all photos: Blink OfAnEye, all words: Toni Tileva
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.
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.
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.
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.