When you see a naked woman being fondled by a tattooed man, should you take their picture?
Issues of privacy and decency abound when you’re documenting a tattoo convention. Rules of conduct that apply outside the exhibition hall become irrelevant as both men and women welcome the prying eyes they might shun on the beach, or in the office. Or, perhaps, they are exhibitionists at heart and the tattoo expo is their all-star game?
Our photo group took a walk on the wild side with an outing to a tattoo convention, and it was an eye opener. I grew up in an era when the only people with tattoos were sailors, bikers, and headliners at the carnival. I knew tattoos are increasingly popular, but I’d watched this development with all the disdain I reserve for quinoa, comfort animals, and snorting condoms.
Still, it’s important to expose yourself to new ideas, which is how I ended up in a fruitless search for bikers and carnival sideshows at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. I spotted a few sailors, or at least I think they were sailors, since they had anchors on their arms or chests. Most guys who appeared to be military were there with their wives for a little ink on date night. In most cases, it was a guy getting a new tat and his wife/other watching patiently, but some couples sat together as each partner was jabbed.
I’ve always been impressed by the confidence people show in getting a tattoo. I can’t think of any images that I would be willing to wear on my flesh for the rest of my life, but millions of people make that commitment, swearing loyalty to a statement or picture that will probably outlast their marriages. Yes, it’s possible to remove a tattoo, but I don’t think anybody gets inked with the idea of erasing it later.
One of the great mysteries I have yet to solve is the hidden tattoos, beautifully scribed between the shoulder blades or the lower back or the dark side of the moon. Why would you place a tattoo where you cannot see it? What separates the people who put tattoos on their backs from the ones who emblazon their chests? Is there a hierarchy of artists who do arms or legs or faces or backs or breasts? Do people with inscriptions on their chests sneer at, or secretly envy, the ones with ink on their buttocks? Is there a point at which a person has too many tattoos and is dismissed as too showy? Clearly, I still have more questions than answers about all of this.
I was surprised that essentially everyone agreed to have their picture taken as they lay on their benches and absorbed the pinpricks that would transform their flesh. I associate needles with medical treatment and I would have assumed people would want their privacy. Instead, they were happy to present their bodies as canvas for our photo group.
It’s situational, absolutely. I stopped by a booth with a young woman lying down while having her face done. I asked if I could take her photo and she agreed. As I recorded her procedure, I couldn’t help but think her response would be different if she was lying on a beach and I walked up to capture her image. Just thinking about that beach encounter creeped me out a bit, as it definitely would have done for her, if she gave it any thought.
Down the aisle, another young woman was lying topless on a bench as her assigned artist added a colorful image to her left breast. I didn’t ask about taking a photo, but I suspect she would have been fine with it, as well.
Why not? Each of these people came to add a work of art to their bodies, presumably an image that would make them more attractive, more interesting, more dramatic. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about showing off their latest acquisition?
That’s especially the case for tattoos from the superstar artists in attendance. If a customer likes having a Warhol print in the den, she must love having a Taguet or a Woo that she can show off wherever she goes. Unlike other art, tattoos cannot be stolen by cat burglars.
Of course, beauty is subjective. Some individual tattoos or complete themes were dramatic and compelling. In other cases, people had a dozen seemingly unconnected images splattered across their bodies, as if they were human sketch pads for a doodling tattoo artist. I couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking, or how much beer they had consumed on the way to the parlor.
After a few hours spent scoping out the ink, I couldn’t find anything I’d be willing to engrave on my skin, but I did find a dozen people I’d like to interview about their taste in art. And, next time I'm at a cocktail party, I'll bet, "Tell me about your tattoo," would be a great ice breaker.