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Conventioneers Under the Gun

At the weekend's Inkslingers Ball in the Hollywood Palladium, 400 tattoo artists turn more than 1,000 people into walking art.


The most striking thing about the Inkslingers Ball was the hum. At a tattoo convention, one might expect acres of skin decorated in every imaginable color. One might expect to see an endless human tapestry of dragons, cartoon characters and tribal images. One might even expect to see enough forehead piercings to set off an airport metal detector. But unless you'd been to the Inkslingers Ball in years past, chances are nothing could have prepared you for the low hum of hundreds of tattoo artists practicing their craft.

The chandeliers of the Hollywood Palladium reverberated last weekend with the collective buzz of ink guns as these men and women plied their trade onto the backs, sides, arms, legs and heads of conventioneers. For the duration of the three-day event, billed as the world's largest tattoo and body-piercing convention, the building sounded for all the world like an electrical transfer station.

At a booth called Sweet Pain, a muscular blond man stood stoically as an artist inked a cartoon Hobbes with halo and angel wings on a left pec to match the bat-winged Calvin he had just completed on the right one. A few booths away, a man with a chest tattoo of Garfield the cat strumming an electric guitar spent the better part of a day on his side as an artist inked an incredibly complex design into his hip. The inky portraits adorning arms, chests, hips and necks included Betty Boop, the Grim Reaper, flaming skulls and Charles Manson peering maniacally through a tattoo of ripped flesh. One Robert De Niro fan had a beefy biceps emblazoned with three different portraits of the actor. Another man's back contained an elaborate ocean scene; mermaids frolicked in the blue-green water near his kidneys while a pirate ship sat anchored near his shoulder blades. A lush tropical island was visible on the horizon near his neck.

But getting a new tattoo or nose ring wasn't the only draw: Some booths offered clothing designed to showcase freshly inked body canvas, some sold a salve called Tattoo Goo, designed to speed the healing process of newly adorned flesh, some even sold tattoo guns, inks and supplies. For those who wouldn't take the leap, the Charlotte's Web smoke shop booth offered one way to save face--Big Size Temporary Tattoos.

"At our very first show we had 48 booths," said Fred Saunders, whose company, Fred Saunders Production Services co-produces the event with Gill Montie's Tattoo Mania. "We have 107 now." Attendance has risen as well. According to Sheree Rose, Fred's wife and office manager, by midday Saturday, tickets were selling at a clip of eight a minute. About 7,000 people were expected to attend the convention, which began Friday. With 400 tattoo artists inking skin 12 hours a day, Saunders and Rose estimated that between 1,200 and 1,800 attendees went home with new tattoos.

"Fred and I do this show, and our whole gimmick, our sale, is Hollywood," said Rose. "So we dress the place up, put props everywhere, dress the stage up and try to create a party-type atmosphere." That atmosphere included cardboard cutouts of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" figures, prop-house UFOs and big-headed aliens, and a hypnotist named Mister Xtacy. (The wisdom of allowing a self-proclaimed "master hypnotist" to practice his craft near the entrance of a tattoo convention is best left to others to judge.)

And there were the contests.

For a $5 registration fee, tattoos (and their owners) could compete in categories that included best portrait, best sleeve (a completely inked arm or leg), best tribal, best color, best overall male and best overall female. There was an additional category for on-site work, tattoo of the day. This year's theme, according to the flier, was "space pirates." Many tattoos seemed to qualify for more than one category.

"Should I enter it as best color or most unusual?" asked Roberta Hunt of Santa Ana as she pointed to her head. Completely bald, the head of the 58-year-old graphic artist and designer was tattooed in a brightly hued garden of flowers. A large yellow sunflower stood out in the front, a lily was visible above her ear and a dahlia occupied a spot on the back of her head.

"I started at 56," said Hunt. "When I got rid of my husband, I got a little tattoo to mark the occasion. It was little, and it didn't show, and I went back the next day and got a bigger one. I've been doing it ever since."

What prompted the full-skull artwork? "I hated my hair. I had a bad hair day. It just seemed the logical thing to do," she said, noting that now all that's required is a daily shave.

When Hunt finished registering (she entered the best color competition) she walked onto the crowded convention floor. People smiled, and some stopped to have their picture taken with her. In a room full of eye-popping body art, Hunt's cranial floral tattoo managed to do what seemed impossible. It actually attracted attention.

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