Every tattoo tells a story

Zombie Boy

Seven people, with varying amounts of body ink, share the tales behind their markings.

"I have skull and crossbones on my left shoulder," says Rick Genest, aka Zombie Boy - a man covered in skeletal tattoos and resembling a living corpse.

"I got it at the age of 16, my little sister - she got a tattoo first, and I went out and got one right after her."

Ink now covers most of his body and spreads right across his face. His eyes are surrounded by black rings and bony outlines travel right through his lips and up to his pierced nose. His skull bears the outlines of a tattooed-on brain.

It is a look that has won him fashion shoots and catwalk shows, and a cameo in Lady Gaga's Born This Way video.

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Tattoo Tales is part of Radio 4's Dangerous Visions season, which includes a dramatisation of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, a tale about a man whose tattoos come to life when darkness falls.

"I grew up in a very punk rock culture," he adds.

"A lot of my friends were heavily tattooed and pierced, with funny hair and spiky clothing and what not, I just grew in my environment.

"Zombie was my nickname and Zombie Boy was given to me by Bizarre magazine - they coined the Boy part."

"The magic behind tattoos is they don't go away."

Pete - a tattooed grandfather
Pete, showing the tattoo of his father

Pete didn't get a tattoo until he was 33.

Pete's queen tattoo

"I never had a tattoo while my dad was alive 27 years ago. When my dad died the first tattoo I had was a portrait of my father. Now I'm covered from head to foot."

His most recent one is a portrait of the Queen, which he got at the Great British Tattoo Convention in May.

Since the occasion had "Great British" in the title, he wanted "a bit of royalty, so I had picture of the Queen herself".

He says: "I'm 60 years-old and still doing it. I think it was a bit rebellious from my kids because they said 'Dad, you've not got much room left now, do you think you want to stop?'

"Then I just decided to do head and my face, and it just went from there. They're all happy now, my grandkids love it - grooviest granddad around."

Sion - waiting for 11 more ravens
Sion's tattoo

It was a book that inspired Sion Smith's tattoos.

"Ten years ago I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke," he says.

"The book had such an effect on me that I took the ravens from it, and there's small section [in my tattoo] where its a direct quote from the book, that says: 'The birds were like black letters against the grey of the sky... He thought that in a moment he would understand what the writing meant.'

"The whole premise of the book is about the return of magic to England in a very pagan way."

Smith, editor of Skin Deep magazine, says his tattoo is a work in progress.

"There are 11 more ravens to come. I'm being patient, they will come all up my arm and across my chest eventually."

Sylvia and Stan - on a 'shamanic pathway'
Sylvia and Stan

"I had a owl tattoo done - the purpose of the owl is because I'm on a 'shamanic pathway' and the owl stands for wisdom," says Sylvia.

"It's like native Americans - Medicine Man is the best way to describe the shaman pathway. It's a lot of drumming, trance work, healing in a circle group, that sort of thing."

The same tattoo artist also drew the deer on Sylvia's back.

She was inspired to get tattoos by her partner Stan, who has them covering his body.

The couple met when Stan went to the shop where Sylvia worked.

"She gave me a dream catcher thing," he says. "I was going in to get something to help me sleep, like a lavender bag or something - from there we just progressed."

Sylvia adds: "[We're] what you called true soul mates and twin flames, we feel like we've even been in past lifetimes together. Stan would even say we go back to the dawn of time together."

Stan and Sylvia

Stan had his first tattoo when he was 15. It cost him five shillings.

"I was up in Charing Cross, underneath where Coutts bank is now, by a bloke called Cash Cooper," he says.

"Then I had homeward bound when I was 15-and-a-half and a rose because I was going away to sea. It's been ongoing ever since."

He says all his tattoos tell a story. Barbed wire reflects his time in prison in Sydney in 1966. "I stole the wrong car at the wrong time to drive back to the ship."

He adds: "It's interesting to see how tattooing has come on. It's such a fashion today. Young women liberated today are absolutely covered and it doesn't look out of place. It's lovely - good stuff."

Rita - helping her cope
Rita, showing her butterfly tattoo

Rita's tattoo, a butterfly on her left shoulder, helped her come to terms with a serious medical condition 15 years ago. She had pneumonia as well as problems with her spine.

Her tattoo is of a butterfly, reflecting her attitude to life - "the world goes around and you carry on".

She adds: "That made me feel a lot better."

Benjamin - the illustrator
Benjamin's forearm tattoo

It is a love of illustration and graphic lines that have inspired Benjamin's tattoos. A tattoo artist himself, he was an art student when he first took up the career.

Benjamin's butterfly tattoo

"My favourite medium is drawing because I'm first an illustrator. I've bought all types of machines in tattoos that make it feel like I'm drawing on skin and not tattooing."

His tattoos include a butterfly on his shoulder, an insect on his forearm and a straight line running down the centre of his torso, curving only around his belly button.

He adds: "What I love about tattoos is that we tattoo a lot of people, but I will mark someone for their life and they will remember me forever and that's very touching for me - even after 14 years.

"The most embarrassing thing would be to do an illustration or tattoo and for someone to just walk by and not notice it. As long as it is noticed - whether you hate it or you love it - ok, but if you ignore it, it hurts."

Sherina - 'Pain is beauty'
Sherina showing the mask on her chest

Musician and songwriter Sherina has seven tattoos.

Sherina's leg tattoo

"I have a tattoo on my chest. It's a mask, I love masquerade parties - I love the visual, it's like a hidden story, but I also like peacocks so I've got the feathers as well.

"That was meaningful to me, where it's my personality alone that describes it."

She adds: "I've also got a son, so I've got his little booties with CJ in bricks.

"I've also got one of my songs that I wrote - the verse, 'they aint got the bottle', so that's in a broken bottle with the lettering around it as well, which is just perfect, I just love it. Pain is beauty, I tell you."

Tattoo Tales is part of Radio 4's Dangerous Visions season, which includes a dramatisation of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, broadcast on Saturday 14 June at 2.30pm and is available to listen to on BBC iPlayer for seven days.

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