Barcelona Tattoo Expo / 20 Years of Tattoo History

Extras - Issue 25

Barcelona Tattoo Expo is one of the oldest tattoo conventions in Europe as well as one of the most respected tattoo festivals worldwide. This year Barcelona Tattoo Expo is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. For those reasons we wanted to discover what lies behind the festival's success and longevity. Therefore, we had a discussion with the three pillars of Barcelona Tattoo Expo; Mik Garetta, Mao, and Laura Cubero, among sharing some "historical" photos taken at the convention from 1996 to 2016, including the likes of tattoo legends Lyle Tuttle and Paulo Suluape, as well as (a young) Paul Booth and many more!

Barcelona Tattoo Convention opened its doors very modestly for the first time in 1996, the first venue chosen by the organisation was much smaller than the current one; it started in a venue of only 1500m2. “That’s why we are very proud of currently organising the convention in an 18000m2 fairground, totally different to our beginnings,” remarks Mik Garetta, director of the convention since the very beginning.

"The idea arose from the admiration we have for tattooing. We used to travel to the few conventions celebrated in Europe, then we thought it would be a great idea to show tattooing in a non marginal way to the general public, and also, to share learning and exchange knowledge among international artists and the few tattooists working in Spain at the time,” says Mik. “Conventions weren’t very common at the time, so we thought: why not start something new in our own town? We couldn’t find any reason not to do it. That’s how we created the first Spanish International Tattoo Convention, in Barcelona, which is known worldwide as the most cosmopolitan and modern Spanish city".

Photos 1 - 16 by Olaf Pla Gracia.

Since the first convention, Barcelona Tattoo Expo has been a reference point for other conventions in Europe and has always welcomed remarkable international artists from countries like USA, Japan, Polynesia and New Zealand, among others. The aim of the convention since the beginning has been liaising with the best national and international artists and joining all of them in Barcelona for three days a year, sharing art, experiences and wisdom. This in turn offers the local public the chance to get a tattoo from the best worldwide artists in their own city.

“Currently travelling is much easier, so it’s much more feasible for people to go abroad and get a tattoo from international artists in their own studios. Each time, bringing these artists to Barcelona is more difficult due to the large quantity of conventions you can find around the world nowadays, and this number is increasing considerably each year,” explains Mik. “The main motive of this project all along has been the diffusion and evolution of tattooing in our society. Bit by bit, we’ve grown in space, diffusion and knowledge,” adds Laura Cubero, spokeswoman and organiser of the convention.

Due to a Sanitary Law change in Catalonia, the event was suspended for two years, which is the main reason for the organisers adapting the space, the tattooers’ booths and the conditions to suit the new regulations. This was without a doubt the hardest issue the organisation has had to deal with. Barcelona Tattoo Expo was the first Tattoo Convention in the world to establish a sterilisation service at the event. Little by little they had to invest in hand-operated wash basins and conditioned booths. It also pioneered in giving the tattoo artists all the disinfection materials necessary for the practice of tattooing during the convention. The delivery of equipment is done in an adapted enclosure with water supply and lighting.

“Besides a big investment from the organisation to abide by the new regulation, all these issues were overcome thanks to a huge effort from the staff”, Mik and Laura explain. In 2008, the convention was moved to a new venue: La Farga, in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, the town next to Barcelona. That was the first significant step for the convention, the new place allowed the adaptation of the tattoo booths and spaces to suit the new Sanitary Regulation. The main reason for the move was to gain more space. The new venue was 9000m2, allowing a greater quantity of participants and later, the beginning of a new project called BAUM FEST.

Photos 23 - 26 by Olaf Pla Gracia.

In 2013, the convention went back to the city centre, Plaza España, settling in Fira de Barcelona. The new location enlarged the usable space to 18000m2, so the number of participants could be increased again. It also allowed for the consolidation of BAUM FEST, the major urban culture festival in Spain. Currently it houses tattooing, motoring, extreme sports, dance championships, graffiti, art exhibitions and different urban art related shows. And of course, being in the city centre brought visibility to the event, taking advantage of the visitors’ passion for the city.

Barcelona Tattoo Expo is an event supported by the trust of its public. “There are people who have visited the convention since its first edition”, explains Mik Garetta, “this is something we always talk about and are extremely proud of”.

Barcelona Tattoo Expo is framed inside the urban culture festival BAUM FEST, it has grown gradually and, with it, Urban Line Concept, S.L., the company in charge of the event. During the two decades the event has been running, the team has been forced to become progressively more professional. The organisation admits they never expected to create and manage an event of this magnitude and to attract such a huge audience in a place as important as Fira de Barcelona. “The intention has always been to bring international artists to Barcelona who otherwise might never come. Some of the most respected artists in the world of tattooing have come to the convention over the past 20 years and we hold them in our memories with very special pride’, comments Laura.

Photos 53 - 69 by

Currently, the convention issues more than 1000 invitations annually among artists, exhibitors and other collaborators of the event, most of them totally involved in the world of tattoo art and the organisation of events. More than 60% of the invited exhibitors and artists are international, coming from more than 30 different countries around the world and, of course, they each need and deserve exclusive attention, which is why the organisation invests lots of resources into promoting their art and work during the months prior to the convention.

BAUM FEST grows year on year, around 18000 people visit the exhibition every year, with tattooing still as the main axis. It is an updated version of the first conventions and it links tattooing to different alternative art culture seen in the streets. In this new edition you can enjoy graffiti, urban dance, extreme sports, a break dancing tournament (which has become one of the most important in Spain), Hip Hop and other genre concerts, a bike show, custom car show and amazing car and motorbike exhibitions. The area “Arte sobre ruedas” (Art on wheels) offers the opportunity to watch the whole process of painting vehicles live in a special cabin, and also, since the last edition, an Indoor Food Truck Area has been added. The customised vans and trucks take part in a food competition in which the jury is headed by Albert Raucrich, a famous Michelin starred chef.

BAUM FEST is the result of a spontaneous growth due to the fusion of “tattoo lifestyle” and more artistic tendencies. The idea behind the festival was to create something where, besides watching the best tattoo artists in the world at work, the attendees and workers could also have fun, take part and enjoy the whole event. “All the attending artists feel very comfortable and find the convention a nice place to show their work, that's why there are more and more performances and activities year on year”, explains Mik. “The main endeavour of Barcelona Tattoo Expo is selecting each artist individually, valuing every attendee solely on their artistic level and talent, that’s what really makes a difference and helps to raise the quality of the convention so high.”

Photos 69 - 95 by John McCaughei / Spot the Spirit.

This year, honouring the 20th edition of Barcelona Tattoo Expo, the presence of ancestral tattooing will be the main focus of the event. “The art of Su’a Lawrence from Samoa brilliantly showcases the height of his craftsmanship. He is blessed with the rare talent of expressing his creativity through the ancient art of Samoa: Tufuga (Tattoo). From Borneo, Ernesto Kalum will show the elaboration of this ancient art with the aim of promoting the richness of the traditional way of tattooing, which has been a fundamental element of the Iban community for centuries. Ernesto Kalum is one of the most accomplished artists making this kind of tattoos. He has appeared in several documentaries and the TV show Taboo by National Geographic as an outstanding artist of tattoo culture.

Continuing the traditional tattoo focus, the 20th Barcelona Tattoo Expo welcomes Ajarn Matthieu (Matthieu Muquenois), one of the most important tattoo artists in the world specialising in Sak Yan Tattoo. For more than 1000 years, the Kabbalistic technique “Sak Yan” (tattooing a sacred or magic design) has been very important for religious life in Thailand.

Barcelona Tattoo Expo 2017 will also be attended by Mexican artist Sanya Youalli, who not only knows how to preserve the ancient and sacred techniques from her land, but has managed to transform them. She has translated these traditions into geometry, lines and dotwork, generating her own style of fully hand poked tattooing to relive pre-Columbian tattoo art, simultaneously elegant and shocking.

Japanese tattooing’s origins lie in the Paleolithic era, with the style named “Irezumi”, which refers to both technique, traditional tools and Japanese tattoo itself. Expo visitors can experience and enjoy this art thanks to the presence of great artists like Horimasa-Tosui, Mitomo Horihiro from Three Tides Tattoo Studio and Horibudo I from Horitoshi Family Studio.

New Zealander techniques are also unique, Tatau is a tradition you can find in the convention thanks to Brent McCown, a New Zealander settled in Australia who won’t miss his date in Barcelona. 

René, originally from French Polynesia and now based in the Canary Islands, is one of the most emblematic exponents of machine-made Maori Tattoo. Maohi means “native” in Tahitian. This artist makes original tattoos from Tahiti, Tuanotus and Marquises.

Besides the ancient tattoo, for the 20th anniversary we will have the presence and art of Ryan Ashley Malarkey. Ryan is the first woman to win Spike’s Ink Master, an American contest and reality show, broadcasted by Spike TV. Currently, Ryan is filming for Ink Master Angels, a TV show featuring the best female Ink Master competitors.

Last but by no means least, we are ecstatic to announce the presence of Alex Gotza, from Greece, a master of perfection in both colour and black and white, who has also been in charge of making one of the posters for the 20th anniversary together with Orient Ching, Taiwan Tattoo specialist, creator of the second poster for this year’s convention”.

Another thing that makes Barcelona Tattoo Expo special are the three organisers; Mik Garreta, Mao and Laura Cubero. Mik Garreta is the festival director and head of the convention. Mik has always wanted to show “street life and artistic movements” within the convention, stating that “tattooing has left its old aesthetically attributed role to become an artistic expression”.

Mao has unconditionally supported the convention since its first edition. His participation has always been very important to the artistic field of the convention. Mao is one of the first tattoo artists in Spain; he started tattooing in 1978 and later founded Mao & Cathy, the first Spanish Tattoo Studio located in Rota (Cadiz), which opened in 1982.

Laura Cubero is the third pillar of the convention. She has supported the growth of the event with her work as content director, marketing and communication. She has always embraced the idea of fusing current urban arts in a single event in Barcelona, and anywhere there is art and creativity in the air. Laura comments: “currently Barcelona Tattoo Expo, framed in BAUM FEST, is full of artistic trends. We can proudly say that it has become a badge of urban trends not only in our city but in our country too. We are very proud because the people who started this adventure 20 years ago are still involved now…we are waiting for you in Barcelona on the 29th September to celebrate our 20th anniversary".

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of the Barcelona Tattoo Expo.

HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine would like kindly to thank Gessica Cambi for the coordination.