When I worked at the British Film Institute I had a lot of love for many of my colleagues. Jane Giles was a special kind of cool, though. Fierce, intelligent and knowledgable - she was so impressive to me. This summer I got the chance to spend time with her outside of corporate confines and talk to her about her tattoos. Among other fascinating exchanges, she showed me a book she created when she was 16 (!) in which she critiques tattoo culture. Scroll down to see it.

When did you first become aware of tattoos?

It was in 1980 when I was just 16 and wanted to be an art student. I started to look at art photography in the music press such as NME and Sounds, also The Face and I-D which were newly launched alternative style magazines. Their pages were full of strong, exciting images of cool and rebellious urban types. I was a frumpy small town girl who wanted both to take photographs like this, and to look like their subjects.

What stage in your life were you at when you got your first tattoo and what role did it play for you?

In 1988 I got my first proper job as programmer of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross. It was a wonderfully atmospheric old venue that attracted a diverse crowd for its fantastic repertory programme of double-bills and all-nighters. The Scala specialised in cult movies, horror, LGBT films – and it had resident cats! Getting that job was a dream come true but it also coincided with the end of my first serious relationship, so I decided to get a tattoo on my left upper arm to mark the moment.

A female Scala colleague with an astrological tattoo on her shoulder blade recommended me to her tattooist, Dennis Cockell in Soho. Dennis was an old-school legend who tattooed the Sex Pistols and the Clash. I gave him my very 1980s drawing of a heart with wings and an orchid in the middle, but it was too detailed, so he swapped the orchid for a stylised image of an arum lily from one of his collections of Victorian tapestry designs.

The day after I got the tattoo I felt incredibly sick and was convinced that I had blood poisoning. Of course it wasn’t Dennis’ fault and the doctor said it was probably food poisoning. But I think that I broke out into physical symptoms because it was something momentous for me.

How did you feel about being one of the few women with visible tattoos at the time?

The tattoo helped me look the way I felt: different and with my heart on my sleeve, literally. For nearly 20 years it was my only one, until I started to feel unbalanced. The Scala had closed down in 1993 and by 2004 I was working in acquisitions for a film and video distribution company, travelling to exciting places all over the world, but with two little children at home in London. What I needed was another tattoo! Dennis Cockell had retired so I found Piotrek to reinterpret the winged heart design for my other arm. He came up with a colourful waterlily with a wave crashing behind it and I had it done in my lunch hour from work. Although visible, I could always cover the tattoos if I wanted – in front of my parents, for example!

What kind of interactions have your tattoos lead to with other people over the years? Do any stand out?

Very few, I sometimes wonder if they’re made out of magic ink which only I can see.

Your first tattoo has since been covered up - can you tell me about how that process evolved?

A decade after my second tattoo, I was in a senior management role for the British Film Institute, and my children were now teenagers. My first tattoo was faded, but I had mixed feelings about covering it up. It was as much a part of me as my grey hair, stretch marks and the lines on my face. But I wanted more on my arm and it was very difficult to incorporate Dennis Cockell’s work into a new design, so James Lovegrove came up with something through which the heart and lily could just about be seen in the centre. We took a long time to choose the colours, a dark, bruised purple rather than bright pink or red for the rose, and green, my favourite colour, for the swirls. It took two painful sessions, during which I watched others having much more extreme work done.

A year or so later I went back to James to create a large background design for the waterlily on my right arm, which once again balanced me out aesthetically. Around the same time I was made redundant from the BFI in one of its horrible, protracted management restructures. This was also a painful process, but at least it gave me the opportunity to write my fourth book (or fifth including the tattoo book) about the history of the Scala Cinema 1978-1993 and one of its themes is how things change.

In terms of tattoo culture, so much has changed since I was 16. Lots more people get tattooed now, and from a much younger age. It’s no longer unusual for women to have tattoos. There’s a wider range of designs and many people have lots of tattoos, not just on their upper arms. I’m sure my tattoos look very old fashioned to my children, who have a different approach. I don’t think I’ll have any more work done, although I am tempted to have a small tattoo on each hand, so I can see them while I write.

Can you tell me a little bit about the tattoo project you conducted when you were 16? [see book above]

As a teenager I was often off sick from school and missed a lot of classes. I didn’t realise that the way I felt was stress-related, partly because I was being bullied. I scraped through my O Levels, left school and met a new crowd of punks at a Sixth Form College in another town. There was more freedom at college where I made a book about tattooing for an art project. I researched and typed up the history, took photos and drew pictures. I was keen on the idea that tattooing needed a more artistic approach. Making the book compensated for not having any tattoos myself. None of my friends did either. Back then it was very unusual to see young people with tattoos for a number of reasons. Mostly it was seen as old fashioned. Tattoo parlours were few and far between, and only for bikers and brickies [bricklayers]. As part of the project I designed a series of tattoos for women, a couple of which may have now come into fashion!

How do your tattoos make you feel?

It’s very hard to put that into words. Suffice to say that they bring everything together for me.

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James LovegrovePiotrek

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