Rebellion of the flesh: the Croydon Tattoo Convention

By - Wednesday 12th June, 2013

The Citizen’s ‘gonzo journalist’ Rob Mayo returns to explain how not to enjoy a captivating celebration of difference

Photo by Jack Oughton / Koukouvaya Photography

The first weekend of June 2013 saw Croydon’s over- and under-dressed descend upon the Fairfield Halls for the inaugural Tattoo Convention. Being the type to have planned (and even Photoshopped) prospective tattoos, but never having the balls (or, more importantly, the money) to take up this divisive pastime, I jumped at the chance to flex my mock-gonzo muscle at a very different event from the Cherry Orchard Arts Festival or Great Croydon Bakeoff.

Sadly, I must confess straight off that I was not in peak form when I arrived at the hallowed Fairfield Halls. A previous late night drinking at a local boozer, The Ship, had turned messy after I observed the number of people sporting more facial hair and leather than the average citizen. From this observation, I determined that this would be a rare occasion in which asking the DJ to play some Slayer would not result in being ejected. Frustratingly, this supposed ‘metal pub’ had no Slayer to sate my thrash thirst and instead played novelty ska punk cover songs that had ceased to be funny many years ago when I was 12, which one patron was miming along to with his clenched fist and imaginary microphone glued to his head.

To numb this painful reality I made a bad decision to turn to the aspect of ‘metal pub’ that The Ship fared somewhat better in – a decision would follow me throughout the next day like a fell avenging demon. Arriving at the Fairfield Halls on Sunday afternoon with my stomach lodged permanently in my throat, I would have little time for The Ship’s brand of hairy, leather-clad men bellowing into their fists…

Tattoo aficionados were welcomed not by black metal but by cakes, courtesy of the Penny’s Cupcakes stall, manned by an utterly delightful lady that I assumed to be Penny

A brief note on prejudice and tribalism, for fear that that last paragraph may have looked… well, prejudiced. Like many awkward teens, I became very familiar with a canon of metal music as part of a process of finding my identity through music, from the detuned bluster of contemporaries like Korn and Soulfly to the elder statesmen such as Metallica. I still love some bands that I discovered in this period (Nine Inch Nails, Deftones…) and spend a frankly quite worrying amount of time listening to modern heroes like The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge.

My dislike of The Ship – and, I must admit, some trepidation as I arrived at the Tattoo Convention – came from more than just a disagreement with the record collection. I wanted to obliterate my experience of The Ship because the playlist resembled so closely the monotonous video rotation of Kerrang! and MTV2. I balked, in short, at the whiff of mindless herd behaviour.

Fortunately, the Fairfield Halls were mercifully gentle, easing me into my debut visit: tattoo aficionados were welcomed not by black metal but by cakes, courtesy of the Penny’s Cupcakes stall, manned by an utterly delightful lady that I assumed to be Penny. The café and seating area in the central atrium of the Fairfield Halls were partially obscured by a stall vending tattoo ink, but were still utterly inviting, seductive even, to a fragile brain screaming for tea. The area of the central hall that I mentally tagged as the mezzanine but is probably just the first floor was given over to another stall featuring various accessories and items of clothing of the tattoo/metal/commercial-goth subculture, including baby all-in-ones and what appeared to be lucha libra masks. While trying to locate the toilets in the same way that an assassin mentally scans for exit routes I stumbled upon a man with a huge mohawk and a face full of piercings having his photo taken: I had discovered the inner sanctum.

Artists were competing against each other for the best artwork made that day

After going back downstairs and entering into the newly-discovered Arnhem Gallery through the entrance that the organisers intended, I was immediately met by that special pitch of buzzing that’s familiar even to people like me who haven’t ever had a tattoo. I’d assumed that rather than schlepping their studio equipment into a building that has been designed for many things but not tattooing, the exhibitors would instead demonstrate their wares simply through their own personal tattoo collections and photos of their finest works…. Wrong. Not only were the artists tattooing keen punters, but also competing against each other for the best artwork made that day.

I’d guess that there were about twenty competitors, with stalls arrayed along the length of the room and a bank of stall in the middle. The most obvious one on entering the Arnhem Gallery was one that I think was called ‘Pain Divine’, or at least that was what was written across their satanic-looking banner. In front of said banner two very beardy, leather-and-chainy types were working on a tattoo that seemed to covering a prone man’s back. He was there the entire time that I was, and he appeared to be sweating black ink out of his neck.

More inviting was the Roman Bendo stall, where a man was copying a design from his iPad onto the forearm of a man in a Sex Pistols t-shirt. Less inviting than Roman Bendo but more inviting than Pain Divine, TxSECRETxS (not sure if that’s how it’s supposed to be typeset) had a stuffed fox and a stuffed duck on display, because why not? In their neighbouring stall, Reppin’ Ink, a man was having what appeared to be a scene from The Planet of the Apes tattooed on his thigh.

Fairfield Halls employees (whose curiosity had presumably gotten the better of them) seemed perfectly happy among the unusual crowd

My circuit of the stall was interrupted here by an amplified voice and the sudden realisation that yes, there is a stage there, and there are now a couple of girls in roller skates and knee pads on it. They were introduced by the compere as members of the Croydon Roller Derby, and they continued to explain how Whip It isn’t an accurate reflection of roller derbies while at the same time confirming my understanding of roller derbies as presented to me through Whip It. Maybe I just still don’t get it.

After a nevertheless fun talk they invited the crowd outside to watch the group demonstrate some typical roller derby manoeuvres – mostly fairly suggestive to any proverbial red-blooded male – which, combined with the opportunity for fresh air, I relished. The team members all had roller derby names like Gin Atomic, Mosquito, Dot Cottonmouth, and, my personal favourite, Angel DDelight.

Returning to the Gallery I had to display my wristband to members of the orange-shirted Steel Gym, who seemed to be acting as security for the day. Their bright attire and hulking frames were unavoidable while circumnavigating the stalls, but weren’t as striking as the occasional older lady wearing a blue uniform bearing a badge identifying them as one of the ‘Corps of Stewards’. I assume that these were Fairfield Halls employees whose curiosity had gotten the better of them, but they seemed perfectly happy among the unusual crowd.

Although approachable, I rejected Steel Point because there was a man with a Green Day t-shirt there

As mentioned, I’ve had a few ideas over the last few years that I haven’t rejected as things that I might one day be embarrassed to have permanently on my body, and it would be a fantastic act of journalistic dedication to get a tattoo at the convention. I decided that a small Black Flag logo on the shoulder might be affordable. Although approachable, I rejected Steel Point because there was a man with a Green Day t-shirt there (admittedly not one of the artists, but it seemed unprincipled to get a tattoo of a real punk band at the same stall), and locals Ten Tonne Tattoo, while rocking much more acceptable (Pantera) t-shirts, was fully booked. I continued to crawl the stalls making awkward enquiries about the possibility and price of my tattoo, but sadly by the time I found one with an artist who loved Black Flag (Fools Good, from Kent) they said they wouldn’t have time to finish it before the power shut off.

While this unsuccessful attempt to solicit tattoos was ongoing, the stage was once again taken by a man called ‘Dan the Bear’ (if I heard correctly), who entered from amongst the crowd wearing arseless chaps and two layers of sunglasses, and proceeded to perform a striptease to Beyoncé’s and Lady Gaga’s ‘Videophone’ that involved handing water guns to members of the crowd to douse him with, and firing a super-sized party popper into one of the gallery’s chandelier-type-things at the ‘climax’.

This was certainly not what I was expecting even after I realised that there would be more entertainment than just tattooing, and I’d like to think that Dan the Bear’s act was a cheeky send-up of the leather-and-chains culture of many tattoo fans, as well as a gleeful dollop of camp theatrics. Sadly my unstable constitution here got the better of me and I had to break for fresh air and soft drinks, but fortunately I returned to catch the end of Chi Chi Revolver, who appeared to be performing a fairly straightforward striptease until she replaced her already fairly skimpy top with about ten or fifteen hula hoops. In short, it was bloody brilliant.

The tattooists were artists, and the tattooed willing canvasses whose markings were an expression of the self

Around this point people began queueing to display the day’s tattoos before a panel of four judges – I have no idea who these people were or what their qualifications were, but they looked like they took the scoring very seriously. People with tattoos on their calves were asked to stand on a small table in front of the judges, making the scene even more surreal. I decided that, rather than wait among the throng of proud human canvasses, I would buy one of Penny’s delightful-looking cupcakes (spoiler: it was delightful) and head home to put my thoughts to keyboard.

Why forego the announcement of the decision that everyone in that gallery was awaiting with bated breath? Well, apart from my need for rest in a dark room, it was because I’d already reached my important decision for the day: as is obvious from the above, I’d decided that this event, its organisers and its attendees, were not part of some mindless nonconformist posturing that I recoiled from in horror in my youth and again in The Ship. The tattooists were artists, the tattooed willing canvasses whose markings were an expression of the self (yes, even the Planet of the Apes one - no one does that on a whim). The attendants shared not only a rejection of ‘mainstream’ conventions and culture, but also a strong sense of community. You may think it’s anti-social to cover your arms with ink and your face with piercings, but these people are opening their world and letting you see inside.

I wish the organisers the best of luck in seducing even more of the great un-inked into visiting their tribe next year.

Rob Mayo

Rob Mayo

The Managing Editor of the Croydon Citizen, and the only co-founder not to have ever lived in Croydon. Rob previously studied at University of Oxford and University of London, and regrets only one of them. Since co-founding the Citizen in 2012 Rob has completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Bristol, for whatever that's worth... Rob's stereotypically left-leaning views are personal, and not representative of editorial policy.

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