The human canvas
Musings from the stage of the All American Tattoo Festival
The lights had been dimmed, Tom Waits was growling softly on the stereo, and the incense was tickling my nose. I didn’t say anything, though, because I wanted my artist to be at least as comfortable as I was for this process. After all, I just had to sit here, but she would spend the next four hours bent close over my leg, stretching the skin with one hand and tattooing with the other.
I had two small tattoos already, but this was my first venture into the world of extensive tattoo work. My artist and I had spent a month-and-a-half tweaking and re-tweaking the design—a large green dragon with wings that wrap around my calf and a tail that unfurls onto my foot—and finally the time had come.
I’d rested well the night before, taken my vitamins and stayed hydrated all morning. I’d come prepared with a sandwich, chocolate soy milk and a PowerBar for breaks, which I’d need during the process.
A litany started in my brain: “This is going to hurt. This is going to hurt so bad. This is going to hurt so, so, so bad.” And then, “Ahhhhh … this doesn’t hurt bad at all!”
As she worked, tiny needles put small holes into my skin, more than a thousand times a minute. Ink, in which the needles had been dipped, flowed into these holes. My body’s natural defense system kicked in, carrying away some of the ink like any other toxin and sealing around other bits of ink, which became the dragon, and a permanent part of my skin.
Five years, 10 tattoo sessions lasting a cumulative 26 hours, and three large tattoos later, my green dragon and I were about to engage in another part of the tattoo experience: a competition at this year’s All American Tattoo Festival, held June 17 at the Sacramento Convention Center.
Competitions are one way the tattoo community encourages high levels of quality in tattoo art. Categories are based on size, style and body placement. Judges, usually experienced tattoo artists, examine tattoos for smooth outlines, uniformity and depth of ink, use of shading and color, design and overall quality.
I’d seen tattoo competitions before, but I’d never participated, and I was curious. Entry was free at the All American Tattoo Fest and merely required signing up at least an hour before the competition.
As the time of the competition drew near, a few hundred convention-goers filled all the seats facing the stage. Latecomers were forced to stand behind the seats and jockey for a view.
When my category—Large Leg—was called, I lined up with the rest of the contestants. I chatted with the petite girl ahead of me, who sported a Pamela Anderson-like pinup girl tattoo on her right calf. We both confessed to feeling a bit under-inked. Although each of our tattoos stretched over 15 inches of skin, we had by far the smallest tattoos in the group.
Several contestants behind us checked out the competition, some surreptitiously and some just outright staring or asking to see tattoos. Although I’m by no means shy, I felt a bit awkward when my name was called. I went onstage to allow the judges to inspect my tattoo. The four judges—three men and one woman—were well-inked and straight-faced and gave little indication about what they thought.
After the judges were done, I stepped to the front of the stage to display my tattoo, as each contestant was instructed to do. I faced the crowd as it silently considered my artwork. It was a strange moment. Was I being found lacking? Did people like what they saw? Ultimately, did that even matter?
Being judged in a competition is markedly different from the judgment inked people face every day. Despite the increased presence and acceptance of tattoos in our society, the reactions I get out on the street are about 70-percent disapproving. People often frown obviously at me or even make rude comments. I’ve actually had mothers pull their children closer when I pass them on the street with my dragon tattoos visible.
Conventions are one place where I feel comfortable in my inked skin. If anything, I feel under-inked there, despite the fact that I have two large tattoos on my legs and a tattoo across my entire lower stomach.
The reasons people react negatively are as varied as the reasons that drive other people to get tattoos. Some take issue with tattoos because they harm the body. Tattooing is traumatic to the skin but not greatly, and the trauma is temporary, though the resulting art is permanent.
Of course, there are many strange and somewhat traumatic body modifications that are quite acceptable in Western society—waxing and plucking, for example, or the drastic modifications achieved through injections, implants, reductions, liposuctions and breakages (e.g. nose jobs). Tattoos, done for the sake of beauty, are no stranger or harsher to the body than many other behaviors, just more stigmatized.
Other people struggle with the idea that tattoos can be beautiful. They see (and often feel absolutely free to point out, even to strangers) a tattoo as damage, as a deliberate flaw on the skin. Some are quick to quote Leviticus 19:28, which says, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” It would be interesting to see how many of the other verses in Leviticus they follow—for instance, do they not shave the corners of their beards?
Historical evidence suggests that some early Christians were tattooed people. They risked persecution by the Romans for any hint of their religious beliefs, yet they chose to tattoo crosses on the insides of their wrists as a sign of the ultimate devotion to their faith. It wasn’t until Constantine adopted Christianity for the Roman Empire, and rigidly enforced literal Bible law (likely influenced by the Roman view of the natural purity of the human body), that tattoos fell out of favor with Christians.
I don’t get tattooed for religious reasons or for a rebellion against the same. I just love the idea of putting ink into living skin. I can’t imagine a more personal, more exciting canvas, whether for expression of the deeply meaningful or the purely artistic. To me, tattoos are a beautiful and fascinating art form.
Not everyone gushes about the possibilities for the human canvas the way I do, yet tattoos have undergone a revolution for at least the last two decades. No longer limited largely to convicts and bikers, the ranks of the permanently inked have swelled to include both young and old, female and male, rebellious and strait-laced, religious and secular.
And why not? Is art not one of the universal languages of the human race? Why does one person feel intensely touched by William Shakespeare, another devoted to Antonio Vivaldi and another drawn to sculpture? The art of tattoo is no different. Unraveling the truth about why we are drawn to one art form or another is an attempt to solve one of the mysteries of the human mind and soul—and perhaps as irrelevant, or as futile.
As I stood there facing the crowd, the brief silence was broken when a large man with a massive Buddha tattoo on his stomach gave a shout and waved to me. I waved back with a grin and no longer felt awkward in the spotlight. Suddenly, it didn’t matter what the judges, the crowd or anyone else thought. It was just a joy to be able to show off my tattoos without being discouraged or disapproved of and to be with others doing the same.
Soon afterward, the parade of contestants ended, the judges conferred, and the winners were announced. The winner in our category, who had just won for Best Sleeve, as well, shared that he has more than 40 first-place trophies. Those of us who didn’t win grumbled good-naturedly that he should be forced to enter some type of “masters category” for longtime winners.
Even though I didn’t win anything, the competition was fun, especially the connection I felt with the other competitors. Yet, it wasn’t the huge part of the convention experience I’d thought it might be. For me, the real enjoyment came from seeing so much tattoo art displayed on the living “canvases” in the crowd and enjoying a space where my tattoos were not only acceptable but appreciated. Hopefully, this appreciation will continue to grow outside the convention halls.