The sound of buzzing needles, the smell of incense and the sight of full-body artwork pricked the interest of thousands of tattoo enthusiasts gathering in trendy east London this weekend.

The first International London Tattoo Convention (search) opened Friday as more than 150 of the world's best tattoo artists arrived at a former brewery to share their craft with veterans and newcomers to body art.

Many attend a tattoo convention to show off their work, purchase body jewelry or even pick up lifelong souvenirs on their bodies. But for some, the best part is the "brotherhood" of the tattoo community, said Mike Davis, who has been a tattoo artist in San Francisco for 18 years.

"You make friends from all over the world, so it's like a big reunion every time there's a convention," Davis said.

Specially invited artists from as far as Australia, Japan, Greece and Italy (search) have set up booths within the Old Truman Brewery (search) on Brick Lane, an area that is a focal point for fashionable London artists as well as for the city's Bangladeshi community.

Conventioneers can schedule appointments or stop by for an impromptu tattoo, depending on the artist.

"A convention is similar to a band being on tour — if you are someone's favorite artist, this is a chance for them to get work by you," Davis said.

Organizers expect at least 15,000 people to attend this weekend and plan to make the London convention an annual gathering, according to Roland Hyams, a spokesman for the convention's organizing committee.

"The western habit of tattooing began in Britain, and London was really the heart of that," Hyams said.

This form of permanent body art entered western culture in 1769 when explorer Capt. James Cook traveled to Tahiti (search) and saw their tattoos, Hyams said. He brought the concept to Britain, where it became especially popular with soldiers and sailors.

Hyams said it is believed that Cook coined the word "tattoo" from the sound the hammer made when hitting the needle used to cut the skin in Tahitian tattooing.

The art form's popularity spread beyond Britain, and enthusiasts now gather for conventions all over the world.

Ernst Wegener traveled from Boedefeld, Germany, for the London event. The 62-year-old has 55 piercings and has spent 88 hours under the needle completing his full-torso tattoos.

"It's very significant," Wegener said of the "tree of life" tattoo bearing his initials on his back. "It's associated with my name, and the branches of the tree represent life, eating and drinking."

Tattoos often have special meaning to their wearers, said London-based tattoo artist Lal Hardy. He said he thinks people get tattoos for many different reasons, but often their motivation is rooted in a desire to change something about themselves.

"Human beings are never satisfied with their bodies," Hardy said. "Tattoos are just one branch of that. It's something you can get for yourself, and no one can steal it."