Mendo’s head, where an excellent picture of King Edward had been tattooed. Other photographs showed that on the man’s back, the ‘Home of the Gods’ had been tattooed in various colours. On his chest was a ^large eagle fighting with a snake. In the centre of his forehead was a crown between the letters, ‘E.R.’ On the arms were snakes and dragons, and on the legs Japanese women in five colours. (1910)

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Business must have been going well because this report mentions that he has a studio in Waterloo Road as well as his studio in Mile End. If business was good then, when the First World War started there is evidence that tattooing became really popular amongst servicemen and increasingly women. Our next newspaper report finds George’s business expanding again and he gives some insight into some of his customers.

THE NEW TATTOO

Mr Burchett  tattooist. is one of the busiest men in London. – He has recently opened a second establishment near his original “consulting room” in the Waterloo road.,so as to be able to ornament indelibly the arms and bodies of the men of His Majesty’s forces. “I have twice as many clients now as I had before the war.” he told a “Weekly Dispatch” representative the other day. “Most of them are soldiers or sailors, but some of them are young women, who want portraits of their soldier sweethearts tattooed on their arms. “A good many soldiers bring me photographs of their girls to tattoo: but this is not always wise, because sometimes it’s a case of off with the old love, and you can’t get her off your arm.

“Very smart these.” said  Mr Burchett admiringly. “Takes only ten or fifteen minutes to have any of  them on your skin for life. It’s wonderful when yon think of it.”I draw the design on the arm, and this electric needle does the rest. The days of tattooing with an ordinary needle are over.   “Seven and sixpence gives you a nice, smart. patriotic design but, of course, if you want a portrait and perhaps two heads with an arrow through them, or something tasty like that, it costs more.” (1917)

It was around this time that George begins to be  known as the “King of the Tattooists” and begins to become sought out not only sailors and soldiers but by Royalty and the “upper classes”.

Among his customers  were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Frederick IX of Denmark and  George V . A large number of society women made their way to George’s studio due to his development of cosmetic tattooing  which sparked a bit of a craze.

THE NEW TATTOO CRAZE.

Women are having the roses of youth tattooed in their cheeks. When this is done; delicate complexion will not fade with the passing of years. Luxuriant ‘eyebrows’ can be shaped and the soft shades which beauty cultivates drawn under the eyes. Lips, too are made shapely; but this is only one aspect of the strange life of a tattooist as revealed to a Press Association reporter by Mr G Burchett who has just tattooed a will on a man’s back.
Men, it seems also have beauty which is all too often only skin deep. They come to have red noses turned to a more becoming hue; pale faces made ‘sunburnt’ bald regions covered with silky locks. Girls will have the initials of their lovers with a posy of forget-me-nots or some other ( emblem tattooed on their legs or arm where it will not be visible. Life-like pictures of sweethearts are often tattooed on chests. An Irish Guardsman had a dotted line put around his throat with the inscription ‘Cut round dotted line.’
Two permanent ‘black eyes’ were given to an American boxer; who seemed to regard them as a badge of office. Roses were put on a sailor’s ears. Two men had respectively pictures of King Edward and King George drawn on their bald heads. Dancing girls and others were drawn all over another man. American sailors had the names of all ports they had visited written down their legs. A lady of seventy just had her nose whitened and her complexion tinted said Mr Burchett. (1929)

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He was so famous, he was featured on a Cigarette card

In the 1930s George’s status as one of the most famous tattooists in the world was endorsed by appearing regularly  in newspapers, and  radio and in 1938 on a BBC Television programme.

Televised Tattoo Demonstration

1938 at the BBC

Although George considered retirement, the Second World War created a great demand for Tattoos and he was as busy as ever.

Newspapers of the time were fascinated by George’s work ,

The war has brought prosperity to tattooists In England. Initials of wife or sweetheart or mother enclosed In a heart used to be the usual formula, but this has now given place to a series of more intricate designs.
Soldiers have the initials intertwined with the badge of their regiment: sailors prefer an anchor as the frame of their initials; while airmen have them set between wings.
“But it isn’t only love-tokens that we are doing now,” said Mr  G. Burchett, who has been tattooing for 36 years. “‘It is identification marks of one sort or another. Young men just called up want to be identified on their own skin. You’d be surprised at the things I have done,” (1940)

George is busier now than he has been in 40 years of practice. He tattoos identity numbers and blood groups on servicemen. (1944)

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Even after the war, business did not  allow George to slow down as he had a large number of requests from people who had been held captive by the Germans.

The girl from Auschwitz can never blot out her wartime slave memories, but the figures the Germans tattooed on her arm have gone. it was blotted out by Mr George Burchett, London tattooist. He has removed hundreds of tattooed numbers put on prisoners by Nazi gaolers.
At last the Americans and Russians liberated her, but the tattooed number still made her  a prisoner in herself. The 73-year-old George Burchett, Waterloo Road tattooist, treated her arm, saying: ‘It’ll be gone in a little more than a week. Keep it covered up.’ The girl from Auschwitz said she would gladly keep it covered up. ‘It’s nothing to pay for you.’ said George. (1948)

George carried on working up to 1953 when he died, his death was widely reported.

The king Mr Burchett decorated in his own indelible fashion, was Frederick of Denmark, who now has a fine green dragon needled all over his chest. Secrets aplenty came to this star of British tattooers. Once he inscribed a 200-word will on a man’s back. Once he worked in reverse and erased a concentration camp number from a girl refugee’s arm. Many times he applied permanent rosiness to the lips and cheeks of London’s society women. And the secrets were safe with Mr Burchett. He took them to his grave. (1953)

One secret was the identity of an unusual customer.

Who is The Tattooed Judge?

One mystery in England will probably never be solved now — the mystery of the tattooed Judge.
He was the best customer of King of Tattooers George Burchett — until the Judge’s body was so covered with designs that there was no room for more. All over from his shoulders to his feet, the judge wore an intricate pattern of roses, butterflies and dragons. One more tattoo — ‘ and the prisoners in the dock would have known  his secret. Now the identity of the Judge is never likely to be revealed. George died last week, and he took with him the name of one of his most distinguished customers. (1953)

George’s work is still highly respected today in the Tattoo world, I think that is because he was a well respected  artist who used designs from all over the world. This and his professional demeanour bought a bit of respectability to a  profession that had  more of a  ‘back street’ reputation, for these reasons alone he probably deserved his title as King of  the Tattooists.

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