An exhibition project comprising two events in Rome to restore tattoo to its past glory. That is the vision behind “Last Pirates in Rome”, two events which showcase authentic tattoo, with the ambiance of a convention from the 80s or 90s, no screens and plenty of big names.
Names from forty years ago who made tattoo history: Hanky Panky, Dennis Cockell, Gippi Rondinella, Gian Maurizio Fercioni and Marco Pisa, together of course with the man who dreamed up this project, Gabriele Donnini, a well-known tattooist on the Italian scene in the 1980s, heir to Tattooing Demon Studio in Rome (the venue of the two events), a shop which once belonged to his mentor and pillar of European tattoo, Gippi Rondinella. Let’s hear it from Gabriele who can tell us about this event which he calls “Back to the future”.
“It was in 1985 that the first exhibition on modern tattoo was held in Rome, a fifteen day exhibition in my city, at the Trajan Markets, to be precise. A place I would never have thought of for such an event, right in heart of ancient Rome, one of the main archeological sites on the planet. It featured the best artists from every corner of the world. The name of the event was just perfect: ‘The Donkey and the Zebra’. It’s easy, see, a zebra is just a tattooed donkey, and no zebra has exactly the same pattern as any other. Just like in tattoo, it’s impossible to do two the same.
The exhibition opened in spring and Rome was at its stunning best. Already a few days before the event you began to see some oddball characters wandering around the streets in the centre with mohawks, tattoos, earrings…The mutants were coming!
In the great entrance hall I remember there was this huge glass display case with a little museum of tattoo history, full of stuff like tattoo instruments from Japan, Thailand, New Zealand, ancient electric tattoo machines, historic tattoo drawings, most of them donated just for the occasion by Gippi (Rondinella, ed).
Straight on, to the right, was the start of the market proper. In ancient Rome, the Trajan Market was actually used more for administrative functions than sales, let’s say you could think of it as one of the first modern polyfunctional centres. This time, a couple of millennia later, these ancient alcoves were occupied by some of the greatest tattoo artists in the world.
That exhibition had such an enormous impact on me, I can still remember the smells and the magical atmosphere of being able to watch people of that artistic and cultural calibre at work.
For our scene I think that was a watershed moment, but who could ever have imagined where tattoo would have got to later on?
I grew into being a tattooist at the end of the 1970s just for fun, as it were, but after The Donkey and the Zebra I could see the way forward: I wanted to tattoo, trying to abide by the unwritten rules of the trade, constantly learning more, reading and continuing to improve, and this is still true today despite my age, totally aside from my abilities. Keeping that atmosphere and tattoo culture alive is the only way to make sure it doesn’t fall by the wayside because time is simply running too fast.
The idea of organising a series of event like THE LAST PIRATES IN ROME came to me almost by chance as I was rereading the catalogue of the Roman exhibition for the umpteenth time. To have certain big names back in my shop after almost forty years and reconnect with our passion for tattoo seemed like the right thing to do for tattoo.
I owe so much to it (tattoo) for all that it has given me over the years, money, love, family, friends, culture, pain, so I feel its payback time because being a taker often isn’t enough, especially for those who know how to love.
I screwed up the courage to just call Hanky Panky, Dennis Cockell, Gippi Rondinella, Gian Maurizio Fercioni and Marco Pisa for the first two events and I’m still kind of flabbergasted at their enthusiasm in saying: “yeah, you can count us in!”.
In these two events – held in October and November – I was once more blown away by the way tattoo manages to bring people together. There were tattooists, clients, tattoo lovers and collectors from all over Italy.
I really find it hard to describe what it was like: a kind of glitch in time that everyone felt:
“back to the future”, tattoos, hanging out, music, beer, dinners. We managed to create a micro-Convention like back in the 1980s and 90s, incredibly there were no rock stars present despite the calibre of the artists. I have to confess that it was really exciting to get a chance to hang out and chat with the people who brought the scene to life and it sure fired up my old engine all over again.
Watching Gian Maurizio and his daughter Olivia working on the same piece puts my heart at rest about what the future holds; understanding the reasons why Marco Pisa has never been in the limelight he deserves has me dreaming up new ideas; the ethical way Gippi approaches tattoo is something which has had a huge impact on me, and the deep love Hanky Panky has always had for tattoo should be an example for anyone who claims to be a tattoo lover. I am simply floored by the energy and joy Dennis puts into tattooing and proved to me that tattoo keeps you young at heart.
I think this is the right way to feed our souls with what makes us tick; to be able to hang out and talk face to face and reconnect on a human level though the lcd screens have been taking all that away as if it had never existed in the first place. This is the purpose of THE LAST PIRATES IN ROME.
We want to get people to fall back in love with a scene which has inevitably gone mainstream and hype and maybe, in part, we’ve brought it on ourselves. The old guys know what they’re talking about, the young guys will only ever find out if they go through certain things themselves, otherwise “it will all be lost like tears in rain” (to quote Blade Runner).
A big thank you to all those who came, without you tattoo would have no reason to exist. And to Jurate Piacenti for the invaluable collaboration. Body Supply for believing in a project that was organised out of sheer love. Louise Schiffmacher for the photos and being such a good friend. My son Corrado for making every day more exciting than the one before. My wife for putting up with all my foibles. Olivia Fercioni for trusting me with a piece of her skin. Luisa Gnecchi Fercioni for looking out for a big family.
Respect, Gabriele Donnini