Last Train to London - London Tattoo Convention

Published: 15 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

It is hard to believe that this is only the seventh London Tattoo Convention. Many consider this convention to be the most important of the UK conventions, but whatever your opinion, it is certainly the one that gets the most media buzz.

The London Tattoo convention has become much more than simply a place to get tattooed. Once inside, people have a choice of stalls to shop at, eateries to gorge themselves at, places to get a drink with catering for most, ranging from rum at the Sailor Jerry bar through to real ales and cocktails at other locations – sitting by the dock to soak up the sun or finding a space to sit and chat with friends you have not seen since the last convention. Of course, there are around 250 tattoo artists working in the different rooms for you to get inked by, or just to check out their work.

The convention is still at the Tobacco Dock – a location which the attendees are split between loving and hating. For some the trek to Shadwell makes for a long and difficult day, especially in this heat and with the constant that is London Transport engineering works closing various sections of the underground. Every year a different part of the final leg seems to be closed or redirected; it’s almost as if the transport network has something against the convention. Some find the venue itself daunting – it can sometimes feel like you’re trapped in a maze where you keep taking the same turnings. However, the venue is spacious and has facilities which can easily cope with such a high influx of people. As the convention attracts some of the world’s best artists, attendees span from across the globe. It’s good to see the organisers continue to listen to their supporters. After considering feedback left last year, they opened up more areas and ensured the venue and bars remained open long enough for everyone to enjoy!

There is always a temptation to mess with a formula – we have seen this constantly in magazines and on social media websites – and the difficulty is always with making sure you only change the bits that people want changing. In many ways, this year’s convention is the same as last year’s, at first glance it may even be hard to tell the difference. This is one of the strengths of the convention; they know what works and pleases the attendees, and you know what to expect when you buy a ticket. There is a certain irony in the complaints coming from the detractors of this convention – they are usually the very same people who attend other UK conventions and then complain that it is not as good as the London show.

With increased mainstream media interest this year, the organisers could have easily added more family-friendly acts and watered-down the ‘biker-friendly’ aspect of the three days. Instead they kept with tradition, treating attendees to two performances from the Fuel Girls each day. By now most of our readers will be familiar with the fire-breathing (and other) antics of the latex-and-leather-clad girls (some of those at the convention may even recognize one of the fuel girls Naomi, as a tattoo collector who was recently featured in issue 200).

There may not have been any surprises on the stage; the aerialist rope act preceded the fire-dancing and fire-breathing, but the large number of people squeezing into the gaps in the crowd to try to get a view of the stage suggests that we are not bored of the Fuel Girls by a long shot! Incidentally, I am pleased to say that, unlike last year, I was able to avoid getting covered in paraffin while shooting the performances.

So what about the tattoos? After all, this is a tattoo convention and not just a big party (although once the sun starts to set, the antics and high-jinx may tempt you to believe otherwise). I am pleased to say that the Tatau guys were back with us again, allowing attendees to witness the traditional ‘hand-poking’ method in practice. It certainly reminds us to appreciate the fast modern machines that most of us are used too. For those who have not seen this method, the simplest way to describe it is applying a tattoo in a similar manner to how one would hammer a nail into wood. To fully appreciate the stamina and the accuracy of these artist’s work, it simply has to be witnessed first-hand.

It would be an almost impossible task to write about all the amazing tattoos that were on display at the convention, or the amazing artists that were working. Some things are definitely better seen in the flesh, excuse the pun. Horiyoshi III’s work is a prime example; the sheer scale and detail of his Japanese bodysuits is always mind-blowing when seen walking around the convention. Many of the convention regulars (and collector favourites) were seen working; Bugs, Amanda Toy, Lal Hardy, Claudia Sabe and Nicole Lowe to name a few.

For those who booked in with their artist early, it is possible to get work done by their international artist of choice, without shelling out for a flight and hotel room. One artist of note was Denmark’s, Uncle Allan, busy applying his trademark bold and bright designs to a lucky collector. Spanish artist Robert Hernandez was proving popular too with onlookers attracted to his portfolio of dark and almost brooding tattoos, thematically bridging the gap between realism and nightmares.

Closer to home, UK talent was well represented with the likes of Schwarz (of Black Heart studio) and London’s own Frith Street. Convention veteran – and easily recognisable artist from the TV show London Ink – Phil Kyle was surrounded by an on-looking crowd as he worked on an impressively sized bat on his client’s ribcage.

Unfortunately not every artist had an easy time; New York tattooer Adam Hays (of Red Rocket Tattoo) had his portfolio book stolen off his stand by some selfish individual. It is hard to believe that someone would do this at such a busy event or disrespect an artist so much, especially since one would assume the reason they stole the portfolio was because they liked the work so much?! Hopefully karma will figure this one out and the thief will feel enough guilt to return it to him.

For those seeking a break from the noise of the tattoo machines, there were plenty of guitar–based acts to see. For those who liked 2tone and ska, they were treated to performances by The Selecter and The Beat. If you liked your rock a little more ‘rock and roll’ then you had Vince Ray (& the Boneshakers) and Zombie Met Girl to entertain you.
Alternatively, for those who wanted to combine fun with learning, there was the option to attend a seminar by Chris Conn, discussing the practicalities behind designing tattoos of women; ranging from rendering details through to avoiding clichés and presenting your own stylized images. Clearly, this seminar wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but those who attended gave the impression that they had come away with a new approach to their drawing. As tattooing gets more popular and competitive, there is a risk that people will become even more guarded of their secrets and approaches. Hopefully this won’t happen. Instead with tattooing becoming well and truly mainstream, maybe now is the best time for us to start sharing information and raising the collective bar, before generic work and mindless copying becomes the norm.

And yet again the tattoo community has proven it is about more than just looking good. The ‘Tattoo Art for Japan’ exhibition contained work donated by artists including Chad Koeplinger, Shad, Chriss Dettmer and many more. The pieces were not for auction at the convention, so we prompt you to visit and place a bid to show your support.

Tobacco Dock

In 2003 English Heritage placed it on the Buildings At Risk register. In 2004, they arranged a meeting with the owners, a Kuwaiti investment company called Messila House, to find a way forward. An English Heritage spokesman commented, “we see Tobacco Dock as a future priority because it is too large and important a site to be left standing empty. It is one of the most important buildings in London and if brought back into use it would reinvigorate the whole area.” In 2005 the owners announced that they were working on a mixed use scheme for Tobacco Dock which might incorporate a four-star hotel, shops and luxury apartments.

In early 2004, part of the building was used as the studios of the Channel 4 reality television show, Shattered. Several première after-parties for films have been held there. Scenes in Episode 6 of 2008’s season of Ashes to Ashes were filmed at Tobacco Dock which was set in 1981 despite the centre only being developed for its failed use as a shopping centre in 1990. It has also hosted the annual London Tattoo Convention since 2008. During February 2011 between the 11th-27th, the complex was also used to hold the Secret Cinema event for The Red Shoes.



Text & Photography: Al Overdrive