I found myself not knowing where to look. Wild–bearded men, parents and children, babies and dogs, food stands, jewelry vendors, tables and tables of machinery, oddities and taxidermy–ed animals. Countless artists, all hard at work on their craft.
I found myself at the 21st Annual Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention.
Held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Tattoo Arts Convention draws both veteran tattoo enthusiasts and those new to the art. The Philadelphia convention represents one of over twenty similarly–structured conventions, held throughout the nation and produced by a company called Villain Arts. In the course of just three days, the convention creates a pop–up environment of “over five hundred international and national tattoo artists, tattooing live, sideshow acts, live human suspension, burlesque and appearances from tattooed TV celebrities and Ink Master contestants.” Be it artists or participants, each comes with a unique talent or passion of their own—eager to pitch in to this annual celebration of the human body's role as an art medium.
Sarah Sno has worked at tattoo conventions for nearly four years, traveling the country with Villain Arts. Sarah explains that the convention originated in Philadelphia, and says that she herself has lived in Philadelphia for over twelve years. Sarah describes tattoos as a form of “body adornment artwork,” and tells me that from an artist’s perspective, “it’s just like painting on a canvas—except it’s permanent.”
New Jersey–based artist Jessi has been tattooing for five years. Jessi describes her relationship with art as having been a part of her life since birth—“my parents were gobsmacked by how crazy my art was at the age of five.” At age sixteen, Jessi got her first tattoo, and wound up showing that artist her portfolio of visual artwork. She began her apprenticeship with the very same artist shortly thereafter—Jesse had always wanted to be a tattoo artist. She describes the shifts in the style of her work as an artist over time, moving from abstract to traditional tattoo work.
Jessi began attending tattoo conventions after moving to her third shop, and describes tattoo conventions as the single best way she’s found to market her work and to meet new people in the industry. She explains that artists often do “guest spots” in different cities, catering to clients that cannot travel to their shops.
Jessi prefers to adorn her own body with others’ designs, as she puts her own art on others nearly every day. As an artist herself, she values the artwork of her contemporaries. She is a living breathing “canvas” of sorts, presenting their works to the world wherever she goes.
For those new to the tattoo world, Jessi offers the following advice: “It lasts forever. Just pay for it; that’s the big thing. Don’t be afraid to travel for a tattoo. People want to stay in a half–hour radius. I drive five hours to get tattooed.” Jessi understands and deeply values the permanence of tattoo work. She says that though her own tattoos have been expensive, “they’re on me forever, and it looks beautiful, so it’s worth it.”
Sabrina Marie’s work offers a unique take on the world of tattoo. The father of Sabrina’s son was a tattoo artist, and her son loved touching the machines. Recognizing the danger in having small children operate needle–laden equipment, Sabrina decided to create a “kid–friendly tattoo machine”, and painted wooden tattoo machine-shaped objects that hold crayons instead of needles. After traveling with her son to many tattoo conventions, she noticed that parents took interest in her creations, and decided to build a business. Sabrina is not a tattoo artist herself, but a painter and crafter, and now her work caters to interest of children seeking to dabble in the magic and mystique of body art.
The art of tattoo has a unique culture all its own, yet crosses into nearly every community one could imagine. From parents to punk–rockers, across religions and races, and no matter what age or background, tattooing acts as a unifying force in Philadelphia’s artistic community.
For readers of Street considering tattoos of their own or just plain intrigued by tattoo art, the next local convention will be held at Wildwood Beach in New Jersey, from August 9–11, 2019.