the tattooed man: Phil Cooper writes about his skin

I’ve been thinking for some time that I might get another tattoo, though without a clear idea of what it might be. As I approach my 50th birthday, I feel I’m moving into a phase of life that might be marked with some more ink. So, when I saw that Clive was planning the Skin/Skòra project, I knew that I’d found what I’d needed as the final push to go ahead.

I already have quite a few tattoos. My arms and shoulders are covered, and I have a large design on the left side of my chest and around my right thigh. Some were applied for specific reasons. I’ve two snakes on my right arm, the first one inked in my mid-twenties. It’s a small, simple, black design taken from a Greek vase of the third century BC. It’s just a shadow now, overlaid by a later and much more elaborate Japanese snake design in colour which covers my entire arm. I like the way (to risk sounding like something from ‘pseud corner’) that some of my tattoos are a record, bearing witness to how my life has evolved. The snake is a creature I’ve been drawn too since I can remember and it has often popped up in my life in quite serendipitous ways, so that its repeatedly suggested itself as the subject of my tattoos.

Other tattoos, such as the geometric designs I have up my left arm, don’t really have any specific personal meaning. I just liked the look of the patterns on my skin. I was fortunate to find talented tattooists in London, mainly Xed and Jason at Into You. I spent many hours with them as they worked on their designs, and we got to know each other fairly well. Jason tragically died just before he completed the Japanese snake. I left the final unfinished peony flower on my tricep as it was, in memory of him and his talent.

Moving to London in 1988 and finally coming out properly, was an intense period. I started to take my first faltering steps living openly as a gay man when such a life meant exposure not only to sometimes violent prejudice, but to a terrifying, hitherto unknown illness that was killing my friends horribly. My tattoos from that time were all black, geometric shapes, and they probably reflected how life was back then. It was a time of bold statements, When beautiful, talented young people in their twenties were dying, purely decorative tattoos just didn’t do it. I had three heavy, solid black stripes tattooed across the right side of my chest, and I remember somebody saying, ‘Oh, they look like bars across your heart’. Of course that was exactly what they were, although it wasn’t a conscious decision. After so much fear and grief my heart was pretty much out of bounds.

The mid-’90s were a dark time, my ‘wilderness years’ when I threw myself into full-on hedonism and went off the rails for a while. By 1999 I knew I had to start taking myself seriously and change how I was living or I wouldn’t see much of the new millennium. After a bleak couple of years I started to thrive again. Life took on more colour and more warmth, and my new tattoos from that period did the same. Pink cherry blossom and a big green snake coiling up my arm, full of movement and full of life.

I built a new career, and started having fun again, taking up rock-climbing and kayaking, which became major passions. My new hobbies got me out of the city and into the countryside. Kayaking through remote landscapes in northern Spain, the Hebrides and Morocco, and rock-climbing all over the UK. Not only did I have a great time, I also reconnected with parts of myself that had been forgotten for many years. The sheer delight of being out in nature, seeing wild flowers and animals and swimming in the sea. Clinging to rock faces dozens of feet up in the air put a lot of things into perspective, and brought my attention back to the joy of living on the moment. In 2007 I met the extraordinary man who was to become my husband.

When I met Jan I was commissioning health services for the NHS and local authorities, and he was a consultant psychiatrist. As we got to know each other Jan shared with me how much he used to enjoy photography, and I told him how much I’d once loved painting. We encouraged each other to pick up these pursuits again. Seven years on, Jan is no longer a doctor but has become a successful and accomplished professional photographer, and I’m… well I’m still commissioning health services, though I have picked up my paints and brushes again. But I am finishing my job in January and taking the plunge, moving over to Berlin to be with Jan and to become a struggling artist. As if that city doesn’t have enough of those. Nevertheless, I’m going to be joining them, scary and exciting as that is.

Getting back into painting again found me looking at other artists. One day as I was browsing the internet I came across an image that immediately caught my attention. It was a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins of The Green Knight. Seeing it was the start of what became a wonderful friendship, and I’ve been enthralled by Clive’s work since. This year I’ve acquired a drawing and a painting by him, The Dragon of Many Colours, and The Catch, the latter with it’s dreamy, tattooed fisherman.

My tattoos were executed over a period of about 15 years in total. I had them done for a variety of reasons: some were celebratory, some to act as talismans to carry me through difficult times, some as declarations to the world. I haven’t had any work done for about eight or nine years. The motivation to have more seemed to wane as I grew older and mellowed out. Times, and my life, changed. But now, with Skin/Skóra, the threads of the past and the present are coming together: Tattoos, and painting, finding Clive, acquiring a painting by him of a tattooed man, talking with him of designing a tattoo for me, and yet to come, becoming a tattooed man in in one of his planned portraits for the project. I’m so excited and so pleased to be part of it.

One of the ideas we’ve been talking about as a theme for my design is a ‘green man’, a mythological figure I’ve identified with all my life, and that I’ve reconnected with in recent years. I may yet decide on a different theme (I’m also in love with Clive’s killer gingerbread zombies from his forthcoming Hansel & Gretel book), but I’m especially drawn to the green man idea. The connection with the natural world, the spirit in the tree and the eternal budding and blossoming of life, feels right at the moment as I reach my half century, and look forward of the next!

Phil Cooper, 25th November, 2014.

10 thoughts on “the tattooed man: Phil Cooper writes about his skin

  1. Thanks everyone for such lovely messages – and for the good luck wishes for the upcoming move. I’m looking forward to being part of this project and seeing what emerges, whatever it is. With Clive at the helm, it’s going to be fantastic!

    I love that quote from Max Belkin, Sarah. It sums things up very nicely.

  2. Phil – Thank you for writing about the significance of your earlier tattoos and of ideas for the tattoo that Clive will create in collaboration with you. I can’t wait to see how it evolves. Good luck with your move to Berlin. May it be the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in your life.

  3. Phil, after reading your thoughtful comments here for the past few years, it’s so nice to know more about you. You are a courageous soul and I’m very glad you emerged through the darkness to a place of light and “joie de vivre.” Carry on, then! AM

  4. How strange, I was wondering what day job you had (having read it on your blog) and here is my answer! Impressive tattoos, am looking forward to seeing Clive’s design for the green man. Congratulations on changing your life, Berlin will be a fanastic place to be an artist. Good luck , Phil , Liz

  5. Phil – I wrote in an earlier response to Clive’s post about the Skin/Skòra project that Max Belkin, Ph.D, writes of tattoos: “Their colours, shapes, and symbols pulsate with memories, meanings, and emotions” (I may be in danger of joining you in ‘pseud’s corner’ shortly!!) Your post on the history of your tattoos, as well as why you have decided to have Clive design a new one for you now, certainly demonstrates the above quote.

    It was a pleasure to read your post and I look forward to seeing how your collaboration with Clive develops. I also wish you well with your move to Berlin and the start of a new chapter in your life. Scared and excited sounds a good place to be, as to me it indicates you are living!!

  6. Another great thing about the artlog is that even when you disappear to Berlin we’ll still be able to keep in contact. We really need to get together again before you go though! j xx

  7. Dear Phil….thank you SO much for that wonderful post! Not only for the chance to see your gorgeous tattoos (I’m ouching at how much they must have hurt) but to be allowed a little glimpse into your life and experiences. How lovely to have ‘met’ you here….another bonus born of the delight that is Clive’s Artlog x

    • Shellie 🙂 what a lovely message, thank you so much – yes, It did REALLY hurt… lol. And so nice to have met you too. One of the many fab things about the Artlog is making contact with such great people. x

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