|23 August 1872
|Brighton, East Sussex
George 'Professor' Burchett was born George Burchett-Davis on August 23rd, 1872 in the seaside town of Brighton, East Sussex. He possessed no education beyond the age of twelve, as he was expelled from school for tattooing his classmates. Aged just thirteen, he joined the Royal Navy against his parents' wishes, getting his grandmother to sign the guardian's forms. As a deck-hand aboard the HMS Vincent he traveled to all parts of the British Empire: the West Indies, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. On board he began to tattoo constantly, his skill developing as other sailors paid him to tattoo them. He also experienced firsthand the famous tattoos of Asia, with the master artists of Japan and Java particularly impressing him.
However, the rigorous disciplined life of the Navy did not suit George and he jumped ship whilst on shore leave in Jaffa. After a brief spell as a tattoo artist in the city of Jerusalem, he left the Holy Land aboard a Spanish merchantman and continued to travel the world, this time a fugitive from the British military (at the time the punishment for desertion was a lengthy spell aboard a prison ship). However, after many years of wandering the high seas on various ship's companies, George yearned to see his homeland once again, and after a twelve year absence, George Burchett as he was now known (he dropped the 'Davis' in the hope it would prevent him being traced by the Admiralty), returned to England.
On his arrival he set up a cobbler's shop in South London and tattooed in his spare time. In London he met the legendary English tattooists Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald, the former passing on much of his experience to the young George. After a year of various odd-jobs and backroom tattooing, in 1898 George married Edith Burchett and set up home in Bow. There, in the working class 'East End', word of his tattooing prowess spread among the factory workers, dockers and sailors of the area, in addition to the multitude of travelers, transients and seamen from all corners of the world. Soon afterwards, in 1900, he gave up repairing shoes and began tattooing full time in a studio on Mile End Road.
Burchett became a firm favorite among the wealthy upper class of England, and Royalty too. Despite keen competition from Riley and MacDonald, Burchett could count among his customers the 'Sailor King' HRH George V, and innumerable 'leisured people of money' as he described them, from all over Europe and the Empire. One of his more unusual projects was of course The Great Omi. However, he never forgot his humble background and throughout his career the vast majority of his clientele were enlisted men from the Forces. Passing on his business to two of his sons, George retired to the countryside in 1942, aged seventy. However, with the Second War in full flight the demand for tattoo work was so great that he was persuaded to return to work, and did not stop tattooing - even after the War ended - until he died suddenly on Good Friday in 1953, on his way to tattoo a client.
In addition to being a skilled technician, Burchett was also an innovator and creative; he constantly designed new tattoos from his vast experience of worldwide travel, incorporating African, Japanese and SE Asian motifs into his work. He purchased a tattoo machine from Tom Riley (whose machines were in fact a modification of the American devices of Samuel O'Reilly) and changed it to suit his own style of tattooing. He also proved to be very popular with women who wanted tattoos, from working class factory girls to society ladies; he made himself many friends (and a fortune) from his self-invented brand of cosmetic tattooing.
Tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle has a large collection of George Burchett's and, his son, Leslie Burchett's work at his museum.
Source: Memoirs of a Tattooist' by George Burchett and Peter Leighton, 1956