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Their Interest Is More Than Just Skin-Deep

Lifestyles: For those attending the fifth annual Inkslingers Ball, tattoos are self-expressive works of art and their bodies are the movable canvases.

September 24, 1996|By MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dominant sound at Tattoo Mania's fifth annual Inkslingers Ball was the incessant buzzing of electric needles. It easily drowned out the alternative rock music coming out of the PA system. In almost every booth, someone was offering up a bared ankle, back, thigh or other body part to be permanently decorated with the design of their choice.

"It's shock value at its highest and it's also a lot of fun," said Fred Saunders, promoter of what he said is the world's largest confab of the T&P crowd (that's Tattoo and Piercing, for the uninitiated), which took place at the Hollywood Palladium Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Saunders said that over the weekend, 10,000 people were expected at $15 a day.

This proud display of ink and metal also drew an international crowd of hundreds of tattoo and piercing artists. They came to trade tips, ply their trades and sell jewelry, tattoo equipment, T-shirts and other merchandise to the thousands of human canvases and other body modification fans who passed through the convention over the weekend. "I mean, how do you feel to be in the minority right now in a room full of tattooed people?" Saunders asked.

Actually, these days, you can get that feeling walking into most trendy clubs. Since the convention's inception in 1992, propelled by the likes of Kim Basinger, Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore and countless rock stars and Calvin Klein models, the body arts have roared out of the underground and into most suburban shopping malls. Tattooing has become big business. A large torso-covering design can easily run into quadruple figures.

"It ain't a dollar and a doughnut like it used to be," said Jack Armstrong, an octogenarian tattoo artist from Temple, Tex., who applied his first tattoo (to himself) in 1926. "A guy comes in here and you draw him up a small design and it's $300. Back in the old days, if you said $3, that was too much."

Here, VISA and MasterCard logos abounded and some vendors listed web site addresses so potential customers could check out their designs and merchandise on the Internet. Another thing that's changed over the years is the craftsmanship, artistry and the variety of designs that are available. While skulls, eagles, dragons and devils are still popular, recent years have seen an explosion in popularity of abstract Polynesian tribal tattoos (sneered at by many old-timers here), religious iconography, space aliens and other idiosyncratic creations.

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But if the pirate mascot who greeted everyone at the door was any indication, these inkslingers are bent on keeping their outlaw status despite mainstream acceptance. One booth hawked T-shirts picturing Charles Manson and other serial killers while another sold one with a co-opted DARE logo that says "Dare to Bare Tattooed Arms." (A more irreverent one says "DARE to keep cops off donuts.")

And then there was the crowd itself--aging bikers, purple-haired Gen-Xers and even a few parents pushing strollers. Throughout the hall, conventioneers ambled about bare-chested or with their shorts hiked up so they could better strut their stuff. One woman replaced the material around her back pocket with clear plastic to show off her tattooed backside.

"This is something that's going to be appreciated as artwork rather than something that everybody's got," said Raven, a 27-year-old bodyguard at the Psycho City Tattoo Shop in Lancaster. Raven exposed his chest, which was covered with a delicate black-and-gray reclining Vargas girl playing the guitar. That image is superimposed over a drawing of the San Fernando Mission. Above that, just below his neck, there is the calligraphied query, "How can I laugh today if I can only cry tomorrow?" Although Raven said he got his first tattoo 15 years ago, "before it was socially correct," he was hardly dismayed by the art's current popularity. "Hell, no," he said. "Everybody's gotta make their money. This is America. If everybody wants to get a tattoo, let 'em. It's your own self-expression. The only thing that truly can't be taken off of you by government or whatever unless they cut it off."

Others were more keen on pushing the envelope.

"A lot of the things I do, I find that people catch up with me so I have to push it out further again," said Erl (single names seem to be the rule at this get-together), a middle-aged tattoo artist, "alternative casting agent and jack-of-many-other-trades." It's hard to imagine the mainstream will ever catch up with Erl. Besides his tattoos, Erl's got multiple diamond-studded piercings in his ears, nipples, septum, the back of his neck and elsewhere. He's also been getting subdermal implants (there are marbles embedded under the skin of his chest), while his teeth are studded with opals, gold and tourmaline. "Right now, I'm researching the possibility of lighting things up from the inside," he said confidentially. "But I'm not going to tell anybody how I'm going to do that."

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