While the aisles and rows of booths can remind one of supermarket impulse aisles, there is something far more beautiful at play at the annual Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival than a simple exchange of cash for services.
Every year, for the past 22, downtown plays host to this gathering of artists and enthusiasts coming together to celebrate tattoo. Organized by Flaco Productions and co-hosted by Hold It Down Tattoo (RVA), Jack Brown’s Tattoo Revival (Fredericksburg), and Kingpin Tattoo Supply, this year’s convention brought together some of the leading tattooers currently at work throughout the world and visitors from Richmond and beyond.
The tattoo convention exists somewhere at the intersection of folk and high art, exhibitionism and voyeurism, and commerce and creativity, with a righteous family reunion taking place in nearly every crosswalk.
At first one might be struck by how many delicate parts, freed of clothes, are on view during the intimate exchange of applying the tattoos. But you quickly realize that this folk art, as well as being highly ritualistic in many cultures, has been elevated to a performance conducted in exchange for cash. Even more, it’s a coming together of like-minded people to work and party in a different city with friends and family they don’t regularly see. In tattooing, the emphasis is always on people, their relationships to tattooing and other people.
Walking the convention floor, it was understood that, for the artist, this is capable of being a job, calling, and an art form.
David, a visitor from Virginia Beach, told me he was going to get tattooed but didn’t know with what or by who; instead, he was going to pull the trigger if something clicked. He said it was freeing to make such a permanent decision by his gut. That way, he explained, it would come from an aesthetically pure place.
Some folks traveled from other cities and states to get work from some of the artists in attendance. One woman I met drove from New Jersey to get tattooed by artists from Las Vegas and Richmond, and to maybe see tattoo-television celebrities Jesse Smith (RVA) and Oliver Peck (Dallas, TX) – which eventually she did. I met mothers who had brought their husbands or kids to get their first tattoo (one of whom gave me a beer) and mothers getting their 13th tattoo.
A young man asked not to be named because he just turned 18 and wanted to get tattooed, but he was worried his parents would be mad. He earned the money on his own and spent the past few years following tattooers on Instagram, falling in love with American Traditional styles. Walking with him around the ballroom, I remembered what it was like getting my first tattoo fifteen years ago, how rad it felt walking out changed. Before we parted ways, I told him to catch up with me to let me know what he decided, adding that “it’s better to ask forgiveness than ask permission and not get it,” and then immediately thinking of several examples where that would be terrible advice.
I did see him the next night. He was grinning from chin to brow as he rolled up his pant leg, revealing a fresh skull and dagger, pronouncing it “sick” and disappearing into the crowd.
Saturday evening I bumped into Dave Locke, owner of All For One (RVA). Earlier in the show he had introduced me to a number of tattooers from out of town, including Mike Fite, Kristian Bennet, and Frank Armstrong. Throughout the weekend, I’d see them doing what every other artist was doing, visiting with friends and fellow tattooers, looking a bit beat but happy.
Later that night, I found myself invited out to “da club” with Fite, Bennet, Armstrong, and the All For One Crew. “Da club,” I came to learn, was a bar that nobody goes to, thus providing a quiet place for people. All of the tables were pushed together, and around it sat 20-odd people, including tattooers, their wives or partners, and various friends. It didn’t really matter if you were a tattooer or not, tattooed or not, just that you were there and wanted to be there. Jokes and drinks were shared as everyone slowly got their meals from the overworked bartender.