Inking and Drinking

TattooFest lets ink artists modify bods, network, or just hang out.

click to enlarge SEE AND BE SEEN; INK AND BE INKED: At - TattooFest, getting inked is a spectator sport. - Rudy Newkerk does the honors. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
SEE AND BE SEEN; INK AND BE INKED: At TattooFest, getting inked is a spectator sport. Rudy Newkerk does the honors.

My buddy Jack is a tattoo artist. He's gotten good at it over the last five years, too. People are starting to come into To The Point in Lakeland, where he works, and ask for him by name. This makes me very happy. I've watched him adopt and discard various avenues of artistic expression over the last decade or so, and he's never been as satisfied, confident or unlikely to punch me as he has been since embracing ritual scarification as a professional enterprise.

But Jack isn't at the Bay area's fifth annual TattooFest (scorchingly original name, I know) to ink anybody. Though To The Point's owner and several of its needle-jockeys have secured rooms at Tampa's Doubletree Hotel for the weekend festivities, the shop opted not to buy into a booth for the expo. Jack had a lucrative week at work, and his 32nd birthday is this Monday; he's just here to network, to check out other artists, to buy stuff, and above all, to party.

I beat Jack, his wife, Cindy, and their Lakeland crew to the Doubletree on a mildly sweltering Saturday. The hotel's half-moon valet driveway is lined with motorcycles, from the kind that obviously belong to lifers who've never known dental benefits to the kind that obviously belong to fortunate dot-commers who only have time to fire them up once every couple of weeks. (Shortly, the hotel will announce that all bikes parked near the yellow-painted curb will be towed. In a prime example of how biker culture has been misperceived over the years, the drivers comply amiably, and no one is killed or even beaten unconscious.)

A slightly heightened body-art quotient aside, it's pretty much business as usual in the bright, sunny lobby. A vacationing couple checking in for a weekend of beaches and Busch Gardens might not even notice anything out of the ordinary — provided they went straight from the counter to their room and didn't leave it after, oh, 5 p.m. or so.

The hotel's convention rooms are an entirely different story. The setup — room after room containing booth after booth of merchants and artists — is like that of any other WhateverCon '04. The crowd, however, is not. A whole lot of them are human canvasses, living exhibitions casually strolling shirtless or in skirts slit up to the beltline, their visuals on display for curious admirers.

Some people still go to tattoo conventions to gawk. Some come to be worked on by an out-of-town artist, or simply to be worked on where others can watch it as it happens. But more than anything, people come to look at each other's tattoos. Almost everyone here is no stranger to the process; they get more out of seeing someone else's tattoos than they do out of the novelty of seeing somebody get one. It's like a cross between a mutual admiration society and the world's most idiosyncratic art show.

"It's more about the art here," says Rudy Neukerk, an artist from Bradenton's Sacred Grounds shop who's had a couple of TattooFest appointments set for months. "You get to see what's going on in the scene, how the people are getting better [as artists] — the work is insane compared to last year."

For Jack, whom I finally find wandering amidst the kiosks in the main room, the sense of community is TattooFest's primary attraction.

"This is the only place I can go and not get stared at," muses the pompadoured, 6-foot-3-inch human canvas as we stroll.

That's not exactly true. Tattoos may have been the province of bikers, military seamen and convicts 40 years ago. But these days, they're standard equipment for even slightly adventurous (or trendy) men and women between the ages of 18 and 35. You'd have to drive a long way into America's Bible Belt to find someone who'd freak out over a couple of pieces. While I'm sure the heavily inked Jack attracts attention in a variety of social environs, his appearance is no more outlandish than that of a third of the populace of any given rock show, record store, hip bar or music video.

I think I know what he means, though. It must feel good for him to be somewhere that he's not even close to personifying oddity or iconoclasm.

We kill time before the strict 3 p.m. check-in by walking the floor. Though there are booths representing shops and artists from all over, Jack comments on a comparative lack of big tattoo-scene names. He points out a couple of artists, Ohio's Gunnar and Michigan's Jime' Litwalk, as probably the expo's hottest; both men specialize in evocative, colorful, startlingly original "new school" styles that have about as much in common with pin-up girls, daggered hearts and monochromatic Celtic designs as Fantasia does with a "Peanuts" strip.

Non-tattoo-related enticements include $15 bags of home-cured jerky that are almost — almost — worth it, and that briefest of '90s nightclub-alternative vogues, the oxygen bar.

"It works," says a young blonde girl as she hops off one of the stools.

How, exactly, does it "work?"

"It makes you, oh, I don't know, like, more clearheaded and at the same time a little giddy, a little high," replies another, eloquently confusing us further.

More than anything, we gape, nudge each other and nod at what's already on the bodies of others who are strolling around, doing the same thing. Come check-in time, our eyes are tired and our heads are full of the insistent buzzing of 1,000 busily digging needles. We cart Jack and Cindy's small bar's worth of party favors into the room; Jack drops the first of innumerable Jaeger Bombs. (That's a shot of the evil Teutonic liquor dropped, boilermaker style, into a glass of Red Bull; if you're not making a scrunched-up lemon-sucking face at the thought of it, you should be.) TattooFest ringleader Bruce Ripley, an engaging, acidly funny fellow who looks like he could be the evil British crime boss in a Guy Ritchie flick, stops by and taps Jack to help judge tonight's best-tattoo competitions.

He goes, but returns repeatedly to the room (as do Cindy and I, between laps around the festival) for refreshments. By six p.m., it's an open house, with tattooed strangers hanging on the patio, bumming smokes, vaulting the railing to use the bathroom, talking shop.

A handsome guy with a tiny star in the skin right at his hairline asks Jack where he works. Jack produces a business card. The guy asks if he's got a booth at the convention.

"Naw, we're not working this weekend. It's good to be meeting everybody, but we're here," he says, waving his red plastic Solo cup to indicate the permanently decorated throng meeting and greeting between his room and the pool, "for this."

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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