I’m terrified of the idea of getting a tattoo. All of those little needles piercing your skin, injecting squirts of ink under the surface of your epidermis? Makes me queasy just thinking about it. I haven’t even got my ears pierced for the same reason.
So when a friend invited me to the Scottish Tattoo Convention last weekend, I was a little apprehensive. Of course, it’s an ancient art form. The earliest evidence of tattoos arguably dates back as long as 5,200 years. Historians argue whether markings on the remains of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’, the frozen body of a 5,000-year-old Tyrolean found in 1991 are actually tattoos or medical markings – though many believe the former. However, we do know for definite that female Egyptian mummies were marked, so there is no argument that it has been going on for quite a while.
As we enter the convention hall to the accompanying whir of needles piercing into skin, merchandise stalls nearby sell posters, mugs – and special creams to put on your raw tattoo after the event. All around the room, the artists’ human canvasses sit calmly while coloured ink is injected into their flesh, barely wincing. I have to admire them.
Competitions to find Scotland’s best tattoos are taking part on the main stage. A couple of men are standing in front of a Strictly-style judging table in their pants to show off their entries for “best small black and grey” tattoos, while the competitors for Scotland’s Best Tattoo are nervously awaiting their turn later in the day.
Recent technological advances have moved on dramatically from the 1980s classic bluey-grey, smudged anchors and love hearts bearing the word “Mum” to a technicolour art form. Tattoo artists often create designs on an iPad, while it is also possible to get “blacklight tattoos”, which only show up when under UV lights.
Emma Colston, 26, who is having an addition to her full sleeve arm tattoo from her regular tattoo artist – Kaja Novsak – tells me she often gets complimented on her body art at work.
“It has become a lot more socially acceptable now,” says Colston, who has one leg which is almost entirely covered in tattoos, while the other is “completely normal – until I run out of space”.
“I work in a bank and regularly get complimented on my tattoos by customers; you wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago. Now, I think it’s hard to find people without tattoos, almost everyone seems to have one. And most people who do have loads, not just one or two. It’s either all or nothing.”
As we head past the loos, a sign proclaims “Please don’t wash fresh tattoos in the sink”. Back in the convention hall, one woman is having a large picture of actor Jim Carrey’s face stencilled onto her leg, while at the next table, a burly man is halfway through getting a tattoo of Walter White from Breaking Bad. Further down the line, another woman is having her breasts entirely covered in an intricate patterned design. A collection tin on the table asks for donations to breast cancer research.
Now in its eighth year, the Scottish Tattoo Convention has rocketed in popularity since it was launched by Glasgow tattooist James Aitken in 2010. Artists attend from across Europe and as far away as the US.
“This convention is world renowned now,” says Novsak, who works from studios in both Edinburgh and Bathgate. “I’ve booked up appointments in advance for the whole weekend as it’s my first time here, but next year, I think I’ll go flash.” For the uninitiated, “flash” tattooing is when a customer chooses something from a book of designs on the spot, rather than having a bespoke design custom-drawn by the artist.
My friend, Edinburgh-based writer Alison Belsham – whose debut crime novel, The Tattoo Thief, about a murderer who strips his victims of their tattoos before killing them, is due out in May – spent 25 hours in the hands of her Berlin-based tattoo artist to create an entire sleeve of muted blues, greens and reds.
“You have to do it in stints,” she explains. “After a few hours, the endorphins start to go and it becomes painful and you get really, really tired.”
Belsham, who got the idea for her book the night she had her tattoo completed, got her first ink three years ago, at the age of 53.
“I’d always liked tattoos, but when I was younger, it wasn’t so socially acceptable, not for a woman, anyway. I reached a point where I thought, ‘it’s now or never’. So I did it.”
Glasgow-based student Lewis Johnson is having a flame torch design stencilled onto his arm by Italian tattoo artist Lorenzo Rossi, who has travelled to attend the convention from Milan, Italy. Johnson spent the weekend gathering additional tattoos to add to his ten-strong collection.
“I found him online and really wanted something by him,” he explains. “Because he is usually based in Italy, this is the only chance I’m going to get to get a tattoo from him. I got another one yesterday, from a guy who lives down south, who I would also not get the chance to see otherwise.”
Tony Firstbrook, a tattoo artist from Glasgow, says the trend for collecting tattoos from a range of different artists is on the increase.
“The main thing I’m being asked for this weekend is fairly small, palm-size tattoos,” he says. “People want something almost to remember the event by.”
He believes that an individual artist’s work is so identifiable that he has spotted that of fellow Scots tattooists while abroad.
“I’ve been in Rotterdam, or in Germany, walking down the street and I see something that I know a boy back home has done,” he says.
Many of the tattoo artists now work to create symmetrical patterns, such as Celtic or Far Eastern designs, using iPad programmes, which automatically draw the other side of the symmetrical pattern.
“I can now do something which used to take me three hours in three minutes,” says Firstbrook. “But I much prefer to do a drawing by hand, you can see the life in it – and the love.”
His passion is such that I’m almost tempted, but not quite.