“It’s hard to tell how a scar is going to heal. We try to control that healing process,” Johnross says, cutting an X shape layer of flesh.
John Morton, 26, was always interested in tattoos, growing up in the Northeast. He’s known tatooist Johnross, now of Bensalem, since the pair were in sixth grade. Both have been interested in tattoos for about nearly as long.
“The first tattoo he did was my son’s name on my forearm,” Jay said. Detailed in a fine script across reads JEREMY.
“Everything’s practiced.” Johnross says, slicing a more perpendicular angle into Jay’s shin.
That was one of the scenes at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention, last Friday through Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
When Candace walks down the street, there are people who would only notice her contoured permanent makeup. She’s won an award for the Lady Gaga portraiture on her left shoulder. The right biceps shows a portrait of Marilyn Manson with praying hands. She’s a devotee of these Villainous Tattoo conventions. A serious percentage of the 770 onsite-tattooing facilities travel with the convention cross country.
“Tattoos aren’t for everybody,” says Candace, 25, who is celebrating her 10-year wedding anniversary in March with her husband and tatooist Cody, who has done most of the work on her body. “My parents don’t really think about my tattoos since they’re [tattoos] such an integral part of my life.”
The couple drove overnight from Michigan, their second stop this year.
“The weather wasn’t even that bad, I didn’t know what everybody was talking about,” Candace said.
Villain Arts allows licensed tatooists to perform their art under the wide open-dome of the convention center. There’s a sound like a swarm of wasps from perdition everywhere. This is a place where the belief in the literal interpretation of scarification has bypassed the country that had once been frightened of teased hair and loud music, and displays for whom all life’s promise comes to picking the right tattoo. Caitlin, 29, is receiving her eighth. This one of an Avengers design on her inner thigh. Each has been from Angel, her long-term tattooists.
“Every tattoo decreases my mortality,” he said.
Caitlin’s expression appears anything but relaxed.
“The first I got was a Celtic knot,” she said. “Tattoos, I always thought, are just kinda hot.”
There are numerous signs indicating that tattoos by law must be 18-plus, or have the consent of their parent or guardian, though most first tattoos are received well before the suggested age.
“My first tattoo was at 15 or 16. And my last tattoo this spider,” said Darius Cappelli, from New Haven, Connecticut, bowing his head.
A tarantula, sure enough.
“Another motif to put in another place, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Age requirements are of no concern to Clay, 60, from Asbury Park, New Jersey.
“Got my first ‘un here last year. Now this,” Clay said, displaying a freshly inked koi on his lower forearm.
Dale, the tattooist from Lebanon County, nods affirmatively.
“My spiritual journey isn’t over” Clay continued. “They [koi] struggle up stream. That’s where the dragon comes into play.”
He got the dragon, his first, at last year’s convention.
Morgon, 25, who has 60 percent of her head shaved, the rest dreads, said, “I’m here dreading hair. And just to hang out. Hey, you have really nice hair. Can I dread it?”
There are vendors with frightening toys. Permanent makeup. Ten dollars and sit in the Back To The Future Delorean. The Mystery Machine. Erotic Accessories, “helping people come together.” T-shirts that say, “Witch Please,” “Evil Keeps Me Pretty” and “TATTOO YOUR FACE,” worn by a gentleman with a tattooed face. The Human Knot: Alakazam, Australian contortionist, does a machete-juggling routine, on point.
“Don’t try this until you get home,” he warned.
August “Cap” Coleman, Bert Grimm, Paul Rodgers and Norman Keith Collins aka “Sailor Jerry” are just a few famous tattooists whose sketches are preserved in one booth as museum artifacts.
To Andrew Stepalovitch, 30, from Kensington, at his third convention, the occasion to be inked is a form of remembrance.
“My brother died in a car crash ten years ago. The last song we heard was Linkin Park’s In the End. Before a drunk driver killed him.”
Lyrics in a cursive font will ink his forearm.
“It’s wearable art […],” says Alan, his tattooist, who bears a striking resemblance to Lil Wayne.
When Andrew is asked about the Batman logo on the other arm, he replied, “What’s not to love about Batman?”
“My girl is all religious now, so I’m not getting any more, ya feel?” Allen Bracknell, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said. “It’s not happening now. Being a father and all. No more.”
Here is for everybody far flung from the old ways of rebellion, taking body-mod to the next level. Self-expression has became a whole lot more permanent. Complicating things is the fact that, in ever-increasing ways, technology is evolving.
“The industry’s changed so much. Just from the internet,” Honest, 29, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said.
He used to attend his parents’ tattoo parties as a kid. He said he’s wanted to be a tattooist since age 8.
“Info that used to be kept closed as trade secrets now can be researched and found out. Stigma drops, the industry opens up.”
Neither of which, for the record, are much in abundance at the convention. The relationship with clients isn’t philosophical, Honest stressed.
“There was a craft in mixing the ink, loading the gun. Now there’s merchandise.”
Tattoos have long been on the fringes of society.
“Forty-thousand people attended last year’s convention,” Neil, 33, of South Philly, said. “My ex-wife said, ‘No more tattoos.’ After we divorced, the last one was this.”
He motions to the word “Misery” scrawled above his left eyebrow.
“Now I get paid to do what I love,” Neil said. “When I’m not getting inked myself.”
Every last tattooee realizes the permanence of their decision through the process of how and what they decided to get inked. How unique designs are believed to be, and the reasons behind what makes them so.
Ink on skin serves as a reminder that the past was real. But to absorb new ideas, one has to keep lips closed, and ears open.
The art we need is the art of withstanding the unbearable. Believing we can conquer mortality. We are defined by what we choose to consume.
“The future isn’t noteworthy to many [with tattoos] because all everybody remembers is the past,” Go Tattoo Removal from Allentown representative Matthew said. “That’s what we’re here for. To assist in forgetting.” ••