For Chino Gonzalez, tattooing is about so much more than cool colors or cred.
“My dad asked me once if I could go back in time, would I change my life, what I’m doing,” he says. “And I wouldn’t. I love this industry.”
The industry is a family affair for the 47-year-old; his wife and 16-year-old son help run his shop Stigma Ink in Tampa, and he talks about his 6 artists as if they’re family, too.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Tampa, Gonzalez has spent his life in the tattoo game. He got his first ink nearly 30 years ago at Ybor City’s long-gone Glamor Streets shop, then got into the industry as a shop piercer, which is actually how many artists start out. He eventually opened his first shop, Tribalistic, in Hudson in ‘99, but the timing was right for either the shop or Gonzalez; after it folded, he traveled to Mexico and opened the first Stigma Ink down there, then found a good fit in the supply side of the industry.
“I worked for a tattoo supply company for 13 years, went to the conventions, networked,” he says.
During that time, Gonzalez learned what to do and, more importantly, what not to do regarding both running a tattoo shop and staging a convention. This time, when he started Stigma in Tampa as fulfillment of a promise to a friend who passed away, he was ready. And eventually, his desire to share his love of the culture led him to start doing his own expos. The first, five years ago, were held in South Florida.
“Somebody already had a convention in Tampa,” he says, “so out of respect [they held theirs out of town]. But the person doing the Tampa one wasn’t even from Tampa.”
The Tattoo Mania shows grew quickly, and so did the workload.
“It was a really great experience, but it was so much work,” says Gonzalez. “So we downsized it, changed the name and moved it to St. Pete. I fell in love with that place.”
Now in its third year in the Bay area, Ink Mania is held at the ‘Burg’s historic Coliseum. Having done the massive expos with several hundred vendors and sales focus, Gonzalez has built something different, more a celebration of arts than a retail convention.
“I want to have a selective roster,” he says. “Everybody can mingle, it’s not this huge trade show. We’ve got dancers, performers, DJs. It’s just a mania of all forms of art. If you’re at all creative, just go for it.”
In addition to appearances by several tattoo-world luminaries (including Cesar Morales, Poch, Saitama Kensho and host/emcee Joey Tattoo of TV show Tattoo Rescue) and the usual contests and seminars Ink Mania also includes a Star Wars-themed art show and silent auction to benefit fan-run cosplay organization 501st Legion, the aforementioned dance performances and even a “Bully Dog Show” on Sunday with awards going to various bulldog breeds. For Gonzalez, the way the industry has grown from biker cliches and criminal associations into a global mainstream cultural phenomenon is something not to be taken for granted, and mingling tattooing with other lifestyle elements provides evidence of just how far tattooing has come. Ink Mania is a proud member of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, and does in-kind promotions with such esteemed Bay area institutions as the Dalí Museum:
“How amazing is it that this industry has come so far, from being so taboo just a few years ago, now we’re mingling with corporate interests, helping each other out?”
With that mainstreaming of tattoo culture has come a ton of new shops in the Bay area and beyond, but Gonzalez feels the market still has room to grow.
“The thing about it is, there are people [into tattoos],” he says, “so that kind of balances off the numbers.”
If he sees any problem at all with the industry’s growth, it’s the increase in folks who are more interested in taking advantage of the financial opportunity than in creating great, lasting art.
“Now you’ve got people that aren’t really interested in the industry, they just want to make money,” he says. “That’s what hurts the industry; people don’t understand the value. You get a guy who just came out of the garage doing a piece for half the price another artist would charge.”
He hopes events like Ink Mania, where the culture is to be celebrated above all else, can help to offset whatever negative aspects have crept into the industry, while also educating and entertaining both lifelong fans and those who are just discovering the culture. For Gonzalez, after all, that’s what it’s really all about — creating and nurturing the community.
“If it wasn’t for this industry,” he says, “I wouldn’t be where I am.”
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