It was tattoo city at the Cow Palace this weekend during the 13th annual Body Art Expo.
The three-day convention in Daly City began on Friday with about 1,000 attendees and a flowing sea of indelible ink.
Much bravado was on display in the form of head tattoos, stretched earlobes and high-flying mohawks. Yet, the event was mainly a low-key, down-to-business and congenial affair that showcased the increasing creativity within a medium whose migration into the mainstream, according to those interviewed, has spurred its fast evolution while also giving rise to modern problems.
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“People nowadays are tattooing in ways they never did before,” said Roman Abrego, a tattoo artist from Southern California. “They’re mixing style and content — complex shading and morphing everything together, where faces morph into city buildings and things like that. It’s becoming more important for the artists to be their own visionaries.”
Abrego was inking a cyborg-like character on the leg of Jarrod Aspegren of Nebraska — the tattoo showed a variegated machine, swirling with blood — which he said wouldn’t be finished until the next day and has a price of several thousand dollars.
Aspegren said he’d booked an appointment with Abrego six months ago after seeing some of his designs on the internet and tracking him down. In fact, Aspegren was one of several people interviewed who said they came to the convention in pursuit of a specific tattoo artist.
“I’ve been following this guy for years and always wanted to get tattooed by him,” said Jonathan Meleham of San Jose, while his artist of choice, George Drone, worked on a speckled bear face that would cover his thigh. Meleham said he found Drone on Instagram three years ago while Drone was living in his home country of Greece; upon learning last year that Drone had just moved to Los Angeles, Meleham made an appointment.
Insiders say that graphic design programs, vast social media exhibitions, improvements in tattooing technology, easier access to good equipment and increased demand for tattoos have driven tattoo artistry to new heights.
“I like to say that I’m an advanced human specimen because I can tame a tattoo needle,” said the 48-year-old owner of Tattoo 925 in Martinez, who began tattooing when he was 18 and goes by the name Fern “El Famoso.” “But then I learn that I’m such an old man, I’ve been stuck in my ways. For hella long, [my employees] wanted me to use an iPad [for sketching designs], and I wouldn’t. People would say, ‘Oh you’re cute; you draw on paper.’ But then I started using the iPad, and it’s been life-changing.”
Fern said he nonetheless goes back to old-school methods.
“I like to do free-hand,” he said, describing a style of tattooing that forgoes the aid of a stenciled print. “Then I can take the shape of your arm and fix (the design) to that.”
While technology is propelling innovation in tattooing, it is also giving rise to new dangers. For example, while the internet is giving tattooists new ways to learn about tattooing and promote their work, it is also causing many aspiring artists to skip the multiyear shop apprenticeships that have long been considered a requirement for turning professional. Insiders say the resurgence of rogue artists is jeopardizing the reputation of an industry that has spent years cleaning up a shady image.
“The new youngsters are in a whole different world,” said Richard “CrayZ” Alexander, the convention’s bearded and leather-clad master of ceremonies. “They’re buying (tattoo) machines off the internet and learning at home. They’re not doing apprenticeships, and they start offering cheap tattoo work, even though they’re not ready.”
Alexander acknowledged that his own first tattoo came from unpoliced mischief. He was 10 years old, he said, when he tattooed a tiny cross on his finger using a bottle of ink he’d stolen and his mom’s sewing kit.
Alexander, now 62, never became a professional tattooist but does “pimp” other artists within his far-reaching network of tattooers and tattooees. His own tattoos are numerous and his favorite is a large self-portrait on his stomach where he appears to be bursting through the skin on a Harley.
The tattoos seen at Friday’s event included many cyborgs (at least two inspired by the “Alien” movie franchise); various plants, animals and woodsy landscapes (including a mushroom patch designed to glow under black light exposure); dragons; Disney cartoons; cover-ups of old tattoos; self-portraits; the portrait of a famous jazz musician; a full-back portrait of an Native American face wrapped in an eagle; phrases in cursive; mystical geometry; and a stoned bumblebee.
“The tattoo field is constantly changing, and the old school artists go bankrupt,” said artist Gio Angeles of Vallejo. “You have to adapt with the trends.”
“I focus on variance in subject material, line weight, shading and colors — I do a lot of bright colors,” said artist Jodie Lowery.
Many artists referred to their tattooing styles with terms reminiscent of stodgy academia — realism, hyperrealism, color realism, modernism, neotraditional, etc. Others described themselves as not adhering to a particular style.
“I like to do all types of style,” said Claudia Roman of El Paso, Texas. “You pick it; I stick it.”
The Body Art Expo debuted at the Cow Palace in 2007 and was held every year afterward until the past two years, when COVID-19 caused its cancellation.
Artists said conventions like this are not only a great way to meet potential new clients, but also to befriend other professionals with whom to talk shop, get referrals and do tattoo swaps. “Tattoo artists never buy tattoos — we just trade with each other,” Roman said.
This weekend’s event attracted people from up and down California and around the country.
“You get all kinds of people who come to these conventions,” said Nemo Adolph, an artist from Denver. “I’ve been tattooing for six years, and last year at a convention, I tattooed my first police officer. Another time I had a guy, about 72, who just retired from driving buses. He’d had only one little tattoo in his life, about 30 years ago, and he came in and got his whole head [covered].”
The Expo also included various contests for best tattoo and edgy sideshows performed by a gothic quintet called Agents of Lust. Aside from the many tattooing stations, some convention booths were selling piercings, T-shirts, prints, posters, skateboard decks, kinky paddles and after-tattoo CBD cream, among other items.
“Tattoos are like therapy — when I’m going through a life transition I can express myself via my skin,” said Valarie Keith, a generously tattooed high school teacher from Oakland. “But you still hear people … talking about how unprofessional tattooed people are. So we’ve still got some ground to cover. I’d like to see some lawyers with tattoos, and some judges — a Supreme Court judge.”