For this week's Mahal, I got to experience the Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe, a traveling carnival of odd and extreme tattooing, circus culture, and avant-garde body art, through the lens of Clayton Patterson. Over the last few decades, whenever not documenting the Tompkin Square Police Riots other memorable Lower East Side moments, Clayton has been attending Wildstyle every year. Here is our conversation on how exactly that has come to be.
VICE: How did you get involved in documenting Wildstyle?
Clayton Patterson: As an outsider and documentary artist I was interested in Tattoo Art and Sideshow Culture. In order to document tattoos in 1986, along with artist friend Ari Roussimoff, I created the Tattoo Society of New York. Ari left the organization in 1991. Tattooing had been outlawed in 1961, and in my role as President of the TSNY I advocated for its legalization again in NYC in 1997. Giuliani was mayor and tattoo artists were afraid he was going to close all the shops. Joined by Wes Wood and Katheryn Freed, our City Councilwoman, we were able to successfully take on the challenge and win. After legalization Steve Bonge, Butch Garcia, and in the first year only, Wes Wood, created the NYC International Tattoo Convention. They hired me as the 4th person and together we organized the convention. Under Bonge and Butch’s leadership the convention continued to get better every year and is now recognized as one of the leading conventions in the world. Again by chance, in 1995, out of the blue, I received a strange phone call from Austria. An individual, by the name of Jochen Auer, said he had found a one-line entry in the book, Modern Primitives, which had me listed as the President of the Tattoo Society of New York. Jochen explained that he had this exciting new idea of creating an entertainment show that would bring together, in one place, all of the avant-garde, leading edge, creative forces that were changing the face of youth culture. He explained that this was an enormous undertaking and in order to do it right, he had to have recognized top shelf talent. He asked me if I could provide him with famous American tattoo and sideshow performers. He said the show was called Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe. He had my attention. I said sure.
Have you experienced any similarities between Wildstyle and the Lower East Side?
In America, tattooing offered a creative way to make a living because of books, magazines, conventions, and the over abundance of art school graduates who had few opportunities to make a living as an artist. Tattooing was going through a renaissance. Tattoo art was quickly morphing from an outsider, underground, working-class, art craft into a widely accepted modern art. In 1995, Wildstyle was a major, expensive gamble, and in order for it to just break even, Jochen had his work cut out for him. The Austrian tattoo scene was a few years behind America. In fact, there had never been an international tattoo convention. Piercing and body modification was just starting to come into the public consciousness and dealing with legalization issues. Beyond tattooing and piercing his dream included custom cars, trucks, motorcycles, fashion, hairstyling, body painting, jewelry, Asian art, video screenings, photography, drinks for the over and under age crowd, food, and non-stop stage performances.
What kind of acts did WIldstyle feature?
The stage shows featured incredibly beautiful Hungarian Lack and Leder dancers, for the woman, a well build Mr. Chippendale, fashion shows, sideshow performances, tattoo contests, all under the guidance of an entertaining announcer.
Was the public receptive to Wildstyle?
The first Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe show lived up to and beyond Jochen’s wildest dreams. It was a complete success. The large Messe venue was filled beyond capacity and the masses just kept coming all weekend long. The show was now ready to tour and is now heading into its 16th successful year. It was the right time, the right idea, being pulled off by the right person. To the average person in the general public tattooing and piercing were considered taboo, exotic, and mysterious, but many individuals were curious to get a first hand look and see. Do the event in a respectable and safe venue, provide world-class entertainment and vendors, keep the price as close to affordable as possible, yet high enough to cover the extensive costs and make a profit.
What kind of impact did Wildstyle have on the Tattoo and Sideshow World?
Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe did much to raise the bar of quality, education, and public acceptance in so many areas that were struggling to become recognized as legitimate art forms. Before Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe tattoo shows and conventions tended to be just for the initiated, those already in the small niche circle. By going on the road and constantly traveling town after town in Austria and Germany, Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe introduced for the first time, to thousands and thousands of people, some of the highest quality practitioners in the field. For the artists in the different cities they were given a first hand look at artwork they would never have access to see. Those who wanted could meet the artists. In each of the different cities Jochen gave an opportunity for qualified local artists to be a part of the show. Some of the local artists joined the show. A good number of Austrian artists who stayed with the show quickly expanded their skills and soon reached the level of accomplished artists who could now go anywhere in the world and be competitive. A number of the artists who started with the show went on to become some of the most respected artists in Austria.
What's your favorite moment from Wildstyle?
I have received so many blessings by being a part of Wildstyle. Not only was I able to pass on opportunities to a good number of people, but it enriched my life in so many ways. I travelled, got paid, expanded my own world connections, I made a multitude of new friends, we produced a book http://patterson.no-art.info/books/2003_wildstyle.html, but most of all I met and became friends with Jochen Auer, and for this I will forever be grateful.
(Photos by Clayton Patterson)