What can I say? Duncan X is one of a kind. From his early days in his band to becoming an Icon in British tattooing, it was an honor to interview such a character. As I waited with George for him to finish up his tattoo so we could set up, I really didn’t know what to expect but I was sure it was going to be interesting – and I wasn’t let down.
Interview – Ben Lakin
Photography – Duncan X/George Bestall
What do you like to be referred to as?
Duncan X is good. I changed my name years ago by deed poll, so I am Mr X [laughs].
How did that name come about?
It happened before I started tattooing, when I was in a band. As a band we were trying to remove ourselves from reality as much as possible. The concept of becoming a pop star whilst taking the piss out of everything is what the band was all about. It was quite hard to get used to for a couple of years actually, like when you’re at the bank and they call out “Mr X” it’s hard, a new name is quite a burden. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve changed my name now and I’m quite fond of it really. It creates a stink at the airports though. It doesn’t fit into the computer, or a lot of other computers actually – you need two digits, so I just put XX. It’s funny being Mr X.
Can you tell us your background leading up to what brought you towards tattooing?
I’m 48, I was born in 1965, and I went to a public school in southeast London. When I was about 13, punk happened. There were quite a few original punks in my school that were from the Bromley Contingent and that had a big impression on me. I remember seeing punks in the high street. I was small because I wasn’t fully grown, and they were massive and really scary. That thrill and vibe they were giving off is something I felt really envious of. I wanted to give off that mad power with no regard for the future or anything that has gone before.
One of the most exciting and frightening things that happened in my childhood was kicking around and vandalising things – serial vandalism was something we were doing when I was about twelve or thirteen. We were vandalising trains and things, the concept was to offend commuters. So I was pretty anti-social from a very early age. I pretty much fucked up at school and started taking drugs quite a lot. I went to art school after doing A-levels, then left after a year, really disillusioned by the poor quality of other people’s drawing. I was also doing etching at the time and I did that for about five years, just going to local colleges, doing etching and selling a few of them. I did life drawing as well. I used to draw the exact way I draw now but I wasn’t very inspired, not like I am now.
So I was struggling along artistically doing a bit but not feeling like a proper artist. The drug thing was spiralling out of control and then it reached a peak. I was about 22, working for my dad making medical equipment and going to hospitals around England, having to service and install equipment in the operating theatres, and I was stealing drugs from the cabinets. The problem became massive. I went to rehab and then after rehab started the band with my best mate Lee. (Sheep On Drugs) That was a huge effort to be anti-social on a big scale, to be anti-social and at the same time commercial. It was a bit of a mad thing because I was trying to sell something offensive to normal people, and we managed to do it to a degree. We got into charts but it’s a bit like trying to change people’s minds, it’s quite hard. With tattooing I’m preaching to the converted, people come to me because they want a tattoo. I’m not going out into the street and trying to convert normal people to have one.
The band was really frustrating. At the end of it I felt like we didn’t get what we deserved, but when I look back on it I think I got more than I deserved because I was taking the piss and what I was doing was mad.
And how did you progress after the band?
The band was an artistic project to change myself and become bigger than myself. During the band I was getting tattooed, I had pictures of old sailors and old convicts and they had what in my mind were black tattoos. I came to realise later on they were just black and white photos, but they were messy and all over people. That look I found terrifying. Seeing a man tattooed like that made me want to go for it.
I started getting tattooed by Dennis Cockle. I was going to see him every couple of months. I wanted a tattooist that wasn’t going to have an opinion about what I was taking and would just do them. Dennis was like that and he was a really good laugh. I used to really look forward to seeing him and he would just have a good laugh about what I brought, he wouldn’t judge it. As soon as I started seeing him I realised I was going to get both arms tattooed and I did that during the process of the band. When I was seeing Dennis he said, “When the band finishes I’ll teach you how to tattoo”. When the band finished and he did teach me he said that nobody had come along with their own pictures and built up 2 sleeves with them, which surprised me because I thought it seemed perfectly natural to draw my own pictures and take them along. I now see that with tattooing not many people do draw their own pictures. I quite like it when someone comes in with their own pictures that are a bit radical, so I like to do it exactly like they’ve done it. I’ve often encouraged people to draw a bit themselves, because some people are designers and they’re drawing for their living, but won’t draw for their tattoo.
So you don’t draw all of your tattoos?
I think it’s great to draw your own tattoo if you’re confident with your drawing. Sometimes all people need is a bit of encouragement to get the confidence. For me it’s very easy now with the drawing.
The thing I love about tattooing, the one thing I absolutely love about it, is that there’s a customer and a deadline, and the deadline means I’m going to have the picture ready. I tattoo a lot of people and I draw a lot, but I’m always ready for the person because nothing will make me not ready. I’m able to draw under extreme pressure – the bigger the pressure the better I can draw. What’s brilliant about tattooing is that not only is there a deadline but there’s also a person, an individual, and the tattoo really matters to them. Consequently it really matters to me, because I’m the bastard that’s going to be doing it. It’s made me incredibly productive. It’s impossible to work out how many pictures I’ve drawn and each picture has been a winner in its own right. I absolutely love that it keeps me churning out work. Artistically, as well, I’ve always wanted to be a great painter, but I don’t paint, never did paint. And I’m really bad with colour, just can’t use it at all. I find my pictures are very graphic and they work best as a tattoo. They look good on paper but they look even better tattooed. I feel that, whether I like it or not, this is what I do best. I feel very lucky. Tattooing isn’t a gateway to anything for me, this is it.
A customer said to me the other day, ‘I want you to do what you want’. That’s really nice, but I want to do what you want. I don’t know you and I don’t just want to slap some picture on you that I think looks good. I want something that matters to you.
“The drug thing was spiralling out of control and then it reached a peak.”
Can I take you back to when Dennis taught you? How did you get from there to now?
I was seeing Dennis and drawing my own pictures when he was in Soho. When the band finished Dennis had stopped tattooing from that shop, sold his shop, and was just working privately. He said, ‘I’ve got time, I can give you time, but I can’t give you any customers’. He was just tattooing his regular customers so it wasn’t a walk-in shop anymore. I thought, ‘I’ll just tattoo myself and a few friends,’ but I wanted to get good on myself. All my legs are covered. I even managed to do a little on my front. I was going round to see Dennis once every week and sit with him for 2 or 3 hours. He’d do a small tattoo on me with needles and stencils I had made, and we would just have a bit of a laugh really. I would watch because I never used to watch, then I started to tattoo myself and realised it wasn’t too bad. I would show Dennis what I’d done, and it took about 6 months really.
Then I started tattooing a few people from home. I was living at King’s Cross at the time and I got a council flat which is about 100 yards from here. I knew people that knew Alex, I had never been in here. I tell a lie, I’d been in here once before with a friend of mine to get pierced, but I’d never looked at tattooing. When Dennis was tattooing me I never looked at any tattoo magazines and I never wanted to be influenced by anything. I had my own idea of what I thought tattoos should look like. I thought, ‘If I look in magazines I’m going to start stealing things or be influenced by things,’ and I didn’t want to be. In a way it was quite good not to do that but at the same time I missed out on seeing what was actually happening. When I found out I was 100 yards away I knew people that knew Alex and I had images of my thumbs being broke, so I thought, ‘I better go in and make sure it’s all right’. They were just like me and it made me want to work in here, not from home.
It took about 6 months until someone got kicked out. I hit it off with these guys straight away. As soon as I came in I was hanging around constantly until there was room to start. I think Alex was a bit wary at the beginning because I came in with a big reputation from the band of being completely unmanageable and completely out of it, but he took a chance, and I was glad he did.
How do you think the guys here have helped you progress your tattooing to where you’re at now?
Working here I watch people closely when they work, and it’s been amazing to have so many people come through here like Xed le Head or Curly. I worked with those people for quite a few years. There’s so many different aspects to the job and there’s so much to learn from other people. And also having a good laugh with them.
I’ve tattooed everybody that I work with, and that always inspires confidence. If someone wants me to tattoo them they obviously like what I do and think I’m good. So that alone must help to some degree. It’s encouraging to work in a place where they’re egging you on.
Has your style been something you’ve developed in the last 15 years?
For the first few years when I started tattooing I did pretty much anything. I did Celtic stuff, tribal stuff, I’ve done a few portraits, and I used to use colour a fair bit. As I got to do more and as my confidence grew with my own drawings, all that dropped away in favour of my own style, although right from the off I was tattooing like I am now. Some of the tattoos were like that and some were more normal, but they dropped out of the way in favour of my own drawings.
Did you find that there was a point where people started to appreciate your style for what it is?
It gradually evolved in its own way. I think drawing flash really helps as well, because suddenly you’ve got a book of your own drawings. And whether you do those drawings or you draw for someone they can see that you can draw. I’ve done 2 sets of flash. Interestingly, the first set does have colour in it, but on the second set I decided to only draw what I think looks good. Once you’ve done a serious project like flash, it changes things. It really jumped me forward. From the point where the second flash set was drawn, everything after that has been the same, just solid. I’ll use a picture and maybe reuse the picture and change a few elements in it or use it in conjunction with another picture, so things sort of evolve anyway.
How far into your career did you start doing your flash?
The first set was about 5 years in. The next one was probably about 10, and then about 14 years in.
Your style doesn’t conform with modern-day tattoos. Where does the inspiration for what you’re doing come from?
It comes from anywhere. I’m a real thief. I have to watch what I’m looking at because I’m going to nick it, so I don’t like to look too closely. I just rape the history of art for my inspiration. I don’t really look at tattoo magazines. I did but I don’t now. If I see something I like, I think, ‘I wish I thought of that,’ but I’m not going to rip it off now I’ve seen it.
I keep sketch books. They’re just pictures that I draw or small sketches, and these things keep growing. The pictures come from all over the place really, it’s quite hard to say where they come from. I still get books out of the library. I’ve got to do a big windmill on some guy’s leg, so I look on google if I can or find a good picture in a book. I could look in a few different places to find something and then it’s a case of sitting down and starting to draw. It’s pretty unconscious now because I just get on with it. In the past I used to sit down and try to do a drawing. I’d start drawing and do a lot of rubbing out. But now I tend to think of a picture very clearly and then I’m just able to draw it. There’s not a lot of rubbing out. I used to think of lots of different ideas, but now I just have an idea and I go for it and draw it. It normally comes out looking as good as I hope it’s going to.
So that’s something that I’ve worked on in the last 15 years. All the effort and trying is gone and it’s become quite easy. It’s embarrassingly quick sometimes. As an artist, being creative and coming up with goods and doing something that I think is inspired– it’s such a buzz doing that. Then to put it on someone who it’s going to really suit– you think, ‘Bang, that’s on there forever – it’s not going anywhere’. That’s a real winner, it’s worth getting up in the morning for.
Do you ever find with some of your work that you’re trying to make some sort of statement?
No, not a statement apart from that I think tattoos should be powerful. And I think that they should not be shocking as such, but should have some sort of striking element. If you’re going to go through the bother of having ink put under your skin it should do something, it should create a bit of something. So I don’t want my tattoos to be subtle or to just be nice. I’d rather they were the other way, a bit out of order. A bit of a challenge to wear and to see. It’s a fine line, I don’t want it to be shocking for shocking’s sake at all. I’m very happy with the way I look but some people say, “God, that’s totally shocking’. But I like it. I’m after creating an effect.
Do you think that’s come from your ‘punkier’ days from the band, and even before that, from when you were growing up?
Well, I’ve always been a bit like that. And I know I’m not the only one because of the customers and people I work with. It’s in people, and whatever it is I’ve got it quite strong, this creating a bit of a stink and standing out for the hell of it. I also think it’s a bit of an English thing as well.
How has your workload built up in terms of customers now?
Well, I’ve been fully booked for quite a while. We book me up for 3 months at a time. I don’t want anyone to wait longer than that. But consequently there is a bit of a client list. Workwise I can’t do any more than I’ve been able to do for the last 5 years. I don’t really censor customers – if somebody’s got an interesting idea that I think I can do a good job of they’ll go on the client list.
Do you find a lot of people that come in are people that already have a lot of black work and similar stuff or people with all styles?
It’s right across the board. I get some very cool people who are collecting from well-known artists, I get to tattoo people for their first time and I get to fill space on people who are covered. I also get to tattoo people who don’t know how well-known I am, just someone who’s not particularly a tattoo fan but wanted a tattoo and somehow ended up with me. But a lot of people look at the internet and what they are seeing is Japanese and traditional, and then they suddenly see mine. It’s slightly different so I can see why they go for it. They are stylish pictures that are quite striking, so it doesn’t surprise me that people like it.
“I just rape the history of art for my inspiration.”
I’ve got to be honest, when I first saw it I wasn’t too sure what to make of it, but it’s grown and grown on me. It has pushed me towards different areas of tattooing. It has got me interested in other people you worked with. Like Curly, for example.
Curly amazed me when I saw him. I thought, ‘Fucking hell, he’s the same age as me and the same size and he’s done the same thing to himself – but differently’. I straightaway got it that he was after the same effect I was after, but coming from a different angle, and that penny dropping was a good one. Realising it’s not the pictures but the way they come across.
How long did you work with Curly for?
Probably about three years, I think. Then he went back to Oxford, and I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s the end of that, it’ll all be different now’. But then along came Xed and a different era happened. I’ve never been too worried about people leaving, because when you get new people you are initially a bit wary of the new guy, but then you eventually wonder how you did without them!
Is there anyone like that you’ve got now? Who’s the newest person?
Matty D’Arienzo. He really makes me laugh. He’s great and his tattooing is amazing.
I know his work, it is nice. It’s a good group of people here. Over the last 15 years you’ve been tattooing, it has changed quite a bit in terms of how people and the general public think of it. How’s that played out in terms of what you get asked for, has it changed anything? Have people come to you with more outrageous stuff?
Not so much outrageous stuff. 15 years ago when I started, the more outrageous things were happening around then. The biggest thing now is how acceptable tattooing has become to the general public. I can’t tell by my bookings how much it’s changed. But one thing I think is a bit of a shame is people who are really young and really covered. I think it’s a bit quick – you’ll run out of room and you might regret that – but I can’t speak for other people.
With tattooing it’s a funny thing, I think it can’t be possible for tattooing to carry on for much longer before someone steps in and bans it on health grounds. I think it’s quite mad that I’m allowed to sit here and draw people’s blood when the high street is just there. I know I’ve got a health licence, but really that’s a joke. I think, ‘How long are we going to be allowed to get away with this?’ The only reason we can is because we’ve always done it. They can’t just ban it but I think, ‘Where’s it all going?’ Everyone’s getting tattooed now as well. It’s reaching a point where there may be a backlash in the future when people don’t want to get tattooed, but right now the door’s wide open. it’s really easy to have a tattoo and it doesn’t interfere with your life. It’s taken the sting out of tattooing that I enjoyed at the beginning. It’s not such an unusual thing now, but I still freak people out when I go anywhere. When I’m in somewhere like an airport I look around and think, ‘Am I the most tattooed guy here? Yeah but only just!’ It’s not a competition, but at the same time it is.
Would you take on a cover up?
Cover ups are difficult with my style as it involves a lot of skin showing. Unless I can actually cover it with black there’s not a lot I can do. I can put pictures over old work and that works. But as far as cover ups go it’s not really my bag. I’ve never really done many of them, I don’t feel comfortable about it. I’d sooner just slam something next to a tattoo.
Would you ever take anyone on and teach them to tattoo, or have you ever?
No, I’ve never done it. I wouldn’t really feel that confident. Tattooing for me has always been a mystery, and it still is. It’s taking incredible risks. The machine makes the needles go up and down and then you just stick that in the skin, and by hook or by crook you somehow make a mark. It’s really difficult in some places like the knee or the back of the knee. It’s murder trying to get the ink in decently, it’s like digging a hole in the road or something.
I’ve never heard it compared to digging a hole in the road before! [laughs] [laughs] So I dunno if I would to teach anyone because I don’t know if I’m doing it right necessarily! But I look at what I’ve done and think, ‘Well, that looks like a tattoo and it looks good, but God knows how I did it.’
What about your tattoos, have you got any more space to be tattooed?
Yeah, I’ve still got a few bits of space on the back of my legs.
Who’s doing that?
That chap there [Matty] is doing them at the moment.
What’s he doing?
He did this devil cock thing. [Below]
“Really with tattooing I think it’s very easy to get caught up in your own brilliance, when actually if I’m doing a tattoo for you you’re more important than me in the whole deal.”
Who else has tattooed you?
I tried to write it all down, but there’s just a ridiculous amount of people. I’ve even got customers to do a few tattoos! Plus everybody’s passed through here! It got to over 70 people and then I kept remembering more people.
So are all your tattoos kept as memories?
Yeah, I don’t think much about them, it feels like they’ve been there forever.
Some of the older tattoos when they are more worn and faded actually look quite good.
I’m pleased with it all. A lot of it was born out of having a laugh and going a bit mad, but fortunately it’s all worked out quite nicely. Story of my life really!
Do you work at other studios doing guest spots or go to conventions to work on other artists?
No, I’ve never worked in another shop. I have done a couple of tattoos in other shops though. I did work in Japan for a week once years ago too. I’m a little OCD about it. I’ve done so many tattoos here and it’s all gone so well that if I tattoo anywhere else I immediately feel at a disadvantage. The light’s a bit different, everything’s not quite where I want, and the space isn’t as big. I start to think, ‘This isn’t going to be good,’ and it creates an anxiety that I don’t like, so I don’t bother. With the conventions, the thought horrifies me. I think tattooing should be a bit of a private thing. Even though it’s being done in this room where there are other people, I feel it’s very intimate between me and the person. This is my area and I’m doing the tattoo for them. With conventions it’s a bit like tattooing for the public, almost like showing off, and I don’t like that element to it. I think tattooing should be a little bit more sacred than that. Really with tattooing I think it’s very easy to get caught up in your own brilliance, when actually if I’m doing a tattoo for you, you’re more important than me in the whole deal. I should be paying attention to how you feel about the tattoo rather than how my hair is looking.
I think that’s something that has got worse in the last decade of tattooing.
Yeah. And there is a thing where people say, ‘Just do what you want,’ and I think, “Well, that’s the opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing – I’m supposed to be doing what you want!”
A lot of people will just do what they want. I like the more personal element to it – I just try to keep it as real as possible. I was lucky that I had the career with the band and I had the experience of being totally egotistical, because it was all about being bigger than life and bigger than your audience. So I had all that and that didn’t work out. It didn’t leave me feeling happy. I felt really frustrated and sickened by it all, so I know that isn’t a road to go down. I don’t want to do that with tattooing. I want to try and keep my head down a bit and let my work speak for itself, let it speak for me rather than me shouting off about how good I am. I’d prefer if other people were saying, ‘Oh, Mr X is great,’ and I’m quite humble about it.
I don’t sell out. I like that attitude I’ve got and the same with tattooing, whoever wants me to tattoo them will get tattooed if they have a good idea. I’m quite pleased with how I’m playing the whole career, but I did have a career before this where everything went wrong!
Sometimes that’s good though, isn’t it? if you make mistakes big then you learn big.
Yeah, I had a whole career that I trashed and this one I’m preserving!
With all your experience both before your tattooing career and during it, is there any advice you’d give to anyone looking to develop tattooing further forward?
I thought to myself from the beginning, ‘Don’t think you’re the only bloke sitting there at home tattooing himself.’ I imagined there were a fuckload of people doing that, so I thought, ‘what’s going to set you above them?’ I thought, ‘I’ve obviously got to tattoo myself more than them, and I’ve got to do more than the others.’
It’s not enough just to expect to get on in this industry – it’s really cutthroat, it’s a really big industry now, and it’s very glamorous with a lot of people that wanna do it. It is a brilliant job to have if you like doing it. I just think you’ve got to really put yourself out there: you’ve got to really draw. Drawing flash is really important because if you’ve got a body of drawings for people to pick from then they will, or they’ll ask you to draw something else like that. If you haven’t got the goods then you haven’t really got anything. If you do the drawings first then you get to tattoo them. Anything that I’ve drawn that’s been a good drawing has gone one somebody in the end. Some pictures take years. I’ve waited ten years to tattoo something but it makes me smile. I think, ‘…and on it goes – I knew it would!’
I set myself up for the long run with tattooing, I didn’t expect anything to happen quickly and I didn’t want it to either. I thought, ‘I’m in this for the long run,’ and I started just small improvements. I wasn’t desperate for things to happen and I wasn’t desperate to get my style nailed down really quickly. I let things just take their time. You don’t want it to get big too quick either because you’ve got to be able to handle it. In the first few years I didn’t feel very confident as a tattooist because I didn’t have that much experience. And all you can do is wait for experience – in time you get it. I was glad that I kept things quite quiet at the beginning because it could be quite daunting to start off tattooing now. There’s a hell of a lot of good people around.
People may look at someone like me and think, ‘how am I gonna do that?!’ There’s so many people that are good but basically it’s an evolution. I wasn’t always this good, at the beginning there was a big difference. Another thing for people who want to get into tattooing: the way to get in really is to start getting tattooed by someone a fair bit that you admire and like so over time you will start to get some insight of what the whole thing is about. For those already up and running, I just say draw flash, you can’t beat that. It’s a horrible thing to do at the beginning, it’s a real effort, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Everything centres around the drawing. Unless you’re doing something like tribal, but even then it centres around what you’re able to draw on someone. And someone like Chris here, who does tribal but draws other things, amazes me; but again, it’s an evolution. He’s been doing it for years and it would be mad if he couldn’t do it.
Into-You – London, U.K.