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Artisan Tattoo Sandwiches

by Ray van Wyk / Illustration by Colwyn Thomas / 22.02.2013

“Can I sell lick on tattoos on the side?”
“Of course people won’t be happy with you doing that, but I reckon go for it, you’ll be taking that whole convention for a poes, at least you’ll just be a poes to the few people who see you doing it.”
This was the end of the conversation that lead to me selling fancy sandwiches at this year’s tattoo convention at the town hall on Darling St. Cape Town.

After thinking this through for a while I decided against it for two reasons:
1) I couldn’t be arsed to try find large quantities of temporary tattoos at the last minute and,
2) I envisioned burly, inked up, tough-guys would respond in an unappreciative manner towards a sinewy little dweeb taking the piss out of something they had obviously dedicated themselves quite ferociously to. In retrospect I had very little to be concerned about; as your beloved editor nailed the crowd as: “middle aged art fags”.

The tattoo aesthetic is one focused around big cars, big hair, big boobs, big double bass’ and big money. Let’s face it, tattoos are an expensive commodity, one for which the price, like the sandwiches we were selling, compels the consumer to enjoy his or her purchase. This, in turn, creates a sub-culture centred around something that the vast majority of the people involved are not even sure they identify with themselves. Testament to this is the amount of faded ‘bad tat’ pictures circling the internet.

Now, ours being quite a cynical age and yours truly not being immune to pervasive attitudes, it seems somewhat appropriate here to deliver a rambling tirade against the elitist, upper middle class aspects of the convention, but will instead heed the advice given to me by an ex-Mahala employee and choose to rather ignore things that are only bound to lead to blood pressure problems and that no amount of bad press will correct.

What, then, is left to tell? Well I’ll start with the first misconception about the convention, the fact that it was more of a marketplace than a ‘gathering of people with a common interest’. Secondly, for a tattoo expo there was surprisingly little attention focused on the more substantial elements of tattoo culture such as the art and history of tattooing – the only event hosted by the organisers I could find was a documentary screening two days in advance and clearly labelled on the website as “NB! This special screening is by INVITE ONLY”. I fail to see what early morning burlesque shows have to do with tattoos. Add to this the vendors selling everything from clothing to shades and embroidered scatter cushions and you start to get the picture.

Secondly tending a food stall at a tattoo expo exposes one to the subtle human aspects of otherwise stereotyped individuals, ie. the guy with both his sleeves tattooed not liking tomatoes because they made the bread ‘all soggy’ or the intimidatingly hot Dutch tattoo artist who couldn’t be more polite in asking and constantly thanking us for every step in the preparation of her sandwich.

It makes you wonder then why the tough guy and rough girl stereotypes of tattooing’s public image are still so prevalent. Is this just the proverbial small man syndrome in another form? The guy with a freakishly small penis over-compensating by doing donuts in the parking lot in his souped up V8? That is to say, is every person covered with tattoos outwardly compensating for some intrinsic inner lack?

I doubt that these counter-stereotypes in themselves hold much validity either; I suppose that when tattoos started becoming a marker for rebellion during the 50’s and 60’s and you were dealing with a Hell’s Angel, all too happy to smash your teeth out for a dirty look, it was useful for your survival to pigeonhole these guys and avoid them where possible. These days tattooing has become assimilated into the mainstream culture which demands manners, comfort and enjoyment above all else. The tattoo scene still trades on the old ethos of fear and loathing, mainly for its own credibility, but it comes across as a strange paradox, one that rendered the expo quite comical. Hopefully next year we’ll see more of the reasoning, history and artistic motivations for tattoos on display, then again, a no rules cage fight followed by a Suicide Girls strip show would probably do more for ticket sales.

*Illustration © Colwyn Thomas.

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