Tattoo artists show off their work during gathering

Saturday, April 26, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- It's not every convention where men strip to the waist or women flip up their skirts to illustrate a point.

But at a gathering of the National Tattoo Association in St. Louis, a show of skin is just a way to reveal designs by some of the most revered tattoo artists in the world.

On a runway at downtown's Adam's Mark Hotel Friday afternoon, contestants displayed colorful bands of skin as industry judges and the crowd voted for their favorite work.

"It's the Academy Awards of tattooing," explained the association's vice president, known to everyone gathered as Uncle Bud Yates.

Yates, 43, wore a tuxedo with his hair neatly pulled back, three gold rings in one ear, and bright tattoos peeking out from beneath his formalwear at the wrists.

He said the annual convention brings together members of the tattoo community to celebrate their best work, catch up with old friends and increase education about tattooing.

As he spoke, seven contestants at a time holding numbered signs, walked and paused on the runway. For the judging of the best large design tattoos, several bare-chested men appeared before the crowd.

Other participants had to get more creative with their wardrobes, wearing thongs, draping fabric over the essential no-show body parts, or in one case, taping a piece of paper across a bare backside reading: "This site under construction."

About 900 people registered for the weekend of tattoo events, including the competitions and workshops on business practices, health and safety and tattooing techniques, Yates said.

On Saturday and Sunday the convention is open to the public for $10, or two for $15. Artists will tattoo for additional fees.

The tattoo artists said these days anyone can be a client. They've tattooed doctors and lawyers, college students and grandparents.

They said most people put a lot of thought into the tattoos they want, and artists encourage them to research their choices. One tattoo artist said if someone tells him they want a flower, he wants to know what kind of flower and what it means to them.

"I refuse to do anything that I would consider a permanent decision based on a temporary wardrobe," said Rich Ives, 32, who works for Yates at Steel City Tattoo in Pueblo, Colo.

He showed two of his intricate, detailed designs tattooed across the backs of young men, one depicting Siberian tigers in an outdoor scene, another of dinosaurs in a prehistoric landscape.

Adam Pocius, 22, of Pueblo, said Ives' work on his dinosaur design began more than two years ago. He said it took about 80 to 100 hours of tattooing to be complete. And, tattooing, the process of pigment being pushed into the outer area of the dermis layer of skin, remains painful.

He said that's part of what makes tattooing special. "Not everyone should be able to take it," Pocius said.

"It should be something they'll always cherish," Ives said. The artists said the tattoo conventions help people learn more about tattooing; Ives wore a name badge he swapped with a conventioneer from a national Catholic educators' conference staying in the same hotel.

Ives said people usually get a tattoo for shock value, as a form of memorabilia to mark a person or event, or for aesthetic value. He believes more people are coming to appreciate the art of tattooing.

Lyndsey Hahn, 20, a student living in West Lafayette, Indiana, has a tattoo in honor of a cousin who died, but she's also had a complex scene from her favorite children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," recreated by a tattoo artist known as Monte on the right side of her body, from her knee to her upper ribs.

Hahn, with her bright red and black hair pulled back in pigtails and multiple piercings, said when some people look at her, they get the wrong impression. She's enrolled in college, studying law. But she said she's committed to tattoos. "It kind of gives you confidence," she said. "It sets you as different from everyone else."


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