I’ve been collecting tattoos since 1985, doing them since 1990, and publishing TAM since 2003.
Thinking about attending your first tattoo convention? Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your convention experience, and a few warnings to consider before you go.
The very best tattoo conventions in my experience, (for fans and pros alike), are those hosted by actual tattooers. I’ve been involved in tattooing for 25 years now, and I remember back in my early days the sheer excitement of attending one of the perhaps three or four tattoo conventions being held per year. My first convention experience was magical.
Maybe it’s simple nostalgia on my part, but tattoo conventions used to be special; they encouraged community, advanced the craft, and they were focused on the art and artists, not the money. In the beginning, conventions were exclusively put on by art-ists, not corporations and not event professionals. Today, more numerous than ever, conventions seem designed for the green more than for the ink, and definitely more than the actual art or craft of tattooing. So many of them are getting known for gouging the artists working the show as well as the thousands of attendees, at every opportunity, charging outrageous amounts for tickets, food, beverages and the like, while they rake it in, hand-over fist, capitalizing on tattooing’s meteoric rise in popularity. Tattooing doesn’t matter to these people, it’s just an opportunity to make money. And it’s no wonder, tattoo conventions have become a multi-million dollar industry over the last several years, with more than 400 tattoo conventions being held annually, worldwide!
That’s an average of more than 7 tattoo events happening per week (!!), somewhere around the globe. That’s staggering. There aren’t comic-book conventions happening every weekend, or clothing or tech conventions either, for that matter. And how many are still being hosted by actual practitioners of tattooing? From what I can see, as little as 15% of them. WOW. Do yourself a favor and search out conventions hosted by tattooers. I won’t preach on it, but I did want to mention these facts, if only to invite everyone to PLEASE support tattooer-run events, projects and media. They are the lifeblood of this ‘industry’ and many are being squeezed out of the current tattoo movement by corporations and other non-tattooers with large aspirations and even larger wallets. Support tattooing, not just the image associated with it.
Having said all that, nevertheless, there are a myriad of reasons to attend tattoo conventions, whether you are an artist OR a fan, and especially if it is your first.
-For starters, you have the opportunity to meet and hang out with thousands of other people, in your own area, interested in tattoos! The tattoo culture itself is amazing and full of open-minded people, pretty much just like you. Get out and actually meet people. It might be nice.
-Next, at quality conventions, you have the opportunity to get tattooed by exceptional artists from all around the globe…artists it could otherwise cost you thousands of dollars in traveling expenses alone should you wish to get work done by them, and you may not even have to get on their waiting list to do so. Conventions are an excellent opportunity to get a tattoo by in-demand artists. Even if you don’t get tattooed by one of them, let yourself be exposed to the people and styles of tattooing beyond your local scene. *HINT- if you actually do want to be tattooed by someone relatively famous &/or respected in the tattoo community, don’t wait- get in touch with the artist in advance and find out if they have any openings. Some artists prefer to book appointments before the show, while others love to leave their appointment books behind, for a change, preferring the live interaction, creativity and spontaneity possible only at a show.
-For local tattoo artists, conventions provide an opportunity for networking and growth by seminars and workshops hosted by tattooers they respect. It also allows you to meet artists you respect and even have your own work critiqued by people you respect. For an artist, this is one of the most valuable tools you have to learn and grow as an artist. Not every tattooer has or will take the time to look at your book and make suggestions to you, but you should take advantage of every opportunity you have to make it happen. *HINT- artists, get tattooed by the artists you respect. Demonstrate your appreciation for them by actually putting food on their table, even if you don’t get a tattoo, buy a shirt, a painting, a book; give to them and they will be more likely to give you something in return, beyond your tattoo.
-Be safe, but don’t forget the party! At every show there will certainly be spectacle, entertainment, vendors, musical acts, food, art, and plenty of spirits. Tattooers work from open to close at conventions, sometimes well into the night, but once those gloves come off, it’s party time! Enjoy yourself. But also, be safe! Unfortunately, tattoo conventions also draw some of the lowest scumbags out of the dark and into the mix. Nary a convention passes these days that we don’t hear reports of thievery, violence, and even people being drugged and/or sexually violated. *Personal story: just a few years ago, at one of my all-time favorite tattoo shows, three people from my crew and I were dosed with something at dinner which completely immobilized us in under an hour. Luckily, we all left and got to our rooms before becoming incapacitated, but we are fairly certain our female traveling companion was the target. The next day, still under the hallucinogenic after-effects, we discovered that there had been 5 women report being sexually violated over the weekend, after being drugged. Eek!
Here are some other hints to help make your first tattoo convention a great experience:
-Book your rooms well in advance! These things do sell out and the farther away you are from the convention site the more likely you are to miss out on the fun.
-Be patient and polite to everyone at the convention, including other guests, the staff, and the artists. Everyone is in the same boat as you- if it’s crowded, it’s crowded for everyone; if it’s hot, stinky, loud, slow, etc, maintain respect and understanding for everyone around you. It’s a tough, inconvenient environment at times, but it;s always worth being considerate.
-Research and contact the artist(s) you wish to get work from in advance. If you miss that opportunity, be at the convention first thing when the doors open on day 1 to try to get an appointment set up! Some of these artists can book the whole show in the first 30 minutes of the opening day. Don’t let the chance slip by, you may never have another opportunity to get tattooed by them again; artists come in and drop out of the convention circuit all the time.
-Unless you know which artist you want to get work on by, take your time at each booth, examine all the portfolios you can until you see someone with the talent to do what it is you want done.
-Don’t haggle. In spite of the circus-like atmosphere, conventions are not flea-markets, and the artists in attendance aren’t junk-dealers or used car salesmen/women. They are professional craftspeople, with traveling expenses, who likely dropped a lot of money to come to your town and make their services available to those who want their work. If you don’t think their price is in your range, thank them for their time and move on to another artist. After comparing quality and prices, you may be back!
-Be prepared to leave a deposit. This one always seems to surprise some people. If you are making an appointment to get tattooed, and an artist has to take time in advance to draw up what you want, then they NEED a deposit for that preliminary work, and to guarantee your spot on a busy day at the show. They are there to do tattoos and there’s only so many working hours in the day. The very last thing they need is to book a time slot and have a no-show.
-Be on TIME for your appointment. And I’d say the same thing to the artists. Some people are notoriously late, some just simply move slow, but I don’t think there’s a valid excuse for not behaving like a professional, on time and ready to go at the time you agreed to start. It’s disrespectful, and it goes both ways.
-TIP YOUR ARTIST. Whatever you are charged for you tattoo, if it’s done well and you are happy with the end-result, show your appreciation by leaving a tip.