The London Tattoo Convention: From Freakshow To Fine Art

Whatever you think of tattoo enthusiasts, it's a scene gaining popularity every year, as proved by the bevvy of freaks, fire eaters, latex-clad lovelies and curious tourists gracing London's Tattoo Convention.
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A collection of elaborately sketched ‘dick-monsters’ adorn a window. A sign reading ‘Will work for used underwear’ hangs over a folding table. No, it’s not the common room at your local Sixth Form College. It’s the 7th edition of the annual London Tattoo Convention.

Over the course of one weekend, thousands of ink enthusiasts and tattoo artists pour into Wapping’s Tobacco Dock. Since it’s regeneration in the 90’s the building has become a warren of brushed brickwork and the kind of intricate masonry that haunt Dan Brown’s Illuminati fuelled nightmares. Don’t believe the hype (‘the Covent Garden of the East End’), for most of the year Tobacco Dock is just a dead space, but it really does come to life with the arrival of the convention each year.

I managed to grab some time with Luca Ortis, who works at New Wave tattoo, the haunt of London legend Lal Hardy.“I think the new venue is great. I used to prefer the old location because it’s in Brick Lane and just a more fun place to be, but the space here is just so much better.”

Conventions are often considered an open forum to grab time with a great artist you might otherwise be unable to book an appointment with. Luca doesn’t share this view. “Yeah, I tend to bring customers with me, I don’t like doing “walk-ins” at conventions, you can’t really bring all your stuff, and it’s not a very comfortable place to work in.”

As you might expect, there’s a large crowd of women sporting latex underwear (sales of thrush cream surely rocketing over the course of the weekend), and always the option to indulge in a spot of freak worship.

At the booth next door is a man who agrees with him: George Bone. Considered by many to be the daddy of the UK tattoo scene, George has been tattooing for over 30 years. “I always bring my clients with me, because people that come here, they get into the atmosphere of the show and get things done that they might later regret. It’s like if you go abroad and you buy things… and you come back and think why did I buy this? They’re drinking beer and it’s the wrong atmosphere to choose a tattoo.”

One tattooist at the convention who’s happy to take ‘walk-ins’ is the world renowned Valerie Vargas, a woman who, despite only starting out in the industry in 2007, already has a two year waiting list. With the list closed for the foreseeable future, stealing some of Valerie’s time at a convention like this is the only way to get inked. I managed to grab a few minutes with Naomi Reed who works at Frith St. Tattoo with Valerie. Naomi has spent the weekend selling t-shirts sporting designs from the artists at Frith St. Tattoo. “I think there’s nothing wrong with promoting your business and getting out there and it’s nice if you can wear the t-shirt of a place you’ve been tattooed by and you really like...the people that work really hard should do well out of it.”

Arabella Drummond is a model, fire performer and aerial artist from South London. She also happens to be an incredibly lovely tattooed hottie, sporting a pirate themed sleeve designed and inked by Matt Difa at Jolie Rouge studio. She’s also a convention regular, having been there at its sweaty underground beginning. “It’s a shame because I think for people who aren’t covered in tattoos I think that kind of atmosphere puts them off from coming. It’s bad because it should be a time where, if you don’t have any tattoos, that you can come and look at some really good artists. But it’s been good this year, I feel like it’s been a bit more chilled.”

Hopefully this is an atmosphere that will grow in the coming years, with tattoos and tattooed people becoming more accepted in mainstream media. Arabella herself has appeared in popular lads mags Nuts and Loaded, as well as a cover shoot with the slightly more prestigious Penthouse.

It certainly seems a welcoming event this year, with non-tattooed customers strolling through the crowds of heavily modified convention regulars. Notable interlopers include an Austrian family of three, all sporting expensive digital cameras and three pairs of the comfiest shoes yet witnessed by man (presumably to make the task of creeping around in cellars easier).

Obviously there’s more to offer here than a skin full of needle, with a nest of stalls and boutiques selling everything from skate clothes to bear skulls, as well as live music from the likes of 80’s throwbacks The Beat, and a variety of alternative live acts, such as the fire breathing Fuel Girls.

As you might expect, there’s a large crowd of women sporting latex underwear (sales of thrush cream surely rocketing over the course of the weekend), and always the option to indulge in a spot of freak worship for those who follow more traditional pursuits.

Tobacco Dock will be opening its doors to ink lovers and the curious public again next year. For more information check out the conventions site here.


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