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Ali Catterall
Interview by: Ali Catterall Monday 23 September 2019
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Doc Price - The Grand Old Man of Ink

It’s true: after 63 years, Britain’s most venerable skin artist is finally laying down his needle. Well, sort of. If the illustration he delivers at the London Tattoo Convention is to be his ‘retirement tattoo’, any work carried out after this will be repair only – and he’s performed plenty of those too, over the past seven decades. 

Darrell “Doc” Price is 86. He mightn’t be the world’s oldest tattooist (there is said to be a 101-year-old woman in the mountains of Burma). But he maintains he’s definitely the oldest in Europe. According to which report you read, he has decorated somewhere between 28 and 40 acres of skin, and witnessed the rise of an art form from the underground to the mainstream: Even David Dimbleby has a tattoo – a six-legged scorpion on his right shoulder, received when he was a youthful 75. 

As the heavily decorated Price recently told the Guardian, “Tattooing right now is probably at the zenith – in this town [Plymouth] there’s nearly 30 shops.” He particularly puts it down to the influence of social media (“the telephones and the tweeting”) and the influence of partners and friends, transforming something that had once seemed lost to something extremely popular; almost mandatory: one in five people now have a tattoo.

The self-taught, freehand tattooist first became fascinated with the art after being mesmerised by a blue butterfly design on the back of a former sailor’s hand. For the young Price, it was truly magical – the idea that something could live forever on someone’s body. At age 13, he got one of his own, from a man called Billy Knight in Cardiff. It said, simply, ‘Mother.’ As he’d tell the Guardian, “If you went home to mum with a tattoo and it didn’t say ‘Mum’, you were in trouble.” (His mum loved it, although his father wasn’t best pleased. Why couldn’t it have said ‘Dad’?)

A few years later, he bought his first brass tattoo machine for £7.10, and set up shop in Barry Island, South Wales, having initially practiced on his workmates at building sites. He’d specialise in motifs such as roses, skulls, swallows and panthers, and his first real clients were sailors and prostitutes (“pavement princesses”). He’d spend years travelling the world, from Australia to Japan, where he studied Japanese tattooing techniques and martial arts: in 1969 he’d represent Australia in the World Kendo Championships – and many years later, aged 75, came first in his age group in the Japanese Kendo World Championships.

He eventually settled in Plymouth and now works out of his studio at 92 Union Street with his son Bill, as immortalised in a Beryl Cook painting. The oddest request he’s ever had was to tattoo a man’s last will and testament on his back. While one of his most memorable encounters was the British intelligence officer who wanted a scar tattooed above his eye, because he wanted to blend in with the IRA. He called the police after glimpsing a handgun in his case – turn out he was ex-forces, but was suffering from delusions. 

He’s made it a point of principle not to tattoo anybody who’s drunk. “If you start, you regret it instantly because they’re sick over you.” While one of the most unfortunate tattoos he’s ever seen belonged to the tourist who’d asked for his girlfriend’s name rendered on the back of his neck in ‘Chinese characters’, while abroad. As Price related to the Plymouth Herald, “My girlfriend, who is from Thailand, wasn't so sure. So we took him to see a friend of ours who is Chinese and we asked her, 'what does this say here? She looked at it and said, 'why have you got a tattoo of Windows 7 on your neck? We couldn't stop laughing.”

Catch Doc Price tattooing at The London Tattoo Convention this September 27-28-29th. Advance tickets are on sale until midnight, Thurs 26th Sept - get yours now!