London is a never-ending carnival of faces, stories and lifestyles and it seems to me that tattoos are the trickster at this carnival, jumping up and down the streets, changing faces and colours and disobeying conventional behavior. If you are not familiar with the concept of the carnivalesque, however, you should know that it contains the inevitable insinuation of kitsch. I met Shoreditch based tattoo artist Henry Hate for a short discussion on self-expression, social media, excess and the loss of individuality in tattoo culture nowadays.
“Tattoos have now become something like jeans. It has just become commonplace. Now your mom can take you to a shopping mall to get a tattoo.”
With these words tattoo artist Henry Hate opens the discussion about tattoos. Hate is the founder of Shoreditch’s first and longest running tattoo studio Prick Tattoo & Piercing. He is now 47-years-old and has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. I met Hate in his tattoo shop located on 386, Old Street, at the heart of the hipster paradise in East London.
Henry talks about tattooing with respect and nostalgia. According to him what has taken the mystery out of tattooing in the past 20 years is the change in the kids. “Kids now are talking about tradition, but they nothing about tradition,” he explains. Tradition has become a blurred concept, subjugated to fashion. “Tattoos used to be an emblem of individuality, but now you have all these tattoos that are the same. Because of the lack of variety we’ve now been conditioned to think the same. No disrespect to certain tattoos, but it just becomes too cookie-cutter, Kids are all trying to catch what’s modern and it isn’t about individuality anymore They’re kind of like, ‘oh, this is what will make me appear cooler’. You can’t be cool forever and I think that a lot of the kids right now are more interested in the instant gratification.”
The spreading lack of patience and the desire of instant satisfaction are due to great extend to the role of social media in the everyday life of the young generation. “We have a generation of young kids that are under 25 who just have the patience and the attention span of a fruit fly. They just click next, next, next… And it’s easy for someone to say like, like, like, but they don’t retain anything” – Hate continues – “You know, I’m 47 and I still have space to get a tattoo, I’m in no rush. I think that now because of the digital age there is an instant “I need it now, I want it now” mentality.”
Despite thinking that nowadays kids have less appreciation for the tattoo art, Hate doesn’t stand behind the common belief that all tattoos should have a great story behind them. “It doesn’t have to be that you overcame cancer or you lost your dog in World War II. It is because you choose to do it, but with so many kids or younger people going on YouTube, it’s kind of taking the mystery out of it. Now the identity of a person within social media is overblown, it’s artificial. In real life you have to carry on and do what you need to do without following a current trend and that’s where the individual comes through. “
They say that wherever you are in London, you are unlikely to be more than 6ft away from a rat and it seems that something similar is happening with tattoo shops. Hate began his path in tattooing about two decades ago and talks about the dying tradition of the apprenticeship in a tattoo shop: “Traditionally you had someone going to a tattoo shop show their drawings, volunteer the time free charge and hope they earn the artist’s trust – get keys, mop the floors, do whatever. Over the course of two years you learn, trade secrets and then you develop your own skill. That’s gone now. Now you have tattoo shops where all the tattooists are under 30 and they compile their time of work experience together – it’s like “we have 40 years of experience”, and they’re all under 30, how is that possible? It’s ridiculous.”
What’s even more ridiculous for Hate is the mentality of the young people, impatient to cover themselves with symbols they don’t fully understand: “Kids now are covered from the chin down. Tattooing has become this new subculture and I think everything evolves to a certain degree but it’s almost laughable that some of them think “oh, I’m being traditional”. Just because you have a traditional tattoo doesn’t mean you value traditional ethics.”
Is tattooing going to become a fully digested from the modern society trend then? “Now tattoos are a current trend and I think there will be a backlash. How can I say it, trendy is the final stage before tacky. It won’t surprise me if it goes through a phase where people go “okay, I’m going to be anti- tattoo”.
Despite the somehow nostalgic character of our discourse, we ended our discussion on a positive note with Hate’s belief that being a tattoo artist in contemporary London is rewarding after all. “The loveliest thing that someone can do is share with you in a small timeframe their life, you kind of get to know them. When they recommend a loved one to you, you feel like you’ve been invited into their circle. Social media does not do that. When you’re invited to a group of family members or loved ones through recommendation it’s rewarding. This is the real sign of approval. Awards don’t mean anything anymore, but when you see the smile on someone’s face at the end of it… It’s like someone giving you a black and white butterfly and you painting it how you want it to look and then send it off. And then someone sees it and comes to you because they really like how this butterfly looks.”
Do you think that tattoos in contemporary London have turned from a traditional way of self- expression into a trendy lifestyle accessory? Drop me a line if you have something to say.
Bilyana hopes to do a Masters in the Sociology of Media & Cultures when she’s graduated. “I wanted to blog about tattoos because it is inspiring to have a visual record of the ideas and words that I like. In Bulgaria it is a mark of a specific subculture that I’m part of and feel connected to. It’s a way of belonging.”