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Tattoo Conventions

Tattoo Conventions

Conventions, conventions… To me to be a tattooist and not attending them is like playing in a band, recording an album and not going on tour to promote it. We all like them… I like them a lot but…


Article – Max Pniewski
Photography – Rich Luxton

Every time I talk to other tattooists working at the shows they are all happy to be there but they don’t exchange views about what could be better, what they would like to change in order to make them better. Being privileged to work at many shows in Europe I would take the opportunity to look at things with some perspective. I would like to express my opinion about what could be improved at the shows in the UK and compare them to the other ones I had pleasure to work at. I have asked some of my friends to do it as well, so here you go…

My opinion:
First of all, I think there should be a selection of artists working at the show. Sometimes it perplexes me what a big contrast we can see between the artists working at the shows, where next to a top artist there is almost a scratcher (I know everybody has got to start somewhere but the best shows should give the best not just take money for the booths and be happy). The same applies to the awards – is it still a privilege to be an award winning artist? It`s nice to be amongst them but how many of those who haven’t reached a certain level are one of them as well.

Then, if that selection takes place why not give awards for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in each category? There are so many good pieces of work losing the battle for “The Best Of”, but still deserve attention. I`ve been working on many shows in Europe and there is no problem to give 2nd and 3rd place to tattooists for their work.

Why not choose an artist other than a tattooist as one of the judges? Perhaps a painter who can look at things from a different angle (composition, contrast etc.). I`ve seen it in Gdansk – Poland, where next to two top tattoo artists one of the best modern polish painters was judging.

Finally, it would be nice to see some “helpers” walking around and serving artists and their customers’ drinks etc. I`ve seen it at the show in Poland, we still needed to pay for them but it saved us time waiting in long queues and made as feel more comfortable, work was done quicker and organisers were making more money too

We could talk and talk about booth sizes, magazines politics, hygiene, and much more, but we don`t have time and space for it, unless we make a separate magazine just about commenting on the shows, etc…

Now, let my friends say their opinion as well:

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Bobby Leach

Southmead Tattoo – Bristol, UK
The ‘Great’ British tattoo convention scene Sarcastically pessimistic may seem like an easy option when battling to forge a coherent view point from which to describe what I’ve seen from show to show in the UK, but it would have to be described as an honest one.

Admittedly there are shows in the UK that are worth a positive mention, mainly the bigger ones, Tattoo Jam and such like. But apart from them, and the Maiden City show in Derry, Ireland, in my humble opinion there really is room for improvement everywhere else.

From the small but violently irritating hygiene issue, (Fucking Machine bags!), to the bigger issues such as aisle space for visitors and the obvious invalid reasoning behind ‘artist’ sections, I’m sad to say that I want more from the shows we as a country host, not just as a working artist at them but also as a visiting tattoo fan.

Other issues evident from show to show
would include;

Logistics and basic organisation of booths – lighting and power supply a constant relevance

More hygiene – the basics, I don’t need to list them… but they’re constantly ignored at shows, begs the question ‘would you work at your studio that way?’

Awards – out of date categories and no second or third place mentions.

Oh and maybe a personal thing… but get a decent DJ (ask the Derry boys)

Not to be completely negative because there are some positives – of which I’ve visited, shows such as the Manchester and Milton Keynes ones are infact being run very well. Both having a large selection of varied and talented artists and the correct venue selections, therefore allowing the public to be immersed in what was clearly a wonderland of interest for them whilst we were there.

Second to those positives I’d like to mention Maiden City Ink tattoo convention (Derry city, Ireland).

This show really was beautifully run. For me it just nails what I like about conventions.
From the smaller selection of solid tattooists and the perfect size venue to hold them. Allowing the public to move easily between booths with enough room for them to actually see the tattooing they paid at the door to view. But not too large so as to lose the ‘buzz’ that only tattooing creates. To the face to face involvement of the organisers from the moment we arrived at the show and any bar we chose to frequent on the evenings. There really is a personal touch about the way this show is dealt with and for that I believe they deserved this mention. This show will only go from strength to strength.

I’m fully aware that my critical rambling may sound arrogant and one sided but having also travelled Europe visiting conventions I feel completely validated in my gripes.

OK so maybe Moscow as a city is a shit hole, but as convention host… Wow!
Decent sized booths all with decent power supply. Big aisles between them for the flow of ‘tattoo educated’ public to wander at their will whilst enjoying a clear view of all that was happening.
It’ll come as no surprise that the work on display both in the booths and on the public is at a higher level in Europe then here at home but it really does make a difference. The conversations there for relationships between tattooer and tattooed is obviously creating a whole different tattoo game on the continent and this reflects when they come together to show off at conventions.

It’s a pleasure to watch Europe do what they do best whilst being homed by a well oiled venue.

Not only Moscow, but Prague and Gdansk just work better then anything I’ve seen at home. Better work, better venues, better everything. I believe the key to us moving forward here in the UK, not only with shows but with tattooing in general lays in the love for the game.

Hard work from artists who are already creating amazing work here to educate customers, fans and eventually organisers.

Taking what they know can be done and actually making it happen, the conversations are easily heard at every so called after show ‘party’. It’s clear there is a want for more from our game and the majority know how to get it. So do it. Stop fucking talking and push things forward.

Pay a visit to the positive shows mentioned above, don’t get jealous and bitch get ideas and progress.

Here’s hoping.

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Chris Jones

Physical Graffiti – Cardiff, Wales
The UK convention scene… It’s a double edged sword I think, on the one hand I love them, I get to go away to different places around the UK and see my friends, meet new people, see new places and tattoo all kinds of cool stuff on people.

But, on the other hand… it is getting kinda stupid, there are so many shows now, some weekends there are 3 going on at the same time, it all seems to be about money, even the really big really successful shows now are cramming people in, booth prices are going up and booth sizes going down, there’s hardly enough space to sit and get a bed up as well, because they are trying to fill them.

The quality of artist working them is at some shows quite bad and then one show isn’t enough so they go and put another one on in another city that they don’t even work in, even ticket prices seem to be going up.

I may sound a bit hypocritical coz I’m putting a show on myself but Welsh shows have all but faded and I think we needed one so I thought I’d give it a go, a Welsh show put on by Welsh people. Because I’m putting a show on myself and have researched how much venues cost I know you don’t have to charge as much as people do for a booth, I’m trying to make it more about tattooing than money and bring good quality artists to Wales, not fill it with a load of crappy local artists.

The whole competition thing means less and less as time goes by, due to the saturation of shows and awards floating about there are award winning artists out there that shouldn’t be tattooing never mind winning awards. I’ve been at shows where people have won coz they were the only people who entered, it’s stupid.

Tomasz Torfinski

Ink-Ognito – Rybnik, Poland
I was asked about my opinion about English conventions and at the beginning I was surprised because I haven’t done too many of them. At this moment I need to say that, in general, I like them a lot, especially because of great organisation and care about artists.

Also what I found interesting is that there is a lot of Polish artists working around the UK and for us it’s a real nice opportunity to meet each other and connect with English artists more, I see that my surrealistic painterly style is well known in the UK and I’m fully booked at each of the conventions, that motivates me a lot and because of that I regularly do guest spots in Bristol’s Southmead tattoo studio.

I have plenty of British conventions planned in the near future so feel free to check out my schedule placed on FB. I wish to see more of colourful realistic and painterly tattoos at English conventions because I have got used to it in Poland but I see that the British market becomes more open year after year so I expect a colour explosion soon.

Jordan Oterski

Sacred Art Tattoo – Manchester
Visiting all different conventions we can easily see what we do like and what we don`t like about them. There are some things to be improved to make the shows more attractive to artists and visitors as well.

There should be better promotion, in other media, not just in particular tattoo magazines. The shows shouldn’t be for tattooed people only. They should bring more un-tattooed people in to show them what it’s all really about, what can be done, change their point of view about tattooing and maybe make some of them to get one.

Logistics could be better, too. Sometimes artists are losing a lot of time for set up trying to find things they need. Maybe some sort of little maps would be a nice idea. The live entertainment seems to be the same at most of the shows and they are getting a bit boring, to be honest. Put some effort in and think what hasn’t been done yet.

There should be 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awards in each category. It would make the competitions more attractive.

It would be nice to improve the ‘food section’ at most of the shows. They are usually very poor and sometimes there is no food available after midday!!! It`s a joke, especially when artists are eating at the same places visitors are.

I think it`s good that we can finally say everything about this to the bigger public. It might be a step forward to make some shows bigger, better and more attractive to the public, artists and organisers.

Adam Williams

Customer, visitor
I’m a big fan of the convention scene. I love seeing the coming together of some of the industry’s most talented artists turning up under one roof and showing their skills.

Having attended a few over the past couple of years now, the scene is just growing more and more. Although I’m not an artist myself, I travel to a lot of the shows with the two artists that do all of my work. I’m getting more involved with helping set up their booths when we travel and generally helping with any of their needs. I have always been given very good assistance from organisers with any needs and requirements that I’ve requested. I think the layouts of most of the booths are done pretty well, although I’ve seen one or two that have been odd, by which I mean that they’ve been muddled about, mixed up with trade stalls and spread too far and wide.

It’s nice to see shows being held within hotel premises. In my opinion, this is by far the best set up and layout for a show, purely for the convenience of being hassle free and less time consuming when moving kit around, setting up and taking down. I`m yet to travel out of the UK to a convention, but I will have my first taste of that this year when I will be attending the Derry City convention in Ireland. I have been told that this is a very well run show.

I would love to travel further abroad in the future to see how things get ran on a larger scale than what we have here in the UK. I would like to think that we do a good job! But I’m sure there is still plenty of room for improvements, as with any event.

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Neil Dallywater

Tattoo Revolution Editor
Tattoo conventions can and are good, fun places to visit where folk can meet and enjoy other tattooed people, show off their latest ink and relax in a non judgemental environment, whilst seeing new tattoos taking place before their very eyes. For many, going to a tattoo show is the highlight of their year, often looked forward to for months, even years in advance. I was asked to write a little bit about conventions by my friend Max, himself a tattooist from Southmead Tattoos, in Bristol as he knew that I have been to a fair few shows and have indeed had a hand in organising a few conventions here in the UK, America and Australia. He asked me to look at shows objectively and put down a few words as to what I thought makes a good convention. (That’s the million dollar question Max!)

Originally, tattoo conventions used to be a “closed shop” affair where tattooists and a few of their best customers got together to showcase their own inky endeavours and to chew the fat and swap stories about the increasing popularity of tattooing as an art form and an increasingly socially acceptable trade. These were usually held in the back rooms of pubs or tattoo friendly hotels and again, were relaxed affairs, many being invite only events. Back in the day, there were many “tattoo clubs” where the members congregated to show off their latest ink: these meetings were the precursor to what we now see as the modern day tattoo convention. clubs like the Bristol Tattoo Club were formed to promote tattooing. (And has recently been resurrected by a member of one of the oldest tattoo families in the UK and self confessed tattoo historian; Jimmie Skuse).
Things have moved on from these “behind closed doors” affairs and shows like the famed Dunstable Tattoo Expo set the standard for the modern tattoo convention. Until Dunstable opened its doors, nothing like this had been seen or experienced on such a scale in the UK and fans of body art finally had a place to go and enjoy the spectacle of modern tattooing. At the time, Dunstable was the only big show to go to in the UK and many looked forward to it all year and mentioned fondly the goings on until the following year came around. It was also a place to “dress to impress” with folk arriving in some amazing and elaborate costumes, designed to show off their tattoos and the event organisers enticed many big tattoo names of their time to fly over from abroad to show off their tattooing prowess. Inside, the main hall, it really was like a carnival for the inked. Luckily, I got to attend the last ever one and it really opened my eyes to how big the tattoo scene had grown and to what was achievable on the skin at the time.

As I said earlier, I have attended more tattoo shows than I can remember all over the globe and when asked what would I like to see at a convention and how they could be improved, I started to look back at the myriad of conventions I had attended in these past ten or so years.
What would I change? A tricky question indeed…

First and foremost, in my eyes, a tattoo convention is there to celebrate tattooing in all it’s artistic glory. For me the tattoos are what makes people want to attend these shows and as such it is the responsibility of the event organiser to make sure that those working their events are of the highest quality available. Many achieve and excel at this by inviting only the best artists in their field to attend. Obviously some artists have prior commitments, and others just aren’t comfortable working in an environment that is alien to them, then throw in a few thousand tattoo fans wanting to watch your every move, it can be a very daunting prospect putting some artists off from attending.

There are some shows that manage to achieve a good mix of artists and sadly, there are others that couldn’t give a damn and are only interested in making as much money as possible and will open their doors to anyone who classes themselves as a tattooist. I put this down to two reasons, one is greed the other is ignorance. Let’s face it, if you are not a tattooist or involved heavily in the tattoo scene how do you know who is good and who is not?

Artists: Some do see this burgeoning industry as a “Cash Cow” industry and are only interested in making money, okay, we all have bills to pay but I feel organisers have a huge responsibility to promote tattooing in a positive light.
Many also completely miss sight of the fact that if it wasn’t for the tattooists taking time to attend these shows, they just would not take place so they need to look after these highly skilled individuals properly. Don’t try and cram as many booths in a room as possible just to make more cash; give the guys room to breathe and space to work in, they are not veal calf’s after all. Make sure there is sufficient light to work under and room to put out a tattoo bed if needed, make sure the rooms aren’t too hot or cold as there are going to be a lot of half naked bodies sat on benches and chairs for a long time and after a few hours under the needle the body tends to feel the cold somewhat.
Make sure the aisles are wide enough. These days what with health and safety issue there are minimum gaps that have to be adhered to but make sure there is room for folk to want to the stop and see what is going on without creating a bottleneck.

Food: This is pretty much a subject that gets mentioned at every show I have been to, all over the globe. Tattooists will tend t be sat working their magic for upwards of ten hours a day, with very little time for a break to eat, so make sure there is good, wholesome food available, also those under the needle need carbs and sugar to keep their blood sugar level up during the tattoo process. I do understand that it can be hard to cater for every individual and some venues have concessions where they have to use the venue’s own caterers, but try and make sure there is a little more choice than just chips and burgers.

Entertainment: Let’s face it, if you aren’t a tattooist working the show, or getting tattooed; things can get a little erm, dull after a while, especially if your mate or partner is sitting for a long tattoo. There are only so many times you can wander around a convention hall without getting a little bored. But providing entertainment can be a double-edged sword, maybe your chosen venue is only a single room so the last thing a working tattooists, concentrating on an very difficult tattoo wants is a death metal band knocking out mega decibels a few feet away. Many artists rely on the sound of their tattoo machines to know if they are working correctly and to have a badly played version of Paranoid blasting down their ear will be a little off-putting to say the least!
I fully understand that it is hard (and often expensive) to provide good, reasonably across the board entertainment at a modest volume, but some shows do manage to achieve this perfectly.

Competition Judging: Some shows I have attended for whatever reason, put the judging for the tattoo competitions backstage or in another room away from the public completely. I find this really odd as surely having three judges looking at the wondrous tattoo work for a few hours provides a spectacle in its own right and adds an extra attraction to the show? This is free entertainment as many attend these shows go to see just that; the tattoos.
There have been to many shows where the outcome of these competitions have been accused of being pre-determined, so make sure the people showing off their work and the judges don’t know who the artists are to make the whole process completely impartial. There will always be a few sore losers but remember, there are three or more judges (usually who do not confer) and all have different views as to what makes a good tattoo, so don’t blame the judges if your tattoo doesn’t win. I have been physically manhandled by a tattooist who thought his work should have won and blamed me personally. Needless to say I didn’t judge his work very highly on the second day!

There are many, many elements that go to making up a good tattoo convention and I do not in any way claim to know or have all the answers to what makes a great show; I’ll leave that to the organisers. I’ve just listed just a few of the larger issues that I have come across during my time in tattooing and it is by no means exhaustive.
There are some shows that achieve everything and more to provide the artists and the public a superb and very enjoyable tattoo experience and there are some shows that leave a lot to be desired and in my eyes shouldn’t even be running in these enlightened days. I could list my favourite shows and the ones that I feel are seriously lacking but that’s not what Max wanted me to write about.
Just my two pennies worth if it counts for anything.

Putting on a tattoo event is not cheap, it takes months if not years of planning with so many hurdles to leap over to achieve so don’t think you can just hire a room and open the doors to any Tom, Dick and Harry that claims to be a “Tattooer” and you’ll walk away with a pile of cash; aim high, do your research, go to lots of other shows and see what others are doing and help to promote tattooing and maybe your show will be one of the ones that will make its mark on the tattoo scene for years to come.