Tattoos | Gallery on Skin: Salt Lake City’s tattoo convention is a showcase for the human canvas | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Tattoos | Gallery on Skin: Salt Lake City’s tattoo convention is a showcase for the human canvas 

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Maybe you’ve heard: The Salt Lake International Tattoo Convention is in town this weekend. Even if you don’t have tattoos, it’s a big deal. Not because a conservative city hosts an edgy, alternative convention, but because a tattoo convention is a premiere art gallery, albeit an unconventional one.

The art won’t hang on the wall or be displayed on pedestals in the center of the room. The art will be everywhere—walking, talking and interacting with others. If that weren’t enough, ink’s being laid into tattoos live in the booths. In that way, it’s unlike any gallery out there.

Tattooing in Salt Lake City is among the best in the country, which might be somewhat surprising. Tattoo veterans say the convention has helped with the expansion and growing excellence of the local scene. And the convention is not without its share of coverage. Articles have appeared in industry publications such as Prick Magazine, Skin & Ink and the U.K.’s Total Tattoo Magazine. However, that seems secondary to the art. “The convention exposes the talented artists here in Salt Lake,” explains Rich D, owner of Big Deluxe Tattoo.

Calling the convention a local showcase doesn’t encompass every aspect of the event. There are international artists in town, too. Greg Christensen, owner of Oni Tattoo Gallery, also says the convention becomes “a social gathering. I have friends that come here and I hook up with them.”

That connection leads to conversations about ink, machines and technique. “You learn about things being done on the East Coast that aren’t being done on the West Coast,” Christensen says. This helps each artist’s style and abilities to evolve.

However, to be a working artist, versatility is key. “I have to be an artist and a businessman,” Rich D. says, The art should not be sacrificed for the business, however. There has to be a balance. Often that comes in individualizing a tattoo. The shop walls may be covered in sketches—or “flash,” as it’s called in the business—but designs by industry greats such as Jack Rudy and Robert Atkinson often become good starting ideas rather than a finished product. Unlike other art forms, tattoos are created specifically for an individual. The art is, in a way, commissioned.

Steve Tippetts (left), owner of Anchor Tattoo explains, “I rarely do anything off the wall. Everyone wants a custom piece.” Which isn’t to say that previously designed work will never be chosen. “If they do pick something off the wall, I sit down with the client right there, draw it and then tattoo,” Tippetts says. The art has to work on that person’s body, whether the piece is resized or colors are adjusted.

Christensen goes on to explain, “People often bring in a friend’s drawing.” These drawings rarely make good tattoos, because the logistics of tattooing are more complicated than anticipated. Christensen says when people want a tattoo to look just like the drawing, he explains important points about tattoo longevity. Lines thicken as time passes, causing them to blend together if initially placed too close together. The tattoo may blur and detail will be lost. “You don’t want it to turn into a blob,” he says.

Beyond the mechanics of the design, the application of the ink is a complicated process. “Everyone’s skin is different,” says Tippetts. “You might start tattooing and realize the speed won’t work. You can’t just ramp it up. You have to adjust the machine.”

In that way, tattooing is a constantly evolving medium. The curvature of the body may better lend itself to one tattoo over another. As skin shifts and stretches with movement, it will change the actual canvas. Because this canvas doesn’t just hang on the wall or sit on the shelf, greater thought must be given to things that might not be readily apparent. Christensen explains that skin tone must be considered. “If I have darker skin, I want to use less bright colors. The colors will take on the tone of the skin.”

But he admits, there is always a certain amount of trial and error. Apprentices learn this firsthand. Because there is no school for tattooing, the training is hands-on. A seasoned veteran works alongside the apprentice, teaching him or her everything. It often gives back to the shop in an interesting way. “The apprentices that come up have this constant drive. They’re excited, and that keeps me excited. I want to strive for more,” says Rich D.

Being exposed to that enthusiasm and excitement is inevitable when artists get together. The creative energy just seems to feed on itself. Fill a convention hall with a bunch of like-minded artists, add new ideas and watch the motivation and inspiration take off. The ability to witness that process makes for a particularly good gallery, a unique art show where the canvas changes and evolves with new tattoos being inked right before your eyes.

SALT LAKE INTERNATIONAL TATTOO CONVENTION @ Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 S. West Temple, Feb. 15-17. 534-4777,

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Tawnya Cazier

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