Today, I’m in pursuit of ‘Hanging In Harlesden’. When I first began tracking down my neighbourhood, I came across a film on You tube – which came with the warning ‘If you have an aversion to hooks, blood and heavy French accents, do not watch’. I definitely have a squeamish – I have been known to faint when injected – response to hooks and blood, but I watched anyway. It involved a tattooed, pierced young man being hung up on huge hooks, which penetrated his skin. For pleasure. It was scary, incomprehensible and compelling all at the same time.
It’s been in the back of mind to find out what was going on and why? And I’ve walked past Krazie Needles, a tattoo studio in Station Road, a few times now. So I decide to start there. I was half-thinking, that these ‘hangings’ must be going on there. It’s the middle of the afternoon, a safe time to visit! I enter the shop part, stroll past the dozens of possible body illustrations – from comic book, voluptuous women to praying hands and cars – and enquire at the counter.
‘Do you know anything about ‘Hanging In Harlesden’?’ I ask as casually as I can muster. They – there are three male tattooists in attendance – shake their heads in unison. We don’t do anything like that here, just tattoos and piercings,” smiles the first one, who I later realise has quite a large tattoo of a bee on the side of his bald head and is called Kris. “I know they go on though, but it’s more underground.”
What is it all about? “Technically, they’re called body suspensions,” says Danny who is actually in the middle of working out how to transfer a pink-haired beauty he’s found on the internet, onto the other one’s arm, “the insertion of the hooks causes a rush of endorphins, the participant gets high and possibly has an out of body experience. It’s a spiritual thing, a very personal experience. I’ve heard people say that it’s about being on your own in that state with nothing else going on, you get into a meditative state. At that moment, nothing else matters. Fakirs used to do it, and it was part of an important ritual for Native American Indians.”
In the meantime, my gaze is wandering around their studio. Of course, there are the gothic fake skulls and bones imbedded in black on the welcoming wall and the metal bands roaring in the background, but suddenly I notice that one of their display cases is actually a coffin. “Yes, it’s a real coffin with glass instead of a lid, and we’ve got corn snakes living inside,” says Kris ever friendly and informative. I wander over to take a look, and there they are one red one, and one beige one curled up together, with naturally, a skull just below.
Tattoos, these days, are boringly de rigeur. Not just Beckham, even Sam Cam has got a swallow one. “Yeah, they’re like fashion accessories,” says Danny, “people don’t think enough before they have them. They forget that they are permanent.”
What about the old-fashioned ones like hearts and daggers? “Well, there was the trend for Celtic ones, then tribal ones, then all the Sanskrit writing, but funnily enough the old-fashioned hearts and daggers are making a come back. But the colours are much better these days so they are improved. There is a lot more information out there now so people can make more informed choices. We get people coming in and wanting portraits of their children on their skin,” says Danny.
Now I ask a stupid question. I realise that in my head – I think of tattoos and white rather than black skin. So who are their customers? “Ninety five percent of our customers are black. This is Harlesden. Everyone thinks that tattoos don’t show up on black skin but of course, they do. All the rappers like 50 Cents are covered in them.”
Down at the far end of the studio, there’s a sign that says ‘Don’t ask me for fucking stars’. The Krazie trinity are a bunch of comedians. They’re referring to Rihanna and her star tattoos. “They come in and want exactly what celebrities have,” laughs Danny, “and that’s our response.” I laugh because I noticed recently that artist, Douglas Gordon has also got stars. But I suppose his are bigger, more arty, or something. Anyway, they do do stars, they just enjoying complaining about that lack of imagination.
How many tattoos does Kris have, I wonder? “I started when I was 14 and I’m 43 now,” he says, “so I must have over a hundred. They were old-fashioned but now they’re panthers, spark plugs and women.” Not forgetting the worker bee, which happens to have a syringe, which is injecting one half of his shiny head. “That’s me injecting art into myself,” he explains wittily aware of his artiness.
Hovering over our heads is a framed photo of a tattooed arm, which announces Misfit. And there’s a lot of banter flying around about exactly this notion. So although I think tattoos are so fashionable, they’re conventional; Danny and Kris still seem to consider themselves tattooed outsiders. “Employers still think as though they’re in the Dark Ages,” says Danny, “to them, tattoos mean trouble-maker or cheap. When in fact, tattoos don’t make you a different sort of human being.”
What do people spend? “Well, the cheapest one is £20 and then you might get people who want Beckham sleeves and that will take much longer and cost hundreds of pounds. A body suit is the most comprehensive piece of work,” says Kris, “that might take 40 hours and they’d have to keep coming back, but we don’t get many of them.”
And what about women tattooists? I’m surprised in a good way at the ferocity of Danny’s reply. “There are not enough,” he exclaims, “they don’t get enough opportunities, and they don’t get enough credit. We need more women. Sometimes women customers come in here and you can see they’re uncomfortable around all these men. It would be great to have a studio of all women tattooists where they would feel at ease.”
Forty minutes ago, they had no idea I was on my way to meet them. They have been unbelievably accommodating, kind and humorous. As I leave Kris says he has a mate who’s been suspended on hooks – large fish hooks, as it happens – and he’s going to ask him if he’s heard about anyone doing suspensions in Harlesden. So the puzzle of the ‘Hanging In Harlesden’ may still be solved.
As I leave I have a look at their photo books crammed full of arms with gentians, shoulders with horses, backs with whole scenes from the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Tattooing is changing. Last time, I was close to the tattooing scene was when poet and novelist, Joolz Denby – married to New Model Army’s lead singer, Justin – took me on a tour of Birmingham tattoo studios and showed me her own Celtic decorations. At least, they weren’t stars!
I’m standing outside taking photographs of the window when a bloke appears at my side. “I like that,” he says pointing at a display photo of a woman’s back covered in tattooed exotic black hibiscus, “but I always wonder what happens when you’re seventy?”
A conversation ensues that includes the pros and cons of body modifications. Chris – he’s called Chris with a C – and I agree that cosmetic surgery and botox are wrong, and indicative of a narcissistic society hell-bent on the search for eternal youth. But we beg to differ on tattoos. I’m not against them – as opposed as being actively for them – because there’s such a long history of body ornamentation, and tattoos seem to be on that aesthetic continuum. They are not a youth-seeking modification, rather an aesthetic one. However, Chris is not convinced.
We then turn to the election, the coalition and the fact that Labour MP, Dawn Butler has been voted out. By a couple of thousand votes. Sarah Teather is now our incoming Brent Central MP. I watched the announcement on the morning of Friday, May 7th – one of the last counts to come in – and felt emotional. I had voted Lib Dem, partly as a protest about what had happened to Labour values, partly because I wanted a hung parliament (I’d like all the parties to start working together and get rid of the anachronistic adversarial nature of the repeated duopoly) but partly also because Sarah Teather seemed to be the most dedicated local MP. However, I felt for Dawn Butler. It was a shame two good women MPs had to be up against one another. Chris says his mother who is a staunch Labour supporter, had also voted Lib-Dem this time.
But the best bit is when I discover what Chris is attempting to do. Yes, folks, Chris – in his office in the Acton Business Centre – is re-inventing the trifle! “The first one is called Oh George,” he says, “and with layers of cream, chocolate and raspberry coulis, I’m trying to make an ironic version St George’s flag.”
A trifle representing modern Britain. And the inventor is black. Outside a tattoo studio. This could only happen in Harlesden.