heathengirl travelogues...

Heathengirl Goes to a Tattoo Convention

Portland, ME - February 12, 2000 - On a clear and cold Saturday in February, 2000, I climbed into my trusty vehicle and headed north to Portland, Maine for the 13th annual Mad Hatter's Tea Party and Tattoo Convention. I'd never been to a tattoo convention before, and my good friend and tattoo artist, Jennifer Moore, invited me and several dozen people on her mailing list to come and visit her and her business partner, Chris Dingwell, at their booth. Since I had that day free and I hadn't seen Jennifer since the last time she worked on my bracelet, I decided that it would be fun to drive up to Maine and see what a tattoo convention is really like.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the convention hall was the loud buzzing noise of about four dozen tattooing machines and the low, insistent thud of heavy metal music, neither of which ever stopped (although the music varied from time to time). Unlike many other conventions and trade shows, tattoo conventions are places where you can see artists at work, not just admire the end results (although there are plenty of opportunities to do that, too). Attendees can book time with their favorite tattoo artists during a convention and come home with a new piece in their collections. This is one of the attractions of tattoo conventions: since they bring together artists from all over the region, if not the country, it can be a convenient way to get work by an artist you admire without having to travel a long distance and pay extra for gas and a hotel room. And if you're looking for an artist to tattoo a particular design, you can see them in action, talk to people they've just worked on, and get a better sense of whether you can work with that artist.

The second thing I noticed was how crowded it was in the convention hall. The place was really packed! There were probably 50 booths in the hall and several times that many convention-goers. And not everyone there was a leather-clad punk or an old biker guy. There were people of all ages, sizes, and races. Some people were practically covered in tats, while others (including me) had one or no tattoos... so far. There were kids and elders, regular folks and modern primitives, and several parents with small children. One small boy was walking around the convention covered in temporary tattoos so he would fit in with the big folks. The diversity of the crowd was refreshing. Here were people from all walks of life who were united by their admiration of and affection for body art.

One of the things that surprised me was that there were several vendors who were selling stuff that isn't really related to tattoos. One booth was selling vinyl clothing, one was selling custom-engraved glassware, another was selling jewelry and leather goods, and one was selling taxidermied animals and various animal parts. I was expecting the convention to be a tattoo-only event, but upon reflection it makes sense that vendors would want to sell at a convention that attracts people who might also be interested in their wares.

The standard booth at Mad Hatter's was made up of a banquet table, a draped cloth behind the booth space with a sign identifying the exhibitor, and a couple of chairs for the artists and their clients. Many artists brought their own banners and backdrops to personalize their booth. They also brought their portfolios, business cards and brochures, press clippings, free candy (and in one case, condoms) for passers-by, and their travelling tattoo kits. Several exhibitors were selling "flash": sheets of artwork that studios display on their walls or in books that patrons can look through to get ideas for tattoos. Flash is essentially clip art for tattoo artists. There were lots of styles to choose from: tribal, celtic, animal themes, military designs, flowers, mythological themes... some artists' tables were piled high with flash books.

The work in people's portfolios and on their bodies wasn't the only art at the convention. There was also an art show in a small room down the hall from the main convention room. Several people hung their tattoo-related photos, paintings, and drawings in the show. My favorite was Jan Seeger's photography. I remembered Jan's beautiful portraits of tattooed people from my collection of "Skin and Ink" magazine back issues and my treasured copy of her "World of Beautiful Tattooed Women" wall calendar. In addition to the photos she hung in the art show, she also had a portfolio of photos available for people to look through. Some of the photos were familiar, some were new to me, and all were gorgeous.

Mad Hatter's attracts tattoo artists from all over the US and Canada. New Engand artists made up the highest percentage of exhibitors, but folks came from all parts of North America, and there was at least one artist from England. And although the tattoo scene is very male-oriented and the majority of artists are men, a fairly large number of women were tattooing at the convention, including Juli Moon, Miss Vickie, and Deana, who organizes the "Marked for Life" women's tattoo convention. Juli Moon's booth was particularly popular--many people stopped to watch her work on a gentleman's gorgeous phoenix back piece and add a lush flower blossom to a woman's chest--but all the female artists were kept busy during the convention.

My friend Jennifer was at the convention to schmooze, meet people, catch up with friends, and distribute invitations to the dessert party that she and Chris were hosting the following night. So I followed her around from table to table as she did her thing, and got to meet several of the artists and regular convention-goers. I recognized several of them from either seeing their work on other people I knew or from old issues of "Skin and Ink" magazine. I met such folks as Trevor Marshall, who is famous for his amazing South Pacific tribal tattoos; Dave Long of Skinetic Studios, who repairs tattoo machines and teaches seminars on machine tuning and maintenance at conventions; and Ed "Wiz" Dumont of Wiz Tattoos, who organizes the annual Down East Tattoo Show. All of these people were really friendly, interesting, and pleasant to be around--in strong contradiction of the mean and rough image of tattoos and tattooed people that we get from the media.

So that's what a tattoo convention is like: loud, fun, filled with interesting people and beautiful artwork. Perhaps I'll go to the Down East convention in a couple of months. If so, you'll be among the first to know. And in case you're curious, no, I didn't get tattooed at the convention, but I did start planning my next piece, which I hope to get this Spring.

For information on my existing body art (such as it is), see my Body Art page. To see some photos from the 1999 Mad Hatter's convention, look here.

This article copyright © 2000 by Pam Williams. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce this article, in whole or in part, without prior written permission from the author. Thank you!