Wise Blood

Drawing on the right side of the hip

You don't have to have a tattoo to enjoy the South Florida Tattoo Expo, but it probably helps. To the question "Got ink?" the Night Rider raises her ballpoint. But to the tattooed, it's not a joke: first ink is a rite of passage. So there at the Deerfield Hilton for the 12th annual event, I was a virgin at the orgy, reluctant but curious.

I came at the invitation of my rockabilly buddy Slip Mahoney, whose band was one of many playing poolside during the three-day shindig. I met him with his new squeeze Patti Rothermel and her friend Amber Sutton, who all seemed more than tolerant of my tattoo naiveté.

The girls shared their illustrative histories. "Go with what you know" seemed to be the theory of Patti, an animal lover, former vet tech and taxidermist. She had designed all her tattoos, including an ankle cuff of bunnies inspired by "rabbits I actually know."

TONY GLEESON

Amber, "a piercing person, not a tattoo person," who'd gotten a genital piercing and then "went home and walked the dog like it was nothing," nonetheless had given half her back to an image that had begun with the eye of Horus. She lifted her skull-and-rose adorned skirt to continue the history lesson: a ridiculously tiny lemon skittle on her right hip was her first, a best-friend "charm" she'd gotten as a teenager. With age, it resembled a yellow eight-ball.

While tattoo machines buzzed and the hum of conversation in the Hibiscus Room escalated with the number of mechanized pens delivering ink, Amber shared some wisdom. "You want someone who can shebang it," she said, "so when it's done you're like, 'That's exactly what I was thinking — exactly what I was feeling.'"

With dozens of artists from around the country, I'd have a good chance of finding an artist whose portfolio spoke to me. As I navigated the many booths, I met 19-year-old Hollywood waitress Tina Isola, who'd come with her mother for her first ink. She flipped through a photo album at the Glenn's Tattoo Service booth while I talked to artist Glenn Wilson and his current client, 33-year-old Kenny Alvarez, who was stretched out on a padded table so the North Carolina artist could work a triptych of skulls into his left calf.

"That way I can remember I came to this place," said the relaxed Alvarez, who was already illustrated with a number of skulls including a necklace around his neck. "You never regret a skull," he assured me as Wilson dipped his tattoo machine like a quill into a pot of black ink, swiped the nib on the shaved and swelling skin, and wiped away the excess ink to check his progress.

After perusing Wilson's portfolio, Isola was satisfied. She wanted something she'd seen on someone else that she thought "looked cute."

"How much for two little cherries, right here?" Isola interrupted, pulling the waistband of her low-rise jeans down a little on the right side. "About this big," she said, pinching a marble-sized bit of air between her fingers.

"You gotta get 'em bigger than that, at least quarter-sized, or they'll look like a freckle," Wilson said before telling her to come back in a few hours — time enough for Isola to reconsider her choice.

Wilson thought she could have made a worse choice. "Lettering, names, and shit" is what's unimaginative, he said.

"You can't go wrong with a skull," Alvarez said.

"You can too go wrong with a skull," tattoo veteran Franky Zollo said later with a generous laugh.

Zollo noted that it was "cool to be here among so many tattooed people," since they didn't pester her, like the non-tattooed often did, with questions they really had to answer for themselves. Zollo had come to see her regular artist, Maytee from Phat Joe's in Miami, who'd sketched out some flames on her right calf to supplement the cross there. The 29-year-old showed me her favorite work by the same artist — a whimsical scene from The Little Prince. Her tattoos attested to a changing aesthetic, one that began when she was 16.

"The eye of Ra was my first and most uneventful. It seems primitive now. And my second, a little rinky-dink butterfly," she said, with a toss of her dark bobbed hair, as she explained that she planned to get a spiral of butterflies from ankle to shoulder. "I never thought I'd have a lot of tattoos. Now I feel like I should get [them] updated."

Also demonstrating the problem with permanent art works on an evolving canvas, her buddy Harold Hankerson sported several fraternity scars, the result of branding at Grambling State University. "These two were done with clothes hangers," he told me of his heavily scarred sigmas, "but this was done with a butter knife." He opened his shirt to reveal one that hadn't scarred as badly. "If I had to do it over, I would have gotten a tattoo."

This tattoo expo was practically a body modification convention.

Navigating the crowded hallway of vendors hawking lifestyle necessities like piercing jewelry, belt buckles, purses, ­T-shirts, and glass pipes, I stopped by the hotel bar so I'd have a cold one in hand when I saw event organizer "Tattoo Dave" Amchir (who was donating all proceeds to Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital) perform Elvis-style with the Hep Cat Boo Daddies. While waiting for my beer, I asked a smiling John O'Reilly for an explanation of the tribal armband in the middle of his Wizard of Oz sleeve. He told me the tribal art came first, and then a tornado storm on his forearm spun off into a tale of the Emerald City.

The only difference between the tattooed crowd and someone like me was that the evidence of their shortsightedness was more apparent.

I wondered if the kid with the four-inch holes in his earlobes and the "Freedumb" tattoo across his chest would still feel that "flesh manipulation is the best form of entertainment for human beings" years from now. He was part of the sideshow organized by Boca Raton's 23-year-old body-modification guru, Joe Amato. Beneath the plastic tent in front of the band stage, the kid introduced himself as 21-year-old Alex Word. He was about to be part of a suspension show.

While a girl and guy played tug-of-war with a rope fastened to two hooks through the flesh of their backs, a guy with dreadlocks, lots of tattoos, stretched lobes, and one orange-and-black sock elevated Word with ropes attached to four-inch hooks in his chest and thighs and held him aloft. To hooks in Word's back, another guy with hooks in his back was suspended and spinning beneath him. Rivulets of blood began their journey to the plastic covered floor.

Inside, in the comparatively tame world of tattooing, I admired the nostalgic motivation of a 28-year-old Tequesta massage therapist; Amy Lachance's baby son's footprints adorned her abdomen. And I marveled over the fine detail of the classic image of the three graces on the back of 24-year-old family services case worker Cassie Lowrie. They'd found inspiration, but nothing spoke to me.

At the booth for Lucky 7, a tattoo shop in West Palm Beach, an artist was working lots of black ink into angular, tribal swoops on his client's shoulder. Kenny Dick, a former electrician, said he became a tattoo artist after a motorcycle accident caused him debilitating and disfiguring injuries. He said the work he'd done on a woman who'd been ashamed of her arms allowed her to wear a sleeveless shirt. "I gave her her femininity back."

I wondered aloud if he could transform the ugly scar on my calf, what remained of a nasty dog bite. He said he could.

"These days, there's no excuse to get a bad tattoo," said Dick's colleague, artist Jason Ackerman, citing the availability of online portfolios to assure the quality of the work and reputation of the artist. He himself had refused to do certain tattoos, he said, like a tulip under the eye of a preppy Boca kid. "I have a responsibility to the client to protect them from themselves."

Ackerman, art in motion himself, had just finished one of his signature "creepy little kids," part whimsy, part horror, on the upper arm of Jessica Gardner. As plasma oozed from the needle-traumatized skin of the 22-year-old's colorfully cartooned upper arm, she explained that she'd come up with the phrase "Forget Regret" and then left the rest of the design in the hands of her handsome, 32-year old artist. Her phrase had inspired the image of a bubble-eyed girl in a pink dress with mutilated stuffed animals at her feet and the offering of an apple in her hand.

Ackerman was so charming, earnest, and able that I was almost willing to let him shebang me all night long. But my own admission ended what could have been a beautiful relationship.

"If you have problems with commitment," he said, using my words against me, "a tattoo is definitely not for you."

Anyway, it was about time for my hosts, Slip and the Spinouts, to rock the rafters — or in this case, the suspension beam and the tent posts. Outside, I was re-united with Isola, who peeled back her pants to reveal a bandage, proof that she'd gotten her cherries. While my buddies rocked it I admired what had been done unto others — old school and new; the classic, tribal, morbid, divine, floral, and fantastic; the originals and reproductions; the colorful and the black-and-white. And suddenly, all the potential in what the art world would call my "negative space" seemed like a positive thing.

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