Photo from Inside the London Tattoo Convention: beerandnoodles

Follow along with Lauren Quinn as she walks you through five top destinations for the tattooed traveler, their tattoo history and icons.
The Big Deal: London

Getting invited to work the London Tattoo Convention does for a tattoo artist what winning a Pulitzer does for a novelist. The prestigious event features the crème de la crème of the tattoo world, and an invitation pretty much seals your career for life. In 2008, the event drew 20,000 visitors—and they weren’t just there to bring home skin souvenirs from the world’s best working artists.

Photo from Inside of Frith St.: slushpup

The London Tattoo Convention showcases the heart and soul of tattoo culture with art exhibitions, an anthropological exhibition highlighting the history of tattooing by the Oxford Tattoo Museum, and burlesque performances by the ubiquitous Suicide Girls. The 2009 installment will be held at the Tobacco Dock September 25-27 and day tickets are 20 pounds.

London became the home to the world’s biggest tattoo convention by being one of the world’s best tattoo destinations. The roots of tattoo culture run deep, in large part due to its 19th century popularity among the British Navy. Check out how the modern-day shops are holding it down at Into You Tattoo and Frith Street.

Tradition: Tokyo Area

Tattooing wouldn’t be what it is today without the influence of Japan. A national tradition dating back to the 17th century, tattooing was associated with the criminal underworld of the Yakuza and outlawed for nearly a hundred years. Legal since 1945, and increasingly less stigmatized, the Irezumi style has had a permanent impact on Western tattooing.

The greatest living tattoo artist lives just outside of Tokyo in Yokohama. Horiyoshi III apprenticed under Horiyoshi I, and is the second tattooist to be bestowed with the honorific “Hori” title, which translates to “engrave.”

Photo of two of Horiyashi III’s Living Canvases:
Good Nights Are Rare

Horiyoshi III and his wife run the Yokohama Tattoo Museum, a pilgrimage site for tattoo junkies around the world. More than just photos and traditional tools, the tiny two-floor museum features the stuff he collects: shrunken heads, stuffed tigers, and letters from Charles Manson, to name some of the more noteworthy curios.

Can’t afford a $20,000 tattoo session with Horiyoshi III? Yellow Blaze in Yokohama, and Inkrat, and Tokyo Hardcore Tattoo in Tokyo uphold the traditions of Japanese tattooing with a modern edge.

Thriving Culture: San Francisco Bay Area

Spend some time in the Bay Area, and you’ll immediately see the prevalence of tattoo culture. Schoolteachers and waiters in fine-dining make no attempt to hide their ink, and full sleeves barely elicit a glance on the street.

Photo of Black Heart: ecastro

How did it get this way? Long before the rise of the Haight, in nearby ports and naval bases tattooing already had a long tradition with working and navy men. In the 1960s, when the city was under the siege of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, Lyle Tuttle catapulted the underground art into the mainstream by tattooing the likes of Janis Joplin.

Meanwhile, Ed Hardy was incorporating Japanese techniques via his friendship with Horiyoshi III. While the art of tattooing was heavily stigmatized and even illegal in most of the U.S., San Francisco became a haven for tattooists, the tattooed, and the other self proclaimed freaks of the nation.

Ed Hardy’s Tattoo City is still pumping out ink, but it’s best to hit up some of the new kids in town. While there are scores of good shops and killer artists, some of the tops include San Francisco’s Black Heart, Oakland’s Temple and San Jose’s State of Grace.

Underground Culture: New York City

For the city where modern tattooing was born, you sure don’t see a lot of heavily tattooed people in New York City. You can chalk that up to the 36-year ban on tattooing in the state of New York, which forced artists to go underground, tattooing from basement shops and backrooms. An underground culture evolved and the tight-knit New York Tattoo Society advocated for a reversal of the ban, at last succeeding in 1997.

Photo of Fun City Tattoo: Dyanna

With tattooing now above ground, New York City is finally reemerging as the tattoo destination it always deserved to be (and always kind of was). You can grab a piece of history at Fun City Tattoo, where an homage to the original owner’s fuck-you to the ban still hangs: the “Cappuccino and Tattoo” sign that flaunted plenty of double letters and illegal tattooing.

Check out the burgeoning scene at Dare Devil Tattoo, home to some of the city’s best tattoo artists and a smoking hot clientele. New York Adorned is a stylish piercing studio, tattoo shop and jewelry store in one, while Brooklyn’s Smith Street and Fly Rite modify patrons across the bridge.

Be prepared to pay a little more than you might expect. New York City’s high rents mean most shops start at $150 per hour.

Off-the-Radar: Milan

Photo Inside the Milan 2007 Convention: Ko_An

Really? Yes.

It doesn’t get the buzz of other big cities, but fashion-capital Milan has slowly come up as Italy’s tattoo epicenter by being home to one of Europe’s best conventions. In its 14th year, the Milan Tattoo Convention, held in February, draws many of the same names as the London convention, with a hefty helping of Italian national pride.

You’ve got dancers, burlesque shows and punk bands, but also quirkier features like tattoo tarot, an exhibition solely on hand tattooing, and the Miss Pin-Up Tattoo beauty contest. And all with a lot less hype than London.

If you’re not in town during for the February convention, Primordial Pain and Quetzal Tattoo offer a taste of Italian tattooing all year long.

Community Connection

Can’t read enough about tattoos? Check out Kate Sedgwick’s photo essay on the Tattoo Show of Buenos Aires or her essay about what the prevalence of tattoo culture is doing to destroy itself.

Do you have something to say about that tattoo you picked up in your travels? Start a Matador Blog today and start telling our growing community your stories.