Covid and the Convention. Can tattoo conventions survive 2021?
Many see tattoo conventions as the beating heart of the industry, but Covid has hit that heart hard. Now as we enter our second year of lockdowns, the future of tattoo convention is under threat. Yayo sent out writer Matt Haddon-Reichardt to find out if tattoo conventions can survive the relentless pressure of Covid-19.
Fraser Williams, from the Maidstone Tattoo Extravaganza, is facing the grim reality of Covid lockdown.
“Covid has killed our convection and completely screwed up our finances. It costs me £27000 to hire the venue and cover bins, waste, water, electric and the like. We had last year’s fee transferred to this year but we won’t be running in 2021; and the venue have now taken our deposit. That’s the convention £3750 out of pocket. I can’t get the money back to the artists and traders who have booked with us as it’s already been invested. In a lose/lose situation; it sucks. If people can’t work, they can’t earn and if they don’t have cash flow then their business could go bust. So even if the convention happens next year we could be in a situation where artists and traders are no longer available to make bookings.”
While the majority of artists I speak to love conventions Fraser feels raw economics could get in the way.
“If tattooists can’t tattoo and studios can’t open then there is no money. In this situation booking a convention is low down the list of priorities.”
Like many passionate about tattooing, money isn’t Fraser’s major motivation.
“I started the convention 4 years ago; just me and my wife set it up. We are small and independent and that’s what people like about us. We don’t give out awards, instead we celebrate every artist who works at the convention. When you look at it awards mean fuck all; artists only get better by bettering themselves and sharing knowledge and experience. Tattooing shouldn’t be about one-upmanship. If we have no competitions then we have no rivalry, it creates a more relaxed atmosphere. Some trophy given out based on arbitrary tastes or opinions isn’t really worth much, in the grand scheme of things.”
"It’s a lot of expense and hard work, but I do it because I love it."
“Like most industries, those outside of it don’t see the hard work and detail that goes into planning and running a successful convention. The punters just see the glitz and glamour and the artists have their own focus. But you need so much to get a convention set up; all the tables, banners, lengths of electrical cable, not to mention how you store and move it all. It’s a lot of expense and hard work, but I do it because I love it. Running a tattoo convention is the best job in the world.”
I wanted to get a tattooists perspective on conventions being cancelled so I got in touch with Yayo sponsored artist Gary Chase; a man who is never short of an opinion. He personally has not missed the convention circuit.
“I've stayed a little further from conventions recently, too much politics for me, happier in my own environment with my head down although I really should push myself to do a couple when things are back to normal. I don't believe it's affected me or tattooing at all, currently we are being hounded by old and prospective clients desperate to get in, we've been asked if we can do lock ins, home visits etc; which we have of course said no to. But this moulds my personal opinion to be that if anything the boredom of lockdown has given people, if anything, more time to consider tattoos.”
"That may impact the public appetite if certain big names aren't there or familiar faces they circuit around.”
In the tattoo scene, conventions are often regarded as the life blood for generating new customers. But in the age of social media they have started to take more of a back seat. Gary does not think a couple of years of convention cancellations will damage tattooing.
“No absolutely not for the same reasons above; convection cancellations will not harm artists. I would guess at least 90% of our clientele are typically people that either do not attend conventions or have maybe attended one or 2 out of curiosity.”
One aspect that will help kick start conventions is artists hunger to get back and tattoo in public. Gary is not feeling particularly hungry for this.
“I may be wrong here as I can only speak for myself, but as much as I'm looking forward to tattooing it's going to be immensely overwhelming even coming back to the studio so I would guess a lot of artists are probably feeling the same way and want to adjust to life back to normal before straying away from the studio again. That may impact the public appetite if certain big names aren't there or familiar faces they circuit around.”
The Scottish Tattoo Convention has been hit as hard as any other. I spoke to show runner Jim; he was sad that the convention had lost a decade of momentum.
“Well we had had our first edition of Scottish Tattoo Convention in 2011, and we were looking forward to our 10th show in 2020. We had to postpone in 2020, 2 weeks or so before the show in March. We won’t run in 2021, hopefully we will be able to go ahead in 2022.”
“We are a midsized show, around 180-200 artists, but we have been fortunate enough to have a strong line up since day one; meaning we are one of the more sought after shows to attend as an artist. The show itself is run as a small, family style show, by Tattooists, so I think we do well at looking after everyone.”
“We have received zero financial support from the Government."
Government support for tattoo conventions has sadly been lacking.
“We have received zero financial support from the Government. The show doesn’t have employees, etc so we aren’t looking for anything. The business has been run properly, we have high overheads, but no one takes a wage or spends any of the shows money, so it can continue to run and grow.”
Jim disagrees with Gary and thinks people will be itching to get back to conventions.
“I think people will be excited to go back, I know we are, but it will depend on what measures we have to enforce. We already have sinks for wash bank of booths, so shared by 2-3 artists, 2.2m booths, and fairly good distancing, but this may not be enough. If it goes similar to Rome or Barcelona, with individual glass enclosures, single sinks, etc. I think the costs to put a show on or attend as a working artist will be too prohibitive for most.”
“We will do our best to ensure the core of the show remains the same, the artists and people attending are our priority.”
“This is a passion for me more than a business."
Back in Maidstone, despite all the setbacks, Fraser is maintaining a level of optimism; after all the show must go on.
“This is a passion for me more than a business. Insurance companies may be pulling out of the convention scene due to Covid but I’m not. I’m sticking to the rules, at home and work, and we will be back. We have had zero government support, because we are an event and there is no way of predicting our turnover. Everything is in mothballs and good to go for 2022; we just need the people on both sides of the needle to come back.”
“In 2019 I made £4500 and then donated 10% of that out to charity. I do it for love; it’s the best feeling in the world building something and seeing the smile of people’s faces when they walk through the door.”
As soon as Covid is an ugly memory, Jim, Fraser and the other survivors will be back and conventions will be up and running again. We just all need to support them; because once lost some will struggle to return.
A final thought from the author: "I'm not a big fan of conventions. That's probably because the ones I've been too were over commercialised, expensive and dull. But after talking to Fraser and Jim, I'm itching to go and meet them and check out their fabulous family run affairs. We really need to pull together and make sure these homegrown conventions can survive. I'll see you guys in 2022. Oh, and of course I'll be getting tattooed at both and I'll be healing those tattoos with Yayo. If you want the best then use the best; use Yayo!"
Yayo, be part of the family!
Words by Matt Haddon-ReichardtImages by contributing interviewees, as credited, Yayo and NHS England