Obituary: Mr Sebastian

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The Independent Online
Mr Sebastian was one of the founding fathers of the body-piercing trade and a renowned practitioner in the tattoo world.

He was born Alan Oversby in 1933 to an artistically talented family in Liverpool, where his father was a senior partner in an insurance brokers. It was not until he moved to London that he gained his first tattoos, from George Birchett of Waterloo Road. However it was his time as an overseer on a sugar plantation in British Guiana that started his passion for piercing. Fascinated by the gold rings that glittered in the nipples of field hands, he made persistent enquiries which were eventually rewarded with an exciting midnight visit to the local piercer.

On his return to England, National Service beckoned, during which Oversby's love of formality and uniforms became highly developed.

Most tattooists take on a working name, and he adopted the professional title Mr Sebastian (drawing on the story of St Sebastian, who died pierced with arrows). In 1976, in search of an education in tattooing, he left a secure career, as an art teacher in the Midlands, in order to travel across the United States, working with, among others, the famous US tattoo artist "Sailor Sid", and spending time in Los Angeles, where many tattooing pioneers learnt their craft.

The help of the millionaire businessman Doug Malloy brought Mr Sebastian into contact with Jim Ward, one of the early developers of body piercing, now of the US firm Gauntlet Piercing Inc. Together, they carried out early piercing experiments, often on the kitchen table. Jim Ward went on to develop Gauntlet into a successful international company, while Mr Sebastian chose a more personal and intimate form of working - in some ways this reflected their different cultures. Mr Sebastian returned to London and set up his studio first in south London, then moving to various sites around the capital, including at one stage a Kensington cinema.

If a piercing site on the body was unfamiliar, Mr Sebastian would practise upon himself until sure of the correct siting or alignment. His concern for clients was paramount and he viewed the very rapid and sometimes ill- informed expansion of the piercing trade with a strong sense of unease.

At the start of his career the then conservative tattoo world viewed his activities with much suspicion and a little contempt. The world-class quality of fine-line tattoo work by his studio and the international boom in piercing as a secondary activity in many tattoo businesses these days vindicated him.

Although the homo-erotic quality of some of his tattoo work was much admired, the clients his practice attracted ranged widely, across all strata of society. Frustratingly he was also famous for his discretion.

When he chose, Mr Sebastian could be very charming indeed, as his many clients and friends could testify, and the memorably persuasive and honeyed tones of his voice appeared on records, videos and as voice-overs for films.

He had a great fondness for West End musical theatre, and spent many weekends caring for the garden he created with his partner of 37 years, Noel Arnold. The natural reticence of Mr Sebastian, a gentleman in the old-fashioned sense of the word, had been strengthened by the difficulties of life before the 1957 Wolfenden Report took steps towards the legalisation of homosexuality and the unlooked-for notoriety of the 1990 Operation Spanner show trial, for which he was investigated by Scotland Yard. Consequently the final years of his practice were even more reclusive than before. Unwilling to appear on talk shows, he maintained his mystique, and was barely known by the media. He leaves two ap-prentices, Mr Ronald in Amster- dam and Mr Simon in London.

Simon Fraser

Anthony Alan Oversby (Mr Sebastian), tattoo artist and body piercer: born Liverpool 20 February 1933; died London 8 May 1996.

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