Not Just Tribals
Tattooing is an ancient tradition, which has culminated in our modern world with peak trends during the grunge and rapster era in the 1990s and now again, in what seems like a cross-pollination of rockabilly, hiphop and hipster trends. Much thanks to popular TV shows like Miami Ink, LA Ink and London Ink, tattooing has also bled into the mainstream population.
The last week in August, organizers held the 13th annual Inkbash in Stockholm, a popular venue among those who have chosen to decorate human bodies for a career.
Entering the expo, rock music and the buzzing of tattoo needles drowns the hustle and bustle of the thousands of people walking around, watching and shopping among the 85 tattoo artists from 25 countries around the world.
"It's one of the biggest in the world, Sweden has a great tattoo culture and many great artists," says Lucky Gold, 32, a tattoo artist from Argentina, who had come to compete and work in Stockholm for a month. "I have been here before and I am really happy to be here again."
Ink and blood flow together and form intricate patterns on bodies of people, who will carry around their art, like permanent but mobile art exhibits till they die.
Johanna Thor, 27, who has been nominated as best tattoo artist in Sweden twice, in 2007 and 2009, and has her own studio Blue Bird Tattoo in Västerås says she knows no better way of displaying her art than on human skin.
"It is great when you hear someone coming back from Barcelona, saying that someone saw their sleeve and really liked it," she says.
Tattooing has been traced back as far back as 4,000 years. During World War II, concentration camp prisoners were marked in indelible ink. During that same time sailors brought the fad to the United States by tattooing anchors, hearts and words like "Mother" across their chests on their biceps or on their backs. And for a long time, tattoos were associated with "questionable characters," like sailors and jailbirds. In the 1990s, tattooing and body piercing found itself a spot in pop culture, which was a mesh of grunge, hard-core rap and punk rock. So-called tribals were a huge hit with the grunge kids, while statements like "Thug Life" and other violent messages adorned the mostly black and well-sculptured bodies of gangster rappers.
"During the 2000s we thought it was going to die down a little bit," says one of the Inkbash organizers, Elisabet Andersson, who goes by "Queenie." Instead tattooing is more popular than ever, nearly 5,000 visitors attended Inkbash 2009, and much of that is thanks to TV shows like London Ink, she says.
Johanna, who has quite a few tattoos herself and just booked an appointment to have half her back done, she says and rolls her eyes.
"Ah shit, I hate the pain," she says and laughs. "I'm actually on the best side. I'm behind the machine… I don't actually like to be tattooed.
It appears that Johanna isn't the only tattoo artist, who thinks it hurts.
At one booth a man is wincing and moaning under the needle of Johan Ankarfyr, or "Big Fat Joe" as he calls himself.
His name is Dan Gold known for his part in a reality show that follows four tattoo artists called London Ink, airing at the British Discovery Real Time. Between drags of a cigarette he talks about his passion and explains that he eats, sleeps and breathes tattooing.
"I have no idea how many tattoos I have. I started collecting tattoos when I was 15," says the 37-year-old veteran of tattooing. "I don't get them as much anymore, because it [explicit language] hurts."
Dan is covered from head to toe and just added on an eyeball with an umbrella through it.
"Tattooing has moved forward and is finally getting accepted," says Dan, adding that people actually get to see the many hours and hard work that goes into his profession.
Johanna shares that passion, but thinks some of her clients are moving too fast.
"In my city everyone got tattooed," she says. "Even 18 year olds have their necks tattooed already. Some of them they actually don't have that much space left and they are younger than me."
"We get three or four kids everyday, who wants tattoos on their neck, face and hands," says Dan. "People can do whatever they want to do, but I wont do it if I think it's wrong, because people will look at you differently if you have tattoos."
The number 13, his lucky number, adorns his right cheek, and is barely visible under his rectangular glasses.
Lucky Gold, who ends up winning the Best in Show 2009, for a Buddha he inked onto a clients thigh, also has a tattoo on his face. It's a line across his right eye. As if he got slashed by a sword.
"I crossed the line," he says and looks mysterious and refuses to explain what kind of a line he has crossed. Instead he goes on to celebrate his trophy, tired after pulling a seven-hour shift.
There are no laws dictating the age of a person, who wants to be tattooed. Instead, serious artists follow universal guidelines and expects their clients to be at least 18 years old, or, in some cases, have parental approval.
Queenie, says tattooing is safe and a trend that is here to stay. According to The National Board of Health and Welfare, there are no recorded cases of HIV or hepatitis in Sweden.
"It's a lifestyle," she says. "And the cool thing is that these days, tattooing is for everybody."
By Majsan Boström