A visit to London and Remembering Mr. Sebastian [Running The Gauntlet – By Jim Ward]

X. A visit to London and Remembering Mr. Sebastian

In March of 1978 the ITAA put on another tattoo convention, this time in Amsterdam. Doug and I decided we would attend. While vending was not an option, it was, nonetheless, and opportunity to meet people and proselytize for our favorite form of body art. Somehow our plans evolved into a month long vacation with Sailor Sid and Elizabeth Weinzirl joining us through most of it.

Doug Malloy and Elizabeth Weinzirl at the ITAA tattoo convention in Reno, 1977

Doug Malloy and Elizabeth Weinzirl at the ITAA tattoo convention in Reno, 1977.

My lover Eric wasn’t included in the plans and wasn’t very happy about it. The fact was I didn’t have the financial resources to take him along, and he wasn’t bringing in any income of his own with which to pay his own way. By this time our relationship was already beginning to crumble.

Elizabeth Weinzirl had a reputation as the grandmother of the tattoo community. At the time of this trip she was in her mid 70s though she could easily have passed for 60. She was a widow, her husband having been dead for a number of years.


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She was a delightful, friendly woman, very much at ease in a wide variety of surroundings. Being around gay men didn’t phase her. Truth be told I think she was a bit of a fag hag. She seemed to bask in their presence, and on this trip she had ample opportunity.

Elizabeth’s husband had been a health inspector. I probably wouldn’t even remember the fact except she told the story of his going to inspect a Chinese restaurant. When he pointed out a mass of garbage that needed to be disposed of, the chef replied indignantly, “Not garbage. Soup stock.”

When asked why she got tattooed, she said that her husband wanted a tattooed wife. She considered the options and decided to get tattooed. Some feminists might find this offensive, but it was said tongue in cheek and with a twinkle in her eye. There was never any hint that she felt coerced, and my feeling was that she shared her husband’s interest in and enthusiasm for body art. She even confessed that she had had her nipples pierced at one time, but for some reason had taken the jewelry out.

We arrived at Heathrow on Tuesday, March 7th for a week in London prior to moving on to the Continent. Our main reason for this lengthy stay was in order to spend some quality time with Alan Oversby, better know in piercing and tattoo circles as Mr. Sebastian. We also wanted to meet as many other British piercing enthusiasts as possible.

Accommodating the four of us wasn’t possible in Alan’s small apartment — or flat as he would have called it — so he had made arrangements for us to stay with different friends.

Around Alan's dinner table, left to right, Sailor Sid Diller, Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian), Doug Malloy, Elizabeth Weinzirl, and myself (Jim Ward).

Around Alan’s dinner table, left to right, Sid, Alan, Doug, Elizabeth, and myself.

Regardless of where we stayed, we were all treated as honored guests. Doug and I stayed with a delightful gay couple who lived in Clapham. Their names were Mike and Robin. I believe Sid stayed with Alan, but I can’t remember where Elizabeth bedded down. It’s possible one of them stayed with a client of Alan’s named Rudy Inhelder. There are some pictures of Alan’s work on Rudy on a German web site.

Not surprisingly Sid was his usual boisterous self, never missing an opportunity to joke around. While we were visiting with Alan, Sid happened to notice some folding chairs with clear plastic seats. It wasn’t long before he had instigated a photo op: getting a picture of his guiche and ass tattoo through the seat of the chair.

Doug Malloy assessing the shot.

Doug assessing the shot.
Elizabeth Weinzirl looks on.

Elizabeth looks on.

Pictures of the photo session remain, but unfortunately the snapshots themselves have disappeared.

Sadly, also missing are most of the photos that were taken at a cocktail party that was given in our honor. A dozen or more of Alan’s clients showed up. Elizabeth was the only woman present and was perfectly at ease as the clothes came off and the cameras began clicking. The few surviving photos I have are mostly closeups taken by myself or Sid or Alan.

Alan Oversby's flatmate Bjarne.

Alan’s flatmate Bjarne.
Alan Oversby, Sailor Sid, and a playmate of Alan's he called Thing.

Alan, Sid, and a playmate of Alan’s he called Thing.

My impression of Alan was of a rather private man who was a bit difficult to get to know. Not that he was particularly shy. He would casually disrobe and allow himself to be photographed, but there was always a reserved quality about his actions. He could converse with intelligence and ease, but to access the man behind the mask was a challenge.

During our stay in London I took advantage of the opportunity to interview Alan for PFIQ. Prior to becoming a tattooist Alan had worked as an art teacher. There’s no doubt his background as an artist was of great benefit when he left teaching to pursue his passions for tattooing and piercing.

Alan Oversby: Mr. Sebastian

Aside from any living canvases who may be alive still, I don’t know how much of his art work survives. One of my little treasures in a ceramic egg which Alan made as a gift for Doug. It is sculpted with male pecs and prominent pierced nipples and finished with a metallic glaze. Doug entrusted it to my care because he didn’t want it around the house where a family member might find it.

Ceramic egg made by Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian) and presented by him to Doug Malloy

Ceramic egg made by Alan and presented by him to Doug.

When Alan was in his mid to late 20s working on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, he observed a couple of field hands who were wearing little gold earrings in their nipples. This was the beginning of his fascination with body piercing. He returned to London with his own nipples pierced. Within a few years he had acquired a number of tattoos and additional piercings as well. Over time many of them were stretched to accommodate sizable jewelry.

A younger Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian)

A younger Alan.

On one of the days we paid a visit to Alan’s tattoo and piercing studio in Wandsworth. He shared space with a leather business called Leather Unlimited owned by a man named Alan Selby.

Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian) in his studio at Leather Unlimited, one of the photso I (Jim Ward) took for his interview in PFIQ.

Alan in his studio at Leather Unlimited, one of the photos I took for his interview in PFIQ.

Alan Oversby's (Mr. Sebastian) genital piercings.

Alan’s genital piercings.

Selby was one of the pioneers of fetish clothing for gay S/M enthusiasts. I recall that while I was living in Denver I had ordered a motorcycle cap from him. In 1979 he immigrated to the US and set up shop in San Francisco as Mr. S Leather. His warmth and easygoing manner endeared him to the local leather community. He worked tirelessly raising money and awareness for AIDS charities up until his death in 2004.

Mr. Sebastian’s space was meticulously clean and well organized. I would have expected no less. While we differed in our viewpoints on a number of issues, he and I shared a commitment to cleanliness and proper hygiene.

Alan Oversby's stretched nipple piercing (Mr. Sebastian).Alan Oversby's stretched nipple piercing (Mr. Sebastian).

Alan’s stretched nipple piercings.

There has been much debate over the years on the subject of using anesthetics for tattoos and piercings. The early days of the piercing movement were no exception. Early on I experimented with topical anesthetics, but found that, with the exception of the Prince Albert and other piercings involving a mucous membrane, they were not very effective and hardly worth the effort. Especially in Gauntlet’s early days there was nothing available without a prescription that was of much use.

I strongly rejected the use of injectable anesthetics. From my perspective they were too risky to be used by anyone who wasn’t a physician or at least a nurse. This sense of danger arose from a couple of concerns. For one they can pose a health risk to some people. That’s bad enough, but a far more immediate concern was that in the US their use is illegal in the hands of an unlicensed individual. Assuming I could even have obtained them, I would have been putting my fledgling business at risk of being closed down and myself at risk of arrest for practicing medicine without a license. From my perspective it simply wasn’t worth taking a chance. I also felt, and still do, that when piercings are done by a skilled piercer, the pain isn’t significantly greater than the anesthetic injection would be.

As the years went by and I observed other piercers at work, I came to the conclusion that oftentimes they used anesthetics to mask their incompetence and lack of skill. It became my firm belief that the best thing a piercer could do to minimize discomfort and pain was to master the necessary skills and be able to perform a piercing quickly and accurately. This, in my opinion, eliminates the need for anesthetics of any kind.

Even though the legality of their use in Britain was not much different than in the US, Alan never seemed to be particularly concerned. He was able to obtain anesthetics through a physician friend and had no qualms about using them.

I must be honest; I had very little opportunity to watch Alan at work. Some years later I saw a video in which he performed a Prince Albert piercing, and I was a bit surprised by his technique. The piercing was done within the context of an S/M scene, and I’ve wondered if the crudeness was for effect and to deliberately prolong the discomfort. It took an inordinate amount of fumbling and time, and seemed to be more bloody than usual for this often bloody piercing. It left me wondering if Alan’s technique could have used some refinement and if it might explain his regular use of anesthetics.

Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian) and a friend.

Alan and a friend.

I don’t recall if this was the video that landed him in serious trouble, but in 1987 or 1989 — depending on which account you read — the Manchester police obtained a video of what they thought were people being tortured before being killed. In fact it was of a group of heavy S/M enthusiasts at a play party. Alan was one of 16 men charged in what became known as the Spanner case, and even though everything that transpired had been consensual, the court ruled that a person doesn’t have the legal right to consent to receiving what they considered bodily harm. Thus the convictions stood. Alan was jailed for 15 months, suspended for two years.

Eddie, a client of Alan's (Oversby; Mr. Sebastian) and a co-defendant in the Spanner Case.

Eddie, a client of Alan’s and a co-defendant in the Spanner Case.

The case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, but Alan didn’t live long enough to hear the verdict. He died May 8, 1996. The final judgment in the Spanner case was handed down in February of 1997. In it the ECHR found that the British government had not violated the right to privacy by prosecuting the men involved.

More information on the Spanner case:
Spannerman (on BME)


Mr. Sebastian is considered by many — and justly so — as the father of the modern body piercing movement in Europe. Sad to say living on opposite sides of the world wasn’t conducive to our spending much time together. The Internet was still in its infancy, and with the pressures of our businesses and lives, we weren’t very good correspondents, so communication between us was minimal. Still, I am happy to have known him personally and to have shared the spotlight with him.

Jim Ward

Jim Ward is is one of the cofounders of body piercing as a public phenomena in his role both as owner of the original piercing studio Gauntlet and the original body modification magazine PFIQ, both long before BME staff had even entered highschool. He currently works as a designer in Calfornia where he lives with his partner.

Copyright © 2005 BMEzine.com LLC. Requests to publish full, edited, or shortened versions must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published July 15th, 2005 by BMEzine.com LLC in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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