Where the Wild Things Are: Entering the Kingdom of Skin and Ink

I arrived at the Sheraton, in downtown Philadelphia, not knowing what to expect at all. This would be my first tattoo convention and I was excited at the prospect of immersing myself in the culture. A chill rain spit down on the commoners as they slogged their way toward the guarded walls of the tattoo nobility. Make no mistake, there is (as I would come to find out) a hierarchy, a system of rank and privilege, of caste and respect, permeating the entire sub-culture of the tattooed world. This is a Kingdom of Skin & Ink, and I was but a peasant.

I joined the throng of common rabble, crowded within the outer gate of the Sheraton. We stood in the lobby, struggling to make some sense of the fluctuating and undulating line that snaked around the hotel’s lobby like a child’s crayon scribble. It was obvious that the Sheraton was unprepared for this swarm of tattoo enthusiasts. I was unprepared for the amount of people who had come out to celebrate the art of the tattoo. There were girls and boys, men and women, couples with strollers, old people, young people, black, white, asian, pierced, dyed, tough, effeminate, pale, tan, tall, anorexic, over dressed, barely dressed, beards, breasts, handlebar mustaches, hoodies, and ink, ink, ink, ink: sleeves, hands, necks, backs, calves, faces, you name it, it was inked. It was an explosion of skin art and people were there to show it off.

We stood in line, adjusting to the constant moderation of the hotel staff (who was obviously overwhelmed). We drank our drinks, paying lofty prices from the cash bars that had been strategically placed about, oh, every twenty feet. We shuffled our feet forward, discussing music and their ink, my ink, what we wanted next. I was, with a full sleeve half-finished and four other tattoos, feeling extremely under inked. The air smelled like beer, perfume and cigarettes. A cacophony of conversation resounded throughout the vaulted chamber. I waited a half an hour to get my wrist band, a $20 white paper bracelet with red skulls. Now, I had only to wait in the escalator line to gain access to the city proper. 10 minutes later I was ushered past the escalator guard and placed my booted feet upon the rising step of belt fed ascension. The hour was at hand!

There were two floors, two stops, but I went right to the top. Stairway to Heaven, baby. I’d hit the other floor on the way out. Three images assailed me as I stepped off the escalator. First, the attractive girl in the t-shirt and briefest of bikini briefs who had just recently (like 15 minutes ago) had the entire upper half of her right thigh tattooed, The skin was swollen, the lines were red and puffy and the ink was shiny. She wore her cellophane cover like the skin of a prized hunt. Secondly was yet another cash bar which was doing more business than the Camden drug dealers and third, the Philadelphia police officer who looked entirely bored and unaware of the chaos unfolding around him. I stepped into the madness and tried to get my bearings.

Now, this is no easy immediate task. You have to understand that there is complete sensory overload. There are so many people that salmon swimming upstream feel like they live in rural Idaho. There are colors and banners and postcards, and products, and piercings, and wild ink, and lots of skin, and zombie Gumby escorted by horror themed burlesque girls. Pandemonium would be church services in Nebraska on an Easter Sunday. This was something else. But it was a controlled pandemonium. It was an embraced pandemonium and I threw my arms around it and hung on tight.

My first stop was at a book vendor. Now, anyone who knows me will not find this surprising in the least. I could go to the middle of the Sahara Desert and somehow walk out with a new book. So, I checked out what the Bookmistress had to offer. There were a number of very cool books on the history of tattooing, various artists’ style books, some works on symbolism, etc.  There was an interesting book on the meaning and background of actual Soviet tattoos that were forced on prisoners in the middle of the 20th century. However, I was not going to pursue that route for my research project. I did, however, find a gold mine of a book: The History of Tattooing, covering many different tribes and cultures who believed that tattooing was somehow linked to the protection and preservation of the soul. Bingo. Cash for book. Thank you very much. I also picked up an idea inspiring book of art by a really wild, weird and eclectic artist, Greg Craola Simkins.

Yet another Greg Simkins image

From Greg Simkins

A Greg Simkins Image

I passed up a vegan pizza brochure and pocketed the March Monster convention flyer and pressed forward. My eyes trained on the gates beyond the “NO MC Colors” (motorcycle club) and “Must be 18” signs, to the booths of tattoo nobility. And then I realized what was going on. It was so constant, so integral of the entire environment. There was a constant and underlying buzz of tattoo guns. It was like a massive of swarm of mosquitoes had descended upon us and refused to take flight. Every conversation had to elevate itself above the decibel of the humming inkslingers.

I passed through the doors and into the court proper. Here there be dragons. And here, first to greet you was the king himself: Crazy Philadelphia Eddie. Tattoo icon of Philadelphia and the East Coast. He was behind a table, selling copies of his new book (ghost written by a gentleman whom I also met and would be granted the privilege of attaining his contact information). In his mid-seventies, Eddie seemed as spry and able as one would expect of a tough son-of-a-bitch who had made his way with fist and ink from the age of 15 on Coney Island. He wore a white blazer, but his neck and hand tattoos were contrasted only by his neatly clipped silver hair.

“Eddie, how are you?” I said.

“Good, you?”

I commented on the amount of people here, and how awesome it was to see the craft so supported. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m here for research. I mentioned my research project and the neo-tribalism move and social trends. I told him I was doing a graduate research project. I asked if I could contact him and maybe pick his brain.

“What are you in school for?” asked his writer, Eric Foemmel.

I told him I was going for my Master’s in Writing Arts.

“If you want a real job, become a plumber,” Eddie croaked. “That’s what I was going to be.”

“Well, how’d you get into the tattoo business?”

He tapped his book. “It’s all in here,” he said. “All the picking you could get out of my brain is in here.”

“Well, sign me up.” I smiled and handed over $30 as Eddie signed the book to me. I stepped aside and talked to Eric, his writer for a few minutes. He fished his card out of his wallet and gave it to me, excited at the prospect of someone else using tattoos in their graduate studies. He’d done the same for his PhD. and was willing to help me out.

I left Eddie and entered the lower courts. This was where the minor nobility established their courts. Row after row of tattoo artists, each with their own area. Each with their own banner and prints and cards and photo albums or computer screens showing their work. Every artist with their own entourage, their own court. Girls, friends, helpers, hangers-on of some sort. Every artist, except the occasional available one, tattooing someone’s side or arm, or back, or leg or head. Drawings, transfers, tattoo guns humming. Shoulder to shoulder, people pressing by. No modesty. Skin exposed. Bellies and backs and breasts barely covered. Artists from Texas, and Lansdale, and Massachusetts, and NYC and Detroit. From all over the country they came. Piercings and branding and scarring. Nurse on  duty. Stop and watch.


The next level down was for the true royalty (besides the King, of course. Eddie reigns supreme. An icon). But here were the modern movers and shakers. The Mark Wahlbergs of the tattooing industry. They had whole city blocks as far as space was distributed. They had lights and cameras and entire staffs at their disposal. Here too were the burlesque girls and the painters. The art exhibit and vendors (to include a $1750 jacket that I wanted to mortgage my house for). You could buy jewelery, novelties, piercings. clothing, shrunken heads, bags, books, hats, glasses, etc, etc. This was the marketplace and the quote from Hellraiser seems most appropriate here: “Oh, we have such sights to show you.”

I did my best to push through, wanting to buy everything but buying nothing (except for the books I’d purchased already and don’t think I didn’t contemplate selling whatever I had to, to get that jacket). I would get no ink done today. It seems the protocol is to set up appointments ahead of time. The convention runs Fri-Sun and it seems that people go on Friday, or get rooms and schedule appointments through the weekend. It is extremely rare that one can show up and just get something done. So, I shuffled past the group of apparent motorcycle club members in the midst of a “conversation” with the police. I sidestepped the thirty something couple with their five-year old son. I brushed past the goth girls with their emo boy-guy-friendy things, and made my way to the escalator. And this is where it goes full circle.

Apparently escalators at tattoo conventions are magical portals of bikini wearing girls. There, barring my way from entering said escalator, was a breathing Barbie doll with strips of cloth supposedly passing for a bikini. She was exhibiting her back tattoo (and just about everything else) to the group of camera wielding barbarians behind her. I made sure I wasn’t in the shot and slipped past. I had a wife and three little boys to meet. We were having dinner at Don Pablo’s.

I drove home, writing furiously into my notebook at every red light or traffic stop. It had been an intense and rewarding field experience, one on which my research journey will be built upon, not decided by. It was obvious, in this one afternoon I spent amongst those whom with I share a common bond, that this is no mere hobby or expression. This is a lifestyle. This is an extension of the soul and I am a citizen of their world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REFLECTION

It is interesting to note that I conducted this field research prior to any class discussion of ethnographic field study, note taking, transcribing, and active researching. We’d only just picked our topics that week, most were still not approved, but the convention was going on that weekend whether or not I was going to be delving into this project. That being said, and after extensive study and some practice with ethnographic field notes, I have to say that I am very satisfied with how my excursion turned out. I took detailed and extensive notes. I recorded them in a hybrid mix of the examples given in our text, Writing Ethnographic Field Notes, withdrawing at times to scribble in corners or in my car before leaving the parking garage. I pulled sensory details and conceptual ideas out of every corner of that convention, even bringing home two texts that would prove to be instrumental in my research and an excellent interview subject in the form of Eric Foemmel.

I’m not sure what I would have done differently, except for maybe to make a weekend out of it and actually get some work done there (an appointment is pretty much needed). Maybe some of the after hours activity might have been interesting to observe, but that was not a luxury I had.

All in all, I think that this experience helped me to understand what we were reading and studying in class as I had already successfully done it. It also allowed me to be aware of what I was doing without even necessarily realizing it.

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11 comments on “Where the Wild Things Are: Entering the Kingdom of Skin and Ink

  1. Diana Riker says:

    Joe-This sounds like it was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed how you told your story. I think that the whole culture behind tattoos is fascinating. I actually make an imovie about it when I was a freshman for one of my courses. I interviewed one of the tattoo artist around this area and also my ex-boyfriend’s uncle who had been featured in several tattoo magazines. I love hearing the reasons people decided to get particular tattoos. For most, tattoos are a deeply personal experience. Some of the tattoos I’ve seen are absolutely breathtaking.

    • josephmcgee says:

      Thanks, Diana. Yes, there are some really exquisite pieces of art put on people. Tattoos are really fascinating and there truly is a sub-culture of appreciative enthusiasts.

  2. It sounds like you had an exciting and productive experience! I could never have survived there, but you clearly, as you state in your post, are “a citizen of their world.” I hope the rest of your field experiences are just as fun, and I can’t wait to read all about them!

  3. Joe this is a really exciting experience. I love the way you told the story of your day at the convention. I feel like life is very fun through your eyes like a medieval movie or something.

    P.S. Way to get a head start on the research and scoring some potential interviewees!

    • josephmcgee says:

      Jess, you know, that’s just it. I try to enjoy the world around me. I try and engage my imagination at all times. The real world can be so mundane if we allow it to become commonplace and trivial.

  4. josephmcgee says:

    […] recently attended the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention while gathering research for a piece focused on tattoos. This field research was, in a sense, a […]

  5. slbrown85 says:

    Wow. I wish I could have gone! I haven’t gotten work done in a year and a half. I’m way overdue on getting my arm finished.

    Have you looked into Sailor Jerry at all? He did classic/traditional tattoos in Philly too, and then they made that 90 proof rum (which is delicious). Now there is a Sailor Jerry store on South Street, I believe. Pretty iconic… might be something to check out! Good luck!

  6. josephmcgee says:

    […] jogged my recent experiences while attending the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. I remember retreating to remote corners, away from the bustle of activity, to jot down notes and […]

  7. […] Eric Foemmel (Author/Ethnographer) I had the pleasure of meeting Eric in Philadelphia, at the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention. Eric is the man responsible for putting the wild and crazy life experiences of Crazy […]

  8. […] you gone to any of the conventions?” she asks. I tell her that I did go to the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention. She tells me that the New York convention is a great one to go to. She believes it’s in May. […]

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