The London Tattoo Convention 2008

Published: 01 October, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 165, October, 2008

For the fourth year in a row, London played host to one of the biggest tattoo events in Europe. This convention is really carving a name for itself on the international tattoo convention scene and this year, as with all well organised shows – proved to be an improvement on the previous years. Onwards and upwards!

NEIL's narrative

There was quite a change this year however as the previous shows had been held in Brick Lane at the Truman Brewery but this venue has been earmarked for some major development and the organisers had to move the show. Now finding a building suitable to house close to two hundred tattooists from all over the world plus the many traders, vendors, bars and food sellers must have been a complete nightmare. As with most big cities, space is always at a premium and coming up with a venue that ticked all the boxes must have been hard.

Somehow, the organisers managed to find a venue that wasn’t too far from Brick Lane, and in mine and many people’s eyes surpassed the previous venue by miles.

Tobacco Dock is an old warehouse that had been completely refurbished in the eighties to the tune of forty million pounds, yes, you read that right, forty million quid; with the view of it becoming a new and alternative to Covent Garden. For some reason none of the expected projects transpired and the building has largely stood empty since. I believe that a few filming companies have used it but Tobacco Dock had sat dormant for years. Until the last weekend of September that is... Having run my own convention this year I now fully understand the work that goes on behind the scenes and how long it takes to organise a tattoo convention of such magnitude. Miki Vialetto and his loyal crew are no strangers to putting on tattoo events having run the Milan show and others for years so these guys are old hands at it.

The line-up of artists was as impressive as ever with some big hitters of the tattoo scene attending such as Robert Hernandez, Genko, Bugs, Tony Ciavarro, Bob Tyrrell, Shige and oh, about one hundred and ninety odd more artists, all at the top of the tattooing tree. The venue has been very sympathetically restored showing many of its original huge wooden beams and large iron braces that held the building together and much of the roof consisted of glass, bathing the working artists in daylong natural light. This had some obvious advantages to the working conditions but as we had unseasonably good weather that weekend (I think it was our summer!) the upstairs rooms got extremely hot over the course of the day. The rooms that the artists were working in were twelve separate glass rooms and the flow between them got a little awkward at times and putting artists like Joe Capobianco and Jime Litwalk, Bugs and the London Ink crew at the bottom of a dead end created quite a bottle neck all weekend. But the fact that you could wander about in the large aisles and get to see the artists working without having to actually enter the rooms was very nice.

The entire top floor was dedicated to the working artists (and some trade supply companies) while the vaulted cellar or basement, call it what you will; housed the vendors as well as the bar areas. Downstairs, in between the archways the rooms were subdivided into shop fronts again with glass doors and panels so the browser could see what was going on in each room. The organisers managed to fit in a large number and varied mix of clothing, jewellery, and merchandise sellers in the rooms. Also in the basement (quite fittingly), was the Voodoo Lounge hosted by Vince Ray and his cohorts. This had a stage for Vince to strut his stuff on and a well-stocked bar for the thirsty. At the other end of the building was the Jamaica Inn, another bar that also boasted a separate section that boasted twelve real ales. This for me was an absolute winner as there is nothing worse than having the shell out three pounds (cheap for London) for a pint of gassy larger. Pretty much at all the shows I go to, one residing complaint is the price/quality of the beer. I know this isn’t always the fault of the organisers as the venues often dictate the alcohol but the real ale bar was very refreshing – in more ways than one!

Other show organisers please take note.

Whilst wandering about the top floor I couldn’t help but get jealous of everyone who was sat or lying on a chair or table getting some ink. The moment the tattoo machines kick into life I get real ‘ink envy’ and considering the line-up, I was doubly jealous.

There were some guys that I’d heard about and seen some of their work but had not met in the flesh so it was really nice to get to talk to some of the ‘names’ I had a quick chat with Tim Kern from Tribulation Tattoo in New York who seemed to have time for all, despite being busy all weekend and thanks to a friend; Mickey ‘Renshi’ Hall, I was introduced to two of my heroes; Kari and Jeremiah Barba. I have been big fan of Kari’s work for pretty much as long as I have known what a tattoo is so it was a real honour to talk to her and her very talented son. Kari had recently finished and wonderful black and grey tattoo on another of the working artists. Pure quality!

It just goes to show that talent does travel through the genes, as Jeremiah is also an accomplished tattooist in his own right, producing some wonderful work. (Keep an eye out in Skin Deep for a feature on the talented mother/son team real soon).

Again, as with all the previous London shows, there were more wonderful artists than you could shake an inky stick at and it was pure heaven just to wander among the glass-walled rooms to watch various tattoo take place. One of the biggest crowds was around that Japanese wonder – Shige. He had a crowd of at least five deep all weekend. How the man can tattoo to such a wonderful extent with so many faces peering in on him is beyond me. Another guy who I have admired from afar but never seen his work up close and personal is Jose Lopez from Lowrider Tattoo in the US. His black and grey work is to die for. He had one guy with him who had pretty much a complete bodysuit of Jose’s work on him and it was incredible. I had this guy booked into to do some photos of him but the weekend just seemed to disappear and we sadly missed each other.

The London Tattoo convention always has possibly one of the best tattooist line-ups of any show I have been to. I have to admit that many of the artists attending I’d personally not heard of but that, as far as I am concerned is a good thing as I got meet many artists that I would otherwise not have had the pleasure and I’m sure the folk leaving the convention after a weekend of walking around Tobacco Dock would agree with me. The list was as diverse as it was large. The venue as mentioned earlier is stunning but I felt that it didn’t quite capture the atmosphere of previous shows. I don’t know why, it just felt a little disjointed, Maybe it will take another year for the ‘vibe’ to come back, maybe it’s because Brick Lane was smack in the middle of a vibrant and busy community where as Tobacco Dock is a little out of the way. Maybe the fact that so much of the London’s public transport was closed or at a standstill over the weekend.

Still, those who made the effort (and there was quite a few who did) were more than happy with the change of venue, the layout, the food and bar prices, the organisation and the general feel of the show was a huge success.

Personally Tobacco Dock was turned into a small but perfectly formed ‘Tattoo Village’ for the weekend, which was a wonderful place to be and I can’t wait for the next London show.

I would like to thank Miki, Woody, Roland and all the organisers and helpers who made this weekend effortless for me and the Skin Deep crew – Thanks all!

Alex's anecdote

For days leading up to London, I was like a child following a binge on Smarties - that’s old school Smarties, before they took all of the E numbers (and therefore, the fun) - out of them. The Friday was my birthday (thanks for all of the cards!) and in the full force my chemical-esque hyperactivity, we weaved our merry way down to London town in rapturous fits of unstoppable laughter at the latest Ricky Gervais podcast – his co-host Karl Pilkington is not a well man! I must confess that I was awestruck with the new location – Tobacco Dock is a fabulous building, resplendent with a predominantly glass roof that allowed the sun to permeate right down to the vaults below the main tattooing areas. We were based in these vaults for the majority of the show with the photo studio nearby, but spent a great deal of time on the Friday just exploring the London convention’s new digs. As Neil said, forty million quid is fair old wad to splurge on redeveloping premises that sees so little inhabitation, but did they ever put the cash to prudent use.

This year’s Art Fusion bore witness to yet more outpourings of creative delights, and subsequently the resulting pieces were as sublime as we’ve come to expect from these ventures. There were a number of exhibitions taking place besides the Art Fusion, including a selection of excerpts from Dimitri HK’s most recent book. It featured the kind of bold and powerful work that he is renowned for, but the backpiece sketch with an ejaculating frog gave me an intense fit of giggles every time I passed it!

My appointment with Adrian Lee was scheduled for Friday, but having decided that the booths weren’t the most spacious in the world and Matt Shamah might not appreciate my feet kicking over his inks, we postponed the start of my chestpiece until later that weekend. I was a little disappointed seeing as I’d managed to decline alcohol the evening before, but my spirit was soon revived upon discovering the real ale bar. Time may be a healer, but sampling several delightful brews provided a far more potent (and tasty) means! Food was in plentiful supply too with the fantastic food court set just to the rear of the main complex. I managed to work my away around most of the vendors there and it was all top-grade grub – I highly recommend the pasties.

The artist list was just exquisite, and everytime I gazed upon it, I had the urge to flog all of my worldly goods and indulge in a full three days of getting inked. This was of course a flawed plan and would have left me incapacitated for the duration of the show, something that Neil would probably not appreciate. Perhaps I’ll leave him in the company of the real ales next year before sneaking off… In other news, I got to meet Steph D at last, a revelation seeing as I’ve been a huge fan of his work for a long time now - he’s in a similar groove to Tony Ciavarro and pulls off a brand of ridiculously bright new school work.

The main stage resided in an excellent location in the open air and made the most of the weather that we were gifted. The gorgeous and truly talented Dilana played every day of the convention, belting out her new material with that ethereal, powerful voice of hers. A native of South Africa, Dilana shot to fame on the US show ‘Rockstar Supernova’ and she has conducted a great deal of charity work for both children and AIDS sufferers. She’s an absolute delight to chat with and a joy to photograph too, something we discovered as Ashley snapped her for the mag. Keep your eyes on Skin Deep in the New Year for a very exclusive profile.

Lucky Diamond Rich was also on hand to entertain the masses each and every evening, and yes ladies, he is still single!

The collective crowds hastily made their way to the main stage on Sunday for the widely anticipated Best of Show category, where the truly outstanding works of art on skin are pitted against each other. The entrants were sporting everything from modern Japanese to neo-traditional pieces, and my mind was blown time and time again with subsequent works from Zsolt Sarkozi, Boris, Robert Hernandez, and the inimitable Shige. When you see some of these tattoos in the flesh, it gifts you a wonderful opportunity to observe and appreciate every subtle nuance, every stroke of the machine…it’s utterly breathtaking stuff.

The cessation of the show on Sunday evening brought about the prerequisite stall-dismantling project. It’s amazing that, no matter how large a vendor’s display is, it will always come down in half the time that it went up in. Some were delayed in their packing efforts due to the ridiculously cheap real ale that was now dropping in price quicker than shares in General Electric Co. and I did indulge in just a couple more.

Heading back to the hotel, I stopped by a pub where it appeared that the 80s had never ended, and were in fact alive and well in Bethnal Green. The hair rock and Phil Collins combination was tricky to stomach, and I left around the time that Van Halen blasted through the speakers, accompanied by a drunken sing-along from the ‘boys’. I had a few more adventures before leaving the smoke, and you’ll see them in these very pages shortly!

I doff my cap to Woody and the crew once again for another outstanding and efficiently run show – now that we know how taxing it can be to host a convention, their work is all the more admirable because of how the proceedings run like a well-oiled machine. The atmosphere didn’t crackle and spark as it has done in the past, but I’m sure that was more to do with the change of venue than anything else and next year’s spectacular will be better than ever. Roll on Brighton, roll on…

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