An Interview with Lee Wagstaff

Published: 29 June, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 128, December, 2005

With regard to your interest in art, where did things start?

I was always interested in art as a child, at that stage merely for fun and to entertain myself, it seemed and still seems a very strange way to make a living. In terms of my formal art education, it was just something I drifted into. I was originally more interested in biology and chemistry, however some friends were going to part time classes in drawing and printmaking, I went along and ended up really enjoying it. I must have had some natural ability as I progressed very quickly and gained high exam grades.


Although I had this ability and enjoyed learning new skills and techniques I was never really much inspired except by nature; which is never improved by art, so why bother? I drifted through A levels and even a degree at Saint Martin’s, but never had a real goal or purpose at the time.


So when was it that you became interested in tattoos and at what point did you decide to combine tattoos and fine art?

In 1995, which was when I first met you, I started getting tattooed, the idea just came from nowhere, but what I liked about tattoos was their permanence and their portability, they became a medium by which I could carry my ideas and designs with me. I could exhibit them at my own discretion and could engage in an ambitious artistic project that required no participation with the art establishment. Although this was the time of ‘Brit Art’, the London art scene was just as devisive and insular/excluding as it had been in the 80’s and continues to be to some extent to this day. Success more often than not depends on the  ‘right connections’, rather than on creative output. Tattoos also meant that I was free from the burden of paper and canvas etc, I have moved a lot in the last 15 years and had become tired of lugging around portfolios, reams of paper, countless sculptures etc. Anyone who is an artist knows how easy it is to accumulate a lot of stuff without really trying.


You later graduated from the Royal College of Art. I remember your MA show well. Tell us something about the concept and presentation of the work and the subsequent success and recognition you gained.

As you know, at the Royal College Of Art the graduation show is considered by many to be probably the most important part of the whole course and the attention and kudos the show attracts is one of the primary reasons students choose to study there. The RCA has a very good reputation, probably the best of all the London Art colleges. It’s a major showcase for the students to launch their work, to expose it to the world, to attract galleries, buyers, etc. But for me, just finishing the two years was my main goal. I was attempting to exorcise the shambles that was my BA, I just wanted to put on a nice show and to pass the exams and leave with my head held high.


The idea for my graduation show was initiated when I was studying in Japan, I was given an opportunity to show at the university gallery with another foreign student so we had lots of room. The Japanese teachers were interested in my actual tattoos rather than in photographs or drawings, so I felt that I had to find a way to display them that I felt comfortable with. I felt comfortable at home. So I recreated my Japanese home in the gallery, complete with tatami mats, my bed, books, manga toys etc. So basically I sat in my boxers on my bed in the gallery. The response was very positive, people would come and sit with me, we would talk about Japan, England, religion, cartoons, culture, everything. This was a genuine exchange where people could ask me whatever they wanted, sit and have tea with me and even though I was wearing just boxer shorts it seemed very natural.


When I returned to London, I needed to prepare for my graduation show and decided to do something similar but more low key, there were twenty of us graduating so space was restricted and I didn’t want my show to impose on that of other students. I built an enclosed space in an area rejected by all the other students, it was elevated to about three feet above the ground. It was here that I did my presentation on a rotating platform. In terms of media interest and public attendance the show was very successful. People queued every hour on the hour for ten days to see my show, the head of college had arranged security as he was worried about possible repercussions due to the Islamic symbols on my head and the swastikas. For me the live presentation was very difficult and stressful, even though this may seem a contradiction, many tattooed people are quite shy and not natural exhibitionists.  


Did you have any problems with tutors regarding the type of work you wanted to do?

All of the tutors at the Royal College were very supportive, they seemed to appreciate my aims even if they could not relate directly to them and they gave me the space I needed. Even before I started there they had an idea of where I was coming from as I had taken my clothes off at the interview so that they could see the work in progress. From my perspective this was also a good way of ensuring they remembered me, so many people apply to that particular college, there are limited places and I wanted to get in. My time at the RCA was very happy, many art colleges have great reputations, for me the RCA really lived up to its. I felt, and still feel, very privileged to have been a part of that establishment. One of the main reasons I had applied to the RCA was to use the facilities and to actually enjoy doing my art again. When I got there I was a good student, which I hadn’t been on my BA.


After your degree show your work was much in demand. How has that impacted on you as an artist?

I’m not an artist who has a particular driving force to produce work to show to other people. I do what entertains me. Now I am in a position to be able to show my work regularly so to choose not to do so would be a wasted opportunity. But when I started the work it was not intended for other people.


You have been involved in some big shows.

Yes. I’ve been involved in shows at the V & A, and at other museums and galleries around the world. One of the most interesting was a show entitled, ‘Ornament Und Abstraction’, which was held at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland in 2001, it was all about the connection between ornamentation and contemporary art and featured a huge variety of work including traditional African tribal sculpture hung next to Picasso paintings.


These shows were quite soon after my graduation. The first year and a half was all a bit of a whirlwind, too much too soon. I was literally jetting off all over the world and selling loads of work, though not necessarily making loads of money as I had lots to pay out! 


Are you the first artist to use tattoos as a medium for fine art?

As far as I know I am the first artist to present a full body suit of my own design specifically as one project. There are many artists who are heavily tattooed and several artists who have worked directly or indirectly with tattooing. However, whilst my project was to present my tattoos within the context of fine art, it is important to remember that there are hundreds of fantastic tattoo artists who make unique and amazing pieces of art every day.


What has been the reaction to your work from within the tattoo comminity?  

I have had very positive reactions from the tattoo community. What is interesting about tattooing is that it is a kind of exclusive but quite large ‘club’, you are either tattooed or you are not. No matter what the size or style of tattoo, there is a shared experience that becomes an immediate icebreaker.


I met Horyoshi and Hanky Panky in Tokyo a couple of years ago and they were both very positive regarding my work. Alex and the guys at ‘Into You’ have become friends and have taken part in another of my projects. Very few people saw my tattoos until the whole project was finished so even if they may not have liked the style or imagery, I think they appreciate the ambitious nature of the project. Most of the work was done before Barry was established in his own shop, so I was like his unseen apprentice project and therefore take part credit/blame for his technical proficiency especially where geometry is concerned, circles, stars and straight lines are now some of his specialities.

We have both known the tattooist Barry Hogarth for many years. How did your meeting and collaboration come about?

I have known Barry for about ten years, I had been looking for somebody who could help me with my project, for someone competent who was willing to exclusively tattoo my ideas and designs. This ruled out all of the famous London tattoo artists as they would invariably want more of a creative input when working on such a large project. Barry had only been tattooing for a couple of years but I knew he was the right person as he is very methodical and rational and, most importantly, not dismissive. He seemed to welcome the challenge, as he had not done that many large pieces at the time.


We had no carbon machine so all the transfers were hand drawn. Leading up to my degree show both Barry and myself were under a lot of pressure to finish the work, we were doing two long sessions each week and that can be quite intense.  


What was the basis or inspiration behind the designs?

All of the designs for my tattoos are based around universal geometric forms, some refer specifically to my religious and cultural background; Catholic on my mothers’ side and Hindu on my fathers.


When I was designing my tattoos I tried not to look at tattoo books or magazines. I was interested in creating a new tattoo vocabulary based around decorative arts rather than established tattoo traditions. Some of the larger designs are inspired directly by sacred symbols. On my back I have a Wheel Of Life based on a window in a medieval church that also looks like a mandala or an astrolabe.


On occasions the work has provoked strong reactions.

Yes, the Paris show was firebombed. Movies and the media perpetuate the Nazi connections with swastikas. You rarely see anything in the mainstream media about the symbol in relation to its previous significance in other cultures. Some American magazines refused to feature my work, but lots of people who came to the Miami show were Jewish, so it just depends. And even if people don’t like the connotations of swastikas, I get constant e-mails from people regarding them and people write reams about my work on various websites so at least it initiates some kind of dialogue on the subject.


You recently showed the ‘Apostles’ series. Tell us about that work.

That’s right. For the first project, which featured my own body, I had worked in isolation designing the tattoos and taking the photographs, the only collaborative aspect of the work was the fact that Barry put the work onto my skin. Subsequently I became interested in meeting and communicating with people who had similar experiences. By this stage I had luckily met a lot more tattooed people and saw this as an opportunity to get to know them better. I wanted to continue the religious theme from the first project, as my Christian faith is a big influence on my work. With ‘Apostles’ I was interested in the idea that tattooing is like a religion, it requires a great deal of commitment, determination, and has a lasting effect on the wearers lives.  Many of the subjects in this project are tattooists with very distinctive styles, which they pass on to their clients in a similar way that Apostles passed on the Gospels. I was very happy to get the people I really wanted to take part in the project, they all have world class, distinctive tattoos. If anything this project constitutes a unique record of British tattoo art of the time.  


Why do you think academics and the fine art world are currently so focused on tattoos and other forms of body modification?

In the past, fine art was all about money and heirarchy, elevating painting and sculpture above everything else, even today most museums and galleries are still dominated by paintings and sculpture. There is also the question of class, traditionally tattoo collectors were largely working class people to whom fine art is considered an indulgence.


The reason that the art establishment is now embracing tattoo art is partly to do with the shift in what is currently seen as ‘fine art’, as well as the rampant intellectualisation of everything and anything by ‘cultural’ theorists. We live in a world where kids TV show ‘The Clangers’ is interpreted by academics as a cutting analysis of postcolonial socio-economic bourgeois repression.  Even though there may be a genuine interest by academics in body art, I suspect there is also a fair amount of bandwagoneering going on. As for museums, they are a bit like property developers, they have to speculate a bit so they don’t want to miss out on something. Again, I am wary!


You have often expressed an unease about having your work featured in tattoo magazines. Why now?

I am always careful of how my work is presented. I do turn down a lot of interviews and publications as they are not right for me at the time. I decided to do this interview with you for Skin Deep because I have known you for years and during that time you have always shown a positive interest in what I am doing.


How do you feel about your tattoos on a day-to-day basis?

Most of the time I tend to forget about my tattoos, its only when other people remind me or if I am going swimming or am in a situation where I am undressed in a public place with others that I am a bit self conscious.


So Lee, what does the future hold in terms of other projects?

I am currently working on something completely unrelated to tattooing. This work does however carry on some of the themes I have explored in previous works, the main difference being that it centres on the movement of the body rather than what is actually on it!


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Text: Ashley Photography: Lee Wagstaff


Skin Deep 128 1 December 2005 128