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.
Baltimore Tattoo
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.

Baltimore Tattoo
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.
Baltimore Tattoo
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.

Concert Review: Beats Antique

My concert review of Beats Antique for The Vinyl District

On Wednesday, the 9:30 Club opened its doors to the dubby, world-music-fusion sounds of Beats Antique.
David Satori and Tommy Cappel (who grew up in Springfield and gave a shoutout to his Mom, who was in attendance) provided a seamless sonic tapestry that was refreshingly organic despite the band’s seemingly electronic roots. With surprisingly minimal knob-twiddling and laptop-fidgeting, both spent a lot of time percussively propelling the show forward, with the flourishes of David’s banjo and violin-playing and a French saxophonist blending into the mix.
DJ Laura Low opened for the band, with a lackluster poppy-dubstep-by-the-numbers set that showcased why Skrillex has a lot to answer for and was especially bad following the brilliant Forward Festival this past weekend. Her dubstep remixes of M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” and even the Cranberries’ “Zombie” were downright cringe-inducing and her own amped-up demeanor was hardly contagious.

And speaking of the audience, there was a heavy belly [dancing-clad] contingent, along with the well-dreaded Burning Man cohort. In other words, there was plenty of hair-tossing about [“I whip my hair back and forth, real or not”], but more on that later.
The show opened with “The Porch” from the band’s 2011 album Elektrafone, and to their credit, Beats Antique’s musicianship is nigh perfect—the songs unfurled in a languid yet sonically-sound fashion and none of the usual concert-muddiness problem was present. They also played “Alto” and “Siren Song” from Elektrafone, as well as debuting a new more dubstep-leaning song, which was very well-received by the crowd.

The band clearly has a keen sense of showmanship; their roots in San Francisco’s performance art scene and their work on the music for the Bellydance Superstars (with whom Zoe Jakes dances) have influenced the stage show, which is very much carnival/sideshow-esque in its aesthetic.
Oddly enough, however, raucous and boisterous are not exactly words I would use to describe the show last night—despite the consummate musicianship and the fact that it very quickly started to sound like one long jam session as the songs started to meld into each other, it lacked a certain kind of playfulness and just general elan. In other words, this wasn’t a Balkan Beat Box show and definitely not an Eastern-European wedding (despite the band’s dabbling in the Roma/Bulgarian brass elements). In other words, it was oddly sedate. Yes, there was some dancing in the crowd, but I saw more at the Little Dragon show.

And speaking of dancing, Zoe Jakes, a renowned tribal belly dancer who is considered part of the band, performed almost throughout the entire show. Some of Jakes’ routines were truly beautiful, such as in the burlesque-influenced jazz dance she performed with giant feather fans, or the skeleton-Mexican-Day-of-the-Dead-like routine during “Beauty Beats.”
At other times, her style, which is essentially a mix of popping-and-locking (think breakdance) and some of the shimmies and hip and shoulder isolations from belly dance, is downright snooze-inducing when viewed for an hour and a half. Jakes’ dancing relies far too much on her wildly tossing her hair about, and the routines where she performed with another belly dancer were out-of-sync enough to make a pre-teen dance teacher cry. No doubt Jakes is a hard-working, seasoned performer… As to whether it is the kind of performance one could watch for extended periods of time is a matter of viewer preference.
Beats Antique’s stage presentation is definitely visually unique and showcases their knack for showmanship. Musically, the band’s palette of glitch, dub, and Middle Eastern and brass motifs is masterfully presented in their live show.

May Mixtape!

The May Monthly Mixtape: Toni Tileva

Listen Here: http://open.spotify.com/user/1213004545/playlist/40xONqLnsWufNUpcJ5IGjK

“Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.”
-A Field Guide To Getting Lost

“Lost in the city
Running out of choices
Going nowhere fast
Still hearing voices
Come on legs come on feet
I’m just tryin’ make a little bit of history.”
– Cool Calm Pete “Lost”
“I just wanna live life and survive it.”
– Ghostpoet “Survive It”
“I spread my mind’s wings and watched these verbs take flight.”
– Emskee “Dreams”
When I set out to make the May playlist, I wanted to encapsulate the ethos of summer, while playing homage to my two great musical loves–indie/old-school-vibe hip hop and trip hop/downtempo. The idea was to [wax] tailor together a pastiche of beats and samples and tell a sonic story, with a palpable flow. Only when I was done making the playlist did some themes start to emerge, as though bubbling up from my subconscious. Summer always reminds me of being in the city, kind of finding one’s way, weaving and wandering through the urban terrain [Blockhead’s Insomniac Olympics is Jack’s Insomnia in musical form]. That’s why I had to put in DJ Vadim, Blockhead, Dan The Automator, DJ Shadow, MF Doom, who literally live and breathe the New York aesthetic.These tracks showcase the organic and very natural synergy between turntablism, hip hop, even dubstep, and downtempo, and showcase why the genre has managed to stay fresh because of its broad influences. Trip hop has long transitioned to/been a turntablist’s game, even if the most obvious examples one can think of are Geoff Barrow’s scratching on Portishead’s “Only You” or the seminal DJ Shadow Endtroducing. In the early 2000s, artists like DJ Krush, Blockhead, J. Dilla, Nujabes, and DJ Vadim continued to carry the torch, despite public opinion that “trip hop was dead” or relegated to Buddha Bar compilations–i.e. pretentious “chill-by-the-numbers” CDs.
If I had to name the themes here [as any respectable English major would], it would be the city, being lost in the city, dreams/miasmas, and love [not the cheesy “summer lovin'” type, I promise. See Murs’ “Love And Appreciate” and Slum Village’s “Fall In Love”] and its dark underbelly [Cage’s Scenester, Ivan Ives’ “Wedding Funeral,” Mickey Avalon’s “So Rich, So Pretty”].
Everyone has a summer.

Sound Of My Voice Movie Review

My review of Sound Of My Voice

Following in the chilling footsteps of last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice’s premise is simple enough: couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) set out to infiltrate a cult, make a documentary about it, and expose the leader as a fraud. As in Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, reality and truth are eerie, elusive concepts. The process of joining  this cult is a disorienting and de-personalizing experience. To be allowed into the cult, they have to assume the identities of believers and, in the process, relinquish their real ones. Needless to say, Peter and Lorna’s journey quickly becomes an honest-to-god identity crisis. What’s more, the line between wanting to do a documentary on a cult and being in one is as enigmatic as the cult’s enigmatic leader. Who is she? Is she just a manipulative hack, or is she really from the year 2054, sent here to impart knowledge to a select group of “chosen ones?”
Co-writers Brit Marling and Director Zal Batmanglij, both Georgetown graduates, bring a mesmerizing, minimalist ethos to this film. In Marling’s other film Another Earth, Marling’s ethereal, luminous presence embodies her walking-wounded character. Her beautiful otherness is appropriately otherworldly and futuristic. Sci-fi tinge notwithstanding, Another Earthwas grounded in its human element, yet had enough of a flight of fancy to transport the viewer to a different dimension. The existential “anywhere but here” quest that underpinned is present in The Sound Of My Voice as well. Ultimately, there is this escapist search for meaning the viewer keeps hearing about in both.

The Sound Of My Voice is a gripping look down the rabbit hole of joining a cult. It thoroughly explores the psychology of the process. The stage of “preparing on the outside,” [which includes learning the at-first-seemingly-silly but later on important to the plot elaborate hand signals] is followed by Peter and Lorna’s first encounter with Maggie, to whom they are taken blind-folded and thoroughly cleansed [literally]. They are forbidden from asking questions or making any sudden movements—they are told these precautions are necessary because of the “special”/”chosen” status that is about to be bestowed upon them. The thrust of the message is one must have a great deal of faith and that faith comes at the expense of reason—in one of the movie’s most engrossing, stomach-turning scenes, Maggie likens the eating of an apple to the ingestion of reason and logic, which is bitter. Reason must literally be purged from the minds of the cultees [by throwing up the apple] and replaced by blind devotion. She demands that everyone “stop thinking and start feeling.” In that scene, however, the viewer also gets insight into the predatory, abusive, and manipulative nature of the relationship—when Maggie inexorably extracts the story of Peter’s abuse as a child, telling him how he was powerless then but is not now, the crushing reality of one abuser’s supplanting by another is made starkly obvious. The Sound Of My Voice does a phenomenal job of asking the tough question about who joins cults—at the beginning, Peter is convinced that these people “are weak and they are looking for meaning.” Despite Lorna and Peter’s superficial veneer of normalcy and their seemingly being different from the other members, ultimately, they are both brought here by a search for meaning and are no less “damaged” than the others or than anyone else, for that matter.

. Sure, Peter and Lorna’s very hipster/I am so tired of the scene asides add some levity to the matter [ e.g. bemoaning the superficiality of getting drunk at art installations and one’s life playing out like an episode of Entourage], but this search for something substantive and meaningful belies sweeping generalizations about the cult members as “damaged people” doing damning things.