Portsmouth is preparing to play host to tattoo artists from across the world. RACHEL JONES meets some of the ink masters on the local scene.
With bright ink dotting his jeans and shoes, Darren Stares carries the marks of his trade.
And so do his clients as they walk around with portraits of Bob Marley, Elvis, Tommy Cooper, Paul Weller and even Victor Meldrew on their bodies.
As a top tattoo artist Darren is at the forefront of an industry with an ever changing face.
Tattoo parlours have come a long way since the days of back street shops mainly adorning the biceps of burly blokes.
‘It’s more popular now than it’s ever been, partly because of the programmes on TV and celebrities like David Beckham having them,’ says Darren. ‘And people are thinking about what they want. They want something different and come in with their own ideas a lot more.’
These days traders offering the service have varying degrees of skill and talent. There is a higher end of the market and those with the best drawing and design skills regard themselves as artists.
‘There’s more to this than people think,’ says Darren, perhaps because he’s so used to the impressive designs he and his fellow tattoo artists create on people’s bodies.
‘There’s no flat surface in this, everyone’s bodies are different and you have to take that into account. I wouldn’t put a straight line down someone’s arm, you have to work with the shape of the muscles. If I’m putting a dragon on, right down the arm, it still has to work when they bend their arm, almost like it’s moving.
‘But it’s all about the shading really. That’s probably the hardest thing to do. A lot of people get a good outline and basic colour but shading is more difficult.’
Darren owns Portsmouth studio, Unique Tattoo, currently in Commercial Road but moving to Winter Road, and Top Dog in Cosham. He and top body artists from around the world will be showing off their skills at a Tattoo Extravaganza at South Parade Pier on April 16 and 17.
The Southsea venue, once home to a tattoo parlour, will play host to award winners from the USA, UK, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Thailand and Samoa.
Hannah Aitchison, a star of the tattoo parlour reality show LA Ink, will be among those showing their skills at the event and Dan Gold, of UK show London Ink, is also confirmed to appear.
A look at the participants’ websites shows that visitors are in for a feast of design, from the popular wildlife, Japanese inspired and tribal tattoos to variations of those and more unusual creations.
Some of the artists have a very distinctive stamp, like Hannah Aitchison with her vintage pin-up girl designs.
The event has been organised by south coast tattoo artists Reno Sammut and Gary Jones. Reno says it’s a big deal for Portsmouth.
He explains: ‘The city has hosted a convention for the last 11 years but this is something different. Everyone has been hand-picked. They’re some of the best tattoo artists in the world.’
Darren and Reno also consider themselves to be artists. Occasionally they’ve even signed their work. ‘Only when the client’s wanted us to though,’ says Reno
There are hundreds of designs available for people, ranging from pretty and discreet butterflies to tribal patterns filling whole arms.
Some are created using stencils and others are drawn freehand, and the tattooists will work with clients to come up with adaptations and unique designs. Darren is known as a skilful portrait tattooist, but his work incorporates all kinds of designs. He has won awards, including Tattoo Artist of the Year at a top European convention three times.
But he warns that standards in the industry vary to a great extent.
‘For every good tattooist there are 100 bad ones, I reckon. I think if you took just a medium standard in the industry and said everyone had to reach it, you’d wipe out about two-thirds of the shops in the country.’
For Darren, it’s important to be spot on as he’s often in a position of particular responsibility.
‘You feel it when people ask for tattoos of their relatives,’ he says. ‘I had a guy come in recently who wanted a tattoo of his eight-year-old daughter who had died. It’s good doing something like that for people but you really have to do a good job.’
A tattoo is generally for life so he knows he’d better get it right. Fortunately Darren’s confident of his skills but he still likes to say modestly ‘I’m the best in my shop’.
Reno Sammut showed wisdom when he went for his first tattoo as a teenager.
‘I had a ‘mum and dad’ one, you have to keep the parents sweet don’t you,’ he laughs.
Now in his 40s, Darren is covered in designs, including portraits of Elvis, Tommy Cooper and Jim Carrey as The Mask on his legs.
And as a tattoo artist, he has even worked on himself. The portraits were created by his friend Darren Stares but Reno has inked a few designs on his own legs.
‘It’s difficult, because you can stop when it hurts,’ says the owner of Platinum Tattoo in Fareham, Body Images and Body Images 2 in Portsmouth and Body Images USA in Pennsylvania.
Reno talks as he happily works on a pink bow design on the leg of 19-year-old Laura Harvey, who says she’s fast becoming a tattoo addict.
He says body art really started to become a booming industry in the 90s and it’s showing no sign of slowing down. TV shows like, Miami Ink have maintained its profile and celebs like Cheryl Cole inspire plenty of punters.
Reno says about 70 per cent of his clients are now women and when a star of Cheryl’s stature shows off a new design ‘everyone wants one’.
But plenty more come up with their own ideas and adaptations or work on unusual designs with Reno.
He says a good tattoo artist should have imagination – and plenty of knowledge as sometimes customers need advice. ‘Sometimes we have young people asking for the teardrops on the face,’ says Reno’s wife Hayley. ‘We have to tell them that it can mean someone’s had a prison sentence. They don’t realise that.’
But the question on most people’s lips is ‘does it hurt?’ ‘It does, but it’s annoying rather than painful. It’s a light burning sensation. Some people think they’ve gone numb after a while, but they haven’t, they’ve just got used to it. Of course everyone’s pain threshold is different.’
Admiring her new permanent bow, Laura appears to think the discomfort is worth it.
Tattoo Extravaganza runs on April 16 and 17 and will also feature music and entertainment.
Money raised from a raffle of artists’ designs and some of the entertainment will be donated to the Help for Heroes charity.
Tattoo Extravaganza runs from 11am to 1am on the Saturday and 11am until 8pm on the Sunday.
A one day pass is £12 on the door and a two-day pass is £20 on the door.
For more information on the event and advance booking visit tattooextravaganza.co.uk
The oldest known tattoos were found on the 5000 year old body of a Bronze Age hunter, found between Austria and Italy in 1991.
Many royals throughout history have been tattooed. King Harold II had a number of them. After his death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, they were used to identify his body.
A pig tattooed on one foot and a rooster on the other were said to protect a sailor from drowning. Neither animal can swim and it was thought they would help get the sailor swiftly to shore if he fell in the water.
The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ meaning to mark. Tahitians believed that the process of tattooing the body served to contain its sacred power.
Missionaries arriving in the Pacific in the 18th and 19th centuries saw tattooing as a sinful practice and suppressed it on many islands.
Information from the National Maritime Museum – nmm.ac.uk
Reno Sammut and Darren Stares offer advice for anyone thinking of having a tattoo.
1.Select your tattoo artist carefully. Some are better than others and some specialise in certain areas like portraits. So the kind of tattoo you want may influence your choice. Reno says: ‘Go and visit them and have a look at their work. A good tattoo artist won’t mind having a chat and showing you what they do.’ Also, bear in mind that a tattoo is for life and it’s probably worth paying a bit more. ‘It’s up to the customer of course,’ says Darren. ‘But it can be like the difference between a Gucci watch and something from Argos.’
2.Make sure you choose someone who clearly meets health and safety requirements. Currently they have to be registered with Environmental Health.
3.Make sure it’s what you want. Tattoo removal is possible but treatment can be lengthy and expensive.
4.If you have any medical conditions, seek advice from your doctor first. Tattoo studios will ask for medical history and clients must sign a consent form.
5.Consider aftercare. Tattoo studios should issue customers with aftercare advice including avoiding sunburn and swimming during healing and re-applying a cling film dressing.
6.Make sure you fit legal requirements. The minimum age is 18 and body artists will ask for photo ID.