I’m the first to claim that attending one tattoo convention is like attending all of them – always about the same thing (tattoos), always the same people (clad in black, pretending to have an ‘alternative’ edge to them and living this certain ‘lifestyle’ that is more of a myth than anything else), always the same style and climate (heavy metal music making you almost deaf (provided you’re not deaf yet from having listened to heavy metal music for years before) and skull images staring at you from every corner of the place). But even though all tattoo conventions are pretty much identical, there is always something different to them, too – people you’ve met before and are going to meet again, new pieces of body art to see, even if it’s either to admire or scorn, some precious good time with friends ahead.
This year’s Tattoofest was my third one and I went through the ‘yet-another-convention’ phase to ‘yeah-kind-of-cool’ to ‘let’s-have-fun’ phases in a pretty short time. It felt different this year simply because the convention was moved to a new location – bigger, much better lit and with more space both to exhibit the body art and to stroll down the aisles and gawk at people, portfolios and artists at work.
The new location proved to be both good and bad; good for the artists, visitors and performers as it gave them a much needed space and light to present themselves at their best; and bad because many of us were staying at a nearby hotel, so there were moments when we felt more like just lazing around, sneaking out of the venue and napping in our rooms (I do admit I did it a few times) instead of focusing solely on the event.
The first day of convention was slow for me. There were only three tattoo contests scheduled for the day, later in the afternoon, and everyone was only starting to build a proper display at their booths, so I decided to spend some time in the city centre (Cracov is a very beautiful and old town and there’s always something cool going around) with friends. This way I missed a few things from the schedule but was right on time to see the tattoo contests.
The contests seem easy from the outside but they look way different from the inside. The core of the jury, Slawek Fraczek (one of the very first tattoo artists in Poland and, on a more personal level, someone who changed my own way of perceiving tattoos and taught me a lot), Junior (a member of the second wave of the Polish tattoo artists and a guy who definitely grasped the free-market concept of body art; a master of self-promotion but modest when he thinks it fits) and Dagmara (a piercer and tattoo artist from Gdansk; a nice addition to the jury as, sadly, women are usually a part of decorations in this industry) were quite efficient and determined to spot and reward the best pieces presented to them.
The stage was small, so contestants had to enter it gradually, in a few turns during each contests but the whole spiel was going on quickly – the judges looked at, discussed, selected and then discussed some more before fishing out the winners. The audience cheered and stared, the contestants sweated (hot!), trembled (how long you can hold on your breath to hide the beer belly, eh? ;)) and were patient and, probably, hopeful, too.
To speed things up and make the whole process of judging, choosing and rewarding easier, the rewards were handed in right after announcing the winners (and here women as just a decorative addition come into play again!), so the audience got their treat and didn’t have to wait for the results.
Much to my joy there was not Art Fusion this year (cool concept as it is, somehow I find it kind of boring and definitely not as original and challenging as it used to seem!); instead, we got to watch Tattoo Battle – artists working in pairs on a given subject, this time it was ‘film’. The artists worked in pairs, usually on separate limbs of one ‘victim’ which seemed strange at first but there must have been ‘victims’’ agreement beforehand, so nothing to worry about here. The tattooing process had to be strenuous for some, though, as I got to see a guy close to blacking out during the tattooing process. There was medical assistance on the site, though, so organizers took care of the event even in this regard.
After ‘Best of Day’ contest late in the evening there was time for something I’ve been waiting for throughout the whole day – a show by Bobo’s Loco Carneval, a freaky performance team from Finland. I saw them for the first time last year and they made a huge impression on me back then. I approached it in a cynical way a year ago (‘so what are you gonna show me, eh?’) and did it this time, too. At first, when I saw them painted and clad in exactly the same manner as a year before, I felt a sting of disappointment but fortunately soon enough they proved me wrong.
The Finnish trio does not present or perform anything new as pretty much all of their tricks were and still are performed by many other such groups around the world. There are these cool echoes of the old firebreathers/eaters and sword swallowers about them and there are traces of medieval markets with a crowd of peasants gathering around a circus group to be amazed and get something to talk about during long winter months ahead; there are bits of the old comedy del’arte in their shows and there’s a rough and ordinary feel of a heavy metal show to them, too; and finally, there’s also a bit of the ol’ good freak show stuff here. Right on the surface one gets to feel and know that there’s nothing new about the group and their show and yet the Fins spin their magic and one suddenly finds themselves engulfed and entangled in their show, gasping, laughing, staring and just taking part in the show.
They showed a few tricks I’ve already seen and then went on to the new ones, among which the straight jacket one and the tennis racket one were the most memorable, methinks. Sure I thought how cool and funny it would be if they stapled to their bodies not black latex gloves but pink ones (playing not only with their bodies and the audience but also with stereotypes?) and how both awesome and kind of symbolic it would be if the straight jacket was not this typical white one but maybe done in black, with a heavy metal band name on the front to make us think about freeing ourselves from our oh-so-original ‘scene’ uniforms) but well, it was their show and their moment and if I’m so ‘innovative’ in this regard, maybe I should found my own freaky group?
I got to talk to the Fins on the next day and, surprisingly, they don’t seem to see in their shows these ‘archaic,’ ‘distant past’ elements I see but maybe they do it on a purely subconscious level, using archetypes floating around and bending them to their needs? Or maybe I am ‘pseudo-sophisticated’ and get to see something that’s not even there? Doesn’t really matter anyway as living in the postmodern times means that both sides can be right and wrong at the same time and there is not one valid interpretation of the things we see and participate in.
Day 2 of the convention was more packed with the events and attractions and the Fins showed up on the stage yet again, this time to offer suspensions to random people willing to try. Just like last year I amused myself with timing the suspensions and pretty much all of them were very short and lasted 5min. at best. A shame but also quite understandable as the whole convention show had to go on and there was no time for hanging around for longer than the schedule allowed. I felt pangs of jealousy while watching people suspending but I also knew that 5min. on the hooks is not something I would go for!
More tattoo contests that day allowed me to see, with some satisfaction, that people finally are getting more original and brave enough to choose something that’s not ‘fashionable’ or popular. My least favorite category, black and grey tattoo, didn’t bring too many skulls, aliens or monsters; instead there were many subtle tattoos playing with shades and gradations of colors. Not all presented tattoos were placed in the right category and there were contests that were missing from the schedule (no ‘tribal’ category, probably much to everyone’s relief but also no ‘crazy tattoo’ category which is a shame) but – as a whole – the contests showed both well and poorly done tattoos and that’s what matters here.
Right next to tattoo booths there were jewelry and ‘alternative’ clothing displays – more than last year. There was a Wildcat stand and another German seller, Go2, also displayed their jewelry. As someone who recently got to re-pierce and then stretch her ears, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to take a look at the jewelry and even added to my growing jewelry collection. The clothing lines presented the usual skull-and-other-horrors style but what one can do if the people wills it?
Was Tattoofest 2009 a good event or just so-so? After talking to the organizers and a few random people on the floor and then after taking some time to think about my own feelings and impressions, I would venture the former option. The new location gave people more space to enjoy their interest; more light and booths let show what the industry has to offer to those into body modification; growing presence of tattoos and other forms of body modification in the media encouraged people not involved into the scene to come and see what’s all about. Seems like people enjoyed their time at the convention and that everyone could find something interesting there. I know I did and could!