Strolling through the streets of London, many different subcultures stand out to the observant pedestrian. There are the punks, the hippies, various religious groups, and so on. In a metropolis of this size, pretty much anyone can fit in to some sort of clique if you know where to look. If you're treading through the parade of tourists in a place such as Camden Town, one thing becomes glaringly obvious. You can't turn your head without seeing a tattoo or piercing studio.
There are many different varieties and snappy names for the parlours, but when you walk inside, they all ring quite familiar. There are the bongs, the shoes, the belts, and any other accessory you could possibly think of as well as the wide arrays of jewellery to place through some part of your face. The tattooist is usually secluded behind a wall or a door of equally ratty nature, its only purpose seemingly to muffle the terrifying buzz of the needle that is his paintbrush. Almost every employee at a place like this will be indisputable customers of their field, marked invariably with either metal in their nose or arms covered in the red, black, and green of ink.
Subcultures can sometimes be difficult to infiltrate, as it is natural to be a bit weary of someone who appears to be absolutely nothing like you. The subculture of body decoration is no different. Many dabble in this arena, with a few signs of ink here and there or maybe a small rod of stainless steel inserted into their earlobe, but it is the heavily tattooed and pierced that are in a class of their own. The distinction is obvious, especially in a public place where most skin is blank.
Into You, arguably London's most famous tattoo studio, sits anonymously alongside more traditional businesses on St. John Street in Clerkenwell. Once you step inside, however, it is anything but anonymous. The shop opens up into a foyer area with clothing for sale and artwork plastered on its walls. It evolves into a lounge area with a large couch and a wall of pictures showing various acts of debauchery. The last stop is a room where all the work gets done, each artist with their own space to create their masterpieces. A variety of music blares in the background at every turn.
The subculture of tattooing literally breathes through the shop, with men covered head to toe in tattoos and piercings as plentiful as people on the tube at 8 am. Xed LeHead is one of the many tattoo artists on staff, and he allowed me to enter his world, if only for an afternoon. LeHead describes his workplace as unlike a tattoo shop. "There's a different buzz here," he said. "It's a very creative vibe."
LeHead, with designs in black ink nearly covering his entire body and face, is a charismatic man who is both meticulous and passionate with the art of tattooing, who speaks of his work in near reverential, hushed tones. He was preparing to begin what he considered his magna opus: a checkerboard pattern across a man's face. The man had lost all he had in the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, and LeHead helped make it possible for him to fly across the pond.
"It's going to be one of the most incredible face tattoos ever, in the history of tattooing," LeHead said with the look of a child waiting to open Christmas presents. "It blows me away. I've been looking forward to this. I've been trying to get him over here for the past half year."
LeHead's work will be just in time for a grand display, with the 1st International Tattoo Convention descending upon London. From October 7-9 at the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, this subculture took over an area and became the majority. Miki Vialetto, editorial director of the international magazines Tattoo Life and Tattoo Energy, organised the convention, handpicking over 150 of the best tattoo artists in the world in an attempt to represent every style imaginable, from the traditional master to the new school and also from the gothic to the tribal.
Artists from Japan, Polynesia, and Borneo who work exclusively by handwork will show the different global styles. A process that is more painful than using a machine as well as taking much more time, it is also more expensive. LeHead, who has practiced handwork in the past, uses the machine almost exclusively now since it would be impractical to do handwork because of his penchant for large-scale work, including a wide array of back pieces.
There will be an art exhibition at the Horse Hospital that has been organised by Alex Binnie, the owner of Into You. It will hold a collection of artwork from various tattoo artists in London. This raises an interesting question. How do you compare tattoos to the art that is in a museum? Obviously, there is still a negative connotation associated with tattooing, however, tattooing as an art form has progressively become more prevalent as the popularity of the trend has increased. The answer truly lies in the eye of the beholder, as art has a different effect on each individual, but LeHead offered his view on the subject.
"To me it's incomparable. This stuff I hold as incredibly high art. It doesn't matter though because it's still not alive. How perfect you can freeze something in a painting, you can still just set fire to it and it's gone. With tattooing, it's a living, breathing thing. You can't own it, you can't put it on a wall. It doesn't have the same vibrancy. It's on a living person. I'm glad that not all artists think like me because then we'd live in a world where everybody's covered in ink, but there's no art on the walls. I would like to say that tattooing is the highest art there is. And if you look at the work of some of the masters, what they're doing to people's bodies is incredible. Incredible. It's living, it's animated. There's no comparison. For me, a drawing or painting does not have the same value as the human body. But once again, I'm glad that not all artists think like me."
Get Yourself Inked
London itself has quite a representation at the festival with over ten artists present. London's most popular area for tattoo and piercing studios is the aforementioned Camden Town, where the glut of shops is literally overwhelming. This is a true example of quantity over quality, however, with businesses encouraged by the popular trend to offer these services hoping to cash in on the easily influenced minds of teenagers. Most studios in the Camden area lack credibility and are talked about derisively by their peers, evidenced by the fact that only one studio in the area is being represented at the convention. One good rule of thumb: if you walk into a shop and they have more bongs for sale than photos of the artists' work, you should think twice before giving them your business.
Still, London does offer a wide choice of reputable shops for the tattoo connoisseur:
The Family Business Tattoo Shop
58 Exmouth Market
London EC1R 4QE
New Wave Tattoo Studio
157 Sydney Road, Muswell Hill
London N10 2NL
144 St. John St., Clerkenwell
Thomas and Nikole Lowe
Frith Street Tattoos
18 Frith Street
London W1D 4RQ
58a Boston Road
Evil from the Needle
232 Camden High Street