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Mr Mo Coppoletta’s Tattoo Temple

The godfather of London’s inking scene shows us around his Exmouth Market parlour

Hard as it may be to imagine in this age of celebrity-endorsed, Insta-famous tattoo artists, there was a time not too long ago when inking your skin was seen as an act of real rebellion. It’s a time that Mr Mo Coppoletta, founder of London’s The Family Business tattoo parlour, and member of the MR PORTER Style Council, remembers well. “Having a tattoo made you feel like a member of a secret society,” he recalls. But membership came at a cost. “The places you’d have to go to get a tattoo back then... they wouldn’t exactly make you feel welcome,” he laughs. “You had the impression that you might get punched for asking the wrong question.”

Those days are now a distant memory. Tattooing has shaken off its shady reputation, no longer is it the preserve of bikers, punks and ex-cons. An estimated one in eight Brits now boast at least one tattoo, a number that rises to one in four in the 25-40 age group, and the profile of your average tattoo parlour customer is as likely to be a thirtysomething lawyer or accountant as a Hells Angel. And yet, the words “tattoo” and “parlour” still have the power to elicit feelings of trepidation, especially in first-timers.

It’s clear on crossing the threshold of Mr Coppoletta’s tattoo parlour that this is a preconception he is keen to overturn. Situated on Exmouth Market, a well-heeled pedestrian street in a leafy central London neighbourhood lined with jewellery stores and smart restaurants, The Family Business bears little resemblance to the sleazy, back-alley tattoo dens of traditional London tattoo districts Soho and Camden.

Instead, the shop – which Mr Coppoletta opened in 2003, after stints at iconic London tattoo parlours Evil From The Needle and Into You – feels more like a Roman Catholic shrine. Two low tables covered with half-spent votive candles and statuettes of saints frame the entrance, the walls are hung with crucifixes and framed images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Mr Coppoletta isn’t a particularly religious man, but he’s the first to admit that religion has shaped his life and his art. “I was inspired aesthetically,” he says. “Just not spiritually.”

Born in Verona, Italy, some 45 years ago, this one-time law student spent his formative years exposed to what he describes as “the visual language” of Roman Catholicism. When he first arrived in London in his mid-twenties, drawn by the burgeoning tattoo scene, he brought with him a sketchbook full of sacred hearts, rosaries and Madonnas weeping tears of blood. “The symbolism of it all – I guess it just stayed with me,” he says.

The business end of the tattoo parlour, where inked needle penetrates skin, is carefully hidden from view behind a decorative wooden screen, a move that not only provides customers with privacy, but also means it is less intimidating experience for visitors walking in off the street. This, and other steps that have been taken to ensure a more welcoming atmosphere, are central to the way The Family Business is run. As Mr Coppoletta explains, “[tattooing] is a commodity now, it’s a service. So you have to provide the best service you can. There’s no point clinging to an old-school attitude.”

Clean-cut, suited-and-booted, and with barely a tattoo in sight – until he rolls up his shirt sleeves to reveal two fully-inked arms – Mr Coppoletta is the perfect ambassador for London’s new wave of upmarket tattoo parlours. And with a client list that he is reluctant to reveal, but which is rumoured to include Ms Kate Moss and Mr Jude Law, he has earned his reputation as the godfather of the city’s tattoo scene. We visited Exmouth Market to hear more.

So, Mo: why did you call your tattoo parlour The Family Business?

I just thought it was a cool name, and a nod to my Italian heritage. Also, it doesn’t have anything to do with tattooing. I thought it’d be good to call it something like that – something that doesn’t end with the word “tattoo” or “ink”.

How is your tattoo parlour different?

We’ve got the words “ELECTRIC” and “TATTOO” printed on the windows; we’re not trying to hide who we are. But we realise now that there is a new demographic that needs to be served. It’s not just subcultures that get tattoos now, everybody gets them. The Family Business was designed with customer service at the forefront.

How do you feel about the current popularity of tattoos?

In the end, more people getting tattooed means more possibility to explore your art. I’m interested in what’s going on in the wider tattooing world, of course, but what happens in my shop with my own customers is what really matters.

How do you plan to grow your business in an increasingly crowded marketplace?

Our roster of resident and guest tattooists are at the top, top level worldwide in terms of quality and artistry. I’ve always thought of it as a place for connoisseurs – a place with a strong dedication to the design and application of a good tattoo.

What made you you choose Clerkenwell over Soho or Shoreditch?

It just happened. I fell in love with the area. I walked through this street many years ago and said to myself, “This is where I will open a tattoo shop”. It has a history as the old Little Italy, so it has a bit of a European vibe – I just felt at home. And it helped, of course, that it was out of the way, so I didn’t have much competition.

This was 2003. Do you think the area has changed?

It’s a much more desirable and well-known area – it would be much more expensive to open a tattoo shop here now. It’s a similar picture across all of central London. I was very lucky to open at the time that I did.

Your logo is a combination of a heart, an anchor and a crucifix. What does this mean?

The anchor stands for hope, the cross for faith and the heart for charity. It brings together our emotional, spiritual and earthly virtues.

It looks cool, too. Have you had it tattooed onto your own body?

No – but a few of our customers have. I haven’t had a tattoo in years.

Are you still tattooing now? Rumour has it that you cancelled your entire waiting list…

Of course! The rumour that I’m not tattooing any more is false. I’m still doing it two or three times a week, but only for private clients. I take on a few projects at a time, finish them and then take on some more. I don’t want to build up the long waiting list that I had, because it would prevent me from being able to regulate my life, which I divide between tattooing and designing now.

Tell me about your parallel career in designing.

It’s something I’ve built up over the last few years. We collaborate with brands. I’ll soon release a chandelier with Stilnovo, and further collaborations with The Rake and Turnbull & Asser. A few other things involving the nautical world, automotive, jewellery – lots that I can’t tell you about. But you’ll find out soon enough.

Finally, what would you say to someone thinking of getting their first tattoo?

Research. Don’t rush into it. Talk to the tattooist. Get some sketches done. Have consultations. Give it second thought, then give it third thought. Remember that tattoos stay with you forever. People these days take it very light-heartedly. I say that against my own interests, but it’s true.