Into You: Getting inked in Clerkenwell
Tattoos are more popular than ever in Britain – the Guardian reported in 2010 that one in five Brits are tattooed. We sat down with Alex Binnie of tattoo studio Into You for our series St John Street At Work, and talked ink, celebrities and odd jobs
“The thing that people have to realise is tattooing is very popular now, it’s got periods of popularity in the past, but it’s got an amazingly long and rich history,” says Alex Binnie, founder and owner of tattoo studio Into You. Binnie set up shop in Clerkenwell when tattooing wasn’t as widespread as it is now, not by a long shot. “When we started this shop in ’93 our nearest competitor was in Camden Market,” he says. “Now, in a radius of a mile and a half around us there must be 15 shops. I mean the whole tattoo landscape has changed enormously. There’s gotta be five or six in Shoreditch, the whole tattoo thing has just exploded.”
The passion for tattoos came early, when he was still in his teens, but Binnie studied performance art before realising that he wanted something more than “that whole art world mainstream thing. I tattoo you, you give me the money, end of. You know, there’s no middleman. I’m not dealing with dealers. It doesn’t really matter what the press or the media think. I don’t have to get super famous. It’s a private contract, it’s like a craft activity, and it’s almost quite old-fashioned in that crafty way.”
This basic concept seems to work well for him; he’s tattooed the likes of Britney Spears, Alexander McQueen and Kate Moss, and expanded by opening another shop in Brighton in 2006. Binnie himself moved out of the area about 16 years ago, when he had the first of his two kids, first to Hastings and then Brighton. He still commutes up to London two to three days a week and likes working on St John Street.
“I’m very fond of it, you know,” he says. “I’ve been around here many years. It’s changed but I feel very much part of the area. When I walk across the street, I regard it as my street because I’ve been here so long. I mean, we have always been a destination business. It was clear back then that I didn’t want to be in Camden or somewhere else where you would have a vast quantity of people walking in off the street. We do have a few locals but 95% of our business travel to come here.”
Before becoming a tattoo artist, Binnie used to work as a medical illustrator, although he always knew it wasn’t a job for life, clocking in and working a “straight” job. “A lot of it was graphics, there wasn’t a lot of anatomy stuff,” he admits. “I had a job before that as an operating theatre cleaner, back in the 80s. It was a night job, it was so cool – I’d go into this little private operating hospital. I’d go in about 9 or 10 o’clock, and I’d put on my theatre greens, the kinds that surgeons would wear, and all the surgeons would go home and I’d clean all these operating theatres until about two in the morning and then go home. I thought it was amazing, I loved it.”
Binnie himself has tattoos all over his body; he has no idea how many. When I ask, he pulls up his left sleeve to show me that it’s impossible to tell apart the big ones and the small ones, all merged into one single, constantly evolving artwork. His favourite tattoo is on his head, done by a Japanese artist called Horiyoshi III, who is, according to Binnie, the closest thing to a celebrity the tattoo scene has produced. As a sign of his own enduring popularity, he’s recently started tattooing the children of his older clients. “They’re all grown up now,” he says, “they’re your age. I’ve done two or three recently, where mainly girls come in and say, ‘You’ve tattooed my dad 15 years ago and I want you to tattoo me now’.”
He’s quick to note how much the tattoo business has changed overall and “gone mainstream”, although more and more people getting tattoos obviously also means that business is good. “You know, when I started it was an underground thing, I’m a kind of punk rock, alternative guy. Now it has become mainstream and there are whole reality TV channels devoted to it. In fact, they wanted to film London Ink here but we said, ‘No, thank you very much’. But all that’s good and bad, because it’s good for business and I am a middle-aged man with kids and I can support them more comfortably.”
This has also given him the chance to pick up another craft he got acquainted with at art school all those years ago: woodcut printing. “Tattooing and printmaking, I’ve heard other people say that there’s a kind of analogy to it, in that they’re both what might be called process-orientated art. They both require quite a lot of thinking, to get from your idea to the finished product you have to go through a set of steps or rules that to a degree have to be followed correctly.”
As with the tattooing, he seems to take as much pride in the physical process as in the finished artwork, an attitude that shows in his use of a cast iron press from 1844. “With painting you can do what you want, if you want to stamp on a tube of paint and rub it around with your heel on the canvas and then roll in it – which is being done of course – if you want to do that, then that can be a painting. Tattooing doesn’t actually allow that, there’s some things that just don’t work in tattooing, because you have to get the ink into the skin, it has to heal correctly etc., and the same goes for printmaking. I enjoy the process as much as the finished thing. And that is true of the printmaking as well as the tattooing.”
For more stories from St John Street, take a look at our series.