From Iceland — Blood, Sweat, Tears And Ink

Blood, Sweat, Tears And Ink

Published June 21, 2013

A busy three days of tattooing, rockabilly music and fandom

Blood, Sweat, Tears And Ink
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Shea Sweeney

A busy three days of tattooing, rockabilly music and fandom

I remember going to the Icelandic Tattoo Convention in 2010, my heart pounding from a mixture of excitement and fear. Coming back three years later, I could see my former emotions reflected in many of the attendees. Furthermore, I could see that the eighth edition of the annual festival, which attracted 1,900 people, had come a long way.


Held under a tent in Bar 11’s beer garden for the second year in a row, the arrangements are tailored to tattooing and observing—the people getting their skin decorated have comfortable seats and benches, and the eighteen international artists have lots of working space. The tattooing happens behind two long tables, and a wide aisle between them offers spectators a clear view of the action.

It’s hardly summer yet, but the attendees at the Icelandic Tattoo Convention are showing as much skin as possible, showcasing the story told on their flesh. The majority of the people are in their twenties and thirties, though the crowd is pretty diverse. Lopapeysa-wearing hipsters stand next to jocks. Punk rebels with dyed hair stand next to short-haired rockers. And leather clad bikers stroll up and down the aisle. They’ve all come together in their star-eyed adoration of tattoos.

Festival organiser and owner of the Reykjavík Ink parlour Össur Hafþórsson says Iceland is an attractive destination for international artists. “We Icelanders may think it’s mundane,” he says, “but there’s something exquisite that attracts tattoo artists.” Amongst those artists is the super busy Jason June from Three Kings Tattoo in Brooklyn, who has attended the event every year since it was founded. Jason says these conventions are great for small countries like Iceland, as they “bring the upper echelon together for everyone to see.”

With a record number of tickets sold, Össur attributes the popularity of the festival to shifting attitudes towards tattoos. “Years ago you’d only see outlaws and gang members with tattoos, but today they are a lot more acceptable. The other day I heard of a guy who got a full sleeve tattoo, covering shoulder to wrist, and when his grandmother saw it she said: ‘Wow, you look like one of the football stars!’”

Blood, Sweat, Tears And Ink- Shea Sweeney_1 Blood, Sweat, Tears And Ink- Shea Sweeney_2


Össur and I end up by Dave Woodard’s booth, and I join Dave for his cigarette break. Dave believes accessibility to designs has made tattoos more mainstream, but unfortunately this exposure often leads people to want designs similar to the ones celebrities have. “And they often have very shitty and unimaginative tattoos,” he says, “like George Clooney’s full sleeve tribal tattoo in ‘From Dust to Dawn,’ Brad Pitt’s wrist piece in ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ or David Beckham’s full sleeves in real life.”

John Niederkorne of Tattoo Artist Magazine joins the conversation and tells me about a growing trend called getting a “warped tour bodysuit.” It involves people tattooing their neck and hands, so as to look like they are fully covered in ink, when actually the rest of their birthday suit is in its original colours. We joke about people’s reaction to discovering the truth about these posers as Dave gets pulled back to work.

John is impressed by how many people are lining up to get a tattoo at the convention, but he believes the Icelandic scene still has some growing up to do, showing me his magazine which showcases some of the most talented artists stateside.


As a line starts growing by John’s booth, I join Andy Perez from Three Kings Tattoo. Andy doesn’t display much of his art, as he doesn’t want to enable window shopping, opting instead to design tattoos with customers on the spot. He’s been to all kinds of conventions, from small ones like the Icelandic one with fewer than twenty artists, to colossal ones where there are up to three hundred tattoo artists. “Those larger conventions are more about celebrating the lifestyle and showcasing the art than about getting a tattoo,” Andy says.

With the larger conventions you also get more of the weirdoes, such as one guy in Philadelphia who got Roman numerals tattooed on his penis. Andy tells me in intricate details how his artist friend got the job done, and in full view of the rest of the convention. Fortunately, we don’t run into those kinds of exhibitionists at Bar 11. The tattoos I see being made find a home on people’s arms and legs, with the occasional chest or back piece being done.

I see a friend of mine, Lárus, who tells me he’s decided to get a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist. A few hours later, however, Lárus is on Andy’s bench and I see a full demon mask coming to life on his shoulder. With Lárus’s fascination with the Japanese ‘Oni’ demons, Andy must have encouraged Lárus to dream bigger.


As I find myself drawn to the work of Sofia Estrella Olivieri, her assistant Nína strikes up a conversation with me. Nína is a healer and a health product grocer by trade, in her 30s, and is adorned with large and colourful tattoos. She tells me Sofia works really hard at these conventions. “Like the others, she’ll show up early and work late,” Nína says. “Many of the visiting artists will be tattooing from noon to midnight.”

Sofia is finishing a seven-hour tattoo as we speak, and the man she’s working on looks like he’s running on fumes. His new inside forearm tattoo is getting the final colour shading, bringing an impressive skull themed piece to life, one that fits the leitmotif decorating the rest of his body. Every time Sofia lifts the tattoo machine, he clenches his fist, arm shaking from exhaustion, and his sweaty face grimaces when the needle enters his skin again.

Next to him a young woman seems unsure of how to react as the base of her neck is being inked. Her brow furrows, but her mouth smiles, as if simultaneously on the verge of crying out and laughing. Whilst the clients show a rainbow of emotions, the artists stoically get on with it.

Come Saturday, the final day of the festival, the tent is close to bursting with people. The booths are busier than ever, and the tattoo machines are buzzing so loudly that it becomes all but impossible to hear your own voice. As the hour grows later, the tattooing slows down, people start trickling out of the tent and into the main bar for drinks and live music.

The following day the tent is gone and the beer garden is empty, cold and lifeless. A lot has changed for the convention in the last three years, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for tattoos and the culture around them in Iceland.



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