Over the summer, I’ve had visits from two friends, one from London and the other from Paris, the two biggest urban areas in Europe and a major pull for trend amenders. It therefore surprised me when both friends remarked that the first thing they noticed in Stockholm was not the beautiful buildings or the nearness of water – it was in fact the preponderance of tattoos. It’s said that Sweden has the highest number of tattoo studios per capita in the world, with something like 2,000 tattoos being done on a daily basis by some of the best artists in the business, many of them hailing from outside the country. I’ve been told that every third Stockholmer has a tattoo, which means that everyone is rolling up their sleeves these days, from your average Hornstull hipster and hanger-on to lawyers and librarians. Like it or not, tattoos have ceased to be just for the marginalized and now belong to the mainstream. But how the heck did this happen, and why is relatively tame Stockholm in the vanguard of something as radical as tattooing?
House of Pain is a Hornstull-based tattoo studio known world-wide for its award-winning work and has been featured in some of the biggest international conventions and tattoo magazines. Together with Tattoo Soul, they started what is now the biggest tattoo convention in Sweden, Ink Bash, which celebrated its 17th anniversary on the last weekend of August at Münchenbryggeriet, Ink Bash’s reputation has grown to such an extent that it is able to handpick the participating international artists.
“When I left Sweden to live overseas for a few years there was only a handful of studios in Stockholm, but when I returned there was a huge number, and all of them of a very high quality,” says Lou Paulin at House of Pain. “It goes to show that tattooing has lately become of mainstream interest, which has much to do with the constant growing media exposure, whereas before our work was almost a bit secret and could be a little intimidating. Now I get friends of my mother asking me things like if a piece was ‘freehand’ (drawn directly on the skin) or if I used a stencil!”
“The tattoo community and tattoo enthusiasts everywhere are becoming more aware of the possibilities in getting something custom-made and personal. Much of that is thanks to the evolvement of equipment and as a result, individual artists are gaining a huge momentum more than ever. I believe addiction is in people’s personality and if you find something that you like or can express yourself through or identify with you get attached and make it a part of your lifestyle.”
When Nille was just 13, he visited an exhibition at the East Asian Museum that was all about Japanese tattoos. Completely fascinated by it, it opened his eyes to the art form and started him on the path of becoming a tattoo artist and eventually the founder of Salvation Tattoo, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, specializes in Japanese-style tattoos.
“When you get your first tattoo it’s very exciting, and when you’ve taken that step you realize it’s not that big a deal and you want more!” he says when explaining why many people become ‘tattoo junkies’ after getting their first. “Symmetry plays into it as well; you feel like you have something on one arm and you want something on the other to get some balance.”
“Nowadays basically anybody gets tattoos. In the 80s and 90s you were really against the mainstream by getting tattoos, but now you’re against the mainstream if you don’t have them! You can still find your own unique genre within tattoos though. When I started out in the late 90s, people would come into the shop and basically just look through the design and point. Now that’s very rare and people are designing for themselves. One big trend we see now that didn’t exist when I started out is the kind of tattoo that looks homemade, usually associated with hipster culture. It’s supposed to look simple and not perfect and although I can appreciate that style, I could never do a technically bad tattoo, that would be against everything I’m trying to accomplish with my skills.”
“In the late 90s, tattoos started to be more than just something for subcultures. There was a bit of a snowball effect when rock stars and football players started getting them, and then the fans followed. Swedes are very sensitive to trends and when they do something they love they get really loyal to it. Swedes are trend-followers in general and once an interest arrives it’s very consistent from then on – things go from being just a trend to something much more permanent. We also have the need to express ourselves more quietly, rather than being more social and outgoing, and getting a tattoo is a good example of this quiet expression.”
Like many tattoo artists, Max Stålhammar had been into art while growing up. In 1994 he started putting ink on skin, and in 2008 he founded his very own tattoo studio, Stockholm Classic Tattoo. “A good tattoo can make you feel good about yourself and how you look. It’s a very personal and powerful thing. Tattoos allow us to stand out in a world where everyone looks the same and give us a chance to put images on our bodies that we choose to say something about ourselves.”
Since opening up shop, Max has noticed a big change in the trends and traditions of the tattooing world. “The clients are very mixed these days. We get conservative doctors, lawyers and bankers, young people, parents, grandparents, everyone basically. The main difference is that some people are making bad decisions and not choosing the right artist for the job, resulting in terrible tattoos. But in the end it’s of course a matter of opinion what looks nice and the most important thing is that the person wearing the tattoo likes it.”
“Over the past few years there have been so many new tattoo artists in Stockholm and many are very talented. There’s actually been a rise in all metropolitan areas in the past five to seven years when it comes to tattoos. Plenty of celebrities, musicians and athletes are getting tattooed and these types of people inspire the masses. And the internet and television as well as tattoo magazines have brought the art form out of the gutter and into the limelight.”
Henrik Wiman had been working as a special effects make-up artist and graphic designer for 20 years before turning to tattoos at the age of 35. “I’d always wanted to do it but didn’t dare to, so my girlfriend had to give me a kick in the backside. I’ve been doing it now for eight years and it really suits me. What made me stick with it was that I wasn’t really into the commercial world and liked the vibe of the tattoo world better. Tattooing lets you express yourself as an artist more freely, but also in collaboration with the customer, so you develop a deeper understanding.”
Henrik works out of East Street Tattoo, a legendary industry-leading tattoo studio at the edge of Sofo. “We see every kind of social group coming through here, from posh Östermalm judges to boho Södermalm hipsters. What’s great about this line of work is that you get a level of intimacy that you don’t really reach by just talking at the pub for instance. If you want someone to put something on your skin that you will have for the rest of your life, the chemistry is important. Getting a tattoo is both a physical and an emotional process. It gets your adrenaline and endorphins worked up. It’s a minor pain but the body likes the rush. When you’ve crossed that barrier it’s easy to continue. If something is intriguing and tantalizing, you keep on doing it. I would even go as far as to say it’s spiritually enhancing.”
“We are really open to trends here in Stockholm, and we have a lot of different cultures and a very creative vibe. Tattoos are more accepted now for sure, but I wouldn’t quite say mainstream as they’re still not accepted in all environments. I think the big change was when the sport stars started getting tattoos. That was the bridge between the pirates and the ordinary people. If Beckham has a tattoo, it should be okay for a bank worker to have one. The quality has gone up as well. 30 years ago it was more about just getting the tattoo, not about how well it was done or what it was. Now it’s more about what kind of tattoo you have. The real enthusiast gets one tattoo and gets it done really well. I like both styles: the harsh and old ones that have a great story, and the ones that are really crafty and a lot of work has been put into. There aren’t many trends these days; we’ve passed the hype with tribal and Japanese. Now anything goes and that’s really fun.” TS
Photos by Christoffer Ring