Ink Inc. Why having a tattoo is no longer taboo

With 1.5 million Britons getting one each year, it's not the sign of rebellion it once was, discovers Sarah Morrison at the UK's biggest inking show

When the comedian Harry Hill fronted an advert for T-Mobile earlier this year called "What Britain Loves", he proudly stated that Britain loves gardening, marching bands, nostalgia and – er – tattoos. One person who would not disagree with him is Stacey Evans. Sitting in a corner, facing the wall, she is an object of stillness amid a blur of mohicans, burlesque artists, BMX dancers and scores of inked arms, legs and torsos at London's Olympia exhibition hall, hosting the Great British Tattoo Show, believed to be the country's biggest ever.

The 25-year-old accountant from West Yorkshire is nervous and visibly uncomfortable as an artist's needle hovers. This is her ninth tattoo, adding to the Salvador Dali-inspired design on her back. She laughs as she describes how, "drunk, at a Christmas party, my boss once told me to 'Cover 'em up'." But, while she says she takes care to wear coloured shirts at work so her tattoos stay out of view, she adds: "Our generation is much more open. A girl at work also has one, hidden on her foot."

It is not just the accountant at the next desk who might surprise you. When the wife of the Conservative Prime Minister wears one – a dolphin, below the ankle – it is hard to maintain the illusion that people with tattoos are part of a rebellious underground scene. One-fifth of Britons are now inked, according to a recent survey. Roughly 1.5 million tattoos are drawn each year, and some 14 per cent of teachers wear them.

For Sion Smith, editor of Skin Deep, the UK's best-selling tattoo magazine, the industry – said to be worth £80m – is in "flux". Despite receiving notifications of 250 studios opening each year – a rate he calls "unprecedented" – he says it is moving away from large studios to bespoke parlours, where clients and artists collaborate to create "pieces of art".

Louis Molloy is best known as David Beckham's tattoo artist. When he started in 1981, he says there were just 200 studios across the country; now there are an estimated 1,500.

"Back then, it was very much a minority thing. There weren't a huge number of people tattooed; it was looked down upon," he says. Seasoned artists today earn £50,000 a year.

Having spent 40 hours tattooing the UK's best-known footballer, Mr Molloy has experienced first-hand the increased scrutiny the industry receives. Beckham's Hindi script tattoo, on his left forearm, was criticised for its supposed mistranslation of Victoria, something Mr Molloy disputes. "It was always supposed to be a phonetic translation," he says, "I had it professionally translated by a guy whose own wife was called Victoria. David was cool with it."

More than 12,000 people are expected at Olympia this weekend. There are 130 artists there and an estimated 600 tattoos will be inked on skin. Customers include Ryan Middlebrook, 17, from London, who already has two, and 60-year-old London cab driver, Duncan Burbrudge, who is getting his 16th – a James Dean portrait on his leg. It is impossible to stereotype the customers. Half-naked exhibitionists mingle with families in the convention's dining area.

For Shelley Bond, the show's organiser, tattooing is now "very much a middle-class activity". Saira Hunjan, 31, dubbed the "girl with the golden needle", fits into this narrative. Having been introduced to the Primrose Hill set – including Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Jude Law – through a friend, her art can now be seen on their bodies. The swallows she drew on Moss's back became a staple image in the supermodel's Topshop campaign, and her customers now join a three-year waiting list. "Tattooing is now recognised as an art form," says the artist, who lives in Wales and is in the process of collaborating with luxury brands. "People are pushing the boundaries even more."

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