Alex Binnie
Think Different
By Jason Sweet

Alex Binne is from the generation of tattoo artists who started in the 1980ís; at a time when tattoo shops were few and far flung, and British tattooing was dominated by old school London artists like Tattoo Jack and George Bone. The field of tattooing was wide open, and Alex had some bold ideas about how a tattoo should look. Tribal tattooing was in its infancy, as far as its place in modern tattooing, and Alex took those ideas and created a style of his own. Tattooing eventually took him to the United States for a while where he honed his craft working with such artists as Pote Seyler of Body Electric, in Los Angeles, California and Vyvyn Lazonga of Seattle, Washington. While working on the West Coast he gained ideas on how to transform tattooing back home in London. He retuned in the early 1990ís to open Into You Tattoo, near City College in Central London.

I was in London for a vacation, and I was trying to visit some tattoo shops and see how they did it on the other side of the world. I had seen Alex Binnieís tattooing in Hardyís Tattootime and 1000 Tattoos, by Henk Shiffmacher. His bold style of tattooing had a big impact on me when I started tattooing, and it still resonates with me today. Often when designing a tribal tattoo, I find myself looking at his work for inspiration. I was fortunate when I visited his studio that he was hanging around with some free time for conversation. Sometimes itís weird to cold call a shop for an interview, but Alex made me comfortable immediately. He offered some tea, as is customary in England. He introduced me to his crew, tattoo artists, Jason Saga, Duncan X, Thomas, Xed leHead, Lucy Prior and Nikole, who are all formidable tattoo artists in their own right. There are also shop staff, Blue and Michaela. We sat down for the interview and he was very kind and forthcoming with his views on tattooing.

Where are you from?

England. I was born in Oxford. We moved a lot when I was a kid. I never quite know how to answer that question. I went to art school in Cardiff and then moved to London in the early 80ís, where I was a medical illustrator. I took that job for a variety of macabre reasons. I always wanted to be a tattooer, but in the middle 80ís no one was a tattooer, at least no middle class art school guy like me was a tattooer. After a while, and fantasizing about it to my friends, I just decided I would do it. I was still working as a medical illustrator at one of the medical teaching colleges here, so I had a bit of an income.

How old were you when you started tattooing?

I was in my late twenties. I bought some shitty equipment from Ronnie Star, up north somewhere. My good friend at the time who I did my first big machine tattoo on, who knows about electronics and stuff and is quite mechanically minded, looked at it and said, ďThis is fucking shit!Ē Then he helped me fix it up. This was in the late 80ís.

Did you work for someone else, or did you just open up a shop?

No, I never worked for anybody else until I went to the States. In London I worked from home and then a little rented studio for about 2 years. It was mostly word of mouth. However, back then, there were so few tattooers that I had a lot of customers quite quickly. I was also on the edge of that industrial music scene, and those people were sort of getting into it. There was a desire to get tattoos because that whole Modern Primitives thing was vaguely undercurrenting here, but no one was really doing that kind of work, so I got busy pretty quick because I was doing tattoos pretty cheap.

You had a vision for your tattooing pretty early then?

Yeah, I knew what I wanted to do.

How did you come into that style, that vision, so early? A lot of times, tattoo artists struggle for a long time to find their voice.

Who knows? I just knew. To me it seemed really obvious, there really was no question. Me and Duncan, who you were talking to upstairs, we both share a strong vision. His is much different from mine, but just as strong. We always laugh about it, because people will ask, ďWhere do you get your ideas from?Ē I guess I am just lucky; thatís the way my brain works.

I think that might be the sign of an ďartistĒ, or a ďtattoo artistĒ, because you can have a vision and then execute that vision.

It was easier then. I think now, tattooing has gotten diluted. Then, the rules werenít as set as they are now. Even getting the early Japanese tattoo books, like the Sandy Fellman book, The Japanese Tattoo, were difficult to find. It was out, but it was hard to find. Tribal tattooing, forget about it! No one knew anything about tribal tattooing. Nothing about Marquesan tattooing, maybe a little Maori tattooing. Old school; the trendy old school tattoos were property of street shops, and people like me wanted to get away from that. The field was wide open. I almost feel now that tattooing, with all the styles, has gotten a bit more boring in the last decade. Itís gotten a little bit more closed in now because all the information is out there. The rules have been written. Everyone knows that if you are doing a Japanese sleeve, you have to be like Horioshi, or a few others. The rules have been set, and everyone tries to do ďitĒ like that. If someone tries to do ďitĒ, and doesnít follow those rules, people just say, ďOh, thatís not very good. One could say that about tribal as well. Everyone knows what a Marquesan sleeve looks like, so tattooing has gotten into these little tram lines, whereas, back in the eighties, no one knew anything, so they would do anything they wanted.

Is this a bad thing that a lot of rules are now written instead of it being more open like they were?

Itís a double edge sword I think. In many ways, it is a great thing that all the information is out there, but it also means that the customer is a lot more narrow in their thinking. If someone wants a carp back piece, or whatever, it has to be pretty damn close to what they have seen in various magazines of books. Your average punter has a copy of Bushido and has seen endless photographs of Horioshi IIIís work. Because of this, a lot of clients and tattoo artists are lot more narrow in their interpretation of that. This in not necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of creativity, it can be seen as a bad thing.

Do you think that all this information is stifling creativity in tattooing?

I think it possibly is. You canít stop information. With the increased interest in tattooing, the magazines, the books and the internet, people can access this kind of stuff. I think that people donít want to take the design risks that some artists in San Francisco in the early 1990ís did. There was Bill Salmonís outrageous style or Marcus Pachecoís cubist coffee cup style as we used to call it. Whether people like that style now, is neither here nor there, the fact is people were doing that kind of stuff and it was interesting that people were doing that. Now, a lot of artists and clients want, ďwhat they have seen before.Ē

Letís take the Biomechanical style of tattooing for example. In the early 1990ís, it was a really new style of tattooing being forged by Aaron Cain and others. Maybe now, the rule is written that is must look the way Aaron Cain, has done it?

Well Aaron Cain is still knocking Ďem out and his work is really amazing. He pursued that himself. You donít see as many biomechanical tattoos as you used to and I am not sure it is the ďcoolĒ style any more. I think people tend to overlook it. However, if they do want a biomechanical tattoo, and they canít go to Aaron Cain to get it done, because they live in Slovenia or whatever, they are going to go to their local guy with a photo of an Aaron Cain tattoo and ask for that. Tattooing is opening up across Eastern Europe and into China. It would be a pity if those countless people looked to America, Europe and Japan for their inspiration and just did things they have seen in the countless tattoo magazines and over the internet. I think it would be great if they could forge their own style and maybe in time they will. Letís say that those countries are getting into it, and they havenít gotten the exposure that people have now, they might go off into unique and interesting areas. There is something to say for any artist, and not just tattoo artists, that is stuck in his studio and forging a very personal relationship with his art. Heís going to go somewhere that a person that spends all of his time researching other peopleís styles, is not going to go. You can almost get too scared to move if you see too much good stuff. You become scared to move in any one direction because you are aware your work is going to be compared to all these other styles.

You say you see tattooing as diluted; do you see anyone pushing the envelope today?

Yes, people are still pushing the envelope. I am not the best person to ask, because I donít go to enough conventions or hang out on the tattoo scene enough to really know what is going on. Some of my guys in the shop in London are doing something new. I donít want to just push my guys, but there is now doubt that with Thomas and Xed and their geometric dot work style is starting to become a ďstyleĒ. Now they are starting to be copied by other people. Those guys originated it over the last few years and there a quite a few people who are being influenced by them. It is amazing work and it is quite different. Whether I like it is not the point. I admire them for stepping off into a new area.

Do you feel that the tattoos have stood the test of time in terms of longevity of tattoos and design style?

I am not going to say that all the work has stood the test of time. If you are going to experiment on some ones skin, it is going to last them the rest of their life. I can see why there is some inherent conservatism design wise in tattooing. Obviously you donít want to be going completely crazy on some ones skin when they are going to live with it for the rest of their lives. I always been into heavy work with a lot of black or black shading and I have always thought that would stand the test of time. I have never been into a lot of fine detail. I have friends and clients that I am tattooing 20 years later and their work is still on them and we are both happy with it.

In your younger days, were you thinking about people wearing it for the rest of their lives, or did you just want to get your designs on them?

I did want to get it done. If you are doing larger work that is a little bit out there, you probably know that person already. A lot of my earlier experiments were done on my friends who were willing to go there with me. I have always had a problem of just slapping something on someone young and impressionable who doesnít really know what they are getting. You are not always thinkingÖ.youíre in the moment.

This brings us to today. You have been tattooing since 1988, so youíve been tattooing for 18 years, and you have seen a major shift in tattooing. You have been part of that shift and the onset of the so-called ďtattooing renaissance.Ē How do you see tattooing now?

Tattooing has gone mainstream full stop; thatís whatís happened. Tattooing was underground. When I went to the last London tattoo convention, I saw a bunch of people I had not seen in a long time, and we got wildly drunk which was fun and all. But fucking hell man! It was like going to see some band you really used to love, and they are playing this giant stadium, and they sold out basically. Itís still the same band, and itís the same songs, but they are sort of pumped up now. They got a keyboard player and a sax player, itís in this massive hall, there are all sorts of t-shirt vendors and these kids who are loving the band, and you are thinking about the old days. So, yes, it has gotten diluted. There are people pushing the envelope, but now itís gone so mainstream. How can I put itÖÖÖÖ? When I was first tattooing big work on people because it was so underground, I felt like I had a strong affinity with my clients. We were sort of in it together. We were into this tattooing thing, and it was a bit weird, but now itís not. Some of the people who are getting big work now, are not, in a sense, ďinto itĒ in the same way that I or my friends were ďinto itĒ at the time, because it is no longer an outsider thing, it is now included in the mainstream.

It is almost like a product you can buy at the grocery store.

It is a product you can buy at the grocery store. People buy sleeves in the same way. I am not slagging people off; I donít want to sound bitchy. Itís fine that tattooing is like that. The fact is now, though, a well informed person in their thirties, whose got a bit of money, and they are a successful whatever, a graphic designer maybe. They got a nice girlfriend, they got a nice suit, and now they want a nice pair of sleeves to go with it all. Itís a bit different, thatís all. Itís made people more conservative about what they get. They want Japanese sleeves, and they get beautiful Japanese sleeves in the style of Horioshi, or good looking American girls are getting sleeved up with old school work. In America you see a lot of it. Good looking girls, getting sleeved up in a parody of old school work. Sure, itís a look, but they are buying a look, they are not going for a life process. They got the hair style, they got the fifties style car and now theyíre getting the perfect sleeves to go with it.

Do you find you need to counsel your customer now? Like they are seeking some deeper rooted meaning in their tattoos than they used to be?

No, I think itís the other way around. I think people used to be seeking deeper rooted meaning in their tattoos than they do now. Now they just want ďthe lookĒ.

Like a fashion accessory?

Yes, like a fashion accessory or something. Maybe I am wrong, maybe some people are learning from it. I think in an ideal world, someone can come in, want it as a fashion accessory and through the process of getting it, because it does hurt and does take quite a long time, maybe they do have to look into themselves a little bit.

Well, itís different all over. It seems as if everyone in Los Angeles wants there to be some deep rooted meaning behind their tattoo.

Is it really deep rooted meaning?

Well, thatís the question.

You know what us Brits say about people from California? I enjoyed my time in California, but the British always say the Californians are a bit superficial.

Well, they are! That is why I ask, is it deep rooted meaning?

I donít think it is. For some it might be, but the tattoo thing is so big, that it serves different functions for different people. There is no doubt that people get it because of their new motorcycle they just got. It is part of the lifestyle choice now.

Have you watched any of the shows like Miami Ink?

No, I havenít seen it, and I probably wonít watch it. Itís bizarre though. That friend of mine, that I did a bunch of tattoos on, that helped me fix up my machines, heís a film guy now in Los Angeles. Heís got a lot of tattoos from me and others and he tells me he is walking along Melrose Ave. one day, and some ninety year old lady come waking along and says, ďOh, Miami Ink, I think you are fantastic.Ē For someone like him who is in it for some deep rooted meaning, who got started into it when I did, its kind of weird. Talk about acceptance of it into the mainstream; you have some old lady who says, ďI love Miami Ink and I love your tattoos.Ē Thatís whatís happened to it. I am not going to complain too much about it though; it is how we make our living after all. It is a good thing in general. I still love tattoos. My life has revolved around tattoos for most of my adult life. I have great friends from tattooing and some great guys work here, so I am not going to be a bitch about it. Itís our way of life and it is fantastic.

So you would view these tattoo shows and this explosion of tattooing as a good thing then?

I think it is a positive thing. This is one theory I have had. What is interesting about tattooing is that it cannot be commodified. In other words, a painting, once it is sold, if you become successful, is a commodity that can be resold for more money. With a tattoo, once it is done, it is essentially worthless. You canít resell a tattoo. You may have spent $10,000 on your body suit, but it is financially worthless because you are gonna die, and you canít take it off. This is probably one of my stoned and drunken thoughts, but mainstream culture wants to get what it can out of it. Well how do they do that with tattooing? They create a reality T.V. show about tattooing. It is essentially, mainstream society, trying to get their half pennies worth out of what is essentially, our own thing. Tattooing was our thing! It was like, ďFuck You!Ē to mainstream society. Either you get it, or you donít. If you get tattooed, then you are one of us. If you donít, then fuck off. That was the great thing about tattooing; it was a really good bullshit detector. In the art world, you can sit there and yak, yak, yak, who knows if you are good, or bad or whatever. With tattooing, you can yak, yak, yak and you have to say, ďAlright, roll up your sleeve then, letís have a look. Oh, you donít have your tattoos? Well then Fuck Off!Ē

When did you spend some time in California tattooing?

I tattooed in London for a couple of years. I was married to Elaine, the famous lady with the angel wings everyone has copied over the years. Bob Roberts tattooed those on her back. She was managing The Gauntlet, a piercing shop on Santa Monica. I tattooed there for a while and then I tattooed at Body Electric on Melrose Ave. I traveled to Seattle to work for Vyvyn Lazonga for a bit. I was in America from 1991-93.

Vyvyn has had some interesting people who have worked for her over the years.

Sheís an interesting woman. I corresponded with her from London because there were so few people around. I used to correspond with Christine Colorful, the worldís most heavily tattooed woman, as well. I think she actually contacted me first about some tattoo she saw in a magazine. It was a much smaller scene then, and this is before email, so we are writing letters. I donít remember how Vyvyn and I got in touch, but we were corresponding, and she said, ďCome up and workĒ. So I said, ďFuck it! Iíll go up there.Ē It was great. I got the train to Seattle from LA and it was mid winter, so it was beautiful. I thought from our correspondence that she was an old hippie woman, but when I met her she was wearing a floor length fur coat and she ordered steak tar-tar when we went out to eat! Some people stick their noses up in the air about Vyvyn, but the thing is, she is one of the people who hasnít followed the path, sheís tried something different. All the trendy guys do cool Japanese, or cool old school, but not tribal, because tribal is not hip, unless you are one of the few who specialize in it, then you are allowed to be in the club. If you got the look and you do the right tattoos, you can be one of the boys, and to me, that is really boring. Vyvyn stepped out of that, and did her own thing. I think thatís great.

How did you end up going back to London?

I had broken up with Elaine by now. I could have probably worked at one of the many shops in LA. Instead, I decided that I would take the money I had stashed under my mattress and go back to London and take what I learned in the States. I opened up a cool, custom shop modeled on some of the places I had worked at on the West Coast. At the time, there was really nothing like this in London. There was Bugs, who was working in a one room shop, and there was my place, Into You Tattoo. We have been here ever since.

How many employees do you have working for you now?

Twelve. Seven tattoo artists, some piercers and counter girls. People seem to want to work here; itís a good atmosphere, a great shop. I am pretty relaxed with my tattooers. Hard core drugs are a no-no, but outside of that, if you show up roughly on time, you can do whatever you want. People can travel whenever they want, work as late as they want, drink a bit while they are working if they want, as long as the customers are happy. Itís tattooing for Christís sake, who gives a fuck!

Howís the scene now in London?

You got Lal Hardy, you got George Bone, he is sort of the artistic grand daddy of tattooing in London. Lal is sort of the social secretary of it all.

How is the competition between shops? In California, and many other places in the U.S. itís very competitive, but is it like that in London? Is it overrun with tattoo shops?

Itís getting like that, but just now. London tattooing is 5-10 years behind California, if itís a linear thing. Thatís why I came back here, to open a shop. It hasnít gotten bad here yet, but itís going to. I see some clothing stores on Oxford Street that have tattooing in the back. It is getting to be like St. Marks Place in New York City. I used to hang out with Lori, who started New York Adorned, just before it went legal. Sheís smart and knew what was going to happen. At the time, there were just a couple of underground shops on the Lower East Side of New York. Within four or five years, it went absolutely insane. On that one block of St. Marks, that really awful bit, there is like seven or eight shops in one block. Itís fucking crazy. I guess this is the world of free enterprise. Some people say to me, we should stop it, it shouldnít be allowed. I think thatís bullshit. Of course it should be allowed, we live in a democracy. If people make a choice to get a shitty tattoo in a shitty shop, that has to be their choice. If they learned their lesson, and they go somewhere better to get a tattoo next time, great. If they are too stupid to see itís shit, and they get covered in shit, then thatís their choice as well...

How about the convention scene? Itís gotten to a point now in the States that there are conventions every weekend. There is one promoter in California that puts on 6 conventions alone, every year, so you canít go to a convention and make money in California anymore. Itís gotten out of hand.

It will happen here. There are a lot of conventions in England. I stopped going to conventions a while back. I went to the London one, because it was literally 10 minutes walk from the shop. I did not tattoo, I went to the bar.

Are you doing any other type of art besides tattooing?

I am doing printmaking. I have some you can see on my website, I am doing some bigger work as well. I just finished a diptych and I am working on a triptych. I am doing a big series of drawings as well. No painting, I have never done much painting. I donít know why prints? I guess I am attracted to the process. That is why I like tattooing; itís the process. The process of printmaking is quite physical, it is quite big. You have got to learn to think in a certain way when you are doing silk screening. You have to think about how you are going to get the final image. How are you are going to layer the colors, making the stencils, it s a whole different world.

Does your printmaking affect your tattooing?

No, they are very different. My printmaking is more out there, itís not the type of imagery I like to tattoo. I have always known that tattooing is my first love, but it is all a bit stressful at times. I am working on some new tattoos that are really nice, but I think if you are a tattoo artist I think it is important to have something else in your life besides tattooing.

Are you booked up for a long time, if someone wanted a tattoo?

No, not really. Most people want to get tattooed by the other guys in the shop, so I am not that booked up. I mostly tattoo my regulars, and they are mostly full of tattoos, or dead, so I have some openings. They should come in and talk to me if they want a tattoo. I think it is important that they get on with the person they are gonna get tattooed by. I need to get someone who is on my wavelength. I am lucky I got clients that are on my wavelength. There are a couple of clients here at the shop that said I was a complete wanker and were slagging me off behind my back to one of the other guys here. Apparently they came in the shop and wanted me to do some sleeve on them, and I did not want to do it. I did not think their idea was good and I did not get a good vibe off of them, so I said no.

Are you still tattooing regularly?

I go up and down with tattooing as to how much I love it. I find tattooing can be quite draining after doing it for 20 years or so. The shop has a life of its own now. There is a second shop in Brighton. It is in no way a one man band. I always knew that the shop was going to be way bigger than me. I have some great people working there, who are pushing the envelope in their own ways and I am very proud of them. This gives me the freedom to focus on just a few clients. I feel itís important to work with the clients. I deliberately say ďwithĒ rather than ďon.Ē I only do a couple of days a week. I usually do half-day or all-days sessions because people are traveling to see me and they are getting big work. You can get to know each other, you can drink your coffee. You can start working it out and free handing some bits and stenciling other bits and it could be four oíclock and you still havenít started tattooing yet. As long as you get the basic line work in that day, youíre set.

You have mentioned the word ďrelationshipĒ a few times in this interview. Is that something that is important to you? Is it something more than just putting a picture on the skin?

Tattooing is definitely more that putting something on the skin. Maybe I am a bit empathic. I like to work on people that have got something interesting in them so I am getting something more. I am not just tattooing because I want them to pay me, I want to get something on a personal level. I tend to build up a relationship with a client if they are getting a big piece. You are seeing them regularly and youíre talking about this, that and the other and you are going for it together. I think that is a really important part of tattooing. That is one of the reasons I only tattoo a couple of days a week. It is intense, and you canít have that kind of relationship and tattoo five or six days a week. I have done that, but I donít like to do that anymore. I like to spend time with my kids and my printmaking.

Thank you to Alex Binnie for this interview. If you would like more information about his tattoo studio, Into You Tattoo, would like to make an appointment with him or one of the other artists in his studio for a tattoo, please visit

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