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In which a tattooed innocent goes to her first body art convention and lives to tell several tales

Adventures in the Skin Trade 

In which a tattooed innocent goes to her first body art convention and lives to tell several tales

I can't say why I got my first tattoo. I wasn't exactly the ideal candidate. I was an honor roll student at the time, and I attended church regularly. Plus, I had a part-time job at this frou-frou women's clothing store in Randolph Mall.

I had to wear pantyhose, for Christ's sake.

And tattoos weren't exactly hip in Asheboro in those days: Tight, acid-washed jeans and fringed boots were what you wore when you went cruising the strip in your 4x4.

I just wanted one. The only way I can explain it is this: When you're 16, the idea of something permanent--anything permanent--is intriguing. I probably focused more on the concept than on the actual mark: the fact that it was forever.

My friend Chris had one, a green upside down question mark on his right bicep. He also knew a woman in Greensboro, the one who gave him his tattoo.

Not putting things too delicately, she worked out of her apartment.

This means she was not a professional, not licensed, and not particularly picky about her clientele. They didn't have to be sober, and they didn't have to be of age--18 in North Carolina.

They did have to have $40.

The conditions? Far from sanitary. I lay on a Budweiser beach towel on a hardwood floor with my pants and underwear pulled halfway down. Since her cat had recently given birth, kittens crawled on the floor, around and over me. I watched as dust and hairballs rolled past my face while the woman worked.

But I was "under the gun": two hours away from my parents' house, under the ruse of meeting a friend for dinner, definitely without their permission, getting ink done.

It felt hot. Not quite as bad as a bee that keeps stinging. And it was over in about 30 minutes. When it was finished, I had a small blue and green dragonfly just above my right hipbone, based on a photo I ripped out of a reference book in the Eastern Randolph High School library. (Sorry, Mrs. Cutler.)

I still have the picture.

I saw no autoclave in the apartment. I had no idea where the needle came from or if it had been used on someone else.

I had no idea at the time just how many risks I was taking.

Much to the dismay of my parents, I've since chosen to repeatedly "mark up" (in their words) my body with bold and brightly colored designs. Some are easily hidden by clothing. Others constantly peek out from under the cuff of a shirt sleeve or the bottom of a pant leg. Though not all of my tattoos have a specific meaning, each is a distinct reminder of where I was during the time their inscription.

The dragonfly? Easy: high school--getting my driver's license and skipping class.

The colored "tribal"--the geometric purple, green, yellow and black design at the base of my back--reminds me of being a freshman in college. It's the only piece of "flash" on my body--those pre-fab, ready-made designs which cover the walls of most tattoo shops. Although I don't regret getting that tattoo, I now regret that it was flash. In the tattoo world, they're considered shortcuts, cheats for those who lack the actual creativity to design their own.

DiamondDiamondDiamond

I hadn't met Charles Cain at that point. That happened when I was a sophomore at Appalachian State. I was working at a head shop called Expressions at the time. We sold pipes, "water filtration devices," adult videos, incense, you name it. Kenny, the owner, wanted to expand his business to include tattooing.

That's how I met Cain.

He came into the shop one afternoon while I was working. I introduced myself, showed him the piece at the base of my back, and asked him for suggestions on how to expand on it.

He told me I should "fix" what was already there before adding anything.

My immediate reaction: cocky bastard.

You might say that's where my education in tattooing began.

Thankfully, Cain never worked for Kenny--another story for another time. He did, however, plant roots in Boone. He moved from High Point, set up shop and quickly built a huge clientele. And not just due to the college students; even the most ill-informed tattoo enthusiasts recognized the quality of his work.

And if they didn't, he sure as hell pointed it out to them.

Slowly, he began to fix tattoo work I'd gone as far as New York to collect. It bugged me when he first pointed out the sketchy line work, uneven color and piss-poor quality of the work I had. Nobody wants to hear they've got crap on their body, and that it's there for keeps. I never knew how bad my art looked until he cleaned it up. He sharpened lines here, brightened colors there, and made my works look like completely new--and better--tattoos.

Though I'd left Boone three years ago, I went back to visit him last November. I wanted more stars.

During my sophomore year, Cain put a series of them on my left foot: purple, yellow, green and blue. For a very long time I had resisted the urge to get more. Now, I wanted some on my right arm.

It took four trips between November and August to finish the piece: What initially started out as three small stars on my right forearm became a six-star constellation that followed the contour of my right bicep to the top of my shoulder. The piece is shocking, bright, eye-catching.

I love it.

Halfway through it, Cain started talking about Richmond. There was going to be a tattoo convention there in November--the 10th annual Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival, to be precise--and he thought my arm had a chance at the award for "Best Color."

I was flattered. Though tattoos had fascinated me for years, I'd never been to a tattoo convention. Now I wasn't only going, I was in the running for an award. So what if I had to spring for my own hotel room and meals? Of course I was going to go.

If nothing else, I was certain it would be a fine opportunity to experience something new.

I met up with Cain and the rest of his entries at the hotel. We were staying at the Hampton Inn--purposely not the place where the convention was being held. Knowing the party atmosphere surrounding conventions--and being the responsible den mother he is--Cain thought it best we stay elsewhere.

It wasn't until the following morning that we learned a children's soccer tournament was also happening that weekend in Richmond. Many of its participants were staying at the Hampton.

Saturday morning, 10 a.m. Team Cain hits the lobby where the continental breakfast is set up: 17 strong, some a little blearier than others, true, but still a sight to behold. Most are moderately tattooed, already wearing revealing clothes so their work could be easily viewed by the judges.

While we sleepily grazed on donuts and bagels, cold cereal and coffee, soccer moms and dads "admired" us from a distance. When we'd poured out of the elevator, they were all sitting around watching some jesus-crispie on the TV--a televangelist with shiny, plastic helmet hair. When they saw us, the soccer moms (who must have had a time getting those little mock turtlenecks over such big hair themselves) instinctively clutched their children, their purses and their husbands.

As a group, their behavior suggested what they might do if they were suddenly caught without their SUVs in the middle of Lion Country Safari. No one was making any sudden moves exactly, yet the tension in the air was high.

On the other hand, their children were highly intrigued. A couple of 10-year old boys gathered the courage to approach me and ask, "Are you guys ... in a band?"

The words "tattoo convention" were all it took. Their eyes got big as saucers. In unison they replied, "Keeeeewl."

Said husbands, meanwhile, weren't exactly hiding the fact that they found the enhanced body parts of the women in our entourage simply breathtaking.

Swine.

After breakfast, we made our way across the street. Our destination: the Holiday Inn Select, a tired, used convention center on the Midlothian Turnpike, just before it starts to turn scuzzy.

Ten-thirty in the morning, and already people were at the bar smoking cigarettes. The air was thick, heavy, sweaty and dismal. A festive neon sign hung overhead, welcoming people to the convention.

Cain brought with him Rosa, his piercer; an innocent-enough looking 20-something with pieces of metal thoughtfully inserted throughout her face and body. She was dressed in incredibly low slung black pants, pasties, and a sheer tank top. The large Koi carp--a multicolored Japanese fish--Cain had begun on her back was clearly visible.

Rosa was accompanied by Justin--destined to be renamed "Boy Band" with his highlighted hair, fashion sense and modeling ambitions. Cain had done quite a bit of work on him: blue flames on one bicep, a heavy tribal on the other.

But when he showed off a set of three imposing Xs across the small of his scrawny back, I blurted out, "You ain't no Triple X. You're PG-13."

I don't think anyone in the group called him by his God-given name the rest of the weekend.

Beth and Tammy were the group matriarchs. Beth had flaming red hair, long fingernails--and extensive work covering a cancer scar. Vines, flowers and hummingbirds started across her lower pelvic region and continued up her side and over her shoulder.

Tammy--a prison guard from Mountain City, Tenn.--was equally hard to miss with long, bleached hair and a newly financed bosom. She too had vinework and roses that began at the top of her foot and continued all the way to her shoulder.

The previous night both stayed up putting the finishing touches on Saturday's outfits--what little there was to them. Beth wore tight, low slung black pants and a sheer lace shirt over black sequin pasties. Tammy had a short skirt sliced completely up the side, held together by a couple of snaps Beth had sewn on for her the night prior. Obviously, the snaps were for easy access to the artwork underneath.

Also joining us was Mike and his girlfriend Joy. Mike was a large and intimidating fellow on the surface, with jet-black hair covering his head, face and entire body. He too had a large tribal piece on his shoulder. It had taken four Bic disposable razors that morning to shave the parts of his chest and shoulder where Cain's work lay buried.

Mike's mother, Debbie, and her husband, Mark, were also there. Debbie wasn't only there for moral support. She was also heavily tattooed: curvy scrolls of black ink wrapped around her midsection, covering a scar. Tight batik pants and a lace-up crop top that barely contained her other, um, accessories completed her outfit.

Mike and Joy brought their friend Shane with them: the comic relief for the group. One-hundred pounds soaking wet, Shane was a sweet, bird-chested country boy with glasses, motorcycle boots, tight jeans and a T-shirt that read: "Smile If You're Not Wearing Panties."

This leaves Richard and Suzanna, our token goths, who brought new meaning to the term severity: bloodless complexions and boot-black hair--Suzanna's in a Betty Page, Richard's long, straight and down to his ass. While walking out of their hotel room, I couldn't help but notice the contents of their closet. All of it, every last bit, was black: skirts, pants, shirts and shoes. Coordinating outfits must have been a breeze.

Most of them had already experienced a festival or two. I was the convention virgin. Cain told me what to expect up front: unsanitary conditions for tattooing, people both working and getting work either fucked up or hungover. He also warned me there might be some static from other artists who didn't appreciate his vocal critiques of their work.

I couldn't wait to experience it all for myself.

Big shock: We were among the first people there. The party crew had apparently had a pretty late night of it, and were still up in their rooms recovering.

One by one we lined up and filled out forms with our name, tattoo artist, and our category. These included "Best Tribal," "Best Back Piece," "Best Cover-Up" and something called "Tattoo of the Day."

Cain put the curvy, abstract piece on my left shoulder in Best Tribal and my new stars in Best Color.

Since judging wasn't until 4 p.m., we decided to check out our surroundings. A large room filled with row after row of booths was reserved for "Live Tattooing." Most had elaborately decorated banners with the shop's name and location. Some went a little further with overstuffed couches, lamps and other accessories to make it feel a little more like "home."

The concept was strictly one-stop shopping: With all these artists in one room, a tattoo collector wouldn't have to travel all over the United States to get their work.

There's just one problem with the arrangement. Tattooing is like a minor form of surgery: Blood and tissue is involved. If you wouldn't want to swap bodily fluids with someone you just met in a bar, why do it with folks at a convention?

The booths had no physical barriers between them. Nothing, in short, to stop microplasmic blood spray--more commonly known as "blood aerosol." This made the room at least theoretically a perfect environment for cross-contamination, including hepatitis and HIV.

Reason number two why getting tattooed at a convention isn't a bright idea.

Upstairs vendors sold leather accessories, vinyl pillows, rude T-shirts, and ghoulishly demented Elvis busts. One was red with horns. His name: Hellvis.

Most of us didn't have a lot of extra cash to blow on souvenirs. Boy Band managed to get the proverbial commemorative T-shirt. Fifteen bucks.

After browsing, a quick lunch at Hooters. About the most trouble we got into there was indigestion.

DiamondDiamondDiamond

I'd agreed to compete, but I had no idea exactly what I was in for until I saw the stage in an upstairs conference room--complete with pageant-worthy runway with rows of lightbulbs lining each side.

Was I going to have to walk down that?

The room quickly filled to SRO capacity. Anyone wanting another Budweiser risked losing their seat in the process. The air grew thick with cigarette smoke.

I noticed one old couple, sitting near a group of heavily pierced club kids. Bill and Susie were easily pushing 70, he in his seedy burgundy sport coat, she in her argyle sweater. I assumed they had grandkids competing. I asked them why they were there.

Susie slyly replied, "Well, I have tattoos where the sun don't shine."

At 6 p.m., the convention's MC, some guy from Jersey, grabbed a mic. He was tattooed from ankles to chin. He bragged about how he had gotten his neck done--the second time around--earlier that morning.

Mr. Jersey introduced five judges. All were tattoo artists or shop owners, and none looked terribly thrilled to be there. They were probably as hungover as the rest of the crowd.

The first category was Best Back Piece. The MC would call out a name, and that person would walk up the stairs to meet their fate.

First was a slow lap past the judges who, if not immediately taken by the craftsmanship before them, would barely take notice. After that, a walk down the runway--with tattoo enthusiasts snapping pictures of your work all the while.

Some overweight guys with back pieces cut the back out of their favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt to preserve some modesty. Others proudly displayed formidable tattoo and gut: One hefty candidate with a grizzly snarling from shoulder to shoulder barreled down the runway in nothing but daisy-dukes and Timberland boots. A hunting knife dangled off of his belt loop.

The women ranged in size and stature as well. A tall, pale brunette with a large tribal on her back delicately maneuvered in tall, clear stripper-heels. MacGyver might have fashioned her floss-and-electrical-tape ensemble.

In my tight tank top and jeans, I felt a little overdressed.

I was a bit nervous when it came my turn to work the runway. As Mr. Jersey stumbled on my last name, my group cheered. Whenever our members crossed the stage we did this; we were the only ones who did. We didn't care. We were having a great time.

Up the stairs I went, slowly past the judges with arm outstretched, subconsciously looking for approval. I tried to take my time, but wanted the whole thing over with.

I paused about halfway down the runway, feeling a little stupid with my arm constantly stretched out like that. I posed for both sides of the audience as the digital cameras clicked away.

I've gotta admit, it was a little thrilling. This probably was going to be the closest I'd ever come to Star Search or the Miss Universe Pageant.

Too bad Ed McMahon wasn't our emcee: I bet he wouldn't have made references to cow tipping or trailer parks every time a contestant hailed from North Carolina. But then again, chances were slim that McMahon would take part in a pageant where most of the contestants were beer-gutted, mullet-headed rednecks.

No one in our group won one of the ugly green and gold trophies, which was fine by me. It would've clashed with everything in my apartment.

A few contestants had appointment cards handed to them as they walked off-stage. Billy Tinney--photographer for Easy Rider, Tattoo Flash, Tattoo Magazine and Savage--was scouting new material and he handed cards to people he wanted to photograph later in more detail. I wasn't one of them.

But Cain was happy; he wasn't necessarily here to win. He came to expose people to "quality tattooing," and to have his work photographed. And that was going to happen: Three from the group got appointment cards. They read, "6 p.m. -- Room 806."

DiamondDiamondDiamond

We split up for dinner. Some wanted Chick-fil-A, and others wanted Arby's. Anything would be better than Hooters.

After a quick bite, we converged again on the Holday Inn Select. Since there was already a long line outside Room 806, we took our place on the floor and waited. The crowd was making quite a bit of racket. I wondered about the other folks with rooms on this floor. I was also very happy we had not chosen to stay here.

On the floor, I shifted constantly in an attempt to keep my ass from going numb. People walking to their rooms stepped all over us. At one point a couple entered the room where I was seated.

When they did, I saw a man with long, dirty hair sitting at a table where tattoo equipment was set up. He had a glass pipe in one hand, a lighter in the other. I watched him take a powerful hit as the door closed.

If no one else saw what I saw, everybody smelled it. We all looked at each other in disbelief. Seconds after the door closed we heard a sound were all familiar with: the buzzing from the tattoo machine.

DiamondDiamondDiamond

William DeMichele, another photographer, had given one of those treasured appointment slips to Rosa. When she showed it to Cain, he sent her back to DeMichele with word that several people in the group were photo-worthy. DeMichele put Cain's work on the cover of International Tattoo in '98--a beautiful girl named Olivia, with a tribal on her tummy.

Before we knew it, we were parked again in the hallway outside a conference room. We waited while many others who had appointment cards took their turn in front of the camera.

At 10:30 DeMichele surfaced, ready to pick people from our group. A couple of the guys were chosen.

So were Rosa and I. After all those hours waiting, I was going to get my 15 minutes of fame.

Rosa and I went in together. DiMichele's suite reeked like a locker room. The photographer had thinning hair and a nice smile. As far as I could tell, he wasn't overly tattooed himself. A row of hoop earrings dangled from both ears.

Rosa was first in front of the camera.

He commented that she "had hidden such perfectly nice breasts behind pasties." No sooner did the words come out of his mouth than she pulled them from her skin.

He took several pictures, most of her front, which happened to have no tattoos.

She did have several piercings: both nipples, tongue, ears, lip, and it wasn't odd that he would want to photograph those as well. After deliberating a while on whether or not to photograph her unfinished back, he finally snapped a few.

Then it was my turn.

Having been photographed similarily once before, I wasn't nervous. Because their location on my arm would be difficult to capture naturally, I stood there, my left hand cupping my right elbow, hips cocked out to the side while the camera flashed.

All the while I was asking him questions: How long had he been in the industry? What did he like best about his job? I joked with him about getting to see all these half-naked women, testing the waters to see just how murky they were.

He said he had seen thousands of breasts by this point in his career. It wasn't that big a deal. I believed him.

He said that he loved "the female form." I definitely believed that.

Then he went on to say that although he had been given the opportunity to take advantage of his position, he hadn't.

By the time we left, I even believed that. So much so, in fact, that Rosa wasn't the only one who partially disrobed for the camera. After talking to William I felt comfortable enough to let him photograph me, sans tanktop.

After signing a release form, he handed me a Polaroid. I think I looked pretty damn good: arms crossed over my chest, with a devilish grin on my face. Racy, yet somehow modest.

Cain said he'd keep me posted if he came across my face in International Tattoo. With my luck, the photos from that evening will surface as I'm running for Senate, trying to adopt, or interviewing for a job as a grade-school teacher.

But what the hell. You only live once, right?

When we emerged an hour later, it was nearing midnight and everyone was ready to get the hell out of the Holiday Inn Select. Some of us amused ourselves with shaving cream, Margarita mix and body shots until four.

My 9 a.m. wake-up call came early. I had had about four hours sleep that entire weekend. By 11, you could barely make out who was who in the puddle in the lobby. Hugs were exchanged. Pictures were taken. It was time to head home.

I had a little over two hours alone in my car to think about the previous 48 hours.

Seven years later after we first met, I still think Cain's a cocky bastard. But I respect him a great deal, and after this weekend I learned that I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Sure, all of us made this trip because we knew it was going to be a great time. But the main reason for going was because we had art on our bodies that we were proud of.

There is a certain adhesiveness that connects those of us with tattoos. We embrace the permancy. We make decisions that last a lifetime.

I'll be going to more conventions. There's one in Greensboro early next year. Who knows--maybe the woman who gave me my first tattoo will be there.

  • In which a tattooed innocent goes to her first body art convention and lives to tell several tales

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