Tattoo Convention: Prejudice Revealed
My criteria for doing a Photo Essay is that it’s an important topic that people need to know more about. This often involves causes such as Multiple Sclerosis (Living with MS) and homelessness (Depaul House: From Homeless to Hopeful).
But not every Photo Essay has to be a heavy topic. I’m very interested in art, artists, and the artistic process. While I'm not personally drawn to the tattoo art-form, I was very interested in attending the annual Tattoo Convention to see what it was all about. I found it fascinating- both the art and the people. What really surprised me the most is what I learned about myself- I can be prejudiced without realizing it.
Like many non-tattooed people I've had a somewhat negative opinion of tattoos, particularly those that cover large parts of people’s bodies- “Why would people do that?” At the same time from a photography perspective tattoos are a great opportunity because of the color and intricacy of so many designs. Thinking that through, it does seem hypocritical- a negative view along with artistic interest. The artistic side of that split made me go to the Tattoo Convention at the Philadelphia Convention Center- February 2016.
Beyond knowing that it involved tattoos, I had no idea what this event would be about. The Tattoo Convention was all about tattoo shops- it seemed like hundreds lining isle after isle. The vast majority were busy applying tattoos. Customers were sitting, bending, lying down, twisting and contorting to whatever position was necessary to get a new tattoo on the desired body part. And given the range of body parts that are tattooed, many people were quite exposed.
Contrary to my preconceived notions, the environment and people were great. Everyone was friendly and talkative. The tattoo artists, and they surely are very talented painters of the human canvas, came from all over the country and the world for this event. It’s a great opportunity to become known. Their customers were excited about the new artwork they would be wearing.
Each person has their own reasons for getting tattoos. It can be about self image, self expression, being a canvas for fine art- “He's such an amazing artist that I want to wear his work”, honoring a person or remembering a special time, place, or experience- “I’m getting a kayak tattoo because that's my sport”. The permanence of this art makes their decisions quite significant.
My time at the Tattoo Convention changed me from being critical to being engaged with this group of people. Thinking back, that's exactly the change I experienced when I engaged homeless people in Philadelphia- sounds like a theme!
The Artistic Process
The Artistic Process
Tattoo artistry combines skillful drawing followed by transferring designs to the body using a needled instrument that inserts ink below the top layer of skin. Developing these skills takes years of training and practice- “We don’t make mistakes very often but when it happens we can usually fix it.”
Sketching: The artist creates a detailed design.
They Are More Than Happy To Show Their 'Hand'iwork
Transferring the Design: The tattoo artist reads carefully from their sheet music, often drawing the design on the skin before making their permanent strokes.
Confidence and Submission
Customers willingly allow tattoo artists to take control of their appearance for a lifetime. That requires significant trust. The tattoo artists showed intense concentration as they worked. The majority of customers seemed calm during the process showing little or no discomfort- "It feels like a sunburn!"
"I'm Confident Because I Know His Work Is Amazing!!"
He'll Never See This Tattoo: "But I know it's there!"
In Another World
Some customers had help from family and friends to get through what can be an intense experience.
When it comes to support, it was quite extraordinary to see the role of the phone. As we know, phones are integrated into the totality of the human experience. Whatever people are doing, they will likely be surfing at the same time. Knowing that, I was still surprised to see the role of the phone in the tattoo process. Getting a tattoo means turning a person's body over to an artist who will change their skin forever, unless they undergo a some sort of removal process. If I were getting a tattoo I would be nervous about what's going on. But most people seemed to be unconcerned and many immersed themselves in their phones during the process. I wonder if the phone was providing some sort of comfort and distraction during a stressful moment.
This made me think about how phones might be used during other stressful times. As an extreme thought I imagined a condemned person strapped to a gurney, eerily looking like a crucifixion, awaiting the lethal chemicals to take hold. The person’s head is turned to one side looking down their arm towards the hand holding a phone. Their thumb is frantically pressing the screen to get as much content as possible in the remaining moments. Time of death is recorded when the phone smashes onto the cement floor. Surely a bizarre thought but perhaps a reality check about how connected we have become to our phones- Is this the ultimate relationship?
Tattoos are meant to be permanent by definition. But life is long, styles change, and many people get tattoos when they're young. Some percentage of people will want their tattoos removed or changed. One vendor offering tattoo removal services had a large van on display at the Tattoo Convention.
I went to the Tattoo Convention hoping to get some interesting images. The experience was much richer than I had expected. The skill of tattoo artists is amazing. The courage and authenticity of customers is even more amazing because their decisions will forever change them.
While I learned a lot about the tattoo community, I actually learned much more about myself. I learned that prejudice is insidious- it’s waiting to entrap me when I’m not looking. I see someone with a lot of tattoos and that voice comes on the internal loud speaker- “That must be a strange person”. But what’s the logic behind that statement? There is none! That’s prejudice: noun- preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Prejudice fuels so much of what is wrong in the world.
Tattoos fit into the common narrative about how people are judged for the way they look. We put so much effort on our hair, clothes, shoes to make sure we all look the same, lest we be judged as an outlier. Then someone comes along with a new style, often ridiculed until it takes hold to become the new norm, or until scorn snuffs it out completely. Those old enough will remember the initial disdain over the Beatles’ hair. People with tattoos have the courage to set their own style and to make it permanent.
In the future when I see someone who looks different and that voice starts speaking, I’ll drown it out with- “Remember the Tattoo Convention!!”..... I got a lot more than I expected on that frigid February day!