Remembering Amy Winehouse with the People Who Knew Her
I spoke to Henry Hate, her tattoo artist, and visited a new exhibition Winehouse's family helped bring to life at London's Jewish Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The week after tattoo artist Henry Hate gave Amy Winehouse her famous pinup girl tattoo, she spontaneously came back to the shop and asked to walk his dog. "I gave her the lead [the leash] and told her she could, if she'd go with [Amy]," Hate tells me over the counter of his shop in Shoreditch, a trendy London neighborhood. "I had an American bulldog, and they're super stubborn."
"Off they went, and I thought Amy would just walk around the corner for 20 minutes, but she was gone for over an hour and a half, and when I looked at the clock, I was like, Holy shit," he says. "I started to panic and thought, What happens if my dog has been hit by a car? I didn't have Amy's phone number or anything to go by."
Eventually, Winehouse and the dog came back. Four days later, she returned with a dog toy. This kind of impulsiveness wasn't out of the ordinary, says Hate, and nor was the thoughtfulness behind her gestures.
In July, it'll be six years since Amy Winehouse's death. She passed at 27, the subject of brutal treatment from tabloids while battling addiction and bulimia. Her brother, Alex, is among those who believe it was the latter that killed her, rather than the alcohol.
Whenever someone as iconic as Winehouse dies, his or her death is always followed by multiple depictions of his or her life, in print and on film. Perhaps the most useful of these in Winehouse's case was Asif Kapadia's 2015 documentary Amy, which helped correct the narrative tabloids had built up around her (while, admittedly, narrativizing the final days of her life heavily).
Now, the Jewish Museum London has reopened its exhibition Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait to add another, more personal layer to Winehouse's story. The exhibition was co-curated with Winehouse's brother, Alex, and sister-in-law, Riva. Hate gifted the exhibition the original photo used for Winehouse's pinup girl tattoo and the drawing he did as a template.
Sitting back in Hate's chair to get tattooed by him, surrounded by crucifixes and knifes, he tells me about the first day they met. It was—as ever with Winehouse, apparently—energetic and unplanned. "She said, 'I want a tattoo right now,' after ripping pages out of a pinup book in reception," he says, tattoo gun poised. "It was about three minutes in when I realized who it was. She was about 30 or 40 pounds lighter and a foot shorter than I'd imagined from that va, va, vroom voice. I rang my boyfriend to tell him I was going to be home a bit late. She was very specific about what she wanted. She wanted it to look already old and used the words 'Sophia Loren' and 'silver-screen goddess.' She said what I did originally was too perfect, so I had to redo it."
Hate has a back catalog of Winehouse's stories, and he's willing to share them, considering he knows that's why I'm here: to spend time thinking about the "real" Winehouse, however superficial that act might inevitably be. Their relationship, I had forgotten, went deeper than just tattooist and client. In 2009, the Sun ran a cover story on Hate, disclosing private information without his consent. No longer was it just Amy Winehouse who was hot property for bulldozing; now her tattoo artist and friend was too. At the time, Winehouse was in St. Lucia, on the prolonged holiday that family hoped would help rehabilitate her.
Hate's distress at recounting the way the Sun's behavior affected him makes it uncomfortably clear what that same treatment would have done to anyone if repeated daily, weekly, monthly; when every time you tripped up, strangers would use the opportunity to push you down a hill. "When you have things flung at you like she had, you don't know how to handle it," Hate says. "A very specific part of me was taken without my asking. Winehouse rang from St. Lucia when the paper went out—she didn't have to call. She told me not to worry and that everything would be fine. I never forgot that."
I take the opportunity to ask Hate what he thinks of the exhibition, guessing he'll be honest about these ongoing efforts to memorialize Winehouse.
"I do think it's good, because it brings more people to her small, incredible body of work, which speaks for itself," he says. "How can that voice come out of a tiny Jewish girl? It's an anomaly. It's a three-headed snake driving a tricycle: just something you have to stop and look at. She gave people a perspective into the human condition through her lyrics and music, and connection is a very healing facet to human nature. If the exhibition brings insight into that, then hopefully they will stop looking at a caricature and start looking at a living, breathing human girl."
Hate calling the public perception of Winehouse "a caricature" is apt. With her beehive and tattoos and striking features, she unintentionally invited people to see her as a larger-than-life character—more than a "human girl." This false reality has cemented itself after her death.
A few days later, I head to Winehouse's spiritual home, Camden. Alongside the opening of the Jewish Museum exhibition is a new Winehouse street-art trail. The idea is to walk her old neighborhood to experience some part the life she lived. The concept is pleasant enough: Winehouse loved Camden like she loved all of London—ferociously—and was regularly spotted in local pubs and bars. For tourists who want to explore Camden while paying homage to its patron saint, the trail is ideal. But because I don't like most street art aesthetically, I didn't enjoy the wall pieces as memorials. Each mural is understandably bright and garish to reflect and celebrate the subject, shunning doom and gloom. Some were fun, I thought, but others made me wonder whether she'd laugh at seeing herself painted in clashing hues across the wall outside of a bar. As with any sort of memorial, those "what would 'x' think?" questions hang in the air.
The trail ends inside the museum, and the final pieces of work by street artist Pegasus sit just inside the entrance. As soon as you come up the stairs to the exhibition, you're confronted with a life-size photograph of Winehouse. It's enough to give you a lump in your throat—partially because you do a double take when you realize she's stood right there, and partially because it's a rarely seen photograph of her, which works to immediately take her out of preconceived contexts.
The fact the exhibition was co-curated by Winehouse's brother provides a refreshing insight. There are the books both Winehouse's mom and dad have written, but siblings love and hate each other more than anyone else ever could. Siblings understand each other on an almost psychic level, with a dear closeness and a cynical distance; they're of the same generation and understand the nuances of a family dynamic from the same perspective. They're you but not you.
Alex's commentary shows us Winehouse, the person. There's a folded school sweatshirt, the kind every British kid once pulled on, with the same plain name tag sewn into the neck: Amy Winehouse. It's strange to see that name stripped of celebrity; here, it's just the name of a little girl. Strange that there was a time when it meant nothing more than that.
In the photos of her childhood, she has an energy that pulls her into focus. There's one image of her at 11—a primary school photograph—where everyone is smiling and posing nicely for the camera, while Winehouse, in the center of the frame, leans forward with her legs spread, like she's challenging the lens.
Her tiny outfits, hanging on a rail, are cinched in at the waist, hugging a frame no longer there. Parts of her record collection are annotated by her brother, telling you what the siblings used to listen to together. There are copies of the books she loved. Snapshots of her upbringing. It still feels worth learning about her in these ways, and it makes sense to do it now, with people who were close to her still around to share.
"Amy was so charitable and so kind," Hate says of the exhibition. "I would like to think she is looking down, thinking, 'I would want this to happen.' With this next exhibition, they wanted to show a second chapter, going deeper than those preconceived ideas of what she was like. But also, because she is gone, there will always be this kind of ghost in the room at these things."
There's a lot that feels like loss in that room, but my favorite revelation from the exhibition is that she liked those terrible, vintage-style magnets with the lightly crude jokes you find printed on Hallmark cards, declaring love for Prozac and a glass of wine. She had the same "better than to have loved and lost than to stay with a psycho for the rest of your life" one that my mom has on her fridge. You can buy them all over Camden market. At the risk of imposing another false narrative on who she was, it's nice to imagine Amy Winehouse walking past the stalls, laughing when one took her fancy.
Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait is running at the Jewish Museum, London, from March 16 to September 24, 2017.
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