Florence & the Machine - Florence Tattoo Convention 2011

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

The past was in focus as the forth Florence Tattoo Convention got underway inside an old fortress in a city oozing with history. Skin stitching and hand tapping might have been the lesser used techniques on display, but they certainly captured the attention.

When I ask Silvia Bongianni, the press contact at this year’s Florence Tattoo Convention, which of the attending artists she’s the most happy to have at the convention, she starts off by naming three names, all within the category of traditional tattooing. It turns out that the focus of the forth convention in this historic city, conveniently enough, is on tattooing of the past; the first name she mentions is Colin Dale of Skin & Bone in Copenhagen.

“He does Scandinavian tribals, a lot of them done with a special Inuit technique using a needle and thread. The designs are simple, but very important since they are linked to traditional stories. They are not only for decoration,” she says.   

The idea of making traditional tattooing the focus of the convention came about after last year’s show when a couple of the organisers met up with Lars Krutak (who is probably better known as the Tattoo Hunter on the Discovery Channel) at a convention in Borneo.

“They connected with some traditional tattooists there and invited them to the show,” he explains. “Last year the convention was a lot smaller, but now there are 300 artists here, and the organisers are big fans of traditional tattooing. They’re interested in the roots and there’s a large tribal interest in Italy.”

Besides selling his many books and promoting his TV show, the Tattoo Hunter himself is doing two seminars at the show, one on medicinal tattooing and one on scarification among different African tribes.

“I chose these topics because you rarely hear about them. Also, when I was here last year they had a presentation of Ötzi, the iceman, who was believed to have had medicinal tattoos. This year is the 20th anniversary of finding him and 5,300 years later there are still tribal people doing the same thing. For me this is educational and about paying homage to the people who invented tattooing, without whom we wouldn’t be here today.”  

On his travels around the world, Lars Krutak lets just about anyone perform their local technique on his body, this show not being an exception. For the second time he lets Colin Dale sew a tattoo onto his body.

“He’s basically the only one doing it, at least the only one skilful enough for me to let him do it on me. It’s by far the most painful technique and I can see why more people aren’t interested. Skin stitching takes a long time to do on just a small space.”

The technique has never been performed in Italy before and if you take look at Colin Dale’s upbringing it seems almost obvious that he would be the one to pass the torch.

“I’m originally from Canada, but I’ve lived in Denmark for 20 years now. My grandparents are Swedish and I was raised with Inuit kids. My parents were foster parents to some kids and some of them stayed on so my parents were very conscious about culture. Also my mother is a seamstress, so she’s very happy I’m doing this, although she could probably do it better.”

The Canadian Dane is also one of the artists who attracted the biggest crowd while working at the convention, especially when he tattooed Lars Krutak; and he’s happy with his first visit to Florence.

“It’s been really nice and the organisers are really interested in cultural tattooing. You don’t always find that at conventions. It’s often more of the fine techniques. Also there’s a lot of artwork here and it’s set up really nice as a part of the convention and not in a separate room. It’s very user friendly,” he says, and smiles.

The artwork could be considered the secondary focus of the show, besides all the non-traditional tattooists of course.

“We thought that, since many tattoo artists are artists in general, we should do some shows,” said Silvia Bongianni. “We have, for instance, one exhibition called ‘Sante Peccatrici’, where 31 female tattooists were asked to do an interpretation of a female saint. And one called ‘Skin’s Friends’, where tattoo artists have painted ectoplastic toys and the proceeds are donated to charity.”

Alongside all of this there are bands playing, acrobats performing, giant fauns wandering around blowing horns. But the one performer who has convention-goers crowding round is Elaine Davidson. With her 8,000 piercings, she’s a Guiness World Record holder doing her first two performances at a convention ever.

As she lets large spikes, a sword and pair of scissors pierce her tongue to the music of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ among other power hits, I see a child walk away while her slightly older sister remains by the side of the stage through the entire show, with a somewhat puzzled, disgusted and yet curiously interested look on her face. A look that sums up this whole performance and one mirrored earlier in the day when onlookers watched a Canadian-born Dane torture an American TV show host on a quest to understand the underlying layers of superficial traditions.

The Art of Florence

Florence has a legendary artistic heritage. Cimabue and Giotto, the fathers of Italian painting, lived in Florence; as well as Arnolfo and Andrea Pisano, renewers of architecture and sculpture; Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio, forefathers of the Renaissance; Ghiberti and the Della Robbias, Filippo Lippi and Angelico; Botticelli, Paolo Uccello and the universal genius of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Despite Latin being the main language of the courts and the Church, writers such as Dante Alighieri used their own language, the Florentine dialect, in composing their works. Dante’s masterpiece is the Divine Comedy, which mainly deals with the poet himself taking an allegoric and moral tour of Hell, Purgatory and finally Heaven, during which he meets numerous mythological and real characters of his age and before.


Text & Photography: Simon Lundh