I got my first tattoo when I was 20; "so it goes" in small black script on my left arm, overcharged at some out-of-the-way shop in Dublin. I'd just finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 for the 200th time so I guess it made sense. Six years later and I'm at a tattoo convention in Philadelphia with my girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend. He's there to get tattooed by an old friend from North Carolina; we're there because he offered to drive. In those six years I've added more ink; in fact, I now have a full sleeve: underwater-themed below the elbow, birds and zeppelins and a portrait of the Greek god Apollo above, all of it in muted pastels, none of which was my idea (I let my tattoo artist do whatever she wants), but I'm happy with it all the same.
This was the 15th Annual Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention, with hundreds of tattoo artists from all across the country, as well as certification courses and workshops, contests for "Best Tribal Tattoo" and the like, and booths selling a lot of harsh metal-and-wood jewelry and bondage-inspired drawings. PBR tallboys are $5, Johnny Walker Red and Tullamore Dew are somewhat more expensive. There are burlesque dancers and honest-to-God freak show acts. Permanent Mark is there. Amy Nicoletto from LA Ink is there, looking just as crazy as she does on TV. Actually, pretty much everyone from every tattoo reality TV show is there, signing autographs, selling books, tattooing anyone who can afford it. There are a lot of punks and hipsters and shirtless old biker guys. There's a wildly overcrowded piercing standing. I remember a hot rod on display, a tattooed frog preserved in formaldehyde and an anime-adorned belt with a built-in bottle opener I almost bought for $20. Somehow, despite hundreds of tattoos happening all at once, I never really catch that tattoo smell (disinfectant, inks, oozing blood, sweat). The Philadelphia Convention Center must be remarkably well-ventilated.
If you're looking to get tattooed it's pretty great to have hundreds of artists at your disposal: no two tattoos are ever the same, after all, because every artist has his/her own distinctive style, their own preference on inks and guns. Spend 15 minutes walking around the convention and you'll understand just how many different ways there are to tattoo a cross or a skull. Of course if you're not looking to get tattooed it's still a pretty easy way to kill an afternoon—it took me and my girlfriend more than an hour just to walk up and down all the aisles, only stopping a few times to admire some particularly good work, and re-up on PBRs.
At Philly.com you can check out a slideshow of the convention, and read some hyper-moralizing comments about how very, very déclassé tattoos are, an odd attitude to take when more than one in five Americans are tattooed (among 25-39-year-olds its more like one in three). Granted, those statistics probably refer more to Americans with a barbed-wire chain around their bicep than Americans with face tattoos. Still, in Baltimore, where most of my friends have far more tattoos than me, it's easy to forget that not everyone is saving up to add color to their chest piece. Apparently the outlaw appeal of tattoos is still in fine order though, judging by the "NO WEAPONS!" sign at the entrance to the Convention Center, the metal detector scans you have to go through after buying your ticket, and the half-a-dozen or so very nervous looking cops walking around.