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“Alan Oversby, better known by his professional alias of Mr Sebastian (chosen, naturally, after the famously pierced Saint…) was born in Liverpool in 1933 and became enamoured with body piercing in the 1950s whilst working on a sugar plantation in British Guiana. He had seen nipple piercings on some field hands, and persuaded one of them, over a few glasses of rum, to pierce him. Returning to Britain, he trained as an art teacher in the Midlands, and became increasingly enamoured with modifying his own body, first by re-piercing his own nipples, then (imitating an illustration of an African man he had seen in an anthropology book) inserting a ring into his foreskin. Eventually, he got tattooed. Indeed, he first shows up in the press in the mid-1970s, as a customer of long-standing London tattoo artist George Bone, cited precisely to demonstrate the practices middle class credentials. ‘He is a teacher’, the article tells us, ‘ and as such one of the professional minority who frequents tattoo shops:
‘I thought about it all very carefully before I began. If you don’t you end up looking a mess.’ Alan is tattooed solidly from the tops of his arms down the front of his body to his legs with the designs placed in such a way that he can wear a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt without any of them being visible. This is not to avoid incurring opposition in the school where he teaches, but ‘to make sure my mother doesn’t find out. She would be terribly upset if she knew about it’
After having realised that there might be a market for the skills Oversby had developed piercing himself, he would go on to open the first professional body-piercing studio in Britain, in Wandsworth, South London (As a trained art teacher, the presence of tattooing in this shop also marks him out as the first artistically-trained tattoo artist in the country). By the late 1980s, hailed by none other than avant-garde artist and musician Genesis P. Orridge as someone who had “taken tattooing into a higher art” and who was “a poet and philosopher and historian all at once”.
Caught up in the famous sweep of Operation Spanner, in which several gay men were arrested for participating in consensual BDSM, Sebastian was initially apparently charged for piercings carried out on his customers. In 1990 Oversby plead guilty – in the unreported case R vs Oversby (before the amusingly named Judge Rant) – to having pierced his lover’s penis, and received a 15 month suspended sentence. In the Law Commission consultation paper on Consent in the Criminal Law following the Brown Ruling in 1995, Sebastian’s case is explicitly mentioned: “In short, the consent of the injured person does not normally provide a defence to charges of assault occasioning actual bodily harm or more serious injury. Onto this basic principle the common law has grafted a number of exceptions to legitimise the infliction of such injury in the course of properly conducted sports and games, lawful correction, surgery, rough and undisciplined horseplay, dangerous exhibitions, male circumcision, religious flagellation, tattooing and ear piercing. … In relation to cosmetic piercing it is clear to us that the unreported ruling in the case of Oversby has been quite widely treated as giving authoritative judicial guidance that the piercing of parts of the anatomy other than the ears is lawful provided that the piercing is carried out for decorative or cosmetic purposes, and not for sexual gratification.”
Though Oversby was convicted for body piercing, it seems his tattoo practice might reasonably have been part of the Crown’s case too. Tattooing seems certainly to have intimately bound up in Sebastian’s sexuality: “Mr Sebastian”, Genesis explains in an interview for the landmark book Modern Primitives, “used to teach in art school for children between the ages of 11 and 16. He did etchings and engravings – he’s a very skilled draughtsman. But his actual, certainly semi-sexual, fetish was piercing and tattooing on himself. And so he left his teaching job and went into tattooing full time.” In Oversby’s tattooing, this lack of distinction between tattooing’s decorative / aesthetic function and its sexual one is further complicated by his choice of imagery, where scenes of sadomasochistic sexual activity actually form the basis for a large amount of his designs and clearly mirroring his particular sexual tastes. His surviving portfolios are full of extraordinarily explicit designs, tattooed penises, and arseholes.
Sebastian’s clientele was largely drawn from the middle-class gay circles in which he himself mixed, though he did tattoo a number of other London based tattoo artists. The tattoo community as a whole were largely tolerant of his operation — he didn’t eat into their customer base in any meaningful way, and in any event he was willing to perform genital and anal tattooing that very few other tattooers were even willing to contemplate! That said, he did remain something of an outsider up until his untimely death in 1996, though it’s clear he maintains a level of respect amongst most who ever met him.” ~ Dr. Matt Lodder [email protected] || http://essex.academia.edu/
Excerpt from Erotic Tattooing and Body Piercing IV ©Charles Gatewood/Flash Video