By Kiri Westby
When I first heard there was a tattoo convention in Kathmandu, Nepal I was astounded!
I lived in Nepal as a college student, worked there as a human rights activist during the recent civil war and have spent a lot of time studying Nepali language and culture. I also married a tattoo artist seven years ago and have been on a crash course of American tattoo culture ever since. Nowhere in my mind did the tattoo scene that I had come to know and the traditional culture of Nepal mix. But there it was, website and all, and I was instantly fascinated.
My friend Eric Inksmith, a veteran of American tattooing, challenged me to take him to Kathmandu, having never really left the U.S. before. Like a butterfly suddenly wondering about the storms it’s own wings have produced, Eric was curious to follow the trail that he himself had blazed. I was honored to be enlisted for the job and to have the chance to experience alongside him what tattooing on the other side of the world has become.
At almost 70 years old, Eric recalled stories from the National Convention in Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. As I listened to tales of rival biker gangs fighting on convention room floors and people being thrown from hotel room windows, I tried to imagine how the kind, soft-spoken, Nepali people have embraced and come to celebrate tattooing. And not in a subtle, underground way either, the convention was being held at the famous Yak & Yeti hotel, one of the most iconic establishments in the Kathmandu valley.
As these things go, friends were recruited, word of the adventure spread and we soon had a posse heading East from the U.S., including: Mike Wilson, Mac Bibby, Robert Ryan, Jae Connor, Phill Bartell and Chad Koeplinger. Eric handled the longest flight of his life and no one killed each other on the way over…in fact, from the beginning, everything felt pretty magical.
Kathmandu has changed significantly since 2007. Corruption and an inefficient, newly-Democratic government have left city services under-funded and unattended. Half-finished construction projects leave gaping holes and exposed power lines, not to mention the electrical brown-outs and water shortages, which have left things feeling chaotic on the streets. But the upside to Nepal’s new political landscape is that there is also more public art and individual self-expression, and many people I spoke to were hopeful and optimistic for Nepal’s future, a far cry from my time here during the war in 2003. Part of this new self-expression has manifested in a relatively fresh and exciting tattoo scene.
After my time at Royal Tattoo in Denmark I headed to Amsterdam and The Amsterdam Tattoo Museum just a week before Christmas. Amsterdam is that city where for the first time in my life I felt like I could have died from partying. This was years ago: I remember looking out the window of my room at like five in the morning, the street lights shimmering on the black water of the canals, while my friends snored around me in drunken, coked-out stupors as my heart raced, my jaw a vice, with teeth that could have cracked walnuts, shit, they could have cracked themselves… (more…)