Amy Winehouse, me and those tattoos: ‘I’ll never do that pin-up image on anyone else’

The artist who inked Amy Winehouse’s favourite body art tells the story of their friendship

That dark beehive of hair and the heavy, feline eye makeup are now a recognisable visual shorthand for Amy Winehouse. In the few years since her death, Winehouse has become both a stylish motif and a symbol of doomed talent – up there with James Dean or Kurt Cobain – aside from the musical legacy of her songs.

Yet for Henry Hate, the London tattoo artist who got to know Winehouse well, it has been painful to watch. “Fans sometimes come into my shop to ask me to tattoo her image. I don’t do it. For some people she is a caricature, an image. The girl I knew is the one that came into my shop all those times with not enough money on her phone,” he said.

In collaboration with the charity Winehouse’s family set up in her name after her death in 2011 aged 27 from alcohol poisoning, Hate has allowed some of the tattoo sketches and designs he created with Winehouse to go on show for the first time at the Jewish Museum London, near the singer’s former Camden Town home in north London.

Hate, a Californian whose real name is Henry Martinez, came to Britain in 1998 and built up a clientele that included the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. In 2002 he set up his current tattoo parlour, Prick, in Shoreditch, east London, together with an art studio in Bermondsey. Two years later he began working with Winehouse on designs for the vintage-style tattoos the songwriter loved.

“She came into my shop one Monday about 20 minutes before closing time,” he said. “I had just finished and she was alone. She was about a foot shorter and 60 pounds lighter than I had thought: petite and quite shy too. I remember thinking it was strange because I had just bought her CD Frank because I liked the track Stronger Than Me,” he said.

Sitting on a stool at his shop counter, Winehouse appeared to be tearing pages from one of Hate’s favourite books, the expensive Taschen publication 1,000 Pin-Up Girls. “She was just ripping them out and I thought it was the copy my sister had got me. I have a bit of a temper and so I said ‘Have you lost your mind?’ She talked me down from the ledge by telling me not to worry and that it was her copy.”

Amy Winehouse and Henry Hate
Amy Winehouse and Henry Hate, circa 2004. Photograph: Gift of Henry Hate

Winehouse wanted Hate to help her with a tribute to her father’s mother, Cynthia, once a singer. “She told me exactly what tattoo she wanted in honour of her nan. She was very direct. I just called my partner and warned him I was going to be late,” said Hate. “As we talked, we really did click. She was funny. I even let her smoke in the shop.”

The 20-year-old singer already had a few tattoos, including a Native American feather on her forearm, an image of cartoon character Betty Boop on her lower back and an Egyptian ankh symbol between her shoulder blades. “She was looking for a cruder, traditional tattoo,” said Hate, “with not a lot of detail and none of the modern styling. She used phrases like ‘va va voom’ and images of Sophia Loren, along with other dark-haired, earthy pin-ups from that era to get across what her nan had been like. She was a kind of beacon for Amy. It was only later on in our friendship she showed me a photo of Cynthia in her youth and I could see she had been a real head-turner.”

Hate tried to emulate the old-fashioned look of the images Winehouse had picked. “I didn’t realise at the time it would be one of the most recognised tattoos on the planet,” he said. “Of course, I don’t get any money from it, although it is always being reproduced everywhere.”

During their friendship, Hate inked seven of the 14 tattoos that Winehouse sported, including the little ones on her fingers and knuckles and a large horseshoe shape on her left shoulder bearing the legend Daddy’s Girl. He also designed the much-copied bird on her right arm, now used as the emblem of her foundation. Winehouse later asked Hate to cover over the word Blake, which she had tattooed above a pocket design over her heart. It was the name of her former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who is acknowledged as the inspiration for some of her most moving love songs. Hate did not have the chance to carry out this wish.

Inspiration for the design and the sketch for Amy’s Cynthia tattoo
Inspiration for the design and the sketch for Amy’s Cynthia tattoo Photograph: Gift of Henry Hate

The exhibition, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, which is sponsored by her record label, Universal, was put together by her brother and sister-in-law in 2013. Hate’s work will now join the returning display of the singer’s music, designer clothes and personal belongings which has already toured Israel, Austria and America. Winehouse’s Jewish paternal great-great-grandparents came to England as immigrants from Belarus in the early 1890s and the exhibition tells their story, as well as featuring photographs of her grandmother Cynthia.

“Aside from being an immensely talented, iconic and inspirational singer, Amy was also a Jewish girl from north London,” said Abigail Morris, director of the Jewish Museum London. “It is fitting that the Jewish Museum in her beloved Camden Town should be the place to tell her story.”

Winehouse had trouble seeing herself as a famous commodity, rather than a normal north London girl. Hate agreed: “She didn’t like not being able to take the tube. She regarded herself as a Londoner through and through and she found that hard.”

He remembers a “highly bright, intelligent girl” who was generous to him and even self-effacing. “I had not known her very long when I let her walk my dog, an American Bulldog called Jolene. If my dog didn’t like you, you couldn’t make her go anywhere. Amy was gone for a half hour and I really panicked. But she came back and the next time she brought in a toy for Jolene. I really wish I had a picture of them together.”

Amy Winehouse
Porchester Hall, London, 2007. Photograph: Mark Allan/

As her fame grew, she returned to Hate’s shop with bodyguards in tow, but was always friendly. Hate was attracted, he said, by her wit. “Tattooing someone is a very intimate experience and she told me all kinds of stories,” he said. “We talked about addiction and to me she was no different than any other 25-year-old who experimented with some of that stuff. But then I didn’t see her for a year or so when she was with Blake.

“As a recovering addict myself, I know you don’t ever get an out-of-jail card and you have to learn to manage your demons. You are always masking over some kind of pain in there so you have to separate yourself from those elements in your life.”

Hate looks back on Winehouse with great respect. “I often get people coming in asking for an Amy-inspired design. Her fans travel from all over the world to get me to tattoo her autograph,” said Hate. “But I will never do the pin-up image on anyone else. I do give people her autograph or the two hearts that used to be on her shoulder. I always have to ask myself if Amy would have approved.

“It is strange because I feel it has come full circle now, with this exhibition. It is a reminder of the fact that she walked into my life that day.”

  • This article was amended on 13 March 2017. Bermondsey is not next to Shoreditch as originally stated.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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