|I do like porn, good old straight fuck porn. I’ve always enjoyed sex and will continue to do so as long as my health is good.|
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Isobel Varley was born in 1937. She’s 70 years old. But she’s not the kind of little old lady who knits doilies and shuffles off sourfacedly to bingo every week. Isobel is the most tattooed pensioner in the world.
Her life consists of being whisked around the world as a guest of honour at international inking conventions, hanging out with people with bolts through their necks and having penises tattooed on the back of her head.
She has spent over £20,000 and 500 hours under the needle, and in 2000, was acknowledged by the Guinness Book Of World Records as ‘The World’s Most Tattooed Senior Woman’.
Tell us something about your childhood and teenage years?
I was born in Mytholmroyd, in Yorkshire. I was quite feminine but still preferred to play with the boys. I still do! In 1949, when I was 12, we moved down south and I began to develop an erotic interest in the opposite sex. I was usually out with my biker friends and always had a boyfriend. When I was 15, I lost my virginity to one of these bikers, which was an overwhelming experience and the long, hard fuck he gave me I will remember for the rest of my life.
What was it that prompted your first tattoo?
In 1986, when I was 49, I went to a tattoo convention in London with my husband Mac, whom I met in 1958. I was struck by the beauty of many of the tattoos and the diversity of the people I met there. I got my first tattoo a few days later. It was done by a tattooist called Bill Cooke, who is now sadly deceased. I chose a small bird on my right shoulderblade. Much to Bill’s surprise, I asked him to do another one, an orchid on my left thigh, for me straight away.
And now you have full body coverage.
It was never my initial intention. After my first tattoos by Bill, I went another tattooist who did a couple of bits of work on me. I ended up going to Brent of Dunstable, and he thought I was getting too many small pieces, so he started to join them up, and that’s how the bodysuit started. We basically started at the top of my body and gradually worked our way down. So many people get bits and pieces that have no connection and that can often look messy.
You recently got your head tattooed. What was it that inspired the penises and mice you have there?
[Laughs]. My head has been tattooed by Paul O’Connor, who has done a significant amount of work on my body. I gave him free rein to do what he wanted when it came to my head, and, after he had been working away for about half-an-hour, I got really curious and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’ve done some cocks up the back of your head.” I said, “You old so and so,” to which he just said, “I know you too well, I know what you’re like.”
So you didn’t mind?
No, I’m pleased with how things have turned out.
Tell us about the themes that run through the majority of your work.
Most of my tattoos are made up of flowers, wildlife or erotic themes. I just get them for the beauty, I love the way they look and I do like erotic designs.
What kind of reaction do you generally get on the street?
Children often just look, they usually daren’t say anything. Teenagers vary, some don’t bother or seem to notice at all. Others are really interested and come over and say, “Wow!” if they notice the tattoos on my neck or hands. If they ask me about them, I tell them I have my whole body covered. With older people reactions vary.
Several years ago, when I was on holiday in Majorca, I would meet up with two elderly ladies for a chat. I generally wore minimal clothing but these ladies never commented on my tattoos. Then one of them accidentally brushed against me. She seemed to be somewhat startled and said, “Ooh! I thought you were wearing a flowery blouse, I had no idea the flowers were actually on your skin.” She went on to ask me if the colours would come off.
Though these ladies were quite elderly and old-fashioned they studied my tattoos closely, and told me how lovely they thought they looked on me and went on to ask more questions about them.
How have your family reacted as you have got more tattoos?
My son and most of my relations accept it now. When my mother was alive, she was concerned I would get something wrong with me, or catch something from the needle, she worried a lot about that. And if she were still alive she probably would never have quite come to terms with the amount of tattoos I have.
Even within the tattoo community, you are considered somewhat extreme, so you can understand it could be difficult for those people who don’t particularly like tattoos to accept.
That’s right. Its taken me 21 years to get to this stage, it takes a long time to get a full bodysuit, not only the actual time under the needle, but the travelling, often long distance, to get to the studio.
Have reactions changed much since you’ve got more work on your neck, head and face?
I’ve noticed people looking at me more since my forehead was done, but that’s inevitable really.
Do you get many negative comments?
Thankfully not. I have had one or two emails from people who have said they didn’t like what I have done but I don’t take any notice. I am really happy with my tattoos and they have enriched my life. I’ve never travelled as much as I do now.
I get invited to so many tattoo conventions both in the UK and abroad. Three days after this photoshoot, we are off to the Berlin convention, I’ve been to conventions in Germany, France, Peru, Argentina, New York to name a few.
You mentioned before that tattoos are addictive. Is that what drives you to get more?
Probably, but its more than that. Once you start something, it has to be finished, so things just seem to develop by themselves.
Do you think the people you know from the scene, or those who have seen you on TV, expect you to keep getting more tattoos?
Probably, and I still do love to get new work myself, something that looks different, its always a buzz. I still have to finish a couple of bits on my head and have a few more bits to do on my fingers.
There is not really much space left now, but I can always have the older work retouched as and when it needs it, though luckily a lot of it is still quite vivid.
Do you think you will miss getting tattooed when you consider yourself as finished, if that time ever comes?
I’ll definitely miss the needle [laughs]. It can be painful and I don’t particularly like pain.
Which areas have been the most painful to tattoo?
As the tattoos have progressed down the body, the level of pain has increased. The top of my feet proved only just bearable, but having my vulva tattooed by Alan Dean was the most painful, particularly when it came to the inner labia and the clitoral hood. Though this work was necessary in my opinion, in order to complete the bigger picture, I’m not sure I could endure that level of discomfort again.
It’s a difficult question but do you have a favourite tattoo artist?
I’ve had work done by 23 tattooists. However, the four main artists who have done the majority of the work are Brent of Dunstable, Alan Dean of Luton, Dave Fleet of Blackwood, Wales, and more recently Paul O’Connor, who has done a significant amount of work on me and is responsible for the work on my head.
Of the other artists who have worked on me from all over the globe, particularly memorable was the work done on the back of my hands by Hori Hiro, using the traditional Japanese stick method of tattooing. I really can’t name one tattooist as my favourite.
Aside from tattoos, you have a considerable array of piercings.
At present, I have a total of 48, which include two in the nostril, one in the lip, one in each nipple, one in my navel, 28 ear piercings, and the rest genital piercings, those being three in each inner labia, two in each outer labia and four in the clitoral hood. I have to admit I find all these extremely exciting and hope to retain them indefinitely.
Do you know of many heavily tattooed or pierced people within your age group, and if so, do you count any as friends?
I know John [Bizarre favourite Prince Albert], of course. We occasionally meet at conventions, its nice to catch up and chat. Most of the older tattooed people I know tend to be the ones I meet at conventions, as they are spread around the world, so unfortunately so we don’t get together that often.
Of all your tattoos, is there one in particular that you count as your favourite?
The family of tigers on my stomach is one of my favourites. It’s really beautiful and I just absolutely love wildlife.
Which of your tattoos make you laugh?
The cocks on my head.
Talking of cocks, while we were doing the photoshoot with the sex toys, you told me you enjoy pornography.
That’s true. I do like porn, good old straight fuck porn. I’ve always enjoyed sex and will continue to do so as long as my health is good. I’m not bored yet and if Mac doesn’t feel like it, I’ve always got my dildo!
Tell us something about some of the work on your body with an erotic theme.
Apart from those on my head, I have many other cocks tattooed on various parts of my body. On my stomach, just above my genitals, I have a tattoo depicting a mouse escaping from a cat into my hole. Just above this is tattooed the statement, “Hungry Pussy”. On my bum, I have a large erotic heart tattoo with the words, “At Bob’s Command I Am Tattooed & Pierced”. That is in recognition of an Australian friend, Bob, who significantly influenced me in getting tattooed.
Do many of the other tattoos have any particular significance or were they chosen for their aesthetic appeal?
I wouldn’t say they have any deep spiritual or other special significance. They give me a buzz and I love the way they look. I daresay many psychiatrists could make much more of this, particularly the erotic tattoos!
What advice would you give to youngsters intending to get large amounts of tattoo coverage?
It’s a very personal thing, really. You have to make your mind up from the early stages or you can end up with bits and pieces all over the body that may not work together. Some people still judge those of us who have visible tattoos and that must be an important consideration for youngsters in the early stage of their career. Ultimately, though, it’s about individual choice.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I’d love to but don’t really have the time. I love animals but don’t have any, apart from fish, as we travel so much. I like to read (anything good), and I enjoy gardening, when I have the time.
As an ambassador for the tattoo community, is there anything else you would like to say?
It’s great that museums, academics and the art world are finally recognising the importance of tattoos within today’s society, but I never push my tattoos onto anyone. I understand there will always be people who don’t like tattoos. In the past there has often been a tendency to look down on people with visible ink. This will hopefully change now that more people, particularly women, have them. I imagine they will increasingly be seen as acceptable, but for myself, I will always be the extreme, but the ‘inoffensive extreme’.