Tattoo 'virgin', Lee Griffiths, travels to Newton Abbot's Halloween Tattoo Bash No. 4 to savour the scary sights and sounds of one of the UK's most celebrated tattoo events.
I don’t know much about tattoos, I don’t have a tattoo and the people I see with tattoos sometimes scare me, and as I’m edging closer to my very first Halloween Bash at Newton Abbot Racecourse in South Devon, an unsettling Halloween-related anxiety is beginning to kick in and send my mind into Wicker Man territory. Am I the loathed unassuming tattoo virgin about to be lured into the weird world of pagan ritual? Am I about to be seduced by a tattooed minx before I’m offered to the tattoo gods by way of being burnt alive in a giant wicker man? I don’t even know the words to ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ for crying out loud!
As I move towards what looks like the Tattoo Bash entrance, I keep my head down, try to radiate the confidence of a man with no fear and quickly flash my credentials. Once inside, I’m instantly hit with the relentless humming of three dozen tattoo needles going to work and my head becomes light. I feel nauseous and the blurred and indistinct shadows around me begin to swirl. Then, the darkened mist begins to clear in the near distance and I can clearly make out one magical word that seems to light up like a neon sign: ‘Bar’.
After a pint of the good stuff I’m ready for action. My eyes dart between flashes of flesh on display, the glare of the headlamps from the tattoo surgeon-like artists and the Halloween-themed shapes and figures being applied to the body of all manner of punters. I spot one standout tattoo smiling back at me from the thigh of one particular serene looking customer, and recognise the tattoo as the geeky face of Will from ‘The Inbetweeners’ with the words ‘Briefcase Wanker’ etched underneath. This seemingly normal and almost wholesome (not to mention completely hilarious and uncannily accurate) tattoo somehow acts as a symbol of solidarity between me and my tattooed friend. Indeed, I love ‘The Inbetweeners’, this tattoo chap loves The Inbetweeners and therefore we are brothers, and with this commonality and hormonal balance now established, I relax and begin to enjoy myself.
Newton Abbot’s Halloween Tattoo Bash, organised by Mac and Rod from ‘Painted & Punctured’ in Wales, has gone from strength to strength since its comparatively modest beginnings back in 2007, which featured 40 tattoo artists from around the country. Now, enjoying its fourth year, there are nearly 100 artists at work here. Checking out the posters, banners and flyers dotted around the complex, I spotted respected tattoo names from all over the UK, from Physical Graffiti in Cardiff and Sakura Hand Tattooists in Edinburgh, to No Regrets in Gloucester and Torquay’s Revolver Tattoo Rooms.
Some of the artwork on show was absolutely stunning, and while I was still wincing on occasion (armpits and knees being tattooed were still a bit much for a fragile tattoo virgin such as myself), I was mostly in genuine awe. Amongst the abstract art and the Halloween-inspired ghouls and goblins were a diverse range of tattoos. During the evening, I spotted a particularly impressive wide-eyed Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange, a vibrant and very realistic Iggy Pop on the leg of one individual and some eerie, Einstein-type character on the leg of another. On the arms, legs and torsos of the people I see throughout the weekend, I saw Spawn, someone’s great grandmother, the cutest close-up of someone’s pet dog and pretty much everything in between.
As the Saturday’s tattooing began to wind down, the weekend’s compere, Hooray Henry, who functioned as my unofficial guide for the weekend, informed me that there would be a brief interval between the tattooing and the infamous Halloween Ball which kicked off at 10 pm. At around 10.30 pm, the bar area began to fill up with an eclectic collection of saucy ghouls, petrifying pirates and a couple of impressive Hellboys. Indeed, the quality of the costumes at this year’s event was so dazzlingly high that I felt completely out of place in my dull civilian clothes.
After eyeing up the competition around the bar area and taking photographs of each others’ macabre attire, the party got under way and the costumed tattoo hordes hit the dance floor to the sounds of ska band, Too Hot. Unfortunately, due to the last bus home being scheduled to leave Newton Abbot far too early, I had to cram in as much picture taking and hobnobbing as possible during my precious little time at the party, but after talking to a few of the artists and customers whose alcohol consumption had not yet reached maximum capacity, it was clear that all eyes were already on the prize and that the main event was yet to come on the Sunday afternoon: competition time.
In addition to a charity auction where various pieces of collectable and original artwork fetched some decent cash for Breast Cancer Research, Sunday also played host to the big competition where tattoo artists competed for prizes in a variety of categories, from ‘Most Realistic’ to ‘Best Halloween/Horror’ tattoo. I secured a good spot beside the stage where the various judges sat patiently as the customers queued across the dance floor, eager to have their body artwork approved and given the thumbs up.
Not surprisingly, the competition was fierce and the standards were high. Watching with bated breath as each customer mounted the stage and proceeded to peel back a sleeve, raise a trouser leg or in one case, disrobe to a bikini in order to show her large neck-to-thigh colour tattoo, I tried to gauge the judges’ faces in order to establish what they were looking for in a winner. They all looked good to me, though there were a few stand-out contributions that clearly impressed the judges more than others. No Regrets’ striking Einstein tattoo from yesterday bagged ‘Best in Show’, and the guys at No Regrets also picked up prizes for ‘Old/New School’, ‘Small Black/Grey’ and ‘Small Colour’, while the impressive Alicia Keyes tattoo nabbed ‘Most Realistic’. 7 Star Tattoo, Indigo, Bodyshock, Spear Studio and Kustom Kulture were also among the winners at this year’s competition, though co-host, Rod, just missed out on the ‘Fastest Gun’ top prize (which went to Colin from Plymouth’s Bodyshock), and is apparently already practicing for next year’s face-off.
By the end of the Sunday shenanigans, I had lost count of how many tattoos I’d witnessed being done and how many of the finished products I’d glimpsed during the past day and a half. As I patrolled the aisles for one final time, the buzz of the needles, the droplets of blood and the grotesque horrors staring back at me from the legs, arms, bellies and backs of the customers no longer made me feel light-headed and queasy. As I bid my farewells and made my way to the exit, I was definitely beginning to see the appeal and I was most certainly beginning to comprehend the artistry behind the tattoo and respect for the tattoo culture. These guys aren’t so scary, and who knows, maybe next year I might even brave it and get a ‘Briefcase Wanker’ all of my own.
Halloween Tattoo Bash will be back next year on 29/30th October at Newton Abbot Racecourse, Devon.