Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Trade Tattoo (1937)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Trade Tattoo (1937)
35mm, Technicolor, 5 mins
DirectorLen Lye
ProductionGPO Film Unit
ProducerJohn Grierson
Music EditorJack Ellitt
Played byLecuona Band

How the rhythm of trade is underpinned by the work of the Post Office.

Show full synopsis

Commissioned by the GPO to make a film about the need to 'post early', Len Lye conceived of the British working day as having an overall rhythmic pattern like a tattoo (a mass display with music). He was influenced by Walther Ruttmann's 1927 film Berlin which presented a day in the life of that city as a 'symphony'. Lye, who shared the working-class sympathies felt by many of his GPO colleagues, described Trade Tattoo as an attempt to convey "a romanticism about the work of the everyday, in all walk/sit works of life".

His special feeling for movement was shown by the film's pulsing visual rhythms, its kinetic presentation of words on screen, and its rapid, syncopated editing. The soundtrack drew upon five pieces of dance music by the Lecuona Cuban Band. Lye did not undertake any location filming but worked with leftover footage from GPO documentaries (such as Night Mail). In the richness of its colours and textures, the film was a further development of the colour separation methods he had used for Rainbow Dance. In Trade Tattoo he transformed the Technicolor process (his choice of film stock on this occasion) into a kind of Cubist machine which could swallow naturalistic, black-and-white images - scenes of mail-sorting, cargo loading, steel milling and other types of work - and convert them into multi-coloured fragments.

Much of the live footage was printed in high contrast or as a negative so that figures and objects became silhouettes. Lye then created a complex counterpoint by superimposing bright stencil patterns of moving dots and dashes. The Technicolor laboratory was astonished by their client's ability to visualise in detail the results of such complex printing procedures, but he saw his job as 'simply a matter of knitting - two pearls, one plain, etc'. Today's computers make it very much easier to create such elaborate, multi-layered images; but arguably the painstaking work required for Lye's films gave them a precision that has helped to ensure their lasting value.

In 1938 the film was released through British cinemas but it had its greatest impact at festivals and film societies around the world. Although the laboratory costs of Trade Tattoo grew to several thousand pounds - a huge amount by his standards - Lye must have roared with laughter when an American journalist was so impressed by the intricacy of the film that he estimated its budget at a million dollars.

Roger Horrocks

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (5:20)
Lye, Len (1901-1980)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1937