In 2000, Isobel Varley was acknowledged by the Guinness Book Of World Records as being ‘The World’s Most Tattooed Senior Woman’.
Isobel is a well-known ambassador for the tattoo scene and is constantly in demand by the media, as well as judging at conventions worldwide. Since first meeting her many years ago at one of the Dunstable conventions, it has been my ambition to photograph and find out more about this enigmatic personality. In December 2007, we finally got together in order to make this happen.
Tell us something about your childhood and teenage years.
I was born in Mytholmroyd, which is a small village in Yorkshire and that is where I spent all of my early years amongst family and friends. Looking back, I suppose I was quite a feminine child, but still preferred to play with the boys. I still do! In 1949, when I was 12, we moved down South and as soon as I was settled I began to develop an erotic interest in the opposite sex. Being quite confident and also physically well developed for my age, I had some amazing experiences, which I shall always remember. I know that I gave my mother some sleepless nights, as she lay awake wondering what I was up to in the early hours of the morning. I was usually out with my biker friends and was never without a boyfriend. When I was 15, I lost my virginity to one of these bikers, which was an overwhelming experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
When did you get your first tattoo?
I actually got my first tattoo in 1986; it was done by a tattooist called Bill Cooke, who is now sadly deceased.
What was it that prompted you to get tattooed at that time?
My husband Mac, whom I had met in 1958, took me to a tattoo convention at the Hammersmith Palais in London. Whilst at the convention, I was immediately struck by the beauty of many of the tattoos I saw and was amazed by the diversity of the people I met there who seemed to come from all walks of life. Mac introduced me to Bill Cooke, the tattooist, and when I expressed an interest in getting a tattoo, Bill suggested that I visit his studio, which happened to be conveniently located close to where I was living. After the convention, I was so excited that I phoned the studio almost immediately and chose the earliest appointment available, which happened to be at the end of the week. Bill didn’t rush me when I arrived, but allowed me the time to look around and relax before we started on the design, a small bird, which I had chosen from the tattoo flash displayed on the studio walls. I must admit that I had been expecting some degree of pain, but when Bill started working, I was surprised at just how minimal the discomfort actually was. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that I was on such a natural high at the time, just thinking about the prospect of seeing the finished tattoo. As soon as I did see it, I fell in love, and much to Bill’s surprise, asked him to do another one for me straight away. This time I chose an orchid, and I have to admit this tattoo was a bit more uncomfortable probably due to its placement on my left thigh.
How did you feel when you finally left the studio?
As I had expected, I was elated and on an incredible high which lasted for some time. And, from that moment on, though I may not have known it at the time, I was hooked on tattoos. So, that was to the start of my very long sojourn into the world of tattoos and tattooing, which although not originally planned, has resulted in a full bodysuit.
So how did the bodysuit come about?
After my first tattoos by Bill, I went to another tattooist who did a couple of bits of work for me. The problem was that he only wanted to do what he wanted to do, which wasn’t necessarily what I wanted, so I ended up going to Brent of Dunstable and it is him that I have to thank for persuading me to think about the way in which my tattoos were progressing and to get large tattoo coverage. So many people get bits and pieces with little or no connection and this can look messy. Brent warned me about this pitfall and began to join up the work I had, as well as creating new designs starting at the top of my body and gradually working down. That’s really how the bodysuit came about. Starting at the shoulder, he tattooed down the front gently, first covering my right breast and then the left. Leaving the main area of my stomach free, he next tattooed my upper arms, hips, and then my back and bum, moving close to the vagina.
At that point, I went to Alan Dean of Luton, who placed some lovely tigers on my stomach. He then covered the total area of my vulva, which was something of a task for him, but was, in my opinion, absolutely necessary in order to make things look complete. However, in retrospect, I’m not sure that I could withstand that level of discomfort again. Alan also did some lovely work on my legs and arms.
Following the many hours I spent under the needle with Alan, I transferred to Dave Fleet from Blackwood, Wales, with whom I have spent numerous hours as he completed my arms and legs and reworked many areas where the density had faded. Dave also attempted to totally cover the soles of my feet, but was unable to get the ink in due to the texture of the skin. However, he did a fantastic job in finishing off my bodysuit by the end of 1997, though as I said previously, this was never originally planned.
Besides the work done by these three artists, I have had several other tattooists do little bits of work, of fantastic quality, here and there on my body. Particularly memorable was the work done by Hori Hiro, using the traditional Japanese stick method.
Tell us about the work on your forehead.
I have always said that I would never have any tattoo designs on my face, but when I met Filip Leu, (one of the finest tattooists in the world), at a Swiss convention, and was introduced to his mother, Loretta, and saw the tattoo on her forehead, I knew that I had to have something with a similar placement. Initially, I asked Filip to do something very small, near the hairline. Well, he took over and ended up doing quite a large triangular design in the middle of my forehead, which turned out beautifully. I knew than that I could never guarantee to hide it with my hair, so I was now broadcasting to the world the fact that I was tattooed. This had previously been a barrier to me and one that Filip had been determined to challenge and break down. Later, with this barrier removed, I asked Filip to do a choker around my neck, which he did a few weeks later, once again making a wonderful job of it.
You recently got your head tattooed. What was it that inspired the penises and mice?
(laughs) I have Paul O’Connor to thank for that! Paul had already done a significant amount of work on me before doing my head, so I gave him free rein to do what he wanted. After he had been working away for about half an hour, and seemed to be getting on well with the design, I got curious and asked him what he was doing. He just said, “I’ve done some cocks up the back of your head”. I said, “You old …”, to which he replied, “I know you too well, and I know what you like!” I suppose he was right and I’m pleased with the way things have turned out.
Once I had decided to have my head tattooed, the hardest thing was to accept the fact that I would have to have all of my hair removed. This was done in two stages. On the first session, Paul removed only enough hair to establish the line of the tattoo, but on the second session, my head was totally shaved enabling him to really get to work on the design. I now keep my head totally shaved at all times and wear a wig when necessary.
What are the themes that run throughout the majority of your work?
The majority of the designs are made up of flowers, wildlife or erotica. Apart form those on my head, I have dozens of cocks tattooed all over my body, sited amongst images of exotic animals and colourful flowers. On my stomach, just above my genitals, I have a tattoo of a mouse escaping from a cat and appropriately over this I have tattooed the bold statement, “Hungry Pussy”. On my bum, I have a large erotic heart tattoo with the words, “At Bob’s Command I Am Tattooed & Pierced”. This is in recognition of the fact that my Australian friend, Bob, has, over the years, significantly influenced me in having tattoos.
Does any of the work have any special significance?
I don’t believe that any of my tattoos have any deep, spiritual or other hidden significance. It’s more about the fact that they give me a buzz, are sexually arousing and visually appealing. Basically, they are me! I have always liked to be a bit different; hence I like to present myself wearing different styles of clothes, make-up and jewellery. I see my tattoos as an extension of this interest, though undoubtedly some psychiatrist would make more of this, particularly with regard to the erotic tattoos.
How many tattooists have worked on you over the years?
To date, I have had work done by 23 different tattoo artists. All I have found to be good, and in general I have been happy with what they have produced for me. The majority of the work has been done by the four previously mentioned British artists, namely, Alan Dean, Brent, Dave Fleet and Paul O’Connor. I have chosen all of these artists for their excellent work, expertise and standards of hygiene. Looking back, however, I am amazed at just how different each artists’ technique has been when tattooing me. Some have made a big issue of stretching the skin when working, whereas others don’t seem to stretch at all! The needle settings and the way the ink splashes can also be so different, as is the degree of discomfort I have felt, which also varies from one artist to another.
You mention discomfort. Which areas have been the most painful to tattoo, and, were you to start afresh, with virgin skin, would you go for the same type of design? In general, I’ve found that as the tattooing has progressed down the body, it became more painful. The top of my feet proved only just bearable but having my vulva tattooed was definitely the most painful, especially the inner labia and the clitoral hood.
I’m often asked were I able to start again with virgin flesh, would I adopt the same theme? Well, of course, some of the detail would be different because I am now aware of so many more possibilities, but I believe that the theme would be the same and I have no tattoos that I significantly dislike from amongst the many that I have accumulated over the years.
Have you any idea as the amount of time and money you have spent getting tattooed?
From my log, it appears that I have spent over 500 hours under the needle and I estimate the cost to be in excess of £20,000. To many people that might seem like a lot, but to me it is money well spent. You have to remember, it’s taken me 21 years to get to this stage. Getting a full bodysuit takes a long time, it’s not only the time spent under the needle, but also the travelling often over long distances to get to the studio. And I didn’t start getting tattooed until I was in my 40s, so it wasn’t the typical teenage rebellious type of thing. My husband Mac has a few tattoos, but funnily enough, when we first met, I never really liked them. When I started getting tattooed, over 20 years ago, people, especially women, weren’t getting huge amounts of coverage.
Now that you are so heavily tattooed, what kind of reactions do you get from the general public?
Children just look, they don’t often dare to say anything. Teenagers vary, some don’t bother or seem to notice, others are really interested and do ask questions. With older people, reactions do vary - in my local community everyone knows me, but when I go further afield, some people are curious whereas others don’t notice, or if they do, don’t seem to want to know. And obviously when I’m out and about, I am fully dressed so the tattoos are not always easy to see. Those who do ask questions generally want to know the same old things, like, “do they hurt”, to which I politely reply, “in places”.
Have reactions changed much since you have had the work on your head, face and neck?
I suppose that now I have more visible work, I don’t have the option to hide my tattoos as I previously could. But as I’d come so far, in terms of my tattoos, I just thought I should do the lot, (laughs). On the other hand, I do often cover up as much as possible when in company if I think that those around me will be embarrassed or uninterested in seeing my tattoos. I have always believed that is important not to force my tattoos on others.
How has your family reacted to your ink?
My son and most of my relations accept it now. When my mother was alive, she was concerned that I might catch something from the needle and become ill, that was a huge worry for her. If she were still alive today, she probably would never have quite come to terms with the amount of coverage that I have. When I got the first one or two, she kept advising me not to get any more, and after that we never really discussed the topic. Many years later, however, in one of her drawers, we found an article that I had done in a newspaper, which she had obviously kept, so she was aware of what was going on, she just preferred not to discuss it.
Have you received many negative comments?
Very few. I’ve had one or two emails from people who have said that they didn’t like what I was doing, but I don’t really take much notice. What does surprise me is when people, some of whom I know quite well, never mention them. I assume this is because, either they don’t know what to say, or they are not the slightest bit interested in them. Personally though, I am really happy with my tattoos and they have enriched my life no end.
In what ways?
I’ve never travelled as much as I do now. I get invited to so many tattoo conventions in the UK and abroad. Three days after this photoshoot, we are off to the Berlin convention. I’ve attended conventions in Germany, France, Peru, Argentina, and the USA, to name but a few. I like the overseas conventions, but I do go to some of the UK ones. I give an award at the Portsmouth convention, so we always go there. Some of the conventions are held in the strangest of places, one of the German ones we went to took place in the middle of nowhere, on the way we just kept seeing all of this farm equipment all over the place, it was quite funny. One of the best things about conventions is meeting people, which is something I really enjoy. We have so many friends on the tattoo scene and conventions are the only time we get the chance to catch up with many of them as they live all over the world.
Being so heavily tattooed has also meant that I get asked to do quite a lot of photographic work. I’ve done lots of television too; I’ve done the Frank Skinner Show, the Vanessa show and many others over the years. TV has given me so much exposure and I’ve also appeared in countless magazines and newspapers around the world. This has been a lot of fun and I have to say that I don’t regret doing any particular interview or TV show, as I don’t think I’ve ever been ridiculed or embarrassed by the way I’ve been portrayed.
I get lots of students contacting me when they are researching anything to do with tattoos and photos of me appear in various museum archives. I was at the V & A, when they had their Day Of Record event, when tattooed people were invited to come to the museum and be photographed in order that their tattoos could be recorded for the museum archive. It was an amazing event, so many people turned up - they got me in the studio and had me there for hours. Nowadays however, I’m so busy that I have to limit what I do as otherwise I end up having no time to myself.
You also judge at lots of conventions, is that something you particularly enjoy?
I love to see all of the new work and new ideas. But judging can go on for too long. I’ve got it down to a fine art nowadays. I always look out for something new and exciting in terms of design, technique and style. It’s very flattering that I’m invited to judge and that also enables me to promote tattooing in a positive light. I’m quite well known now, so over the course of a convention, I sometimes get hundreds of people asking to take photos of me, or with me, and I always endeavour to be polite, positive and approachable.
Do you plan any more work, and if not, will you miss the buzz associated with getting tattooed?
One of the downsides of having this much work is the fact that there is little space for new designs, although I occasionally find the space to get small pieces done. I doubt that I will fully cover my face but have already encroached on it by having my eyes outlined, stars and a heart at the corners of my eyes and a beauty spot tattooed as well as the work on my forehead and neck. I will get some more work on my fingers and I suppose that later on it will just be a question of maintaining the work that I already have.
I know that for me, tattooing is definitely addictive and its impossible to resist getting new work done or earlier work re-outlined or re-coloured. So yes, I would miss the buzz.
Aside from tattoos, you have a considerable array of piercings, how did they come about?
When I first started getting tattooed, I already had multiple ear piercings, but at that time the range of body piercing options that we have today, was virtually unknown. It was only when Pauline Clarke, whom I knew from the tattoo convention scene, started her magazine, Piercing World, that body piercing became more accessible. When she initially launched the magazine, to which I know you contributed, we used to spend a lot of time with her discussing the scene and how it was developing. In many ways it’s a shame that Pauline, after many years, ceased to publish the magazine, as there is still no specialist piercing publication…I suppose the majority of people use the Internet for research nowadays.
I see piercings as being complimentary to tattoos and now have a total of 48, which include 2 in each nostril, 1 in the lip, 1 in each nipple, 1 in my naval, 28 ear piercings, with the rest comprising of genital piercings, these being 3 in each inner labia, 2 in each outer labia and 4 in the clitoral hood. I have to admit that I find all of these extremely exciting and I hope to retain them indefinitely.
Aside from tattoos, are there any other ambitions that you would like to fulfil and do you have any hobbies?
I’d like to go somewhere I’ve never been before, somewhere warm, where I could just have a holiday and a rest. That would be great. All of the travelling that I currently do revolves around the tattoo scene and conventions. It would be fun to be a regular tourist for a change!
Regarding hobbies, I would love to have more, but just don’t have the time. I love animals, but can’t have any because we travel so much…I like to read, (anything good) and I enjoy gardening, when I get the time.
As an ambassador for the tattoo community, is there anything else that you would like to say?
It’s great that museums, academics and the art world are finally recognising the importance of tattoos within today’s society, but I never push my tattoos onto anyone. I understand that there will always be people who don’t like them and I respect that. In the past there has been a tendency to look down on people with visible ink. This will hopefully change now that more people, particularly women, have them. I imagine that they will increasingly be seen as acceptable, but for myself, I will always be the extreme, albeit the ‘inoffensive extreme’ at that.