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Feature: Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2014

My coverage and photos from the Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2014

This was my third year of covering the Baltimore Tattoo Convention, yet the charm has yet to wear off on Charm City’s colorful display. A celebration of all things body art, it always remains str-ink-ingly communal in its spirit. Tattoos have long moved past the “freak factor” to make an indelible mark on the mainstream and become a very public, yet intensely personal form of self-expression. It’s art on a mobile canvass. The artists who create them and the people who commission them come from all walks of life and have an equally broad array of reasons for getting them.

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Tattoo conventions are truly communal and inclusive. They present opportunities for people to show support for their favorite artists by getting tattooed there or entering competitions. For others, it’s a chance to meet and see the work of artists they would otherwise not be able to know about.
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I had a chance to chat with James Haun of Fatty’s Custom Tattooz, whose area was honorably dubbed the “one stop metal shop,” for creating the most metal of tattoos known to man and for being in a ridiculously good black metal band appropriately named The Oracle (and playing with Corrosion of Conformity tonight!). This year, James did a Most Metal Tattoo Contest 2.0, asking for submissions on Facebook for “most metal tattoos” and picking a winner who received a free tattoo at the convention. The winner was Nancy Dove-Smith, a long-time James supporter, who wanted a “bleeding goat’s head, chopped off, tongue hanging out, eyes rolled back in its head with deer antlers with raw skin/meat hanging off the points, impaled on an and upside down cross.” James, ever so magnanimous, decided to give the goat not only deer antlers but goat horns as well. The Dark Lord was pleased with this offering.

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Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2013 Report

My Report On the 2013 Baltimore Tattoo Convention

 This year’s Baltimore Tattoo Convention was slightly less raucous and frenetic than last year’s, but what it lacked in hype and clamor, it certainly compensated with the sights and sounds of hundreds of buzzing needles—almost all of the artists were assiduously tattooing, which is quite unusual considering how large the convention is. In other words, the “we are so busy” mantra I kept hearing translated to the convention as well. Tattoos are in(k) and they are here to stay, boldly splashing across the public’s imagination and remaining intensely personal yet defiantly public in their statements. Tattoos have firmly solidified their place in what is considered “art” and the artists who create them have fully reveled in the opportunity to showcase their work on mobile canvasses.
Tattoo conventions are truly communal and inclusive. They present opportunities for people to show support for their favorite artists by getting tattooed there or entering competitions. For others, it’s a chance to meet and see the work of artists they would otherwise not be able to. Then, of course there is the entertainment—sideshows, like The Enigma and Serana Rose, and suspensions (not for the faint of heart).
This year’s convention featured a lot of the local shops who were also at the DC Tattoo Expo, as well as some “celebratooists” like Ink Master winner, Shane O’Neill, and Ink Master finalist, James Vaughn, as well as the crew from VH1’s reality show Black Ink, who were funnily enough attracting Justin Bieber-like-hysteria levels of photo-op-seekers. Piercing guru Steve Truitt was also in attendance.
Marlowe Ink’s Steph Damiano and I shared a laugh over her being erroneously featured on the site as Stephanie Damiand, which she promptly called a “stripper name.” Anything referencing gemstones or diamonds definitely fits that category. James Marlowe, a really respected and sought-out artist, has been tattooing for 25 years and the shop attracts people looking for his custom work. Steph has “only” been tattooing for 5 years, but her folky, vintage-leaning style is really singular, fresh, and indelibly her own. “I have been getting a lot of requests for women’s faces with animals engulfing the top of their heads. Even though 5 years is not a terribly long time, I am going to stick with this. There is no other job where you feel like you are constantly learning and growing.”
Citizen Ink’s Joe Khay, who is originally from Georgia and has been tattooing for the last 10 years, also specializes in neo-traditional, Americana-influenced tattoos. “The tattoo industry has really changed from the 80s and 90s. The clientele has wizened up and we get a lot of people approaching us with this very European type mentality to the work—they have an idea of what they want, but also trust the artist to draw the piece. They give us more liberty and have done their homework more—it’s a matter of trust. Of course, we still get the kids that want to have ‘faith’ tattooed on their arm, but they are no longer the norm.”
Springfield’s Way Of Ink received several honors during the tattoo competition—1st place for large black & gray and 3rd place for small color. Duong has been tattooing for 15 years and specializes in Asian-themed pieces. The Way Of Ink table is also a testament to the bond that people develop with their artist—there is always a large crew, an extended family, really, who are all too happy to keep entering competitions and promoting the work of their favorite artist.
Virginia-based Rick’s Tattoos is the oldest shop in the area, having been around for 33 years.Rhiannon August, apprenticed with Rick, who has been tattooing for 43 years.  In response to what she has been tattooing a lot of this year, she responded “lots of pin ups and some abstract flower pieces.”
British Ink’s Aaron Trimiar was working for close to 4 hours on a beautiful back piece of a ship on a client who had literally just met him. “I have been doing a lot of Afro-centric pin ups this year, a lot of black and gray work. I feel like I am right where I need to be with tattooing. It allows me to constantly learn and grow as an artist. I am a tattoo artist, but I am also an artist, period. I am always working on sketchbooks and developing my art this way. It’s really the best occupation anybody could have.”
And that is a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many of his comrades in needles.

Feature Story: DC Tattoo Expo 2013

My feature story for BYT on The DC Tattoo Expo 2013

The third annual DC Tattoo Expo certainly rivaled last year’s Baltimore Tattoo Convention in scope and substance.
Tattoos have long emerged from their subcultural roots and shed their “freak factor” cloak to boldly display their palettes, telling a story both about their owners and the artists who created them. Intensely public, yet simultaneous deeply personal, tattoos are pushing artistic boundaries in all sorts of strINK ways.
For many, conventions are the best place to get work done by artists they might not normally have access to. For others, it’s an opportunity to show support to their favorite artists by getting tattooed at the convention and showcasing the artists’ work. For others, it’s simply a chance to find some community and colorful camaraderie and enjoy the experience as an art show.

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So what’s “in” in ink this year? “Portraits, divinity symbols of all kinds,” explains Paul Loh of Occoquan’s True Love Always Tattoo Studio. “Ribs are really big this year…probably due to workplace appropriateness concerns. The skin is really soft there, but it is super painful and people always move when I am tattooing them there. I am hoping the ribs become ‘the new tramp stamp’ because it is so hard to do them,” he says jokingly. When I spoke to him, he was tattooing an intricate African mask piece on Erick Atkinson, who had other similar designs in homage to his heritage. The time requirement–three hours…lest you had any illusions about how quickly even outline-only pieces take.
Fernando Prudencio, of the very popular H Street tattoo shop British Ink, chimes with his most popular tattoo requests: “Since we only do appointments and no walk-ins, we get a bit of a different client subset. A LOT of DC flags! And believe it or not, whatever celebrities are getting is really big. I did a TON of infinity symbols with the words ‘family’ or ‘love’ underneath this year. A lot feathers breaking into birds. When Rihanna got those Roman numerals…that too.”
Ink Master winner, Shane O’Neill,specializes in portraits, the hot item du jour for a good while now. As he explains, however, the portraits are not always in memoriam–they are often just a way to wear one’s heart and loved ones on one’s sleeve, literally. Annaliese Yoder got a portrait at Infamous Tattoos[Shane’s shop] of her grandfather, who is from Hamelin, the Pied Piper town in Germany. At the base of his feet are five mice, representing her aunts and nieces, a play on words. Ruben Cotreras got the face of Maria Felix, “Mexico’s Marilyn Monroe,” by Tommy Montoya in New York. Ink Master has been great in getting the word out about artists. Shane explains that before the show it might have taken 6-8 months to get an appointment; he is booked a year in a half in advance now, with frequent trips to Europe. Fellow Ink Master finalist, James Vaughn, was also staying busy, tattooing a sleeve on Tamara Ellis, working on his signature large Japanese-themed pieces.

Feature: Baltimore Tattoo Convention

My interviews and feature from the Baltimore Tattoo Convention

The Baltimore Tattoo Convention was a colorful celebration of all things body art–and str-ink-ingly its spirit was communal and well…downright cheery. For all intents and purposes, it might as well have been an environmental fest for all the smiling and good will going around.

It was a microcosm of what has happened in the world of tattooing for a while now–tattoos have long moved past the “freak factor” or its subculture roots and boldly flashed themselves to the mainstream. Not selling out in the process yet with the dissipating of their stigmatization, they have now become truly a medium of very creative and intensely personal self-expression. The artists who create them and the people who commission them come from all walks of life and have an equally broad palette of reasons for getting them.
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It could be purely aesthetic motivation like Baltimorean Caitlyn Meyer who says, “my tattoos mean nothing in particular at all. I just have so much respect for the artists that I trust that they will put something on my body that they think represents me. I just think they are beautiful so I am happy to wear them.” Or it could be a celebration of one’s heritage like the Japanese tattoos or a deep seated drive to really morph into a “different species,” as Baltimore’s Blue Comma.

Why do people go to tattoo conventions, you might ask? For one, for many people who do not live close to specific artists they wish to work on them, this is their one opportunity to get the work done. For some, like tattoo artist Marvin Silva’s friends, who had come all the way from New York, it’s a chance to both promote the studio/their friend and meet new people. “Yeah, I could have had him do the work in New York, but this is an experience. We wanted to party in Baltimore a bit.” [DC, for shame–people go to Baltimore to party!]. Then, there are all the stage shows taking place–think burlesque and sideshows like The Enigma and Serana Rose.

And the tattoo contests, which further give people a chance to promote the artists they admire–all the winners took their plaques to the booths of the tattoo artists that did the work. In other words, tattoo convention are regular lovefests of good will and camaraderie. Everyone I approached was all too happy to talk.

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Amongst the local tattoo shops represented was Way Of Ink, an apropos pun on Way Of The Samurai considering artist Duong Nguyen specializes in Asian-themed art. There, I met a mild-mannered pharmacist-by-day/sporting a full samurai suite tattoo under the lab coat–Ken Lee. He is friends with Duong and came to the convention to support him and to also get a Japanese-themed leg piece on Friday, which won him third place in the tattoo contest. On Saturday, Duong was diligently working on another Japanese-themed piece–the guy under the needle had already sat there for seven hours. Oh, that’s another thing–tattoos take a long time and a lot of hard work. Stafford, VA local, Cupcake, won 1st place for her massive tiger vs. dragon backpiece, which she explained symbolizes the balance between strength and peace. “It took 20 hours a week of work, for several weeks, to finish it!”

Then there was Jim Hall, aka Blue Comma, who by his own admission is the second most tattooed man in the world. You might wonder what compels an erudite, eloquent Baltimore city planner of 40 years, now retired, to cover his entire surface area in blue ink and undergo a series of major body modifications [think implants] to attain this new vision of himself. When talking to him, one gets the sense that this was a deep and well-thought out conversion and not one conducted for the sake of passerby attention-grabbing. He had a lot to say about the city of Baltimore and was clearly a man of ideas and a man with an intense love for his city, warts and all.
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So what’s “hot” right now in the world of tattooing? Well, for one, there was blacklight ink–ravers, take note. Oh, and bio-organic tattoos–as artist Marvin Silva described it, “it’s plants and nature but it’s all fantasy. Beautiful stuff like that may not exists in every day life–kind of like a meeting of sci-fi and plants.” I ask him what kinds of tattoos people are getting a lot of lately–“bigger work. People come in asking for half-sleeves as their first tattoo!” Julia Grow of Fyre Body Arts says,  “People either come in looking to do something small but meaningful or very large pieces. Whatever it is though, they really plan and think this through. We don’t get too many impulse tattoos.”

Julia Grow, the owner of Fyre Body Arts in Perkasie, PA, is only 28 and has owned a tattoo shop since she was 18. As she describes it, the job requires her to be “a psychologist, a mother, and a boss,” to her eleven employees. Her soft-spoken ways and kindness (she studied veterinary science in college, adores animals, and has four horses) bely the image of a business woman, especially in the very male-dominated world of tattooing, but a business woman she is and a good one at that. “I graduated high school at sixteen and was attending college so I needed a job. I started managing the shop and the owner eventually sold it to me when I was eighteen.”

How, you might wonder, is she able to have a booming business–the shop is about to expand to a second location in the future–in the farmlands of Pennsylvania. With Donald Trump-envy-worthy business skills–“Since everyone who works for me is a contractor, I am really very careful about who I hire to work for me. I look at portfolio, demeanor, loyalty…It’s important for me to have people that are not just talented artists but that also have the right attitude. I have too much on my plate to deal with primadonna egos. Sometimes the artsist that come here look around and see just farmland and they wonder who would get tattoos here, but we are super busy!” Julia’s own tattoos and body modifications have gotten recognition as well–she won a prize at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention and has a cutting/scarification piece that was done by Steve Truitt, who studied under body modification guru Steve Hayworth.