The art of tattoo collection

A blue and red flowering, sinuous, inky design written permanently into the skin of bare legs may be eye-catching, but is it art? Amy Savage thinks so. She explains how she got the tattoos on the backs of her legs from Xam, a noted tattoo artist who works at London’s Exmouth Market.

She and her companion Eddie Boxell, who has equally rich and beautiful tattoos covering most of his left arm, “collect” their tattoos from noted practitioners. “It’s an art thing, a collecting thing,” says Boxell.

They are early arrivals at the International London Tattoo Convention at Tobacco Dock in Wapping.
The expansive halls of this converted warehouse have become a fantasy realm of tattoo parlours, tattoo museums and supply stores, with boutiques and performance stages to entertain the multitudes when they tire of photographing and praising one another’s illuminated flesh.

It is a skin thing, you notice, as more and more people with ever more impressive markings flow into Tobacco Dock. You find yourself ignoring clothes and looking at an inky foot, a spider-web neck, a dragon shoulder.

The decorations shine up skin, make it different and mysterious. They lead your eyes and hold your gaze. A Japanese geisha portrayed on someone’s arm; a woman going by with elegant tattoos all over her arms and on her legs, under her tights. “People who are into tattoos know that it’s an art,” says Savage.

She is a tattooist herself and is here to shop for equipment, as well as survey the scene. She and Boxell got their first tattoos when they were below the legal age of 18. They were 16 and 14 respectively, so they have a lifelong love affair with emblazonment. But what they both admit began as “rebellion” has matured into aesthetic wonder and appreciation.

They are participants in a cultural wave as huge as the Pacific surf, the islands from which the word “tattoo” originated. Chiara and Fabio are part of the same movement or fashion or compulsion: they have come from Italy especially for the convention, parading faces completely covered in phantasmagoric designs finished off with piercings.

It might seem a radical subculture
At its extreme, tattooing might seem a radical subculture that defines your whole existence, but the growing popularity of tattooing belies any such assumption. Chances are that you, a family member or a friend has tattoos.

Once associated with sailors, gang members or circus performers, these markings are now a mainstream cultural force. If you don’t have tattoos close to home, you surely see plenty of people around who sport the kinds of spectacular, high-quality inkings that are walking around this convention floor.

Sally Feldt, editor of Total Tattoo magazine, has seen the change happen. She got her first tattoo 30 years ago and has had a ringside seat at the cultural explosion. “It’s definitely more socially acceptable, more creative,” she says. “It encompasses every age now, every walk of life.”

It is not only young people who are taking the plunge, she says: “I know people in their 60s getting their first tattoo.” But again: Is it art, as visitors to the London convention claim?

The answer is a flaming dragon of a yes. Not only is this an art, it is also one of humanity’s most ancient arts. The once salty docksides of Wapping provide a historically resonant place to stage this festival, for it was sailors who were known for their tattoos in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Is the rise of tattoo, then, a return to our roots, a modern tribalism? The trouble with such catch-all theories is the self-consciousness of tattoo enthusiasts about their art. There are “tribal” tattooists here, but that is just one genre. Savage, for instance, says she tattoos in a “neotraditional” style, specialising in figures such as Gypsies that she renders in a convincing, precise manner.

Entranced as I am by the strange beauty of blue, green and red limbs in the sun that filters through the Tobacco Dock skylights, I cannot imagine getting a tattoo myself. Perhaps understanding my own resistance is a way to understand other peoples’ acceptance. My first boundary is the obvious one. “They all relatively hurt,” says Savage, “but some hurt more than others.”

A change of nature
Are people now seeking to change their natures, to become fabulous new beings? Perhaps there is something digital and post-human about it all, a new sense of self that is no longer bounded by being inside your own skin, but penetrated—as by a needle—by social media and constant internet information, so you feel part of a larger entity that imprints itself on your body.

Well, that’s as may be. What I actually feel at the London Tattoo Convention is a seductive sense of adventure, exoticism and fun. It has the feeling of a fantasy world, an escape from workaday reality. Rockabilly is playing, people are parading their opulent chromatic skins and, to be honest, if I stayed here much longer, I might start to get tempted by those parlours after all.

The modern art of tattoo is beguiling, magical and sexy. Why would people not be lured into its fantastic alternative universe, where spider webs sprout on backs and flowers bloom on elbows?

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