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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.

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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.

Bare Backs, Tattoo’s and Green Hair – Valentine’s Day 1914

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1914 Valentine Day Postcard

Whilst researching an article, I came across the following “amusing”  newspaper article from a seemingly carefree period just before the horrors of the First World War.

It  illustrates  that whilst every generation thinks they are “modern”, in reality very few things are “new”.

STRANGE THINGS WOMEN ARE DOING BARE BACKS, GREEN HAIR, AND TATTOOING BREAKING ALL RECORDS. LONDON,

February 14, 1914.

In these days of competition the members of the fair sex adopt all manner of schemes where by they can attract attention. They have been slowly undressing for some time, and we have been wondering ,when this kind of thing is going to stop.
But it isn’t going to stop. The ladies of this little isle never do things by halves. With them it is either a question of overdressing or under dressing, and the latter is the rage just now.
Probably because the law is so very strict, the hobble fig-leaf has still to become fashionable. But our womenfolk are coming very near to it. The unrobing act has started in the photographer’s studio, and we shan’t be a bit surprised if some daring female brings it into the street in broad daylight.
The very latest fad among fashionable women is to have their backs photographed. Don’t think that I am referring to backs made shapely and picturesque  by means of silks and laces and guinea corsets. I mean the natural back, the  bare-skin back, or, if you will have it. the naked back.
The back, from the waist to the shoulder-blades, is stripped of all that has hitherto hidden it, and that back poses before the camera. I have heard it said that pictures of bare-skin backs are exceptionally charming. I suppose it is a question of what is good ought to be seen.

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The Scandalous bare back of 1914

STAGGERING THE STRONGER SEX.

I don’t want to suggest that the ladies who have already had their back skins photographed are in any way immodest. All I can say is their action is apt to make men ask each other -what on earth is going to stagger them next.
This bare-skin back craze will probably be come as popular as the Tango, and photographs of plump backs, thin backs, square backs, and round backs will grace our mantelshelves and knick-knack tables. Husbands will carry photographs of their wives’ backs in their letter cases; and some enterprising journal will offer a prize for the best photograph of a female back unadorned.
Two or three years ago the ladies of Paris got tired of having their faces photographed. .They took their shoes and stockings off and had their feet and ankles snapped by the man with the camera. A few ladies, more daring than the rest, had their limbs reproduced on sensitised paper and mounted on fancy cards. This little game stopped at the knee. I believe the fair damsels of the Gay City finally realised that a service of Sevres with nothing on it is less appetising than a petite marmite.

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George Burchett (King of the Tattooists) at work

THE TATTOO CRAZE.

  It appears that some women are not content with the way Nature has made them. Pink flesh doesn’t satisfy them. They want their skins decorated. At the moment the fashionable ladies of St. Petersburg are having tiny. figures painted on their faces, necks, chests, and backs, elephants, trees, and geometrical figures being’ the commonest patterns. These “pictures,” which revive the idea of the old beauty patch, were introduced by the Russian woman painter, Nathalie Gourthakoff.  The tattoo craze has come over here, and our women are having portraits of their pet animals tattooed on their arms, ankles, shoulders, and chests:? Mr Alfred South, a well known’ tattooist, has already tattooed pictures of horses, dogs, cats, and birds on the skin of women, and a short time ago he reproduced a photograph of a pet rabbit on a lady’s shoulder.
Perhaps the undressing craze and the tattooing craze will combine forces and throw the dressmakers out of their jobs. Maybe the fashionable woman of the near future will do without clothes altogether, and have her dress tattooed on her skin. Futurist designs would probably look very well.

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Olive May Meatyard was an actress who became Countess Drogheda

GRASS-GREEN HAIR.

Two Society leaders have already appeared in public wearing coloured hair. At a recent Covent Garden ball Lady Sarah Wilson caused Society to gape by complacently coming with a luxuriously dressed coiffure of mauve-coloured hair. The astonishment became hopeless amazement when the Countess of Drogheda also dropped casually in with her hair plainly of a vivid blue colour. -(And, by the ways Miss Madge Mackintosh the actress now playing in a Shavian play at the Little Theatre, also wears green hair,) . Spectators who were overcome, and who vowed to give up the drink in the future, were gently led away. Their perturbation was quietened when they heard the explanation that coloured hair for women was now. “the very latest thing in fashion.” Now, members of the fair, the frail, the fascinating sex, you know that you must not rush out and buy yellow, or pink wigs, or have your hair dyed those colours they might not suit you.
You must at least stop’ to read the following code as a guide :- – Green hair is suitable for brunettes. – ‘ Mauve is just the thing for blondes. Rose-coloured hair may be safely worn by brunettes, also magenta coloured hair.
Pink, purple, and yellow should never be dreamed of except by fair women. ,These are the rules laid down by experts:. said Mr Willie Clarkson, the famous theatrical costumier. This new fashion, which is accepted in many quarters as a permanent feature of English Society ladies, will provide a new and fascinating hobby for the  “nut.” He will now be able to fill his pocket-book with a rainbow of souvenir locks of hair, which will add “colour” to the story of his conquests. It may come as a disappointment to many to know that coloured hair is unlikely to become the vogue among the middle and lower classes. It would be too expensive for the average purse. Coloured wigs cost as much as from three guineas to 21 guineas each.