They say tattoos are about proclaiming who you are without having to say a single word. Visit a tattoo convention, watch the artists at work, their subjects being adorned and the art walking around and there’s one thing you can be sure of: it will leave an impression on you.
For many of the 6000 visitors who made the pilgrimage to the 11th annual Brighton Tattoo Convention, that means leaving with a permanent reminder of their visit. For me, the lasting impression was just how many women there were, both being tattooed and doing the tattooing.
Once, both were somewhat of a rarity, now more and more female tattoo artists are breaking the gender stereotype and really making their mark. Judging by this year’s turnout, they must be close to matching the men in their numbers.
With the convention taking place just a week or so before International Women’s Day, which always falls on March 8th, it was topical that this year’s IWD campaign theme was ‘Press For Progress’, a line which is perfect for women and tattoos.
The emergence of so many female tattoo artists coincides of course with the growing number of women confident enough in their own skin to express themselves through their inkings. Not surprisingly, most girls want something a tad more feminine than the usual male-oriented fare or more original than the ubiquitous dragon tattoo.
The fact is body art is close to becoming mainstream. According to the Telegraph, one in five adults, and one in three young people now boast at least one tattoo, with both men and women equally embellished. Indeed, these days having a tat is almost de rigueur, while not sporting one is almost as eye-catching. Ironically, for those addicted to being inked, the most precious thing is bare skin.
And there are some women who are — quite literally — running out of space. Just this month, a 69-year-old Florida woman, was recognised by the Guinness World Records as being the world’s most tattooed woman. Charlotte Guttenberg has 98.75 percent of her body covered in ink!
Having covered the convention myself for each of the past eight years, I’m always on the lookout for the unconventional. But as each year passes, those meeting the ‘weird and wonderful’ criterion become more and more elusive.
To be fair, it was always going to be an impossible challenge as last year I got to shoot Touka Voodoo, one of the most extraordinary individuals I’ve ever met, let alone photographed. With the bar raised to new heights, it was no surprise that no one this year came close.
Held for the third year at the Brighton Centre, the show benefits hugely by having space to spare. But as I’ve said previously, the trade off is a venue that desperately lacks atmosphere.
Superficially at least, it can feel little different from one year to the next. Of course, the artists do change and there are always lots of new faces to be seen as well as those stalwarts who show up year after year.
Among the 300 or so at this year’s convention I was pleased to see some of my favourite artists: James Robinson of Brighton’s Gilded Cage, Paul Talbot of Birmingham’s Modern Electric Tattoo Co, Guen Douglas of Berlin’s Taiko and Kenny Spinoy of Belgium’s La Secta to name but four.
But this year the artist whose work left the biggest impression on me was a Romanian.
Based at Atelier Four in Truro, Cornwall, Radu Ruso is up among the most talented tattoo artists I’ve seen. Over the weekend, he was working on a huge Star Wars piece, ironically for a client who’d come up to Brighton from Cornwall. Radu had done all the inking on both his legs, one themed to the dark side, while the other portrayed the light side.
Apart from the realism of his work, I loved his painterly style and the subtlety of his shading and detailing. All the characters and spacecraft — including of course images of Tattooine — were in black and grey and, unusually, the entire design had been meticulously planned from the outset, including portraits of Star Wars’ most iconic women: Princess Leia and Rey.
In Brighton, just as it’s been in many places around the world lately, there was no doubt it was the women who were making their mark!
Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the 75 1.8 lens and the camera’s built-in digital zoom using available light only. Experience has taught me that trying to photograph tattoo artists at work, along with those being tattooed, doesn’t make for great shots. Invariably, the artist is looking down, the subject has their eyes closed or is grimacing, the light is less than flattering, the tattoo itself is unfinished and doesn’t look great and the background is a mess of posters, kitchen roll and boxes of latex gloves. As a photographer, you can’t control any of these factors, so you have to work around them. This year, in the absence of finding anyone in the weird and wonderful category, I decided to focus on the women of the convention. Specifically, I was seeking out only those women who in my eyes exuded a degree of glamour that many would not usually associate with the world of tattoos. Inevitably, that limited my subject matter enormously, as did my original notion of only photographing women with pink hair. There were quite a few, but not nearly enough who had the combination of pink locks and glamorous looks. I also wanted to get in close, which of course amplifies any flaws. And, rather than taking a posed image, I was keen to capture a candid moment and find some unexpected angles. Given the challenge, I’m really pleased with these portraits. I think I managed to achieve what I set out to do: to capture beautiful shots of the most beautiful women I could find at this year’s convention. Shot in Brighton on 24 February 2018.
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