“In Sweden, there are about 250.000 people for every tattoo artist,” says Svanur, the owner of Tattoo & Skart, a tattoo and piercing studio. “Here we have five studios located on an area the size of a post-stamp.”
In addition to the five tattoo studios operating on Laugavegur and the parallel Hverfisgata in central Reykjavík, there is also a successful studio in Keflavík. These six studios employ at least 8 resident artists, and there is an increasing demand for guest spots. In a country of 300,000 people, it is hard to imagine a more favourable artist per capita ratio.
“It hasn’t always been like this,” says Svanur who has been running his tattoo and piercing shop on Hverfisgata along with his wife Sessa since the year 2000. “When we first opened, there were five tattoo shops in Reykjavík. In 2003, I was the only one left. Now, it is back up to five again.”
Is it possible for such a small market to support this many shops?
“It seems so,” he says. “I will be adding a 2nd artist here for the summer, an Icelandic guy called Jón Þór who tattoos at the English Rose tattoo studio in England. Otherwise I can’t keep up.”
A part of the explanation for the constant activity is that bigger and more time-consuming pieces have been more in demand lately. “People come in and ask for bigger pieces than they did a few years ago. We do a lot of full-sleeves and half-sleeves now. People want their whole arm or their whole back covered. People also prefer more colourful tattoos today,” Sessa explains.
I ask her if that goes for women as well.
“Not really, we do see more of them, but getting big tattoos is still mainly a guy thing. The girls are usually satisfied with getting something smaller. They would rather buy a new pair of jeans then get a tattoo.”
WHAT’S MY NAME?
I ask Svanur how the Icelandic artists compare to their colleagues abroad.
“Well, we don’t measure up to the world’s finest just yet, but there is incredible progress being made here. I’ve been doing this for 13 years and I am constantly getting better. We have made a point of going to tattoo conventions in other countries and bring quality guest artists to our shop, people we can learn from. That is really the only way to improve, work with, and learn from, someone who is better than you.”
And what does it take to be a successful tattoo artist?
“Dedication. You have to be really occupied with tattooing 24/7. I usually wake up in the morning to make my needles, in the afternoon I come into the shop and tattoo, and in the evenings I draw and design tattoos for my clients.”
“It also helps to be open to new things, be humble,” he tells me. “As soon as you start thinking you know it all, you are not going to learn new things. There is always room for improvement.”
He adds that the first annual Reykjavík Tattoo convention is coming up. “It will be the second weekend in June. It is going to be a vitamin injection to the scene here. All the local artists working under one roof, with some really good foreign artists. I think it will really do us all good.”
What about Icelandic tattoo culture? Is there anything specific that could be considered a traditional Icelandic tattoo?
“The old runes are of course very symbolic of Iceland. A lot of tourists come here and they want to get a rune tattooed as souvenir from their stay here in Iceland. I am not sure that is common anywhere else.”
Another oddity is names. “Iceland is the only place where people ask me to tattoo their own name on them. Every week people come in and want a tattoo of their own name.”
Búri is a young local tattoo artist. He has been running the Icelandic Tattoos studio on Hverfisgata since May 2005, in cooperation with his former mentor Jón Páll, formerly the lead character designer for the Eve Online computer game and now the lead artist for Lazy Town productions. When I bring up the number of tattoo parlours in Reykjavík in our conversation, he sounds perplexed.
“It sort of surprised us. We didn’t really expect Reykjavík would be able to support this many shops, but nobody is complaining, everybody is working. We have a steady stream of customers, so it seems to be working. In the summer time, it can be difficult to get an appointment and it is hard for us to keep up. It is slower in the winters for some reason, during the winter we get more people who are coming in for larger pieces that take many sessions to finish.”
But he doesn’t see the competition as a bad thing. Rather, it brings out the best in the Icelandic artists.
“The key to being a good tattoo artist is healthy competition and the ambition to be the best,” he says. “Iceland is a very small market so there is a lot of competition here, everybody wants to be the best. The Icelandic artists are progressing a lot because of the competition here. You never stop learning in this business. I have met people who have been doing this for over 30 years and they are still learning new things.”
For Búri, professionalism is very important, and he takes his job very seriously.
“There are a lot of dodgy people involved in the tattoo industry. It is important to be professional about the work. If I am not feeling good, you know, If am having a bad day, or just have a cold, I will cancel all my appointments for the day. I am really doing people a favour. If you are not focused, you are not going to be putting out your best work. People who are making the commitment to have a tattoo at least deserve to have you doing your best work.”
Do you see a lot of fashion swings in tattooing?
“No matter how you fight it, tattoos are always going to be little fashion oriented, different styles become popular. A few years ago, everybody wanted a tribal tattoo. It often comes from movies. After From Dust ‘til Dawn came out, more than a few people came in to get a sort of tribal tattoo from the wrist up to the neck, like George Clooney’s character had. It also happened after Oceans 12. People want a tattoo like Brad Pitt, or David Beckham, although we see less of that now.
What are people getting now instead?
“People are coming in for much larger pieces now. We do a lot of half-sleeves and full sleeves and whole back pieces,” says Búri. “Colour has been coming in more and more. Different styles are popular, Japanese tradition, old school tattoos. There are a lot more of individual designs where we help people out with designing the tattoo and drawing it up. I like doing Japanese traditional tattoos. I always feel good when I stand up from doing one those. But there is much more variety today.”
Reykjavík Tattoo shops
Tattoo og skart
Hverfisgata 108, 101 Reykjavík
Hverfisgata 39, 101 Reykjavík
Laugavegur 54, 101 Reykjavík
House of Pain
Laugavegur 45, 101 Reykjavík
Laugavegur 69, 101 Reykjavík