More than skin deep

At the annual All American Tattoo Festival, Sacramento hosts dozens of talented artists from around the country and beyond, rolling up its sleeves and greeting them with open arms. Here, $15 gets you in the door; refreshment is available in a steady supply of pretzels, beer and cocktails; and anyone looking to adorn his or her skin with unique, exceptional artwork has what seems like all the choices in the world.

The festival filled the Sacramento Convention Center for three 12-hour days in a row last weekend, and its diverse crowd perfectly demonstrated the iconoclastic nature of tattooing. While the art form may be reaching for the sky, its feet are very much still on the street. Festival patrons included tattoo enthusiasts of every stripe: ordinary people, even families, as well as rockers, bikers and roughnecks it wouldn’t be wise to provoke.

The booths were arranged as if to demonstrate the full, contrasting spectrum of tattoo types. On one end, you had the “Permanent Makeup by Wendy” booth, where a middle-aged, well-dressed woman could end that pesky problem of runny eyeliner once and for all. Peacefully coexisting just a few spaces down was a booth hosted by the Hells Angels, with a giant banner and a table selling shirts imprinted with “916” and “Fuck Around And Find Out.”

Vendors sold some interesting merchandise. Books and magazines about hot-rod and underground art (such as that of Von Dutch, the Picasso of pinstriping) were available, as well as shirts and purses featuring tattoo-oriented artwork. A main stage offered flash art and best-of tattoo shows for the audience’s collective entertainment.

The festival’s real highlights, though, were its Traditional Folder and Oriental Folder displays. These limited-edition art-print books revealed the form at its most dynamic. Simple yet powerful icons such as hearts, birds, Christs, skulls, flags, pistols and banners were rendered in uncountable ways to create beautiful and complex images with stunning craftsmanship.

Detached appreciation aside, this is an event for people who are serious about getting tattooed. Many artists made their skills available for a flat rate. Otherwise, hourly rates began at $100. Out-of-towners were popular attractions. Tokyo tatooist Hori Toshi II’s terrifyingly detailed gods and monsters on lotuses looked like they’d been pulled right out of some ancient Buddhist occult manuscript. Pi Li Moo, from the Canary Islands, administered traditional Polynesian tattoos with Samoan hand tools.

By comparison, however, it was obvious that Sacramento is second to none in epidermal illustration. Forever Tattoo, the host of the event, represented well with a table full of high-caliber artists. To look over their work—and the portfolios of other locals, like River City Tattoo, American Graffiti and Liberty Tattoo—was to be reminded of one reason Sacramentans should be proud: So many nonlocals keep coming here just in order to ink up.