Interview with Robert Allen, NI Tattoo Convention Organiser
NI Tattoo Convention

1/ Why did you decide to start up the NI Tattoo Convention?

Basically what happened was, we opened a shop in the Waterside in L’Derry, that was 5yrs ago. There was a show running in Derry, and we went to it, and realised there was none in Belfast. We looked into it and found various reasons why there hadn’t been a show here in about eleven years – my background is in running events and PR/advertising, so we opened the shop and a year later we investigated the idea of running a tattoo convention in Belfast. So we did our homework and got it organised, got the artists, and four years down the line we haven’t looked back!

2/ What’s been the hardest part of getting it going – and keeping it going?

The hardest part is you’ve got to keep improving – you have to do something better every year. The Ulster Hall is pretty much as it is, we’ve been here every year, and we’re also booked to come back next year. The Ulster Hall people are very good to us, and they do a very good job and the facilities are very good. This year we’ve about seventy artists, so it’s quite a few, but although it’s tight enough, there’s a good atmosphere. A lot of artists are telling us about shows around Europe and the rest of the world and sometimes there isn’t that atmosphere, there could be up to 300 artists and the atmosphere isn’t that good. So whether we will move the show or not, we’re still looking to the future and how we can adapt – this year we put in the massive LED television. Last year we had a couple of projector screens but we weren’t happy with the quality of what the public were seeing with the tattoos and the judging. So the cost is quite a bit more this year, but you can see the difference in the quality of what people can see this year. People are actually going up to the balcony to sit and watch the judging, so it’s all good that way. So it has been hard but you just have to improve.

3/ How do you decide on each artist?

This year we turned away probably 20- 30 artists. We try to get a balance between artists from Ireland and here in Northern Ireland and an international blend. With the help of Chris Crooks this year, and Helen from Skullduggery, and Craig Kelly to a certain extent, we have achieved a very high international artist list, to the extent that I was contacted earlier in the week by the Amsterdam Tattoo Convention (Gideon) – because they’re a week after us, they want us to link up with them next year, and try and bring the artists that are here over to Amsterdam the week after us. So after the show finishes we’ll get down to planning and organising it, and see how things go, so we’re going to get a wee trip to Amsterdam next week.

4/ How does it feel walking around during the convention and seeing lots of happy faces?

It’s really good! It’s what you want to see. There’s a great atmosphere; there’s no egos in the show, people are talented enough to be comfortable in their own right. And I have to say there is a lot of competition for the awards: a lot of artists plan what they’re going to do – some of the artists may only do 2 pieces in 2 days, while some guys just do walk-ins. But this year there’s artists from Samoa, Taiwan, Germany, France, Brazil, Poland, Italy…so there’s quite a blend of international artists. And then you have the likes of the local shops like White Dragon, Skinworks, Skullduggery – all good shops, and those people have been in the industry for a long time, it’s good to have them here. And without the local shops it’s difficult to think that you could run a show, you always have to add a local aspect to a show – there should still be an international section but we still need our local shops.

5/ Finally, what does the future hold for the convention?

Obviously both (local and international artists). Next year we’re still at the Ulster Hall, we’re gonna talk to them about a few ideas we have, the show has to grow to succeed. We know the numbers of people who have come to the shows, and we’re not far away (from capacity) with the space we have. That’s not to say we’re going to leave the Ulster Hall. We could be here for a few years to come yet – it’s a big decision to leave here, it’s one we wouldn’t take lightly! So we’re watching with interest what happens with other conventions around Ireland to see how they’re going. Galway’s on shortly, and you have Midleton which is the oldest convention in Ireland – all of those are very good shows. Then there’s Dublin and so on, in fact Paddy (O’Donaghue, organiser of the Dublin show) will be up here today. We get on well with all of the conventions around Ireland – Tattoo TV were here yesterday, they run the Galway show and they’re good guys to know. So we shall see.