From the very second that you walk through the doors of the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention, you are overwhelmed by the sound of thousands of humming tattoo machines blending with the stereo systems of just as many tattooers. Looking around, hundreds of prints and flash sheets compete for your attention. When you add in the crush (and smell) of scores of eager people fighting to secure a tattoo with their favorite artist, it really makes you wonder why this was an event that you had been anticipating for months. By their very nature tattoo conventions are a blitz on the senses. Now imagine having to do your job in the dead center of all of that action.
“A really good quote that my friend Adam Hays told me, ‘Conventions are where great tattooers will give you a good tattoo.’ I feel like that’s real,” Jonathan Penchoff says. “This isn’t where you come to get an awesome, phenomenal tattoo. Nobody wants to do that here. The lighting is shitty, there are so many distractions. It’s just hard.”
Over the course of the weekend, we talked with a bunch of tattooers about the pros and cons of convention life. If it’s so difficult to work in that environment, why do it at all? We wanted to know every little thing that drove them insane, and every reason they pack their gear up to hit the road and do it all over again.
The Work Space
Almost universally, the tattooers we chatted with complained about the space in which they had to tattoo. Whether it was the lack of room to maneuver, the horrific lighting from fluorescent bulbs 70 feet above, or uncomfortable chairs, there are a ton of things that a tattooer has to adapt to in order to get the job done at a convention.
“See, my table is such a mess,” Penchoff laughs while pointing to a tiny table covered with ink caps, ink containers, machines, and a Gandalf action figure. “It’s so fucking cluttered. Imagine if I had to split this with someone, it would be a nightmare.” Audie Fulfer Jr., who was attending the Philly convention for the 8th year in a row, expressed a similar worry while tattooing a client’s neck. “It’s definitely more challenging,” he explains. “Being cramped up in a corner, I’ve traveled for so many years that I can tattoo in a 1x1, 2x2 area and be content.”
“Nothing is where it’s supposed to be like when you are home, and you have these tiny little chairs and your knees start to kill you,” Chad Lenjer says. “The lighting isn’t terrible here, at least. It’s a little more stressful and it takes some getting used to. The first day is always like a learning curve. Then you have to figure out a flow, and you’re good.”
It should go without saying, but the obvious difference between working in the shop and a convention is the audience of thousands milling around and gawking for three straight days. “It’s massive, it’s crazy,” Ivan Antonyshev says. “There were just so many people here, I was tattooing all day, and every time I’d look up, I’d see somebody. Not somebody, but many people, and it would just multiply.”
Working under a microscope can be really difficult and tattooers look to find ways to limit distractions, more often than not turning to a product hawked by Dr. Dre. “I have to have headphones and my own music,” Jamie Schene states. “I have to have [his wife and creative collaborator] Laura with me, I need these things to be able to work.”
The Silver Lining
Even though most artists were willing to list a myriad of reasons why tattooing at a convention can be a clusterfuck of stress, there had to be a reason for them to show up in the first place.
“It’s stressful, but I like it,” Antonyshev says. “I can draw energy from it. Today I’ll do some cool tattoos and then just chill for a little bit, take it easy.”
“It’s a reason to go somewhere new and make cool tattoos on different people,” Lenjer explains. “Mostly that and you get to go see friends that you don’t normally get to see. Other than the fact that it’s super difficult to tattoo and there is usually pretty bad lighting, it’s a total blast.”
Considering that people come from all over the world, the allure of reconnecting with friends is clearly a huge driving force for artists. “It’s cool to be part of something so large on this side of the country, and I get to hang out with more than a few friends while tattooing my clients,” Fulfer says. “That’s my main reason, that and cheesesteaks. I like Jim’s, extra whiz, the wetter the better.”
Kate Collins, who tattoos out of Philadelphia’s Seven Swords Tattoo, only had to trek a little over four miles to get to the convention. But she was still drawn to make an appearance. “Everyone from all over the world is here, you have to be here to represent your town!” Collins laughs. “I always say, this is MY CONVENTION! Every time I’m here I get such a great showing of past clients, future clients, it’s just a great way to connect. It’s a nice way to mingle, put out feelers, see new faces.”
Insight from a Legend
When you care so much about your craft, when tattooing is far more than just a job, conventions are something that you can’t help but be drawn to. It’s not the best way to do your work, but the energy and adulation from the crowd more than make up for that. The legendary Shanghai Kate has been in the business for close to a half century, and despite the exhaustion, she hits shows like Philly whenever she can.
“This is what I’ve done for 46 years, this is who I am,” she says while tattooing her name on an adoring fan born long after she had become Shanghai Kate. “I don’t think I’m going to stop until my body actually prevents me from doing it. This work is so demanding, and so engrossing, that when we’re doing it you don’t think about time passing, we don’t think about aches or pains or illnesses or depression… this saves me.”