Wednesday, May 22, 2024

“There’s no virtual substitution for the smell of burning flesh”

AAS 2012

by Michael Corcoran

Buying and selling. Media. Conversations. Writing. Photography. Celebrity gossip. School. Is there any area of society and the workplace that the Internet hasn’t profoundly affected?


Most tattoo businesses have nifty Web sites, yes, but you still have to go to a shop to get inked up. You have to sit next to a stranger who grips the part of your body that’s getting tattooed. And the needle goes in, putting marks permanently on your body. There’s no virtual substitution for the smell of burning flesh. Like photo galleries of famous paintings, you can’t truly appreciate the artistry of tattooing until you experience the details in person.

Tattoo conventions have changed little since www became as big a part of our lives as coffee in the morning. When the eighth annual Star of Texas Tattoo Revival takes place Friday through Sunday at Palmer Events Center, the main attraction, as always, will be an exhibition hall filled with the buzz of tattoo machines, as artists from all over the world work in their booths. Tattoo collectors travel from near and far to get worked on by such noted tattooists as Austin’s main man Chris Trevino, who splits time between his Perfection Tattoo on Guadalupe Street and a shop in Osaka, Japan. Some of

Tattoo by Chris Trevino, Perfection

the other big-name artists listed as coming are Megan Hoogland of Minnesota, Chad Koeplinger of New York Adorned in Brooklyn, world traveler Shanghai Kate, known as the godmother of American tattooing, and the infamous Gil Monte.

The Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show of sword swallowing, flaming hula hoops and other stunts will take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.

There are contests each day for best tattoos. At night, the old-timers hang out in hotel rooms and tell stories, while the young turks of the trade chase the party downtown. Just like it’s been since Dave Yurkew put on the first tattoo convention in Houston in 1976.

One big change is that there is body piercing in abundance these days. The practice was banned as an unworthy offshoot of tattooing at the first few tattoo conventions in the late ’70s. But, then, in the late ’70s Aunt Nancy wasn’t packing more brass than a roadie for Kool and the Gang. Piercings and neck tattoos, both considered ultimate outsider markings three decades ago, barely raise an eyebrow today, when ‘tattoo convention’ isn’t the oxymoron it once was.

Also, there’s more gimcrackery — jewelry, T-shirts, lighters — for sale these days at the tat swap meets. The Ed Hardy brand has shown there’s a market for the imagery of tattooing, especially if you can get Zac Efron to buy in.

As the tattoo business has exploded since Tupac stopped buttoning his shirts and schoolgirls flipped for lower back tribal tattoos, there are many more tattooers and so there are many more conventions than in the old ‘secret society’ era, when tattooing equipment was not made available to the general public. The Star of Texas Tattoo Revival is one of more than 20 similar confabs across the country each year, with the biggest being Mario Barth’s annual fall show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, the Austin show is about a fifth the size.

There used to be only one convention annually in the States, and it moved to a different city each year. Of those low school reunions, none was more influential than the 1982 Tattoo Expo on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. Organized by Triple-E Productions — Ed Hardy, Ed Nolte and Ernie Carafa — the Queen Mary convention was a coming-out party for tattooing as an art form. With suits and ties required in each of the five ship restaurants, the setting was intentionally highbrow. There was a symposium room for slide shows and lectures on such subjects as symbolism in Japanese tattooing and an overview on tattoo culture by UCLA professor Arnold Rubin.

1982 was when tattooing officially put on the beret. Through the work of Hardy, Don Nolan, Mike Malone, Greg Irons, Miss Roxy, Leo Zulueta and others working on the Queen Mary that weekend, tattoos started becoming viewed as more than permanent decals drilled into drunken sailors.

But no one could have predicted just how popular permanent skin adornments would become. In 1985, there were two tattoo shops in Austin; 25 years later there are more than three dozen, not counting all the scratchers working at home.

‘Tattooing really grew when women started getting tattooed,’ says Shanghai Kate, who was refused a clipper ship tattoo in 1972 because, ‘women were only allowed to get little squirrels or rabbits or hummingbirds.’ Certain parts of the body, such as the upper arm, were deemed exclusively male tattoo spots.

‘I went to the pharmacy the other day and the cute, petite woman at the counter had full sleeves (intricate arm tattoos), with no attempt to cover up,’ Kate says, giving an example of how attitudes toward tattooing have changed. It used to be that you couldn’t work in food service, even McDonald’s, if you had a visible tattoo. Now, you politely compliment your server’s skin art before you order.

Kate points to the popularity of tattoo magazines such as Skin & Ink and International Tattoo for adding to the expansion of the marketplace. ‘There used to be one or two,’ she says of the ink-splashed glossies. ‘Now there are hundreds.’ The old-timers wonder when the wave is going to peter out, but thanks to TV shows such as ‘Miami Ink,’ the tattoo craze hasn’t let up. ‘Who do rock stars look up to?’ Kate asks rhetorically. ‘Tattoo artists.’ Meanwhile, every basketball game on TV looks like a two-hour infomercial for the tattoo trade.

Conventions allow the curious and the casual a chance to get a close-up look at the tattoo experience — and maybe get hooked. ‘It’s like we all show up and create a big theme park in a convention center,’ Kate says of the dozen or so conventions she works at each year. ‘It’s Disneyland for tattoos.’


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