Shot! The 2017 Brighton Tattoo Convention

Brighton marks a decade of celebrating the art of ink

It wasn’t so long ago that having a tattoo could be described as being a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling. Often sporting one was the result of impetuous bravado or too much alcohol, and was something which, in the eyes of many, left its owner with the wrong impression.

No longer. Tattooing is now big business. Not only are tattoo parlours thriving, but peoples’ interest in decorating their skin has never been greater. It’s no surprise then that tattoo conventions — the annual event where artists from around the world descend on a city for a couple of days — are now springing up everywhere. This month even saw Beirut hold the first ever Lebanese Tattoo Festival.

Here in the UK, most major cities now have their own convention and, with over 300 tattoo artists and 6,000 visitors, one of the biggest and best takes place in Brighton.

Belgian tattoo artist Kenny Spinoy of La Secta, Aaalst

This was my seventh time shooting the Brighton Tattoo Convention, which this year celebrated its 10th anniversary. Over that time, the event has grown in size and established itself as one of Europe’s leading tattoo showcases. It has moved from its original cramped home at Brighton Racecourse, first to the Metropole hotel and then last year to the bigger, more prestigious Brighton Centre.

Dave Hoonan

With its wide aisles and high ceilings, the more expansive venue means the claustrophobic experience of previous conventions is a distant memory. Now, rather than spread across an assortment of small rooms, all the artists are in one large, well-lit space.

But the big evolution over the seven year’s I’ve been attending is the ever-widening acceptance of tattoos. These days — at least in Brighton — you almost look out of place if you don’t have some ink somewhere on your epidermis. And most of those who visit the convention over its two days are inked up and looking for more. Indeed, the official line is almost a third of young people in the UK now have tattoos.

Tasmanian tattoo artist Hannah Flowers

And the changes doesn’t stop there. Not that long ago, the majority of the artists present at the convention would have been men, but walking around the booths in Brighton, you now see almost as many women tattooists as men and the same goes for those having new tats. And the choice on offer is as impressive as it is diverse.

One of my favourite artists, Paul Talbot, was back in Brighton, showing once again why he’s one of the UK’s most inventive tattooers. His predominantly black and red ‘trash polka’ style combines photo realism, handwriting and typography. Now he’s adding to his colour palette with the addition of grey ink. While I was there I watched him start an artistic arm piece which paid homage to Robert Smith of The Cure. I never got to see the finished work, although Paul did show me what it was going to look like. That’s the thing at tattoo conventions, most of what you see is work in progress.

Whilst I still find the rows upon rows of identically sized, sterile looking booths, somewhat soul-less and once again was bemused at the lack of branding (when the convention always has such a strong visual identity) there is no doubt the bigger venue works for both artists and visitors. It also works for photographers, too!

London tattoo artist Montana Blue

Now when I go to a tattoo convention, I have to admit the last thing I really want to shoot is people being tattooed or artists tattooing. Firstly, it’s what everyone else with a camera does and, more importantly, it’s really hard to get good shots. That’s because the artists are intensely focused on their subject’s skin, their subjects are usually in a less than flattering position and, more often than not, the tattoo is at an early stage and rarely looks good. Instead, I look for interesting people. By that I mean people who look really interesting.

Each year, I also try not to repeat myself so this time my aim was to get closer than ever with my portraits. For me then, this wasn’t about capturing the spirit of the convention, it was all about capturing its most engaging personalities!

Dave Noonan

Sadly, on the first day of the convention, really interesting individuals were thin on the ground. In fact, for the first time that I can remember at any tattoo convention I’ve been to, I struggled to find any who caught my attention. That’s not to say they weren’t there, just that I never saw them.

Until that is I met the extravagantly named Touka Voodoo. Now Touka is, quite literally, something else and absolutely fascinating to look at. So much so that I’ve devoted an entire edition of Shot! to those portraits.

London tattoo artist Montana Blue
Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens using available light only. Shot in Brighton on 13 May 2017.
Belgian tattoo artist Kenny Spinoy of La Secta, Aalst

Follow me on Twitter

See more of my images at 500px

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.