A granddad has fallen in love with getting tattoos – in his 70s.
Robert Luff, 73, got inked for the first time a year ago – and now has a full sleeve on his left arm spreading onto his chest.
It all started when his wife bought him a voucher for a tattoo shop in Christmas 2017 – but it took him a few months to pluck up the courage to visit.
Retired Robert, who built and repaired ships at Bristol Harbour for 15 years, says the ink is partly a way of honouring his deceased former workmates.
All of the tattoos are connected to the sea – a grand ship the centrepiece on his upper arm surrounded by a treasure chest, cannon, mermaid and other maritime art.
Robert, 73, said: “I had always wanted tattoos but I needed time to ponder what I was going to get. A lot of people think I’m stupid for doing it.
“You can see on their faces, they’re thinking, ‘That silly old twit. Why is he doing that?’
Maybe they think I’m too old. At least my wife is quite happy with it.
“She knew what she was letting herself in for when she bought the voucher, so she can’t complain.”
Robert always felt drawn to the sea. His father had worked on Bristol’s docks and Robert followed at the age of 15.
By the time he was 21, he was managing the shipyard. He describes it as “hard work, but it was a great laugh”.
Robert is now partially deaf and struggles with poor eyesight, possibly due to years in the ear-splitting yard, welding and burning materials with few safety protocols.
But those who speak to him about his career will hear no trace of bitterness.
“I don’t think people would work in those conditions now, but that’s just what it was like back then,” he said.
“My memories of the harbour are special. There was a lot of satisfaction in seeing the finished ship.
“Every time I see a ship launch in an old film, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.”
The dock workers’ sense of humour was not always the most sophisticated, Robert remembers with a chuckle.
He recalls a prank during the winter of 1963, one of the great ‘big freezes’ in recorded British history which saw the River Avon turn to ice at Bristol Harbour.
“Even the swans froze and got their feet stuck in the ice,” he said. “There was one swan that just managed to get its feet free and start walking.
“One of the men walked out onto the ice and picked the swan up, then put it in a big working box, for tools, in the yard.
“At the end of the day one of the other workers opened that box and the swan came flying right out at him. It gave him a hell of a fright.”
Robert admits he and his shipbuilding friends would “call each other all the names under the sun”.
“It’s really bad, but that’s how we used to talk,” he said. “Everyone there was the same.
“Someone else would hear us talking to each other and think, ‘What is going on?’”
Robert called it “the end of an era” when his employer Charles Hill & Sons, the last shipbuilder at Bristol Harbour, closed down in 1977.
“It was a big honour to lay the keel on the last six ships built there,” he added.
Robert, who still lives in Bristol, worked at various places around the country in the years that followed including an oil rig in Flotta, a Scottish island with a population of just 80.
Stoical though he is, Robert still remembers the cold of Flotta with a shiver.
He spent his final 15 years repairing ships in Avonmouth before retiring around five years ago.
Robert enjoys a reunion with his old colleagues every couple of months at the Commercial Rooms pub in Corn Street.
“There are not many of us left now,” he said. “We are down to about 12. We used to have enough to fill a couple of coaches and go on trips.”
Robert’s tattoos are not only a tribute to workmates he has lost, but also his cousin Mike Weller, who died in 2017.
“We used to go diving together off the coast of Cornwall,” Robert said. “We had some great memories.”
He recalls finding seven cannons on the seabed off Mullion Cove in the early 1970s.
Robert said: “It was a special moment. We went back the next year and they weren’t there. They must have been buried underneath the sand again.”
He also remembers finding some cannonballs in one diving trip with Mike, which they brought to the surface and took home.
Asked if the cannonballs’ weight made it a struggle to bring them up, Robert looked nonplussed.
After the rigours of years in the shipyard, the feat was not a difficult one.
The pensioner has a tattoo on his chest of a sextant, an instrument used for navigation on the seas.
“I didn’t know this, but my grandson had ordered a real sextant to give me the Christmas before, which never turned up,” Robert said.
“Within a week or two of me getting that tattoo, the sextant turned up at my door. I thought something uncanny was going on.”
Asked if he plans to get more body art, he replied: “I don’t know about getting a lot more.
“I want to get some that go down the left side of my torso, or my right arm.”
With a twinkle in his eye, he added: “I never expected to get so many tattoos, so I don’t really know how many more I will get.”