Tattooing A to Z #3: George Burchett, “King of Tattooists”

George “Professor” Burchett (also styled the “King of Tattooists”) was born George Burchett-Davis on August 23, 1872, in the English seaside town of Brighton, East Sussex and became one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world. George Burchett was probably the most famous tattooist of his era, which spanned from 1890 through 1953. Tattooing in London through two World Wars, Burchett catered to both the rich London society and the poor alike.

Having been expelled from school at 12 for tattooing his classmates, he joined the Royal Navy at the age of thirteen and found that his ability to “scratch” was welcome, developing his skills while traveling overseas as a deckhand on the “HMS Vincent”. One of his first customers was his younger brother Charles, who at the age of four or five was wiling to pay the large fee of a stick of liquorices for the pleasure of being scratched by George.

Navy discipline proved too much for the young George, so he jumped ship in Tel Aviv and did not return to Great Britain for twelve years. In order to avoid the authorities George Burchett Davis dropped his last name and became George Burchett. During this part of his life, he worked as a tram conductor and a cobbler, but continued tattooing part- time. After deserting from the Navy, he returned to England, where he was trained in tattoo artistry in London by the legendary English tattooists Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald.

In 1900 he became a full time tattooist.During the next half century and until his death in 1953, George Burchett created one of the largest tattoo practices in the world.

With a studio on Mile End Road, and 72 Waterloo Road, London, Burchett became the first star tattooist and a favorite among the wealthy upper class and European royalty. Among his customers were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Frederick IX of Denmark, and the “Sailor King” George V of the United Kingdom. He also tattooed Horace Ridler (“The Great Omi”).

George Burchett, Watercolour by Pepe
George Burchett, Watercolour by Pepe

He constantly designed new tattoos from his worldwide travels, incorporating African, Japanese and Southeast Asian motifs into his work. In the 1930s, he developed cosmetic tattooing with such techniques as the eyebrow permanent darkening. He continued tattooing until he suddenly died on Good Friday in 1953, at the age of 81. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Tattooist, edited by Peter Leighton, was published in 1958 by Oldbourne Book Company and includes photographs illustrating some of his tattoo designs.