Working in London throughout the first half of the XX century, George Burchett “scratched” both the social elite and the working class, as well as Royal family members.
He is the world famous “King of Tattooists”. The most famous tattoo artist of his time.
Burchett’s era spanned from 1890 all the way through 1953. He lived and tattooed in London throughout two World Wars and catered to both the London high-society and the poor alike. A great man that left a well-respected legacy and a lot of innovations and improvements in Europe’s tattoo artistry’s very early days.
Burchett’s (very) early career
George Burchett Davis was born on August 23, 1872 in Brighton, England. He did his first “scratchings” (in his own words) on his youger brother Charles and his schoolmates. At the age of five Charles Burchett was more than willing to pay the significant fee of a bag of candy or a stick of liquorices for the pleasure of being scratched by his older brother.
Burchett’s “scratchings” were popular between his classmates, and they would line up to get the chance to get a design from him. Unfortunately, George’s aspiring tattooing business was looked down upon the school administration. This resulted in series of penalties and George was finally expelled from school at the age of twelve.
George was no longer able to attend school, so he decided to join the Royal Navy. His parents were against this, but he got his grandmother sign the required consent form and began his career as a deckhand. With the navy George travelled all over the British Empire. Enlisted Royal seamen are often taken to exotic locations.
While visiting places like the West Indies, Africa, India, the Mediterranean, and the Far East at the age of 13, he was most impressed with the tattooed persons he met. Astonished by the varieties of local traditional tattoo designs and high levels of skill and mastery, George was also developing his own skills on board.
Young George acquired his first tattooing kit from an Able Seaman Weatherby. He spent his entire career in the Royal Navy tattooing his fellow sailors on the side.
Tattoos were popular with sailors and many got the chance to get ink under their skin while visiting exotic countries. For George Burchett it was Yokohama where he had the honour of being tattooed by Japanese master Hori Chiyo.
The Burchett brothers
George’s younger brother and first client – Charles Davis – followed in his footsteps and too became a tattooist. While he never received the acclaim that George did, he worked together with George at times, but mostly operated his own shops separately for many years.
George and Charles Burchett were just a few years apart in age. Today it is difficult to tell them apart in old photographs. Both liked to work in white medical smocks and usually dressed in white shirts, vests and ties. The Burchett brothers sported fashionable well-trimmed mustaches and even wore matching shoes.
Eventually Charles stepped away from tattooing. In the 1950s George wrote that Charles was active in the insurance business.
Setting Up a Shop
However, the tough Navy discipline proved too much for young George. He jumped ship in Jaffa, Israel and did not return to Great Britain for another twelve years. In order to avoid the Navy authorities he dropped his last name (Davis) and became George Burchett.
He worked odd jobs during this part of his life, such as tram ticket seller and a cobbler. He continued tattooing part time all of these years. It was not until 1900 when George Burchett became a full-time tattooist. Once he made the decision he created one of the largest and most renowned tattoo practices in the world for the next 25 years – until his death in 1953.
George set up his first shop as a tattoo artist in Jerusalem. Soon after that he boarded a Spanish merchant ship to avoid getting caught and serve time for being a deserter from the Navy.
He successfully alluded the Admiralty for a mindblowing twelve years wandering here and there. Eventually he began to miss his homeland, and returned to England. This is the time he dropped his last name Davis, hoping that it would go unnoticed by the authorities.
After his return home Burchett set up shop as a cobbler in South London. He continued to tattoo on the side when he had the time and opportunity. Somewhere during this time George had the chance to meet two legendary English tattooists in person: Sutherland MacDonald and Tom Riley.
He was impressed by both of them and this meeting would change his life as well as career path.
Sutherland MacDonald would actually took George under his wing. He taught the young man as much as he could about the technical procedures and artistic world of tattooing.
From Cobbler to Tattooist of the Royals
George Burchett continued to work full time as a cobbler and take on other odd jobs whenever he can. He also kept up with his back-room tattooing career. He met and married a beautiful young woman named Edith in the meantime. They set up home in Bow, East London together.
Meanwhile his reputation as a skilled tattooist continued to grow amongst the working class. George was gaining large clientèle amongst sailors, dock workers, as well as many transients that came from all around the World through the London port.
It wasn’t until 1900 when he gave up his cobbling career work for good. Burchett then took up tattooing as his full-time occupation. He opened his studio on Mile End Road in London. Later he relocated near Waterloo station to catch trade from the lines of soldiers on their way to the front-line in World War I.
George soon became a favourite of Londoners and transients alike. His work attracted not only just the working class but wealthy locals and even Royal family members.
At the time his gurus Riley and MacDonald offered stiff competition, but despite this George Burchett was able to count King George V, Spanish King Alfonso XIII, and Denmark’s King Frederick IX amongst his customers’ portfolio.
Many “leisured people of money”, as he called them, also came by his shop to get one (or more) of his skillful tattoos.
Although he gained quite a bit of fame due to his high society customers, he never forgot his Naval roots. Burchett continued to have soldiers and enlisted men as amongst his most frequent clientе́le.
He was also featured both on radio and television, which made him even more popular. People came from all over the country, the far spread British Empire and all Europe to get a tattoo by the famous George “Professor” Burchett.
Probably the first full body tattoo designs for the purposes of circus and freak show performance in Europe was made by G. Burchett.
One of his most famous customers was Horace Ridler – the circus performer, known as “The Great Omi”. Omi wanted to cover the tattoos that he already had with broad stripes and patterns on his whole body.
Ridler paid George several thousand dollars to do the job. He got covered in that design from head to toes and became “the human zebra”.
George Burchett’s Cosmetic Tattoo Enhancements
Burchett caused a bit of a stir with the introduction of his self-invented “cosmetic tattooing”. Women of all walks of life would come at his shop from all over the UK to their complexions lightened or tinted. George’s lady clients would often stay and receive a more classic tattoo – a lover’s initials or an intricate floral flower design on the leg or shoulder.
Mr. Burchett was always interested in bettering his craft and style. He also constantly updated his portfolio with new designs, inspired by African, Japanese, and Asian motifs, discovered during his sailor days.
George kept up a booming business until 1942. At the age of seventy, he attempted to retire and pass the running of the shop onto two of his sons.
However, with the beginning of World War II the demand for tattoos was overwhelming once again. With all the sailors and soldiers going off to war, George was pretty much forced to return to the studio in order to to help his sons handle the overflow of business. He ended up working in the shop even after the end of the war.
The man who became known as the King of the Tattooists continued to work until 1953. On Good Friday, at the age of 81, the great artist and inventor passed away suddenly.
His work is still highly respected in the tattoo world today, after all these years. His professional and sometimes private life is still the source of much talk and discussion. These speculations are most likely due to his unique and varying techniques, and his extended history of working with an elite and exotic clientele.