FLASH--THAT'S WHAT they call the myriad sampling of ready-to-wear tattoos that cover the walls of many shops to entice potential customers. Artists, usually shop owners, use the term with a self-effacing tone, an admission that these over-the-counter designs, from copyrighted Winnie-The-Pooh characters to skull-and-dagger sketches, are not what the art of tattoo is all about. They even say it with a hint of disdain: "That's just flash." But it's a big part of what they do. Photo albums with pages upon pages of glossy prints reveal limbs, torsos and faces mildly abraded and newly inked with their creations. But that's just the tip of the needle.
On the convention floor the air crackles with the insectine whir of electric needles. More than 25 booths representing tattoo shops from across the nation, France, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark and Scotland line the four walls and middle of the banquet room. It's like a strip mall for Body Art, and represented here are the designer labels of the emerging world of tattoo artistry. And none of them are doing flash today.
All the artists represented here are members of National Tattoo Association, an elitist professional society that borrows the name "National" from the private company National Tattoo Supply. The Association is a separate entity with no direct commercial interest, but was nonetheless founded by National's owners, Flo and Don Makovsky.
"We started the organization to help educate what we call John Q. Public about tattooing, that it's more than the old-time sailors with the skull and crossbones and the heart with 'Mom' on it," Says Flo.
"We want to prove to the public that it really is a viable art form, and that it's come a long way. A tattooist can take a picture of your children and put it on you and you'll take your children with you forever." This, in fact, is precisely Flo's plan. She reminds me of my own grandmother, with her sparkling baby blues, salon-styled hair and tennis shorts and blouse. That is, until in that patient "yes, dear" voice she starts telling me about the 20-year-old tattoo she's having removed by laser from her shoulder blade in order to make room for the new project: She's going to have her four daughters tattooed on her back by the two leading tattoo portrait artists in the world, Jack Rudy and Brian Everett.
"Anything that an artist can draw on paper a tattooist can draw on your body," she says proudly. "We're living canvases. We take our art with us instead of hanging it on the wall."
The convention is certainly an exercise in exhibitionism. It started on Friday, April 19, when the tattooists and their walking creations began checking in, a marked contrast to their fellow conventioneers from the Arizona District Assemblies of God. A steady stream of shirtless men and provocatively dressed women, an endless parade of black leather, ripped denim, punked-out hair and multiple body piercings, passed through the hotel lobby and out to the banquet hall.
Upstairs I had the pleasure of meeting some of the local talent, embodied in one Earl Kaufmann, owner of The Tattoo Shop's three Tucson locations. Kaufmann, 42, has been involved in the tattoo business for a decade. His body is basically covered from head to foot, save for a band in his right upper torso which he's thoughtfully reserving for his 50th birthday.
Kaufmann says he's been an artist his whole life, but he was 32 when he got first tattoo. Back then--an era he refers to as his "past life"--he was a "highly successful computer salesman for a large corporation." Somewhere along his sojourn he traded the red and blue corporate necktie for the blue-black and colored dyes of legendary Ann Arbor, Michigan, tattooist SuzAnne Fauser, one of his mentors. Although Kaufmann never apprenticed, as seems to be the trend among the younger folks at the convention, Kaufmann credits Fauser for "representing everything that's good about tattoo...about an artist's ability to bring out--or bring to life--something that's inside of you."
Fauser, who has a Masters in Fine Arts and 17 years of experience in tattooing, executed the full-color designs covering the left side of Kaufmann's body: his leg, torso and arm. She also did some of the hard-edged lines in black and red that shadow the contours of his face.
Other highlights on Kaufmann's stout frame include his left-hand man (actually, located on the forearm)--an autobiographical figure on a journey through a desert; an eye on his bicep cries actual pictures, each of which was commissioned by a "guest artist." There are some empty frames to be filled as appropriate. "Like my mom died in 1993, so I'm going to do something for her," he explains.
His right arm, all black-and-gray work, is a 1940s murder mystery set in New York City. "This woman here has a knife in her hand, but we don't know if it's really maybe her alter ego," Kaufmann tells me, indicating a juxtaposed, portrait-like image. "This woman below is the victim...and then you gotta have your fly and your skull over here that moves, your black roses. Eventually, over my shoulder, it's going to say in New York Times headline style, 'Murder On Fifth Avenue.'
"I'm attached to the 40s--I'm an antique collector."
Most of Kaufmann's designs are self-drawn, but inked by other artists. "I've given myself a tattoo, but it's no fun," he laughs. He continues on in a serious vein about the process of getting tattooed. It's not about pain and it's not about ego. It's an intimate ritual of self-expression, an opportunity for a disjointed, disenfranchised society to choose its own rites of passage.
"Maybe years from now (archaeologists) will uncover us and they'll say, 'This is what it was all about.' These days I think it's about personal expression...a lot to do with making personal statements."
Kaufmann's own stake in his First Amendment freedom has cost him somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 over the past decade, with still more on the way. But who's counting? "It's a map of my life," he says. His decision to tattoo his face places Kaufmann on the edge of an already edgy crowd, a position that makes some of his fellow professionals uncomfortable. There was a rumor circulating around the convention that Kaufmann's presence on the floor would not be welcomed by National's organizers.
The rumor was neither confirmed nor disproved, but Makovsky stated clearly that the association did not endorse "cosmetic" tattooing (eyebrows, eyeliner), piercings or, in fact, any tattooing above the neckline, regardless of the nature of the design. She called such practices "excessive," and said, "That's not art."
It's a funny contradiction in a world where one would expect people to be supportive of over-the-top experiments in self-expression. It doesn't make any sense that Paul Booth's horrific gargoyles munching on sinewy eyeballs would be lauded world-wide while Kaufmann, a tattoo artist himself, would face ostracism for his decision to celebrate a love for tribalistic tattooing.
"The mark of an artist is somebody who likes their tattoo," he says simply. "We (the artists) are not the judge of that."
Bad tattooists are called "scratchers." Those are the people who don't work out of shops, the "back alley" practitioners who call the revered tattoo machines "guns." One shop representative from New Jersey warned me, "If they call (the machine) a gun, you don't want them to give you a tattoo." This is not to be confused with those who do good commercial work. Kaufmann is quick to defend that "there's a place for that."
Kaufmann believes Tucson is one of the "heaviest tattoo towns" in the U.S. "I get kids from 18 all the way to 65-year-old grandmothers."
He says the stages he's gone through as a walking work-in-progress have taught him a lot about himself, and a lot more about other people. "Rejection, fear, anxiety, anger, hate, you name it--I dealt with it." He calls his tattoos--every one of them--a treasured experience and "functional...from the standpoint of being an emotional, healing and growing process.
"Tattoos are not about pain. Most people think, 'Oh my God, he must be into pain.' In my opinion, tattoos have nothing to do with pain. It sounds funny, like mystical stuff; but if you relax, if you deal with the pain and let it flow through you instead of stay in you, and focus it somewhere else...if you learn that process, you'll get tattooed and it won't feel like a tattoo. It won't hurt a lot."
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