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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Research Proposal: Ars Velius: Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard

And so here, in the eyes of peers and public, I shall stake claim to my semester-long research project.  It’s funny that as I put these words out before me, immortalized as they are in this electronic pool of infinite data storage, they share a theme with the topic that I’ve chosen. My words, my art, are an extension, an expression, of myself placed upon this digitized canvas. Once I click publish, those words fly off into the world for everyone to witness and I am, in that sense, exposing myself to the world. I am expressing myself and I am sharing who I am or choose to be. And this is the power of the tattoo.

Tattooing, once taboo and reserved for the more disparate and rebellious sorts of counterculture riff-raff, is now mainstream. Soccer Moms, kindergarten teachers, grandfathers and doctors are all sitting in the chair to have imprinted upon their flesh some permanent morsel of their life. A 2006 story in USAToday reported that 24% of Americans aged 18 – 50 are tattooed. That was up from 15% three years prior. How large has that number grown in the four years since the story was published?

Tattoos are stories, memories, tributes, passion, songs, declarations. Tattoos are many things to many people, but there is one thread that holds true to every tattoo inked across every pound of flesh: they are ART. They are meant to be shared. They are meant to be experienced and discussed and appreciated. Like cave drawings telling the stories of lost civilizations, tattoos tell our story. They illustrate who we are. Our skin is the cave wall and you, the observer of our ink, are discovering our stories.

As much as tattoos interest me, it is the tattoo artist which fascinates me. To me, they are akin to bards, regaling courts with harp and song. They are shamans, weaving magic through ink and needle. Their skill enables our identities to see thought become reality. How liberating must it be, I think, to serve in such a fashion, free to practice your craft without fear of expressive discrimination. To earn your living giving life to the soul of every person who comes before you, paying for you to ply your trade. How does one begin? How does one enter into this trade? Can any artist transfer ability to this medium, or is it like the potter who cannot paint or the illustrator who knows only cartooning and not realism? Can it be taught? What life is this, the uninhibited and carefree practice of the inkslinger?

So, I propose to explore the tattoo artist  and their craft as urban shamanism, almost a reflection of our move toward neo-tribal associations and identity illumination. The statement of the individual in a world awash in capitalism, consumerism, and mass corporate appeal.

Art is best served by art. It is for this reason, that I will present my research in a medium that I feel I can best immerse myself in. I plan to write a story (or stories, interconnected) that explore the depths of this research topic. Images assault me of dystopian/speculative fiction shorts, or dark fantasy cemented in magical realism. I can have a lot of fun with this and at the center of them all would be a centralized stark image, a tattoo, and, of course, the shaman him/herself: the tattoo artist. What great characters they could be, especially in a fantasy work of fiction.

The best fiction, fantasy included, is grounded in some bit of reality, no matter how big or small that may be. Even the wildest ideas often have roots in reality somewhere, some idea or image that inspired the writer. This is where my research shall prove paramount in giving me the depth to create a piece truly enriched by the discoveries awaiting me. I look forward to immersing myself in the culture and archives on the subject of tattoo artists and their craft.

As this is not merely a practice without purpose, publication is in mind. To this end, I have considered several possible publications which I will target for submission. Chief amongst these (as farmed from Writer’s Market 2011, Duotrope, and/or Google searches) are:

Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer Magazine, Dark Valentine, Weird Tales, and Philadelphia Stories.

Most of these were selected because of their attraction to weird, dark, speculative fantasy with flavors of magical realism or the bizarre. Philadelphia Stories is an interest because of their attachment to well written stories by area writers. This is not to say that this list is closed and/or comprehensive, but this is a starting area. These are some magazines that may be interested in what I will eventually write. Other opportunities may present themselves once I am able to research more of the trade magazines that are on the shelves (Inked, Tattoo Magazine, Skin & Ink).

I am also excited at the prospect of exploring the artists themselves, of sitting down to talk with them, of visiting shops and parlors, discussing thoughts via blogs, like Tattoo blog or Swallows & Daggers. Coincidentally, and I just discovered this today, the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention is this weekend (Fri-Sun, $20/day or $40 for all three. Tickets sold at door. See site for details). I’ll be there on Saturday, what a chance to dive right into this thing.

This is an exciting opportunity to explore an area of personal interest and to use it in a genre that I wear like a second skin. Though the immediate research and archive opportunities are local, it is (as demonstrated in the aforementioned USAToday article) a subject of national AND global appeal. I look forward to the challenges ahead and the discoveries that await. Perhaps, at the end of it all, another painting will color my cave wall?