American Ink

Our fearless reporter checks out the ninth annual New York City Tattoo Convention and explores the growth of American tattoo culture.

I remember my first time. It was one year ago in Georgetown with a young woman named Susan. She was funny and very gentle. She made me forget about the tattooed, half-naked man lying down five feet away.

That kind of trust is hard to find with complete strangers. But I saw it on her arms; the long sleeves of colored tattoos running from her forearms to her biceps. I couldn’t discern all the different images, but it was beautiful. From that moment, I knew this was going to be one kickass tattoo.

“Okay, Rob, now just take off your shirt and we can get started,” she said, whipping out the biggest damn needle/gun contraption I’ve ever seen.

I looked back at her and just smiled.

Although people have been getting tattoos since prehistoric times, America’s modern tattoo culture originated around the turn of the 20th century in New York City. Tattoo studios were considered sleazy and uncivilized by high society. But tattoos were very popular with circus performers and sailors. (Performers used them to attract the audience’s attention, and sailors used tattoos as markers of where they had traveled.) The art of tattoos flourished within this “seedy” American underground, later becoming popular with bikers and criminals.

But as time moved on, tattoos slowly grew into a new American art form. Life magazine estimated in 1936 that 6 percent of the American population had at least one tattoo. In 2003, a Harris poll discovered at least 16 percent of Americans are tattooed.

The Roseland's marqueeIf you don’t believe those statistics, just turn on the TV. TLC has Miami Ink. A&E has Inked. The FUSE music channel has Tattoo Stories. Tattoos are everywhere.

So, why are tattoos so popular? I went looking for the answer at the ninth annual New York City Tattoo Convention.

When I heard this convention was in town, I knew I had to go. I love tattoos. I love how the ink contrasts with skin color. I love the creative designs. I love how a tattoo reflects the wearer’s personality. I just couldn’t help it — I had to check out this convention.

Held at the famous Roseland Ballroom on West 52nd Street, this was the ultimate event for tattoo artists and enthusiasts. It featured almost a hundred different tattoo parlors from the US and other countries including Brazil, China, Japan, Germany, England, Italy, and Spain. The atmosphere was a flavorful blend of goth and sideshow-carnivale, with a dash of biker. Draping the walls of the ballroom were large canvasses depicting classic 1960s circus performers, sideshows, and “freaks” such as “Lobster Boy,” “The Bearded Woman,” and “The Geek.”

On the convention’s first floor, the main floor, there were hourly performances ranging from rock bands to contortionists and sword swallowers. Alongside the tattoo artists and parlors were vendors selling artwork, t-shirts, and random macabre items — like preserved insects and animal skeletons.

The convention floor

The second floor had fewer booths but some of the most intriguing vendors. One booth sold nothing but cannibal-themed items. (Now I know what to get mom for her birthday.) Next to that booth was the “vampire” booth where people were getting their teeth chiseled into fangs.

Nearby were the Japanese tattooing booths: huge platforms where people would lie down and get tattoos in the traditional Japanese-style called “wabori.” With this method, everything is done by hand. No tattoo needle or gun is involved. Instead, Japanese artists use a foot-long, handmade pen to repeatedly inject the ink into the person’s skin. All I could do was wince at the sight of someone plunging that sharpened pen into the customer’s bicep.

I saw every kind of tattoo imaginable. Some people had Asian-inspired tattoos that covered their entire bodies. Others had intricate tribal designs that snaked around their arms. Many women sported series of gothic black roses on their lower backs, shoulders, and necks. Some of my favorite tattoos were copies of classic WWII pinups.

Then there were the mysterious people who you wondered about: the people with no visible tattoos. Do they have any tattoos? What do they have hidden underneath their garments? On what body part? Every so often, strangers would reveal their inked creations for others to see. It was like we were secret members of a club, and our tattoos were our membership cards.

With my single tattoo, I felt fairly inadequate compared to the rest of the tattoo brethren. I felt as though I should have had at least three tattoos to board this ride.

Nikki, on the right with the octopus tatoo, with a friend.As I walked around the convention floor I just couldn’t help but stare at everybody. Fortunately, at a place like this, people weren’t shy. Men and women flaunted their body art like medals. People were even more eager to talk about their first tattoo.

“I got my first tattoo when I was 18,” said Nikki, one of the young women I met. “It’s a Chinese character on my neck that means ‘real.’ I have a total of six tattoos and I plan on getting more.” One of her visible and most memorable tattoos was a large blue octopus on her left shoulder with tentacles wrapping around her arm.

Another young lady, named Julie, said, “My first tattoo was a ladybug. It was cute. I got it when I was about 17. Now I’m 23 and have a total of 10 tattoos,” two of which are blue stars on her chest engulfed in flames.

Star-spangled Julie, on the right, with a friend.But Julie’s chest was only part of the reason I was here. To find out why tattoos are so popular, I had to go to the source: tattoo artists.

I approached them with trepidation. For some reason, all American tattoo artists are required to be hulk-like and have more ink on them than the New York Post. But like a journalistic trouper, I went up to each artist, introduced myself and explained my question.

Several artists looked at me like I was way too young and innocent to be at this convention. If only I had a facial scar and various piercings — then maybe people would have taken me seriously on first impression. Still, they were all very knowledgeable and were nice enough to answer my question: Why are tattoos becoming so popular?

Everyone had a different answer:

  • “We’ve been heading towards a more conservative era, and I think tattoos have been a symbol of breaking out of that conservative structure,” said John of NY Adorn Studio. Plus, TV is a factor, he said. “You see celebrities like Tommy Lee, Christina Aguilera, and Angelina Jolie with tattoos, and that influences the youth culture.”
  • “I think tattoos are becoming more mainstream because it is an evolution of style,” said Dave Fox of Studio One Tattoo. “Tattoos used to be ‘underground,’ and trends have a way of exposing what is ‘underground’ and making it mainstream.”
  • “The increase of tattoos is an example of the ‘extreme’ culture. More and more people are doing bolder things these days,” said Adrian of Mickey Sharpz USA.

One answer I was surprised not to hear was the advancement in training. An increasing number of professionally-trained fine art students go into the tattoo industry, making high-quality and unique tattoos more available. Also, the evolution of technology has made better tattoos possible. The combination of longer lasting pigment and more-precise needle guns have been contributing factors.

My favorite reason tattoos are popular, though, came from three tattoo enthusiasts named Jessica, Moureen, and Kat: ” ’cause tattoos are fucking sexy!”

As I took my final lap around the convention floor, I looked around at what defined the modern American tattoo culture — the technology, the artwork, the artist, the individuals. I lifted my left t-shirt sleeve and looked at the tattoo I got a year ago. It’s the Calico Jack pirate symbol on my left shoulder. To me it was a symbol for adventure and taking bold moves. Looking at it made me think of one thing: I wonder if Jessica, Moureen, and Kat are still around

The author's Calico Jack pirate flag tattoo. (Arrr!)

Article © 2006 by Rob Roan