The freak and chic of tattoo culture

A&E’s intrepid reporter fields the needles and skulls to check out the Minneapolis Tattoo Arts Convention.

The shading on Tim Sundquist's award winning dead baby tattoo is most intricate. PHOTO BY TOM JOHNSON, DAILY

The shading on Tim Sundquist’s award winning dead baby tattoo is most intricate. PHOTO BY TOM JOHNSON, DAILY

Thomas Q. Johnson

WHAT: The Minneapolis Tattoo Arts Convention WHERE: Hyatt Regency Hotel WHEN: Sept. 18-20 In a room at the Hyatt downtown, the noise of electric needles filled the air as a nice looking man from Philadelphia suddenly put a four-inch drill bit up his nose. The crowd flinched as he put the drill in reverse, extracted the bit and held it out for the audience to see. âÄúA little bit slimy but no blood involved and thatâÄôs what is important,âÄù crooned the MC, Athena Onatopp , a tall, blond woman with a latex skirt whose name wasnâÄôt the only intimidating thing about her. Danny âÄúThe BlockheadâÄù Borneo and Onatopp were one of many sideshow acts at last weekendâÄôs Tattoo Arts Convention, which brought in tattoo artists and vendors from all over the world. It was a place where people could show their dragons and mom-emblazoned death skulls free of shame. While around half of the event featured local artists and shops, Minneapolis was just one stop in this summerâÄôs tattoo convention circuit. The tattoo cons all include a variety of attractions aside from the tat watching. Attendees can check out the freakish sideshow, buy some tattoo paraphernalia and even have tattoos and piercings done on the spot. Rows of tables with elaborate and colorful designs on display sat next to one another as dozens of eager souls were worked on by artists. Some listened to their iPods, talked on the phone, held a friendâÄôs hand or just plain looked away and grimaced. The convention even had a tattoo contest, where participants showed off their favorite ink for prizes in categories such as Best Native American, Best Portrait, Best Wildlife and Most Unusual, among others. Tim Sundquist of Burnsville won third place in the large color category for his âÄúlarge male baby tattoo.âÄù He had one first place in the âÄúdark artsâÄù categories in past conventions, but this year the category was no more and competition was stiffer. âÄúI love coming out to the tattoo conventions,âÄù he said, âÄújust the atmosphere, hanging out with people and then after parties are the best.âÄù The convention was buzzing as people wandered around through the booths of 70 vendors sampling wares and getting a feel for the rest of the tattoo world. Minneapolis hasnâÄôt had a tattoo convention of this size since 2002 and people were generally happy to have a place where they could talk the tattoo shop talk with one another. Onatopp had been traveling with her troupe for two years, performing at various tattoo and hot rod conventions across the country. With a background in psychology, she left her vocation behind to take up a life on the road. Troy Timpel, the promoter of the convention, said tattoos are becoming more mainstream due to shows like TLCâÄôs âÄúMiami Ink âÄù or A&EâÄôs âÄúInked,âÄù which are opening up the once taboo culture. The convention was a success, with an attendance of around 2,500 this year despite the economy, Timpel said. âÄúWhenever we have a recession, the vices always remain,âÄù he said. The only conflict for Timpel was that Minneapolis wouldnâÄôt allow him or anyone else to perform suspension within the city. The banished art of suspension is a form of performance art in which a person is hooked under their skin in a few different places and suspended from above. Suspension performances last about a half an hour and are âÄúreally no more dangerous than a piercing, which we are allowed to do.âÄù Minneapolis was the only city Timpel has visited been to that enforced that rule. The most exciting time of the night was when the blue puzzle piece covered âÄúEnigmaâÄù and his assistant cut apples from their mouths with a chainsaw. What was their day job? According to Timpel, the pair farmed goats in Iowa when they werenâÄôt performing. The convention shows that people from all vocations and backgrounds can become involved in the tattoo scene. As Onatopp puts it, âÄúTattoo culture is an artistic and inspired culture, definitely one that looks beyond class, race and gender lines.âÄù