Monday, January 31, 2011

Rites of Passage: Tattoo Festival

Do the names Steve Byrne, Chad Koeplinger, Stacie Jascott or Erin Chance mean anything to you? Na, me neither. It seems these names, amongst others, mean a great deal in the tattoo community and the Rites of Passage Tattoo and Art Festival invited a couple of hundred of these peeps to show off their skills here in Melbourne.

It’s a curious concept, that of the Tattoo convention. Perhaps not so curious for industry types, who reap the obvious advantages of network development and exchange of ideas, but for the general public it’s a struggle to understand the benefits beyond the collection of tattoos from artists otherwise inaccessible. By attempting to entice the populous through other means—a mix of tattooing with visual art and live artistic performances—this festival’s aim was to bring tattooing out of the dark and to the people in non-threatening and entertaining surrounds. The trouble with this theory is that tattoo art is so far removed from the underground these days that it’s hardly the eye-popping exposé of days gone by.

The crowd (a mix of hipster types, hippy types, biker types, extreme motocross types and fringe-dwelling types) is sparse on Friday but fills out somewhat over the course of the weekend. Wandering through the open spaces of the Royal Exhibition Building it feels over catered, as if these sorry souls may have travelled from far and wide for naught, though most of the tattooists are working, in fact many are booked solid for the entire weekend.

Outside of the dozens of artists spruiking the en-vogue, bold ‘traditional’ North American fashions (swallows, pin-ups, swords etc), there are treasures to be found in the nooks of the building. If you look hard there are many distinctive variants on the popular styles ranging from floor-working Japanese artists to loin-clothed Mentawi Islander’s tapping out their traditional designs, true-to-life portraiture to German Minimalist ‘naive’ style technicians (scribbles and scrawls). To take time and really absorb all of what is going on here is rather mesmerising, though the over-representation of the bold North American imagery could leave the impression of it being all a little bit same-same—few appear to be really challenging the boundaries.

On the live stages musicians battle with poor sound quality (though to be fair it improves slightly as the weekend progresses), fashion shows roll out, talkers talk, competitions are drawn and carnival types jostle and cajole. There’s a visual art exhibition tucked away in one corner and lashings of merch tables but somehow it feels just a little slapdash. It’s sad to see the quality of Spencer P. Jones, Jess McAvoy or Sydney’s Snowdroppers perform largely unnoticed and you can’t help but feel this festival truly missed the mark in terms of mass public appeal. Fetishist Madame Lash pulls a decent crowd and Lucky Diamond Rich (arguably the most tattooed man in the world) impresses with his machete juggling and unicycle gags but really, with a sixty-dollar-a-day price tag the numbers just aren’t there and those who are seem focused on gathering ink.

Walking off into Carlton Gardens I wonder whether it’s been an enjoyable experience and I figure for the most part it has. Having browsed the stalls, garnered a nice piece of ink for myself and drank beer with members of Melbourne’s tattoo elite, I reckon I’ve done okay. Still, a question needles me (boom boom): Is the Rites of Passage ‘Festival’ more a convention under the guise of a celebration? A small distinction perhaps, but an important one for the paying public.

Samson McDougall