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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    To a point: the artistry of needle on skin

    Sarah Smith/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

Tattoo Expo at Hotel Arizona, best in show competition
    Sarah Smith/ Arizona Daily Wildcat Tattoo Expo at Hotel Arizona, best in show competition

    Welcome to the Hotel Arizona, where the atmosphere buzzes with energy. The excitement of Friday and Saturday night has only marginally waned; there’s still more face-making and teeth-clenching going on in this hotel’s convention hall than would ever be expected on a Sunday afternoon.

    But the audience here isn’t waiting for the announcement of a deal that’s been closed, or a partnership that’s been forged. Sure, the awards ceremony is coming, and they’ll stick around for that, too. But the event each person is waiting for here, that makes them cling to their lover’s wrists, is the moment the needle hits their skin.

    It’s clearly a less traumatic event for some of those in attendance than for others. A quick scan of the crowd at this year’s Tucson Tattoo Expo reveals more skin covered in imagery than left bare. Studios from all over, including Under the Gun Tattoos of California, and close-to-home Sanctity Tattoo and 4Forty4Tattoo, both from the University area, convened for the weekend, many with loyal customers along for the show.

    While a couple of grimaces from the first-timers are visible on the faces of those under the gun, the experience is not a new one for the large majority of the clients. Alongside the newbies getting their first ink, from artists with whom they may have just had their first conversation at the expo, are the veterans. They sit, less fidgety, less nervous, more trusting of the artist applying their latest masterpiece or touching up an acquisition from years prior.

    The relationship between the artist and the client can be a dynamic one. Unlike in other forms of visual art, where even commissioned pieces can be turned down, rearranged, or otherwise adjusted after the final work is complete, tattoo artists don’t get “”do-overs”” if their customer isn’t satisfied with the results.

    “”You have to think about it. They’re a very permanent decision,”” said artist Zip of Tucson’s 4Forty4Tattoo studio, referring to both the decision to get tattooed and the choice of artist.

    Client Brandy Gordon’s decision to take the plunge seven and a half years ago proved to be the beginning of an important process for she and Zip. “”He gave me my first one!”” she exclaimed, holding out her hand to show the small red star with a tribal wrap around her wrist. “”My middle name is Star, that’s why I have a star tattoo. I always say I’m not one of those who did it because it’s trendy,”” she quickly pointed out.

    Gordon brings up a controversy widely debated in the tattoo industry. Tattoos are routinely associated with angsty teenage rebellion, trendiness and a desire to stand out and be different. Ironically, the images clients often choose to express that uniqueness are a typical smattering of hearts, stars, or skulls. However, conventions such at the Tucson Tattoo Expo showcase the artistry and creativity that still thrives at the core of the industry.

    Zip’s work on Gordon’s arm, which stretches from the top of her shoulder all the way down to her wrist, is an example of this artistry. At the awards ceremony on the closing day of the expo, a panel of judges chose this tattoo as the overall ‘Best Sleeve.’

    “”It’s biomechanical,”” she explained, her finger tracing the stark image. “”The main piece is the brain, and then the spinal cord follows from there.”” The tattoo is detailed and intricate, the kind of artwork that comes from a synergy of ideas. “”He’s on my level, you know?”” said Gordon. “”He can go to those places that I can’t. I can’t draw by far, but I can tell him what I want.””

    “”You can see my progression in her work,”” said Zip. “”I have an associate’s degree in fine art, and I’ve been drawing my whole life. Art has always been my major passion.””

    However, tattooing has not been a lifelong dream for every artist who picks up the needle. Zip, for example, wanted to draw comic book art. It wasn’t until he started getting tattooed himself that “”it actually hit, ‘yeah, I really want to do this,'”” he said.

    From the range of pieces on display at the convention, it’s apparent that inspiration can strike from anywhere. One contestant for the title ‘Best in Show,’ which encompasses every tattoo actually applied during the weekend, was a stylized, nearly life-sized depiction of Albert Einstein’s face on the inner thigh.

    “”They come to you on a whim,”” said Gordon. “”I don’t have anything traumatic in my life, no divorce or beatings or kids or anything like that. Just freedom, you know? I like to be free and that’s what it’s all about.””

    Freedom of expression is the very definition of art. The techniques vary, and there’s a time of transition from canvas to clay, from sequential art to someone’s arm. But the talent and the artistry remain.

    “”The skin is just a totally different medium; it lives, it breathes, it moves,”” said Zip.

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