“This is even better than we expected,” says Össur Hafþórsson, the promoter of the first Icelandic Tattoo and Rock Festival. “The quality is much higher than what we could have hoped for. We got some really good international artists, and the whole thing has been great.”
So what inspired you to launch a tattoo convention in Iceland?
“I’m just into tattoos,” says Hafþórsson, holding out his heavily tattooed arms. “I know a lot of tattoo artists, and I know some of the people associated with the Jacksonville (Florida) Tattoo Convention. We decided to do something similar here.”
We are at the upper level of Gaukur á Stöng, a downtown Reykjavík bar-cum-makeshift convention floor. The air is filled with the distinctive smell of tattoo ink and sterilizing rubbing alcohol. All around us, tattoo artists are working their trade and the buzz of the tattoo machines is very audible over the 70’s stoner rock bellowing from a speakerbox on one end of the room.
There are 15 tattoo artists gathered in the room, hailing from five different countries. The convention has proved to be very successful enterprise. There is no mistaking the excitement among the artists as they exchange laughs, look over each other’s shoulder and offer a friendly advice.
“We have had over 1,200 guests here over the weekend,” says Hafþórsson. “We just wanted to do a small convention, start out slow and try to get this idea established here. I think we have more than done that. This will be an annual thing.”
I come across Búri, a local artist from The Icelandic Tattoo Corp, sitting in his booth. “I’ve just been working on this Japanese mask,” he says, showing me a stencil of the work in progress. “The guy wanted to get something to eat, so I am waiting for him to return.” He is happy with the way the convention is turning out. “There have been a lot of people here, a constant stream.”
So, are you doing a lot of work this weekend?
“I had all my appointments here previously booked, I thought it would be best to let the guest artists take the walk-in crowd.”
Across from Búri, Jason Thompson of Bayou Tattoo is finishing some work in his booth and stands up to stretch after sitting hunched over for most of the day. Thompson comes from Slidell, Louisiana, where his shop was recently hit by the hurricane Katrina. “The Bayou is pretty far from Iceland. What brings you all the way to Iceland?” I ask. “Fine ass women man, that’s what,” he answers. “Man they look good.”
After sharing a few other thoughts on the Icelandic ladies, he tells me that he got the offer to participate and it sounded like a good idea at the time. “This convention has been real good. Everybody is doing good work and the planning has been good. I’ve been really impressed with the Icelandic artists.”
So, you would return if this event were to be repeated?
“Hell yes.” He pauses for second, and then adds: “That’s not a yes, that is a HELL yes!”
Svanur Jónsson, a local artist from the Tattoo and Skart studio, looks exhausted when I approach him. He has just finished a 10-hour session, doing a single koi-fish tattoo. “I am only doing three pieces the whole weekend, I am focusing on the competition,” he tells me. “I think this convention is going to deliver much more ambitious work here in Iceland. This is the first time all the local artists are working under one roof, and we are really learning from our guests as well. This is going to be an injection to the scene here.”
Alex, a tattoo artist from the Rites of Passage studio in Copenhagen agrees. “Reykjavík is kind of isolated, so it is very positive for the Icelandic artists to be able to attend a convention like this. They are being exposed to different things and it brings them media exposure here as well.”
Alex has been coming to Iceland as a guest artist at the Tattoo and Skart studio for years. His appointments at the convention were booked full six months in advance, and at his booth, there is already a list of people signing up for his next visit. “I’ve seen a lot of change in the tattoo culture here in the last two years. People seem to be getting bigger pieces and the artists here are very good.” He tells me he does about 20 conventions like this one every year. “This is a cool convention. It is small, but it is very busy, and the organizing has been great.”
By the entrance, I run into a fellow journalist. It is Chuck B., the editor for Prick Magazine, the world’s first free tattoo and piercing lifestyle magazine. Chuck B. makes his living traveling to tattoo conventions and writing about tattoos, but he is just about as exited as everyone else.
“Oh man, this has been good,” he says. It is everything everyone hoped it would be. The artists are happy, everyone is happy.” It turns out that he is on the panel of judges residing over the competition. He refuses to let me in on who he is picking as the winner, but tells me that Alex from Rites of Passage is a strong candidate (He did eventually win the ‘best in show’ category). He also tells me that both the Black and Grey, and the colour categories are going to be difficult to judge. He adds that he also been extremely impressed by the Icelandic artists. “Some of them have awesome abilities. The skill level is really high here.”
Chuck B. tells me that he is being tattooed later on in the day. “I came over with two members of my family, so it is three of us here. I am going to get a memorial tattoo, three ice-cubes in glass, with the inscription Iceland and 101 for the post code we are in and ’06 for the year.” He goes on to say that the convention has been run very smooth and professional, and I ask if he would like to return next year. “Oh man, they are booking our tickets right now.”
As I am about to leave, he says: “There is one thing I would like to add.” What’s that? He points me to a computer screen where one of his DVDs is playing. It is footage of Chuck B. skateboarding. “I am an old-school skateboarder. I have been skating all of my life. It is great to see all the skateboarding here in Reykjavík. I’ve seen people on skateboards all over town and I am excited to see that.”
By the bar, I see a man, roughly 2m tall, standing there with his shirt off. He tells me he is taking a break, two hours into an impressive giant tattoo of a Viking-like figure, covering his whole back. The tattoo, by Sverrir from House of Pain tattoo shop, would later be the winning piece in the ‘best local artist’ category. I ask him what the motif is. “It is Þór (Thor), the Thundergod. I have the hammer as well,” he adds, showing me a tattoo of a Thor’s hammer on his shoulder. As we talk, I soon learn that there is a reason for his interest in this pagan god. “That is my name,” he says. “I am Ásgeir Þór.”
Just off to the side, a man dressed in a Viking outfit is sitting on the floor. He is tattooing a customer that is lying on sofa cushions on the floor. Instead of using the traditional tattoo machine, Colin Dale, from Kunsten på Kroppen in Copenhagen, is using hand tools to inflict the ink. I ask him about his technique, and he tells me this is the way tattoos have been done since the Bronze Age. He makes his own tools. “They have some very old tools in the national museum in Copenhagen. I made my tools in from them, but I altered them so I can change the needles and sterilize them.”
Dale specializes in symbolic Viking tattoos, crosses, pagan symbols, knot work, and tribal work. “The Vikings were tattooed,” he says. “I don’t understand why people want to get designs from Asian cultures, such as dragons, when you can get a dragon, or other symbols from your own culture.” I ask him if he thinks the Nordic heritage offers as much symbolism for tattoos as Asian cultures. “Yes, no question. It has not been studied as heavily, but there is just so much to choose from.”
As I prepare to leave, I run into Sverrir, the longest serving active member of the Icelandic tattoo community. He is ecstatic with the weekend’s festivities. “It is just so much fun for us getting to know these guys, and they have been smiling from ear to ear the whole weekend,” he says, referring to the visiting artists. “And we the locals are picking up a lot from them, especially their use of colour. They also bring in some new styles, so everyone is learning. This is the only way to learn, to watch someone better than you, and here, school is in session.”
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