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A tattoo too far

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A tattoo too far
18:00 CEST+02:00
Ben Kersley admires some naked bodies (artistically) and gets a permanent souvenir of Sweden at the Swedish Tattoo Fair in Norrköping.

Decisions Decisions. Should I go for the skeleton playing the cello, a sexy Minnie Mouse smoking a joint or throw all caution to the wind and get the spider's web across the face and neck. There are so many possibilities when considering your first tattoo.

I've never been inked, as the lingo has it, but if there was ever a time or place to do it, the Svenska Tatueringsmässa (Swedish Tattoo Fair) in Norrköping this weekend was it.

Now that the sun has finally come out you realise how popular tattoos are in Sweden. It may be that so little skin is exposed during Sweden's long winters, but come the spring, jackets and long johns are removed and it seems that every second person's body has been a canvas to a tattoo artist.

Luckily, the weekend of the convention was perfect for vests and shorts and as I stood in the queue to go in, I felt all too aware that my skin was very clearly a monotone skin colour. I tried to blend in by adopting an attitude that said ‘Oh yes, I've got one… but it's ladies only'.

I hadn't really made up my mind quite what to get but had decided to shave various parts of my body just in case the mood took me. I am quite hairy and have always been put off getting a tattoo by the idea that once my hair grows back it will ruin the tattoo. I was later told that you could incorporate the hair into the design as a beard, fur or rotting fruit.

The hall was laid out like a standard expo with rows of exhibitors. The only difference was the ambient buzz of tattoo needles coming from behind the stands. Sweden's most accomplished artists were deep in concentration drilling into the red skin of their devotees who were laid out in various states of undress, pain and bloodiness. It was not unlike walking into a First World War field hospital and I began to feel a little nauseous.

I overheard a conversation between a tattooed woman and a photographer who was asking to take a picture of her back. She got a little coy saying that she wasn't just going to take off her dress here on the exhibition floor. She wasn't being reserved; she wanted to save the great unveiling for the competition.

The categories ranged from ‘Best Big One' to ‘Best Small One' via ‘Best Japanese' and ‘Best Old School'. There was no category for ‘Best Left Covered Up'.

The girl was taking part in ‘Best Big One' and shimmied on stage in a thong with one hand over her breasts. Her tattoo, a sort of female pirate standing on a treasure chest and sea dragon, started at her left shoulder and ended on her right thigh. It was massive and impressive enough to stop me gawping at her naked body, momentarily at least.

The judges found out she was from Uppsala (There seemed to be a disproportionate number of competitors from Uppsala and Örebro). It had taken roughly 150 hours to complete and she was really happy with it. I was impressed but the judges disagreed, as she didn't even make the final.

The prize went to a guy whose entire torso was covered with some kind of quasi-religious scene involving God, The Devil and Jesus held in a clenched fist. All I could think about was what it says on his passport under ‘any distinguishing features'.

I asked Mia from Linköping's Federal about what kind of tattoos are popular. I nodded as if I knew what the hell she was talking about as she reeled off a list of tattoo genres that meant nothing to me: ‘Old School, New School, Japanese, Tribal….' and then I got distracted by her body art which went up one arm and down the other.

I'm not sure when she stopped talking, but when she coughed politely, I realised that I was staring intently at her breasts. I was trying to make out what the sailor was doing to the jaguar as the image went below her bra line, and I was too much of a gent to ask.

Could she suggest something typically Swedish for me? She told me that pets are commonly asked for. This would explain the moth eaten parakeet that I saw earlier memorialised in two dimensions on a flabby upper arm. I thought about the pets that we had as kids. There was a terrapin called Gareth, a couple of goldfish and we always seemed to have stick insects although I don't think I loved any of them enough to want to be reminded of them every time I take a bath.

I suggested to Mia that I should get a giant Viking done on my chest as a kind of a keepsake of my time in Sweden. She warned me that Viking imagery is mostly popular with members of Sweden's far right. I think she was trying to tell me that as a dark, hairy foreigner my future wasn't as a poster boy for the Nazis

Quotations or other text in English is becoming more and more popular and that is when inspiration struck. I thanked Mia and ran to the first available tattoo artist. I had thought of something that encapsulates the experience of being a foreigner in Sweden and was also specific to this article and my motivation for coming to the Tattoo Convention.

Time was pressing so I quickly scribbled it down on a piece of paper and shoved it into the steady hands of the artist. I pulled down my trousers, lay back and thought of England.

In retrospect, I wish I'd taken more time to check that he could read my handwriting as now, forevermore, just above my pubic hair reads the inscription ‘The Local – Sewden's newt in English'.

Ben Kersley (www.speakup.se) is a writer and performer who has lived in Sweden since 2006. He is also Sweden's only Swinglish stand up comedian.

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