Get under their skin at the Baltimore Tattoo Arts Convention

Weekend-long event expected to bring more than 200 artists to downtown hotel

  • Dave Drell is the manager and curator for the Baltimore Tattoo Museum.
Dave Drell is the manager and curator for the Baltimore Tattoo… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
September 09, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

Troy Timpel misses the tough old days, when tattoos were anything but respectable.

"I liked getting the dirty looks from the old ladies back in the early '90s and late '80s," says Timpel, one of the organizers of this weekend's Tattoo Arts Convention at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel. "It's no longer the lowbrow biker, sailor, convict kind of thing that it was 20 years ago. Sadly, I think it's become socially reputable."

Still, one suspects Timpel isn't all that upset. Almost in the same breath, he says he expects thousands of people to show up for the three-day convention — dedicated tattoo fans and the curious who have yet to commit their skin to the cause. The weekend, he promises without a hint of sarcasm, will be fun for the whole family.

"It draws a wide range of people who want to come down and check out the tattoo scene," he said. "There'll be a lot of interesting entertainment, a lot of interesting people, a lot of interesting artwork. … It's a real eyeful."

That it should definitely be. More than 200 tattoo artists are expected to make Charm City their home this weekend, everyone from relative newbies to the scene to such tattoo mainstays as Philadelphia Eddie, who some 50 years ago opened the tattoo shop that Timpel now operates in the City of Brotherly Love. A host of vendors are also expected, selling tattoo supplies and related services.

For entertainment, convention organizers are eschewing live music in favor of a sideshow atmosphere that should bring a touch of Coney Island to town. They're planning an old-time burlesque show, plus appearances by the famed Enigma, whose entire body is covered in what look like blue puzzle pieces, and suspension performers, who hang from the ceiling with hooks in their backs.

"It's definitely something that you've never seen before," Timpel promises.

But the central focus will be the scores of tattoo artists plying their trade, etching their handiwork into people's skin. Theirs is a talent that, if not entirely reputable, is certainly mainstream. And the work they do can be unexpectedly beautiful, far more varied and intricate than the skulls-and-crossbones of yesteryear.

"Tattooing's probably the hardest thing you could do," says Bill Stevenson, co-owner of the 11-year-old Baltimore Tattoo Museum on Eastern Avenue. "I think really it is a pretty difficult thing to do, but that's part of what keeps it fresh — you're always challenged. You never know who's going to walk through the door. People want different things all the time, and you have to be up for it, you have to show up prepared."

Stevenson, who's been designing tattoos and putting them on people for 13 years, got his first tattoo at age 21. For some, getting that first tattoo is like having a dam break — constant tattooing follows, until their bodies can barely display any more. But Stevenson, 46, turned his skin into an artist's canvas more gradually.

"In five years, I got tattooed three times, maybe four times," he says. "A good friend of mine became a tattoo artist, so I would get tattooed by him whenever it struck me."

Although tattooing seems to have undergone a boom the past 10 or 15 years, with everyone from Christina Aguilera and Angelina Jolie to Mickey Rourke and Johnny Depp proudly showing off their body art, Stevenson doesn't think it's a matter of rising popularity.

"There's certainly still plenty of folks around who wouldn't deign to get tattooed, who don't believe it's a good idea," he says. "I don't know that it's become more popular, I think it's just become a little more visible."

Whatever the reason, tattoo lovers are proving a dedicated bunch. This show, Timpel notes, was scheduled to make up for a February show that was all but snowed out. Not that the snow fazed everyone. The tattooed, regardless of their reputation, are a hardy bunch.

"We got blessed with 30 inches of snow, so that took a little fun out of the weekend," he says. "But we still had people showing up in four-wheel drives. They're like, 'Hey, we don't care.'"

If you go

The Baltimore Tattoo Arts Convention runs Friday-Sunday at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel, 101 W. Fayette St. Hours are 2 p.m.-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday and noon-8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 a day, $40 for the weekend.Call 1-800-541-8239 or go to

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