Iceland - Under the Northern Lights

Published: 25 July, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 201, July, 2011

Stroll through any city or town in the UK and you’ll easily find a selection of studios that are more than likely just a small selection of what the place has to offer. It makes the contrast with Iceland's capital even more remarkable. With five studios, all situated on two neighbouring streets, Reykjavik makes for a totally different body art scene. We decided to see what was going on.

This island is not your average hill with a palm tree on the top. The country is half the size of England and its whole population is ten times smaller than that of London. Iceland has the lowest density of all European countries and is situated somewhere between Greenland and Europe's mainland. Sadly, the island is mostly known for its bankruptcy and the volcanic ash cloud that paralyzed the air traffic around the globe, but Iceland's tattoo artists are ready to make the Icelandic body art scene famous.

One of them is Jón Páll Halldórsson: “I started out with the fine arts and attended a course in graphics. It was the beginning of the '90s and tattoos started to become more and more popular. I was traveling  across Greece where I met an artist from Athens. He taught me the basics of tattooing and the rest is history. My dream is to travel through Europe once again, but my wife has a company here and we have two young kids. I couldn't leave my studio behind either. I'd love to work in Amsterdam for a while though, the city seems really interesting and me and my wife love it there. Don't get me wrong, it's not about the drugs, like it is for many tourists. It's just a beautiful city and it seems like there is always something going on.”

There are many tattoo conventions in the UK, but even a small country like Iceland has its own event. The yearly Reykjavik Tattoo Convention (aka Icelandic Tattoo and Rock Festival) is very popular and shows great Icelandic talent. “It's a small scale event, 20 artists in a pub. Worth a visit, that's for sure,” says Jón. The laws considering tattooing are pretty much the same as in the UK. The legal age to get tattooed is 18, younger teenagers, even with parental consent, have to wait until they reached this age. The prices used to be similar to those of the UK and other Scandinavian countries. However, because of the low exchange rate today you get more ink for
your money.

The Icelandic alphabet is similar to English, even though it has a couple of special characters. Many clients choose an English text for their body. “Personally I find it a bit strange when Icelandic people choose an English phrase. I mean it's obvious for song lyrics or a quote, but I can't think of any other reasons. You also see a lot of people with their own name inked on their body. It's a bit weird. It's like they can't think of anything original. If I have to be honest I think it lacks inspiration and is slightly egocentric.”

Tattoos have a long tradition in Iceland, mostly because of its many sailors and fishermen. “Fishing used to be the country's main income source. After a good catch, it was a tradition to get drunk in one of the big European harbours and for the whole group to get inked together afterwards. Body modifications used to be popular among special social groups, like bikers and sailors. Nowadays we do all kinds of tattoos, but many of my clients are interested in big pieces; be it realistic or Japanese, both black and white and in colour. I noticed that sleeves are becoming very popular especially with a matching back piece. I hired an extra employee specialized in typography, cause it's not really my thing.”

The 36 – year-old artist, Jón Páll works at his own tattoo and piercing studio Íslenzka Húðflúrstofan. This, he tells us, is the only shop that provides only individual custom work. Every employee has an artistic background, so they are able to come up with interesting designs. Jón Páll respects artists from the other parlours and acknowledges their skills. “At the moment we're too busy to think about the competition, but it doesn't mean that we don't know who they are. We are friends with a couple of them and the others we ignore. I like to know other artists and to compete with them. It keeps you focused and motivates you to improve your work. We also tend to exchange clients. I, for instance, am not really good in old school ink, that's why I prefer to send my clients to someone that specializes in this style. I feel like our friends do the same.

"Most of the clients are locals with now and then a tourist stopping by. I definitely think that Icelandic people have a lot of tattoo ideas, so there is enough work for all of us. Because of the small population, the trends tend to spread quickly. The Icelandic skin is perfect to work with, it's even and extremely soft. The ink lasts longer and the colours are really vivid thanks to the very bright skin tones,” we hear from Jón.

The perfect spot to check out the ink on bare skin is Bláa Lónið (Blue Lagoon). This touristic attraction is the place to be for relaxing and showing off body art. The famous resort is situated on the lakeside in the middle of a lava field with the temperatures ranging from 32 up to 62 degrees. The water and the saunas aren't the only attraction. The guests make sure their skin will stay smooth with the special cleansing cream from one of the buckets alongside the huge tub. You can be sure that some of the cream covered faces in the Blue Lagoon are clients of Jón Páll Halldórsson.

The Literary Scene

Iceland's best-known classical works of literature are the Icelanders' sagas; prose epics set in Iceland's age of settlement. The most famous of these include Njáls saga, about an epic blood feud, and Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, describing the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland (modern Newfoundland). Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Grettis saga, Gísla saga and Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu are also notable and popular Icelanders' sagas.

Meet the Locals

Recently archeologists have found the ruins of a cabin in Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula (close to Keflavík Airport). Carbon dating reveals that the cabin was abandoned between 770 to 880 AD, suggesting that someone had come to Iceland well before 874 AD.

Íslenska húðflúrstofan/The Icelandic Tattoo

Corp Hverfisgötu 39, 
101 Reykjavík
+35 4552 7913 


Text: Marcel Kamphuis; Photography: Tess Renkens, Anne Knispel & Jon Pall Halldorsson