Making their mark

Tattoo fans at convention say their body of work, enjoying new popularity, is here to stay

January 26, 2009|By James Drew | James Drew,james.drew@baltsun.com

When tattoo artist Kristel Oreto recently put a bulletin on her MySpace page saying that she wanted to do a tattoo of the character Augustus Gloop, Ryan Clement seized the opportunity.

Yesterday at the Baltimore Tattoo Arts Convention, Oreto inked the image of Gloop - the glutton who is the first child to win a trip to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - on Clement's leg.

Clement, a former Army staff sergeant who lives in Richmond, Va., is a tattoo artist himself.

"I like to get tattoos that other people would not get," he said.

About 5,000 people attended the three-day convention at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel, where the usual sound of glasses clinking and silverware on plates in the large ballrooms was replaced by the buzzing of tattoo machines and the throbbing of speed metal music.

Several attendees interviewed said they were pleased that society has become more accepting of tattoos over the past decade.

A study released in 2007 by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of "Gen Nexters" - those age 18 to 25 - said they had gotten a tattoo, dyed their hair an untraditional color or had a body piercing somewhere other than on an earlobe.

"People are starting to realize that we're not uneducated, low-class people," said Lauren Siddle, a bartender in Harrisburg, Pa. "It's easier to go places now. I don't have people stopping me on the street and asking, 'Oh, what does your mother think?' "

Siddle said that when she was a saleswoman for IBM, some of her co-workers didn't want her to wear sleeveless dresses because of her tattoos. But she said her bosses didn't mind.

"My managers cared more about the work that I was doing," she said.

Jay Garcia, a New York City resident, traveled to Baltimore to promote his brother-in-law's two-year-old magazine, Tattoo Society.

"There's no question that our society is beginning to accept the fact that tattoos are here to stay," he said. "It's not a taboo anymore."

But others said the need to confront stereotypes is far from over. Melissa Prysak, who held her 3-week-old son, Brennan, at the convention, staffed the booth of the Gypsy Queens. Prysak is president of the Maryland chapter of the national group, which is on the lookout for any "desperate housewives" and "soccer moms" who want to play "judge and jury" over women who have tattoos.

"Tattooed females are not sluts, whores and prostitutes," said Prysak, a computer technician for the Navy. "We're mothers, daughters and wives."

For Sara Robinett, the convention was one of several across the nation that she and her husband will attend this year. Greg Robinett is a North Carolina-based tattoo artist, and he's done all of hers.

"It's a time when all of the artists can get in one place where we're not feeling outcasted," she said. "It's like a traveling family."

Troy Timpel, the convention organizer, who is a Philadelphia tattoo artist, said the subculture entered a "renaissance" in the late 1980s and during the past decade, when more professionally trained artists entered the field.

"Now, with all the younger, art school people, almost anything can be replicated and done," he said.

Because of society's growing acceptance of tattoos - which have become commonplace on athletes and entertainers - their popularity may ebb and flow over the next several years, Timpel said.

"But it's hard to call it a fad because of the permanence of it," he said with a smile.

Tattoo artists are returning to several traditional styles "that built and forged the movement," Timpel said. Some interviewed said they recently had added such tattoos as anchors, cartoon characters and objects such as Popsicles as part of that trend.

And tattoos always will be a source of interesting stories, he added.

Siddle said she has a tattoo on the back of her neck because of a fight she had with a boyfriend. She said the quarrel prompted her to make him brownies with walnuts spelling an expletive, which she left on a plate in his apartment with tinfoil over it so he'd be surprised.

"I did mean things to him, and my friend said, 'Why?' And I said, 'Because I wanted to make him cry.' My friend said that was the coolest thing I had ever said, and I should get a tattoo with that," she said.

The result was the tattoo reading "Make him cry."

A few years later, she had "true till death" added to the sentence after she broke up with another boyfriend.

"I wanted to remind myself to not let any man make me cry," Siddle said.

Clarissa Green said rebellion is not the motive behind the jellyfish she had tattooed to her lower back yesterday. It was a sequel to the tree that she has on her hip, the work of a Wilmington, N.C., artist she was reunited with on Friday.

"I get them for myself. I like the art, and the pain is kind of addictive," said Green, a Towson University graduate who plans to pursue a career in environmental biology in California. "All of my tattoos mean something to me."

But if tattoos are not taboo, will the allure fade? Some at the convention tried to make sure the mystery of the forbidden remains alive.

In a conference room, several people watched a performance by "The Enigma," a guitarist tattooed all over his body with green puzzle pieces, who appeared to hammer nails into his head. Another performer was "Serana Rose," a corseted bassist and fashion designer who performed various stunts. After the performance, the sidekick of a dwarf known as "Penguin Boy" invited people to staple dollar bills to his bare chest and stomach.

Rebecca Wojcik, a 13-year-old from Bel Air, sent a staple into the bearded man's skin.

"It was funny," Wojcik said about the experience, which she had to do twice because the first staple didn't pierce the man's skin. "I've never been able to do that."

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