I’ve just got back from ATP’s Nightmare Before Christmas music festival – I’m still wearing the wristband – and my head is full of what for me was the stand-out performance of the weekend, Daniel Higgs.
My interest in tattoos was merely embryonic when Daniel Higgs stopped tattooing, giving it up in order to better concentrate on his music, firstly his band, Lungfish and later on his solo projects too. Turning his back on dermal art, despite an obvious talent has made the Higgs name that of a kind of folk legend; his simple story seems so strange as to be almost unbelievable. To leave the world of tattooing is considered utter madness, we are all aware of the immense effort, hard work and perseverance required to obtain and complete an apprenticeship and the majority of us believe tattooing to be a vocation rather than a job, so for someone to give that up, someone talented and celebrated for their tattoos and art, someone so admired is peculiar.
Dan Higgs wasn’t just any old tattooer, he was a very good one, possessing a distinctive style and attracting critical acclaim and sharing magazine space with such luminaries as Alex Binnie and Don Ed Hardy. It’s incredibly unusual to hear about people walking away from tattooing, its permanence isn’t wholly summed up by marks in the skin; our relationships and love affairs with the art are just as long lasting as its inky traces. It’s like a marriage and it’s hard for many of us to suppose what could break such strong bonds apart.
It’s easier for us to imagine the scenario the other way around- giving up a life of music for one of tattoo art, Duncan X went from headlining festivals with his band Sheep On Drugs and the top 40 chart to the very bottom, learning the old fashioned way from Dennis Cockle. Duncan’s labour was undoubtedly worth it, Mr X tattoos are imbibed with the same sense of originality and creativity as his stage shows once were and are surely some of the most interesting and accomplished coming out of the UK today.
I believe that all creativity is the same, regardless of how it manifests. It could result in songs, paintings, tattoos, plays or stories, but they all come from the same place as spokes on an umbrella do, branching out of a central point. So it’s little surprise that someone possessing talent in one area may have equal abilities in another.
Tattoos and music sit together particularly well; both are unmediated, pure and personal. They are art forms that touch us directly. So it comes as no surprise that fans of music and fans of tattoos are often one and the same and of course, music is a popular theme in tattoo iconography. As it’s not really possible to translate actual music into pictorial form, we find other ways to represent it. Ways including song lyrics, band logos, portraits of singers, pictures of instruments and microphones and popular musical semiotics, like the treble clef. The imagery is varied but the sentiment is consistent.
And if tattoo fans and music fans are the same, it is pleasing to know that some music artists and tattoo artists are also the same. Duncan X’s colleague, Tas, plays in Electric Wizard, Jef Whitehead is Leviathan and Thomas Hooper sang for Hardcore band Rainy Day Fuck Parade before leaving the UK for NYC.
And Anthony “Civ” Civarelli from Gorilla Biscuits made the same choice as Duncan X elevating tattooing over music, opening Lotus Tattoo in Long Island.
Being in a band, on tour and in studios is erratic and so perhaps best suited to the young. It makes sense that the consistent work ethic of tattooing (often measured in hours) can appeal to someone used to irregular hours. Bands often deteriorate with age, 10th albums fail to stand up to debuts but tattooing grows with its practitioner. Its almost rhythmic that music would be a starting point and tattooing would come later, that the musician eventually picks up another kind of instrument, a machine, and the unwearied mistress of tattooing eventually triumphs.
Frank Carter of Gallows has been roundly criticized for seemingly turning his back on a fantastic opportunity - tattooing at one of Britain’s very best tattoo shops, Frith Street in order to tour with his band and put his energy into his music -but Frank has not rejected tattooing and this situation is not permanent. Instead he guest spots on the road and sporadically returns to his London base. I have no doubt that full time tattooing is waiting patiently for his return.
So the tattooist that leaves the art for music is a definite anomaly.
And that brings me back to the beginning and to Daniel Higgs, whose plane to the UK was late and his spot had to be rescheduled and he became the very last act of the event. At 2.15 am, this white bearded, soft spoken gent took to the far-too-large stage without crew or back up, just a banjo, a shruti box and some ankle bells.
There are few traces of Daniel Higgs’ former tattoo life in his folk singer guise but if you look closely you will find letters and symbols on his fingers, animals on his neck, so faded you’d think they were made half a century ago.
It is some years since this man crafted tattoos but the influence of his work can be seen today, bold, flat, idiosyncratic designs that are often imitated but without the Higgs magic, the magic that he has taken to his music. His music is stripped back to its utterly necessary ingredients, like a good western traditional tattoo.
It is not usual for talented tattooists to leave their medium behind, but Daniel Higgs is not usual, he is magic.