By Sammi Brennan
All signs pointed to me getting my third tattoo at the Tampa Tattoo Arts Convention, located at the Tampa Convention Center this past weekend. Even the police officer by the ticket booth encouraged me to at least be open to the idea. If I had gotten one, I know I would have been surrounded by an accepting community eager to congratulate me on my new ink.
Hosted by Villain Arts, the Tampa Tattoo Arts Convention was lined with rows of booths displaying artwork from extremely precise and talented tattoo artists. Every other booth had a fellow tattoo enthusiast getting inked, with the most common tattoo placement in the upper leg and shoulder areas. The tattoo models had various reactions to the needle pricks. Some drowned out the pain by listening to their headphones, others simply kept using their phones as if the experience was tantamount to waiting for their coffee at Starbucks.
As I wandered around the aisles, I took note of the various tattooing booths, such as Str8line, Ariel Galang Tattoos, Idle Hands Tattoo Emporium and Old School Tattoo Company, each name foreign to me. The only tattoo booth I recognized was Atomic Tattoo, which has various locations in Tampa. However, many of the tattoo studios were from out of state. One of the first booths that caught my eye was that of Rendezvous Tattoo, where two friendly tattoo artists sat pleasantly eating their lunches. Each had striking shades of blue in their hair and various facial piercings.
Kerri Shelafoe and Chris Shelafoe happily clasped hands as they told me about their marriage. Kerri had most of her artwork located on her chest; beautiful flowers conquered the area. Chris had subtle claw marks piercing the left side of his face and a blue-black, almost charcoal-like, tattoo on his entire left arm. Located in Marquette, Michigan, Rendezvous Tattoo does mostly tattoo art, but includes body piercings as well. “We like to be able to change the public opinion about what tattoos are and what to expect of tattoos,” Kerri said.
At one point, I came across a booth that appeared to have tattooed raw meat in glass casings. Eerily similar to human flesh, these veined substances drew my attention immediately.
“[These canvases] tattoo very close to actual human skin, the way that they’re made,” said Gina, a spokesperson for Skinned Ink. “They have a nice soft layer so that they take color and shading similar to the way your skin would.”
As mentioned on the Skinned Ink website, creator Sean Ozz was inspired to create these canvases because of his hope he would one day, when he died, be able to skin himself of his tattoos in order for his family and friends to retain a memory of him and his artwork. Gina’s admiration for Ozz was clearly evident as she listed all of his experience and accomplishments. “He took one of his passions and made an amazing product for the industry,” Gina said.
Aside from tattoo booths, there were ink suppliers and original paintings. The Art Afterlife Skeletons’ booth had various skins of snakes and the inner workings of other deceased creatures. Evolve Body Jewelry Company displayed countless gages in every color, shape and size imaginable. A Japanese jewelry and artistry booth incorporated everything from jade bracelets to oni masks. Several booths had graphic t-shirts, written on them “This is my Zombie Killing Shirt” and “Pretty in Ink.” One booth, which sold graphic tees and stylish clothing, had a young, blond-haired boy with a warm smile tending to it.
Liam, who is 16-years-old, has been working two years for a clothing company known as Static, which travels around the world to various tattoo events to sell their merchandise. “You get to go all around the country doing all these shows and stuff and you get to meet all new types of people,” Liam said.
The convention hosted several events including tattoo contests, burlesque shows and live human suspension. A small stage was located toward the back of the room, and it was there that I encountered the mystifying belly dancer, Caroline Hekate. Her accompanying music was so chilling I could feel a finger gliding down my spine. After her slithering show, she briskly made her way back to her art booth, located directly across from the stage. Her work is inspired by her studies in philosophy as well as Greek and Egyptian mythology. However, her inspiration is drawn from other forms as well.
“It’s very much inspired by nature. Pretty much I consider myself to be a very observant person. And then I get my meditation when you crank the music and start doodling,” Caroline said. In her black and white drawings, she uses pen and pencil to create her striking figurines. Her largest painting was colored a sinister red with two daunting eyes staring directly at you. She explained to me that it depicted aries and aquarius. The story behind the name “Hekate” is rather intriguing. “Caroline is my real name and Hekate is the name that I derived from the goddess of the underworld which comes originally from Egyptian mythology but it was adopted by the Greeks.”
The question is, do tattoos necessarily need to hold significance? In my experience, whenever I ask someone if they would ever get a tattoo, I usually get the response, “I want to wait until I find one that is really important to me.” Most of the people I know have tattoos that symbolize the importance of family or emphasize strength. For some, the tattoo is simply something they are interested in. To Chris Shelafoe, it’s not entirely about meaning.
“Most people hold their tattoos dearly to their heart, not that I don’t, but like, it has to have a meaning or something, and I’m like ‘put it on!’” Added his wife Kerri, “If it’s pretty, we’re good.”
It’s impossible to be oblivious to the sense of community tattoo enthusiasts share; it’s an acceptance unlike anything else. Many are put off by the physical appearances of tattoo enthusiasts. Along with tattoos, many that partook in the convention had radiant hair, gages, body piercings and even horns. It’s a misunderstood community that is constantly being judged.
“What sets us aside is how not afraid we are to go the distance with our ink,” Chris Shelafoe said. He then mentioned his tongue splitting and displayed a wiggly surprise that is branded in my mind for life.
Sammi Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.