I am on my way to Tattoo Freeze and it’s not freezing at all. It’s glorious sunshine outside and as we fly over the M6’s spaghetti junction, the outline of Birmingham’s gritty, grey figure glistens in the morning sun. I love you, Midlands, I think. Just this month I’ve moved back from living in London to commuting from this neck of the woods. I’ve missed my home, and more than ever I’m looking forward to the first tattoo convention of the year – Tattoo Freeze, Telford.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve been to multiple conventions before but I remember that they can be daunting if you’re a first timer. Awkwardly walking past artists deep in their work, sheepishly plodding over to swipe a business card off the table and trying not to look anyone in the eye in case they’re too busy and you disrupt them… we all know the feeling.
I’m travelling to the convention with two friends who have no ink at all. My friend’s partner Dom is playing in the Roller Derby Rumble (which forms a big part of the convention) and this is their first time at a tattoo event. But why Roller Derby and tattoos together?
“The thing I love most about being part of the sport”, says Dom, “is the difference in everyone’s ability and appearance in the teams. Glance around today. The players are tall, short, large, small, male, female, muscular, skinny – you name it. It’s not like any other sport because anyone can be part of it. It’s a very physical sport yet your physical appearance and ability don’t effect how good you are at it.”
From what I understand, it’s basically a contact sport where the aim of the game is for one member of the team to skate a lap without getting pummelled to sh*t (technical term) by the opposition. Yep.
Similar to tattoos then, I suppose. Not the knocking each other out part, the differences in physical appearance. Doesn’t matter what you look like, how big or small you are, what gender you are… nothing changes your ability to become part of the tattooed community.
Another reason why conventions can be intimidating places is because often there is a real focus on style and fashion. Gorgeous alternative models in latex outfits and long-bearded, tough-looking guys who roll in to the convention on their jet black choppers (OK, so I’m slightly exaggerating but you get my point). If you get inked for sentimental rather than fashionable reasons, you can feel completely out of place.
But as I step into the warmth of Telford’s International Centre, I instantly feel relaxed. Families in winter coats and wellies supping hot chocolate, guys in jeans and hoodies… and I definitely saw at least two onesies today. Straight away, there’s no judging anyone’s appearance, no staring, nothing flash, nothing pretentious. Just a room full of friendly Brummies, a bouncy castle, and the friendly buzzing sound of hundreds of people in sheer pain.
There is a sea of smiley faces and people who genuinely want to talk to potential clients. Few artists are fully-booked for the day, so many are looking for walk-up business, meaning artists are welcoming, chatty and open. The fact that the convention just runs for one day too definitely adds to that upbeat atmosphere. No one’s feeling like it’s groundhog day.
There’s a real variety of artists here in terms of style and experience, which is great because it means there is something for everyone no matter your price range and taste. I enjoyed checking out Sarah Cooper from Sutton Coldfield (moth tattoo below); Hollie-May (The Old Smithy Tattoo Parlour); Mim Tattoo Artist, Hamworthy; and Folklore Tattoo Studio, Tamworth (Groot tattoo below).
There were some unusual and intriguing shops too. Taxidermy lovers Cranfield’s Curiosity Cabinet were selling everything from bats, to butterflies, magpies and skulls.
At lunch I chat to a client, Katy, who is a long time customer of Jo at Creative Body Art, Coventry. She isn’t getting inked at the convention and says she’s found someone she loves in Jo. For her, it’s not all about the art. It’s about the artist. The most important thing is finding somewhere to get tattooed where you feel comfortable. Where you can be yourself. Where you feel at home.
The highlight of the day was my own ink. I was excited to get my first convention tattoo from Alice Perrin from Dermagraphica Tattoo, Hereford. An intricate, delicate heart that she was keen to tattoo at the convention and caught my eye as it was right up my street.
Within half an hour, we’ve learnt about each other’s lives, tattoo interests, tattoo mistakes and regrets. I’ve met the rest of the team from the studio, gossiped to Alice’s parents, met her boyfriend and eaten half a jar of sweets. The time has flown. In the blink of an eye I’m being cling-film-ed up and saying goodbye. That’s exactly what every person should experience from their first, second, or umpteenth time in the tattoo chair – that feeling like you’re completely yourself, not worrying about anyone around you, absorbing the moment and feeling relaxed and completely yourself with your tattoo artist.
Seems simple but I know it doesn’t always happen that way. I’ve heard it from other clients, artists and seen it at conventions. Different things are important to different clients, but I begin to understand that for me, my connection with an artist or studio can often have more value to me than my connection to the actual art.
In the afternoon I touch base with my friends at Sutton Ink. I had recently been chatting to co-owner Chris Salt about growing their business through social media. His business partner Simon Pateman opened Cannock Ink 2 years ago, and earlier this year opened sister studio Sutton Ink (bringing Chris on board). They are both thinking a lot about effectively managing two studios online and how they can best connect with their clients through different sites and social feeds.
Chris really wants to understand the client journey every step of the way. “That’s the most important thing to me, at the moment. A large majority of people enquire about a tattoo, might come in for a chat or just email, and then we never hear from them again. I really want to understand the reasons behind why they might change their mind. Also to make sure we are connecting with them, and they are getting the best customer service possible.”
How they make their clients feel is clearly a huge focus for the two studios. Customer service is the top of Chris’ list, and with a huge social media following and growing studios, he must be getting something right.
In reviewing this tattoo convention, I realise I have left myself little space to talk about tattoo art. Yet, one of the things I have learnt in setting up this blog, and chatting to people yesterday, is that the art speaks for itself, and it’s the other interesting thoughts that spring to mind that can often give artists and studios the voice that they need to reach out to new potential clients.
With every person I’ve come into contact with today, I’ve learnt that the way you’re made to feel sitting in the chair is absolutely vital. I moved back to the Midlands because I missed that familiarity, that sense of home, and the same’s for tattooing. If you find your tattoo studio home, you’ll return time and time again, and recommend your home to other friends.
The vibe all day has been chilled, laid-back and friendly. There’s nothing else needed to say, really. If you’re looking for your first convention, take a trip to Telford next January, you too might find your new tattoo convention home.