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Skin deep: fashion vs lifestyle in the modern tattoo world

A visit to the London tattoo convention unravels the changing perceptions of tattoos in modern society and the differences between those that live ink and those merely in it for the fashion

Why do we get tattoos? And more importantly why do some people decide to get tattooed on the most visible parts of their bodies, such as hands, neck and face? Laurent Fintoni delves into London's tattoo world to unravel the differences between tattoo as fashion and lifestyle and the motivations of those who cover their skin with no regard for society's conventions.

“There was an Irish writer who came to stay with us at the studio for six months” Steve, my tattoo artist at Divine Canvas, tells me. “He said this was one of the most inspiring and creative places he’d ever spent time in. I asked him if he was going to write about us but he replied that no words could ever do this place justice.”

Photography by Noor One

1. The convention

Divine Canvas is a small tattoo studio in north London, a short walk from King’s Cross station. Run by Xed Le Head – a legendary, and on first appearance intimidating, figure in the tattoo world worthy of his own separate story – the studio is, as the Irish writer had pointed out, one of the most fascinating and inspiring places I’ve spent time in since arriving in London 13 years ago.

I ended up frequenting Divine Canvas in the closing months of 2012 by accident. In August I was asked by French photographer Noor One to come spend time with her at the London tattoo convention for a photographic project she wanted to add words to. Her idea was simple: visit the convention – which took place at the end of September in the capital’s Tobacco Docks – to photograph and interview people who have hand, face and neck tattoos, the kind of ink you simply can’t hide in day to day life. Having noticed a rise in such tattoos in recent years, Noor wanted to explore whether or not they were a continuation of the art’s traditional position against the norm or if they indicated a change in western societies’ vision of beauty and acceptance of complete individuality.

What follows is an attempt to answer that question, and a look into a world I was until now mostly unaware of despite my own small, growing tattoo collection.

"Tattoo conventions can be slightly daunting, yet scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a veritable microcosm of modern society"

We met at the convention on a sunny Saturday afternoon and proceeded to hunt down a colourful cast of characters that fitted our criteria, some with a few tattoos, some entirely covered from head to toe, or in this case finger, collecting stories and portraits. It was then that I met the Divine Canvas collective of artists, who it turned out were close friends of Noor’s and let us use their stand as a base for the day. A few of them also agreed to interviews, including Steve who’d recently joined the shop. He proved such an interesting character that at the end of the day I decided to book an appointment with him for my next piece. If I was going to write about tattoos I might as well use it as an excuse for more ink, as anyone who’s ever chosen to get a tattoo for reasons other than drunkenness or youthful impetus will know, once you start inking it’s hard to stop. Or as Steve put it to me, “tattoos are like heroin, they’re moreish.”

On first impression tattoo conventions can be slightly daunting, yet scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a fascinating world, a veritable microcosm of modern society: rockers, hip hop kids, metal heads, tourists (either lost or believing the convention to be a valid attraction for the day), parents, couples, groups of friends, old, young and so on. This diversity of visitors providing a sure sign, if there was any further need, that tattooing no longer requires an alienation from the mainstream to partake in. And it also makes for great people watching.

The people I spoke to at the convention tended to be what I’ll refer to from now on as ‘tattoo lifers’ – people whose motivation for getting tattoos isn’t driven by its current popularity or western societies’ growing acceptance of what was once a distinct mark of separation. They also tended to be primarily tattoo artists or working within the tattoo world in some capacity.

“Getting lots of tattoos changes the field of women you can pick from. Actually more who will pick you.” Steve – Tattoo artist

"For people like Aima hand, neck and face tattoos are a way to say ‘fuck you’ to society"

Aima Indigo is a self-confessed performer, model, cocktail bartender and jewellery line owner. A cheerful woman with a big smile she spoke to me in the convention’s smoking area in between two performances. Dressed in high heels, short skirt and a tight-fitting corset that displayed her colourful array of tattoos against a dookie gold rope that would have made Eric B. and Rakim proud, she passionately explained the split between tattoo lifers and the fashionistas.

“There is a big difference between fashion and lifestyle tattooing. In the old days it was different, before David Beckham. You’d see people with two sleeves and you knew they’d be into the lifestyle. They’d likely have the same beliefs and morals as you. You could know pretty much what sort of person they would be,” she told me. “It would happen in an almost tribal way. But today with fashion tattooing the only way you can tell people who are genuinely into the tattoo lifestyle is by seeing whether or not they have their hands, face or neck tattooed.”

“Even though tattoo has now boomed into the mainstream it doesn’t change the life of those who have made tattoo a lifestyle choice. It accepts those who are fashion tattooing but not those who are into it as a lifestyle. If I tried to get a job at HSBC tomorrow they’d tell me to fuck off.” Aima – Model and performer

The exasperation in Aima’s voice gave away her frustration with what she clearly sees as a loss of tattooing’s traditional place in society: a statement against having to conform. Having come in to see what the rise in hand and facial tattoos might mean, I quickly realised that the dichotomy tattooing finds itself in today, between those who are in it for life and those who are in it because it has become socially accepted and fashionable, was the real issue. For people like Aima hand, neck and face tattoos are the last resort to continue the tradition of tattooing as a way to say ‘fuck you’ to society, especially now that anyone can get a sleeve on their arm without jeopardising their job.

As she tried to rationalise her views on that particular subject she got angrier and ended up by simply telling me “David FUCKING Beckham. Shoot him in the face.”

2. The tattoo temple

I first visited Divine Canvas in early October a few weeks after the conference, returning three times over the following months to finish my new piece. From the moment I stepped into the small studio I found myself drawn into a fascinating world.

In my short time there I met a vegan ginger ninja, a 60 year-old architect who regularly travels from Paris to have Xed ink his skull, a gangster, anime nerds, a man who installed a small Funktion One rig in the shop, a black man whose chest is entirely covered in swastikas and a young guy who hangs around the shop and is nicknamed Four Lions for his similarity with one of the characters from the movie.

Much like the convention, the shop proved a fascinating microcosm, this time of London life and directly in opposition to the view some may hold of the capital as a cold and lonely place. Despite being seemingly closed off from the mainstream, the shop is the heart of a tight knit community of professionals, clients, friends and anyone else who is willing to step through its doors and leave their preconceptions behind.

“People wear nice designer tees, or nice bits of jewellery. So why not decorate your skin?” Joe – Tattoo artist

Divine Canvas is located on a stretch of Caledonian Road that also includes a small cluster of Eritrean shops and restaurants. The place next door is called Sweet Café and Bar. As we stood outside having a cigarette during my first session, someone walked out the bar and greeted Steve on his way past us. Steve turned to me and explained that he was an Eritrean political cartoonist in exile. “Because of his cartoons of course” he added with a knowing smile.

In the studio’s toilet is a set of instructions for how to shrink a head that looks pretty authentic. Opposite is a blackboard. That day it was covered with the word love.

The walls of the studio are covered in tattoo related paraphernalia: photos, images, designs, cut outs and montages. There is an overwhelming amount of historical, tribal and religious tattoo-related imagery, with the swastika featuring prominently in various sizes and purposes, including what appear to be a small shrine. “They have a fascinating history, swastikas,” Steve tells me. Having lived in Japan for a while I’d learnt a while back to let go of the inbuilt reaction the symbol tends to cause in most westerners, yet I had no idea just how widely spread and deep the symbol ran in human history.

The shop, and its various artists, specialises in designs based on the principles of sacred geometry, and some of the designs hung around – often the things you find yourself staring at intently while being tattooed – are deeply hypnotising, and deeply attractive. It is like heroin.

“People try to take your picture on the tube sometimes, as if they’re using their phone for something else but then they forget it flashes. London tends to be ok, aside from the tourists.” Iris – Tattoo artist

3. Rite of passage

Back at the convention we are being led across the docks by our next interviewee to find a hidden place as he’s supposed to be working. Gunter is a bald, thirty something man with piercings, a beautifully intricate sleeve on his right arm that runs down to his hand, a bright yellow t-shirt with a hazardous sign on it and round glasses, a combination that makes him look both nerdy and intimidating. A Frenchman relocated to London for more than ten years, he started tattooing after years as a piercer. As we stand around the grey and slightly bleak corridor at the back of the convention space he articulates the dichotomy between tattoo lifers and fashionistas in his own way.

“People today want to get a tattoo because it’s the thing to do, not because there’s a meaning behind it which is something that saddens me. At the same time before this having a tattoo gave it a meaning by virtue of it not being accepted. The intrinsic meaning behind most tattoos today has disappeared. People have tattoos in the same way they’ll have a shave in the morning, it’s become a part of everyday life” he tells me, hinting that it’s not the first time he’s made the point. “And when I say meaning I also imply identity. Tattoos were a form of identity whereas today someone might choose a pseudo-Japanese design even though they have no knowledge or interest in Japanese culture or art,” he adds.

“People want to get a tattoo because it’s the thing to do, not because there is a meaning behind it. That saddens me.” Gunter – Tattoo artist

The way in which Gunter broke down the changes in western society’s relationship with tattoos felt both articulate and brutally honest as someone is when they are truly passionate and invested. His idea that tattooing used to imply identity echoes Aima’s tribal remark. “Today if you’re 18 years old and listen to hip hop you might get a Chicano style tattoo. Rock? You’ll get some birds. Heavy metal? You’ll get skulls and bones. And so on. It’s become a label and it’s no longer an identity. It’s no longer a rite of passage,” he says, adding how none of that interests him. “Tattoos are no longer a representation of the person that comes out of the skin. You’ll still find this in certain parts of the tattoo world, but as a general rule it’s missing. Today people want a hyper realistic picture of something to put on their skin,” he tells me before sarcastically adding “if I wanted to do that I’d put on a tee shirt.”

“Tattoos today are no longer a representation of the person that comes out of the skin. It’s missing. People today want a hyper realistic picture of something to put on their skin. If I wanted that I’d put on a t-shirt.” Gunter – Tattoo artist

This point about tattoo as a rite of passage harks back to some of the art’s ancient tribal roots as well as a recurring explanation by those I spoke to as to why a tattoo artist may choose to have their hands, neck or face done. Younger artists it seems will wait until they become recognised within their circle before adding one of those tattoos to their collection. It’s also a key reason why all the artists I spoke to admitted that, bearing very few exceptions, they would refuse to tattoo someone on those body parts unless they were a fellow artist or already had most of their bodies covered.

I got my first tattoo in the summer of 2009, at a studio called Kids Love Ink in south-east London. One of the few things I clearly remember about the experience was a sign on the shop’s desk that they would refuse to tattoo anyone on their hands because of the implications with regards to jobs and overall social acceptance. When I asked why they needed to spell this out to people one of the staff told me they’d had an influx of people asking for hand tattoos following the appearance of someone on the Big Brother reality show in previous months. “Most people don’t realise the importance of the decision,” he added.

“Some people in my line of work sometimes don’t like it but once you talk with them and explain the way you think it’s generally ok.” Alain – Building contractor

4. Tattoos and social rejection

"Can society really evolve its acceptance of individuality and conception of beauty to include facial and hand tattoos?"

I didn’t just choose Steve as my tattoo artist because of our meeting at the convention. I also chose him because he works without a gun, a style of tattooing known as “hand-poking” which is closer to the art’s true origins and is perhaps currently best known in its Japanese incarnation, irezumi. In its most common writing it literally means ‘to insert ink’, while a secondary reading is ‘decorating the body’.

During our second session he tells me that endorphins in the body run out after roughly three hours. After that point if you’re still getting tattooed it’s all will power. Hand-poking is a lot less painful than gun tattooing, yet it’s not without its own little pains. It also takes longer to perform, and after three hours even those little pains can become problematic.

Like Gunter and other artists I met during the convention, Steve came into tattooing organically. The tattoo world chooses its own it would seem. He accumulated most of his tattoos (some visible, some not) in his previous life as a carpenter and as he put it to me “tattoos have been a transformation, they helped me become who I am. For that reason choosing to have my hands done was a big thing because they are always on display. So everything on there is important to me.” He was also the only one to point out tattoos’ sexual impact. “Getting lots of tattoos changes the field of women you can pick from” he told me before adding “actually more who will pick you.”

“For me tattoos have been a transformation. They’ve helped me become who I am.” Steve – Tattoo artist.

It was during this second session that we got into a discussion with Laurent, another artist at Divine Canvas, about the subject of this article. As I explained Noor’s original idea I asked what happens when the taboo tattoos of today, the neck, face or hands, become the norm of tomorrow? After all if sleeves are now no longer an issue for most people, how do we know hands won’t be next? Laurent, whose own facial tattoos are among the most beautiful and intricate I’ve seen so far, suggested that instead of embracing facial tattoos as the next acceptable thing society might instead revert to prizing someone with no tattoos, so that tattoos will in effect become marginalised again.

“A woman told me recently she hadn’t realised that we, tattooed people, were like normal people. Which is funny because we are normal people for the most part, but with a bit of ink.” Delphine – Tattoo artist

"Tattoos are not just a beautiful form of art, also one of the purest forms of self-expression"

Delphine is a young French tattoo artist who works at Divine Canvas. A close friend of Noor she was the first person I spoke to at the convention. Her opinionated front hid a softer side as I discovered later by hanging around the shop (she was one of the anime nerds) and she was the first to highlight the differences in reception to visible tattoos between London, and England to a greater degree, and the rest of Europe.

“In London I feel like nobody’s looking at me but in the south of France, where I come from, I’ve been insulted and beaten up a few times. Paris was horrible, really close-minded people, and so was Switzerland. Sweden was the only place were people didn’t seem to mind at all,” she explained. As it turns out I found myself in Stockholm for work a month later. On the way into town I noticed fairly generic advertising featuring prominent tattoos on the models’ bodies. Later on, sitting at the hotel bar, I noticed the barman’s detailed sleeve and asked him about Swedish society’s acceptance of visible tattooing. “There are more koi sleeves than stop signs in this town,” he replied.

“I got my hands done in December last year, four years after I became a professional tattoo artist. I had my neck done at the same time. It was a confirmation of my skill and establishment in the scene.” Delphine – Tattoo artist

This difference in acceptance of tattoos between England, where an estimated one in five adults has a tattoo today, and the rest of Europe was repeatedly highlighted during my conversations. Tattooing history is a long and complex one. While the practice has pre-historical roots in many civilisations, as well as enduring appeal and continuing practice, in the west its acceptance seems to have fluctuated a few times over in the past few hundred years. It’s been a subject of curiosity, a mark of belonging to high society, an indicator of criminality and more recently an accepted fashion accessory of sorts, with a string of celebrities endorsing the practice over the last ten years.

Explaining his choice to cover himself in tattoos from head to toe, Joe, a big, muscly and on first impression slightly scary looking tattoo artist, told me that “tattooing allows me to do what I want, say what I want, wear what I want and act how I want. I can fully express myself within all aspects of my life because it pays a decent wage and I don’t need to conform. People wear nice designer tee shirts or nice bits of jewellery, so why not decorate your skin?”

“[Tattoos are] a good filter system. Some people might look at me and be scared, which is stupid because I’m a nice guy. If someone looks at me and has this narrow minded opinion then I know I don’t really want to talk to them. So that’s cut them out. It thins people out.” Joe – Tattoo artist

Facial and hand tattoos as decorative, beautifying practices seems a likely way in which society might one day more widely accept them. As I wrote this article the news emerged that in the Czech Republic Vladimir Franz, an opera composer and painter, was running for president and was polling at 11%. The reason for mentioning him? He is covered in tattoos from head to toe. Surprisingly potential voters quizzed on his running seemed to make little of his tattoos while Franz himself dismissed them as irrelevant to the discussion, making the point that “a tattoo is a sign of free will and that does not harm the freedom of anyone else.”

Can society really evolve its acceptance of individuality and conception of beauty to include facial and hand tattoos? The historical fluctuation in tattoos’ meaning within western society, as well as life’s cyclical nature, made me think that perhaps the idea wasn’t so far fetched after all. And Franz’s appearance reminded me that things do change.

What would it take for me to get something inked that I couldn’t hide? I kept wondering as I visited Divine Canvas, spoke to its members and observed their own collection. Being exposed to some of the most exquisite and intricate work around made me really consider the option. Yet not only did I lack some of the pre-requisites those I’d been speaking had pointed out, I am still ultimately unwilling to contemplate the option for professional reasons.

“I want no visible skin apart from around my eyes. I want my body to be completely solid. Until I get there I won’t stop.” Jay Read – entrepreneur and street wear brand owner

I love tattoos, I think they are not just a beautiful form of art, but, when done well, also one of the purest forms of self-expression. In an age where conformity rules self-expression often becomes something most of us repress as an automatism. I may one day change my mind, with or without society’s approval, but I now have an understanding of what such tattoos means that I lacked and a respect for those who make the choice I’ll never lose.

If we one day evolve what kind of tattoos are socially acceptable we must first deal with another habit of ours. “Recently I did a TV program for BBC3 about body mods” Delphine told me as we concluded our interview, “since then people stop me in the street because they recognise me and one woman told me she hadn’t realised that we, tattooed people, were like normal people. Which is funny, because we are normal people for the most part, just with a bit of ink.”

*You can see all the pictures here

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