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A tattooed torso called Tattoo Jack does community service

a male mannequin torso with painted tattoo designs all over it

A full sized handcrafted painted tattooed torso nicknamed Tattoo Jack, created by Gary Coole. © NMRN

A tattooed torso from Pompey is doing good things in the community

Local community groups in Portsmouth are set to benefit from a colourful legacy to a highly successful tattoo exhibition held last year.

This full-sized handcrafted, painted tattooed torso nicknamed “Tattoo Jack” featuring up to 35 vibrant tattoo designs is being toured around Portsmouth and beyond as part of an outreach programme – including sessions with Alzheimer’s and Dementia Veterans group.

The designs on the 95cm-high torso have been created by artist Gary Coole to reflect the rich history of tattooing in Britain and its historic links to seafaring. Many of the designs have been submitted by the public and some by serving or veteran personnel following a public appeal by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) to learn more about the tradition of tattoos.

Others were based on research collected during the run, last year, of Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed. The exhibition, curated by The National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, is currently touring the UK, but came to what might be considered its spiritual home , the home of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, for a very successful visit in 2018.

a photo of a model mannequin hand with a swallow painted on it

A swallow is a favourite with sailors. © NMRN

a photo of a tattooed plastic torso

Detail from the back of the torso. © NMRN

The creator of Tattoo Jack, Gary Coole, is a local mixed media artist and barber who specialises in the tattoo style of painting. From early childhood he watched and assisted his father, Brian Coole working in tattoo studios.

“Brian designed tattoo flash [paper tattoo designs] for well-known artists Bill and Les Skuse,” says Jo Valentine, Community Producer for The National Museum of the Royal Navy, “and worked with Portsmouth-based tattooist Ron Ackers at the Arches tattoo studio during the 1970s and 80s. He also painted interiors and exteriors of tattoo studios.”

Bill and Les Skuse are legendary figures in the tattoo world whose shop in Bristol (not to mention their role in the Bristol Tattoo Club of the 1950s and 1960s) has secured them a place in tattooing-lore.

“Every tattoo on the torso has a tale to tell”

“When Brian retired, Gary followed in his father’s footsteps designing flash and sign work for tattoo artists and some of his work was displayed as part of the tattoo exhibition held at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard last year,” adds Valentine.

“We wanted something as a legacy that embodied the results of our tattoo research with the navy and public that could still inspire a reaction when we are working with community groups. Tattoos are an excellent prompt for conversations started with military and non-military audiences. We wanted something striking that was personal to us and would stop you in your tracks. We had the idea of a painted torso which could come on tour around the area.”

Every tattoo on the torso has a tale to tell and the Museum gave Gary examples of the tattoos the public had submitted together with examples that reflected their Royal Navy tattoo research. These include submariners’ badges, remembrance tattoos, blood groups and Royal Marines Globe and Laurel tattoos.

a detail of a tattoo design that says there are three types of man the living, the dead and those that go to sea in submarines


a close up of a model torso with painted sextants, anchor, ship's wheel


Also included on the torso are two very special tattoos from the NMRN collection – a George Burchett flash and a rare Tom Riley flash. Both men were pioneering tattooists, with Burchett reportedly raising the bar for tattooing in the early twentieth century and Riley widely credited with enhancing perceptions of the British art of the tattoo – from a sailor’s art into what many consider to be a high art form.

Not that the NMRN has forgotten the roots of tattooing: “We have also commissioned two tattooed feet featuring a pig and a rooster,” adds Valentine.

According to seafaring tradition a pig tattooed on one foot and a rooster on the other keeps a sailor from drowning. The reasons behind this nautical belief are typically opaque – one theory has it that the on board wooden crates incarcerating these unfortunate food sources would float if the ship sunk – but whatever its origin it’s an inking tradition that some sailors are more than happy to uphold.

To find out more, or to book a session with Tattoo Jack contact community@nmrn.org.uk


The National Museum of the Royal Navy, in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, is one of Britain’s oldest maritime museums. The Museum’s mission is to preserve and present the history of the 'Fleet' - the ships and the men and women who manned them. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is…

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