Surrounded by books and machinery, art, the electric hum of machines that pump ink through needles into skin—I was a bit intimidated visiting Lal Hardy’s studio New Wave Tattoo.
Lal has been tattooed by Yakuza in Japan, the jungle of Borneo, Tahiti and has just as many stories as he has tattoos of his own. He shares his views on how culture in and out of the tattoo scene has flowed through London over the past few decades, and the amazing stories of the people that pop into his studio—then leave forever changed.
“Years and years ago there was a certain element of tattooing that was a journey into the unknown…the shops having their windows blacked out. When you stepped across the threshold of that building—you didn’t know what character you were gonna meet behind the door.”
Lal’s path to becoming a tattoo artist is a layered one. He had family that’d been in the army and navy—all with tattoos of ships they’d been on, places they’d been like Egypt, and it filled Lal’s imagination with a sense of wonder as a young boy. In 1975 he picked up a book Skin Deep: Art, Sex, and Symbol and it was a book of mainly sailors’ tattoos. This coincided with a major resurgence of rock and roll in England, and Lal was at a different venue and show every night—surrounding himself with a crowd covered in tattoos. Art culture, and keeping the company of others that society might see as a bit different has kept Lal firmly rooted in the world of tattoos.
Lal made a name for himself during the punk era. It flipped a switch for him, surrounded by all the leather jackets, bright colored hair, fanzines, record covers—he saw that there was a market there in tattoos for that scene which put off most of the old timers. Lal frequented shops in rough and tumble parts of town, where violence, prostitution and drugs could be found mixed in the streets. However, these shops had character that goes almost beyond description. Old buildings with toilets in basements like dungeons, sometimes with unfortunate derelicts who had passed away in their hidden recesses. These spots are where legends where made.
“I’ve been in TV programs, adverts, met famous people…things like that that are just amazing. But you know, sometimes just sitting and being able to figuratively put your arm around someone and give them something that, maybe, just makes them feel a little bit better in a time of great sadness—that’s more rewarding than the other things that happen.”
London is a city constantly in motion and undergoing change. Lal has seen this in the types of people that come get tattooed, the designs they choose, and the world culture that influences it all. As a loner, Lal feels that London is both a wonderful and isolating locale. It can be frightening to some and seem inhospitable, then turn around and invigorate you with absolute vibrancy. It is a city with stories plastered in its streets, museums, but as Lal would certainly agree—the very skin of its citizens as well.