Scots comedian and tattoo artist talks about performing in prisons

“I’VE gone from fighting people to fighting for laughter.”

David McKinlay is a former mixed martial arts fighter and tattoo artist. He’s also a comedian.

The Glasgow comic, 45, is a member of Wholesome Prison Blues – a team of six who take their gigs to prisons around the country.

McKinlay, known as Tattoo Dave, is currently looking forward to his appearance at this year’s Glasgow Comedy Festival.

He spoke with The National about his love for comedy, what it’s like touring prisons, and how one chance event on a drive home led to his prison-touring idea.

How did you get started in comedy?

McKinlay has only been working in comedy for 10 months now although admits that he’s always enjoyed entertaining people, as his recently uncovered school reports suggest.

“All my reports which I found a couple of months ago from P1 all the way through, the theme was that I was the class clown and that I should focus more on my work,” he said.

“I’ve kind of had the last laugh on that one I suppose. It was a running theme in every single report up to sixth year that I was acting up.”

Although he didn’t consider turning comedy into a career until he reached his mid-40s, McKinlay says it’s something he’s always been interested in, spending his youth looking up to iconic figures like Billy Connolly.

The National: David McKinlay performs his comedy gig in Scottish prisons
David McKinlay performs comedy in Scottish Prisons (Image : Tattoo Dave).

“I never had the bottle do it before. I’ve always thought I was funny although my wife would argue that case.”

He admits he “threw himself in at the deep end” when he applied for a new material night at The Stand in Glasgow.

“I turned up and did five minutes but didn’t realise there’s open mic nights you should go to before applying for clubs. I chucked myself in at the deep end but it was a good learning curve.”

Fighting people for laughter

McKinlay, who has owned his Maryhill tattoo studio for nearly 18 years. McKinlay was also an amateur MMA fighter.

“I’ve been a tattooist since my early 2020s. I recently gave up on the fighting because of my age.”

Although it may seem unlikely that comedy or martial art could be related, Glaswegian says his love of entertaining people is most likely where the two passions meet.

Comedy in prison

The Wholesome Prison Blues team is made up of six comics – McKinlay, Amanda Hursy, Eddy Mackenzie, Mikey Motion, Paddy Linton, and Jack Traynor.

McKinlay was returning from Edinburgh fringe, when McKinlay heard a song on the radio. McKinlay was inspired by this song to ask his coworkers if they would be willing to take their acts to prison.

He explained: “Me, Jack and Paddy were driving back from Edinburgh on the first day of the Fringe.

“We were exchanging war stories on how our early gigs went and Jack was joking that we should lock everyone in until we finish and create the ultimate captive audience.

“No word of a lie, Johnny Cash’s San Quentin prison song came on at that moment. We had a giggle and got an idea to do a gig in prison.”

McKinlay spent some time getting in touch with the Scottish Prison Service. Things have settled down ever since.

Due to scheduling commitments, the six comedians haven’t been able to perform together quite yet but the gigs have gone over well.

Rehabilitation is vital

McKinlay explains that, “to his shame”, prior to entering prisons with his comedy he thought it was entirely “about punishment”.

“Everybody is proud of the rehabilitation work they’re doing. People who have left are now better able to rejoin society.

“The comedy shows is giving people a chance to see there are other experiences around them.

“I would say most have never been to a comedy short or a theatre show that we would take for granted.”

In terms of material, he adds that the most important thing is to keep it as “relatable” as possible.

“We’ve heard stories of high-brow comedians doing political stuff and it not going well for them.”

Wholesome Prison Blues are set to play to a full house in HMS Barlinnie on March 31 and will be performing in the Basement Tennent’s Bar as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival on Saturday April 1.  

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