The London Tattoo Convention

Published: 21 March, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 127, November, 2005

If you didn’t know that the London Tattoo convention was taking place this October, I assume you have been living under a rock for the last year. The pre-advertising for this show was on a scale like nothing I’d seen before. Magazines, newspapers, radio and featured pages printed in some in-flight magazines of various International airlines. So there was no excuse for not being aware of the first tattoo show to be held in London for a very long time. The first advert I saw had a list of close to one hundred and fifty top international artists and I must admit my first thoughts were ‘how the hell can you get this amount of world-class tattooists into one building at the same time? The list must be exaggerated slightly surely?’

You can call me an old cynic if you will and I was to be proved very wrong as I wandered about the Truman Building on the Thursday evening before the show. Whilst being nosey, I ran into Miki Vialetto - one of the organisers – as he was putting the finishing touches to the artist’s booths,  he confirmed  the list was genuine with some more artists to be added. So as I wandered about in the vast building, I walked past many of these booths that were to be occupied by some big names like: Bugs, Marco Bratt, Lal Hardy, Paul Booth, Filip Leu, Alex Binnie, Phil Kyle and many, many more tattooists whose work I had seen in print but not for real. I was really looking forward to seeing these talented individuals plying their trade, literally ‘in the flesh’. So it seemed that my doubts were unfounded.  That’ll teach me.


I was down in Brick Lane early as I had been kindly invited to the Art Fusion Experiment that took place on the Thursday. This consisted of many of the visiting tattoo artists contributing to a selection of canvases. There was no format or regimentation, just grab some paint and create. The fusion of different styles on each canvas was incredible as some diverse techniques were employed to great effect. The medium available was acrylic paint and I spoke to some of the artists who hadn’t worked with this paint too often but thy all said that it was a great challenge to try something new. The canvases when finished were laid out to dry and eventually hung in the connecting corridors of the main convention building for all to see during the weekend. I believe they will be used as part of a travelling Art Fusion exhibition that will be taken to various tattoo conventions around the world and finally end up being published in a book. Also during the three days of the convention smaller canvases were constantly being worked on giving the show goer a constant view of on-going art, which I found fascinating.


We arrived bright and early on the Friday morning to set-up the stand and I was amazed that a queue had started to form outside. This was quite remarkable as the doors weren’t due to open until 2pm. Unfortunately the doors didn’t open until 3pm, as the building just wasn’t quite ready. I heard a few grumblings from the odd person who had to queue a bit longer but surely it’s better for people to wait and see the convention in all its glory rather than walking into a bit of a building site with unfinished stalls? 


But with the doors opened, the crowd started to filter into the Truman Building to mark the start of what was going to be one great tattoo convention. It was not long after this that I heard the familiar and almost comforting sound of the first tattoo machine buzz into life. That for me meant things had started. The Skin Deep Stall was on the ground floor with some of the other traders as well as some tattooists so this had a nice mixed feel. Off to my left was the slightly raised platform where the hand tappers and pickers were to ply their trade. Amongst them was the talented Mr Pili Mo’o working with traditional Polynesian style, Horikoi executing the Japanese Irezumi technique and Jeremy and Ernesto from Borneo, all of whom seemed to pretty busy all weekend. I personally spent ages just sitting by the platform fascinated by these ancient techniques. I get a real sense of ancestry whilst watching these guys. One day I have promised myself to take the plunge and experience this ancient art form first hand.


After managing to pull myself away from the traditional tattooists, I took the first of what was to be many flights of stairs to the second floor to see what was going on. The crowds had filtered through and many people were heading for pre-arranged meetings with probably the best line-up of international tattooists seen anywhere. The ‘Buzz’ was really starting to get going. I was a little puzzled to find the supply traders on the next floor where the general public had to walk through the get to the other rooms. I know these guys have to make a living but usually most conventions have a ‘Trade’ room to regulate who enters and who doesn’t. It just seemed a bit odd that’s all. Anyway, whilst walking through the corridor that took me to the next tattoo room the hum of busy tattoo machines grew louder the closer I came. This was the first room purely dedicated to working tattooists and there must have been at least thirty tattooists, all with their heads done starting on new pieces or finishing off some elaborate back piece or large leg work. As I wandered from stall to stall, I was very impressed by the diverse styles working in this room. I saw Woody, looking extremely dapper in his white tuxedo with traditional and very colourful Japanese Koi carp designs airbrushed up one side of his suit (Very Striking and a must for any tattoo wedding) working on a chaps underarm in his own unique style, Benjamin Moss from the States applying his own brand of photorealism that is just stunning and flawless, Milosch laying down some great B&G demonic work, Hannah Aitchison was busy working on a fifties pin up style girl and Ben Wahhh putting some great abstract colour work on a customer. I think I must have spent at least half an hour on each booth with my jaw hanging loose watching these incredible artists working. I hope I didn’t put anyone off!


It was time for me to move on, I remembered that I was at the show to work so I quickly set up my photo studio and got down to the task of finding people/victims to photograph. This proved to be far easier than I expected as nearly everywhere I looked, I came across some great tattoos. I don’t know if it was due to the fact that there was a very high concentration of tattooed people in one place or the standard of work has improved overall but I really didn’t see a bad tattoo all weekend. After spending what seemed like forever in the studio, I managed to escape to see what else was going on in the Truman Building. A quick glance out the window confirmed that the public were still coming though the doors. I was really impressed with the number of folk that had made the effort to come on a Friday. I must confess, I expected Friday to be reasonably quiet but this most certainly wasn’t the case proving that the UK convention scene is still going strong.


From looking at the programme I could see that the organisers had assembled some real big names in the tattooing world so I climbed another flight of stairs to find them. The top floor was very bright with lots of natural light coming through the skylights and a convenient balcony for those wanting to get a breath of fresh air.


On third floor were the likes of the Into You crew, Bob Tyrrell, Bugs, Rudy Fritsch, Amanda Toy, Wido de Marvel, Daniel Di Mattia, Boris, Mo Coppoletta, Leo Zulueta and more top artists than you could shake an inky stick at. I found it quite humbling being in a building with such gods of the tattooing world. One of the best things though was that everybody I spoke to who was working at the convention, regardless of how busy they were, still had time to stop what they were doing and have a chat and answer some of my stupid questions. If you needed a break there was plenty of refreshment in the shape of three bars where you could sit and chat with the other show goers. It was like a huge show and tell area as everywhere I looked people were showing off their ink and telling the various stories behind their work. The atmosphere was so laid back it was amazing. Obviously at an event of this size security has to be provided and this was done with almost military precision and very low key with all of the guys friendly and courteous. 


Sunday the sun broke through the London Smog and warmed the pavements of Brick Lane. Brick Lane is in the heart of one of London’s most cosmopolitan areas and as you walk along the road, you can soak up the atmosphere and smells of such a diverse community. Over the weekend with the extra influx of ‘colourful’ people, Brick lane was a great place to people watch and just to hang out in one of the many outside bars. And if Curry is your thing, you are seriously spoilt for choice. I have not seen so many mouth watering Indian and Bangladeshi meus gathered into one place.


Back in the Old Truman Brewery, things were getting even busier as is usually the case on the Sunday. Some of the artists were finishing off pieces that had been started the day before, others were getting down to the business of putting fresh ink into skin. As the rooms were filling up pretty quickly one thing I did notice was the ban of all drink and food in the tattooing halls. This is such a refreshing idea as I’m certain all of us that have been to a convention before have had beer slopped over them whilst trying to move about in the inevitable crowds and I personally have had beer dripped on me whilst being tattooed and can you imagine how pissed off you would be if someone came over and dropped beer/food onto your portfolio? Well done to the organisers for that one. I know not everyone was pleased by this decision but it has to be the way to go surely?


If you got fed up of either watching or being worked on by the artists (and how could you?) there was the aforementioned Art Fusion project to watch and other attractions included countless stalls to go shopping in for that early Christmas ‘pressie, mooch around Lionel Titchener’s fascinating British Tattoo History Museum or meet Biohazard’s front man Evan Seinfeld and his famous porn star wife: Tera Patrick. Evan is extensively tattooed by the likes of Paul Booth and many others. Some convention attendees said that the show lacked a stage show or live music to keep everyone happy but I think the focus was purely based on the tattoo and tattoo art side of things.


Undoubtedly one of the main attractions was the presence of Paul Booth who was not very well by all accounts and I didn’t see him tattoo all weekend. His booth was next to the Lue Family’s Family Iron. Filip did a fantastic piece of work on Carl ‘Cooky’ Cooke’s forearm. The quality was outstanding and the speed by which he worked was incredible doing the piece in just under two and a half hours. Unfortunately both Mr Booth and Mr Lue’s booths were in a small alcove, which made it very difficult for many people to see what was going on. How either can work with such a huge crowd leaning over their shoulder I’ll never know. But again, this was the first year and things can be learnt and improved on in coming years. 


All the stands I came across were doing a roaring trade with virtually every person carrying a bag with a new set of flash, a new t-shirt or magazine in.


By the afternoon it was time for the tattoo contest. There were only five categories to be judged which really kept the judging down to an acceptable amount of time so everyone wasn’t waiting around for too long. The winning tattoo artists received a stunning handmade sliver sacred heart in a gilt frame that will I’m sure, take pride of place in any studio.


In between helping out on the Skin Deep Stand and manning the photo studio, I managed to get time to soak up the incredible atmosphere in a building with thousands of likeminded souls all amassed for one common interest. It was fantastic. I was also in the unenviable position to see many works of art up close and first hand whilst taking photographs and met some great people.


So was the first London convention a hit?


Most definitely in mine and many others eyes. I heard a few gripes but no outright complaints, only constructive criticism. The line-up of working artists was incredible, the organisation superb and security low-key, the prices where reasonable and the venue first class. I may be putting my head on a block here but I feel if this convention continues in the same vein The London tattoo Convention could become the tattoo show that has been lacking in this country since the demise of Dunstable. We’ll have to wait and see…Don’t miss next year what ever you do.


I’d like to thank the organisers for their faultless work over the weekend and to Vix, Ashley, Surge and Amy for helping me man the Skin Deep Stall and photo booth. You are all stars.


Text: Neil Photography: Vix, Ashley, Surge and Neil


Skin Deep 127 1 November 2005 127