Marked for Life

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An upcoming tattoo convention--a first for Vancouver--will allow both the converted and the curious to explore the possibilities of the arcane art form.

When he was growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Rob Thomas spent his youth hanging out with the "bad" kids. Bad at the time meant skipping school and sporting tattoos--the latter then considered a sign of toughness, a statement favoured by the kind of guy you don't bring home to Mom. Thomas had always been spellbound by his dad's tats--a cobra and an eagle, one on each arm--and he started getting his own body inked as a teen. His attraction to the art form turned into a lifelong passion, one that now finds Thomas, 39 and coated in colour from his collarbones to his ankles, organizing the Vancouver International Tattoo Convention. Happening at the end of this month, it's a first for this city and is expected to draw thousands: people who share Thomas's love for painted flesh, who make a living by drawing on skin, or who are just curious.

"Tattooing was not popular when I started getting into it," Thomas says over midday bacon and eggs at a Kits diner. "In school I had a talent for drawing, and when I was 15 I was getting covered in tattoos." His first was a skull with a knife and a gun behind it, one a friend marked on his right forearm. He started inking his own thighs and his left arm, then tattooed his friends until, as he puts it jokingly, he didn't have any friends left.

"I thought, 'This is for me,' " says Thomas, whose tattooed "sleeves" show cobwebs ensnaring his elbows and skulls of all sizes staring forth. "There was an adrenaline rush from getting a tattoo, and I was fascinated with the art. It absorbed me. I had a knack for it from the beginning, and it turned me into an artist."

He worked as a tattooer in Toronto before going to Hollywood, where he landed a job at Spotlight Tattoo on Melrose Avenue. He returned to Canada three years later, in 1992, when riots broke out in L.A. following the Rodney King verdict. "It was a little too crazy for me," Thomas recalls.

After overcoming opposition from some folks who signed a petition to stop him, Thomas opened his own shop, Ritual Tattoo, in downtown Kelowna. In the 12 years he's been there, attitudes have changed.

"It used to be a really tight [closed] community; everything was hush-hush," Thomas says. "Now there's a huge exchange of information. With the explosion of tattooing, there aren't so many secrets. There are seminars to teach people techniques; there's nothing to hide. People can seek out an artist they want...and artists have educated themselves.

"Back then, parents would try to sue us if we tattooed their kid," he adds. "Now parents get mad at us if we won't tattoo their kid."

TATTOOING HAS a millennia-old history, some of the most compelling proof of which came in 1991 with the celebrated discovery of a mummified 5,000-year-old man in the Italian Alps. Named Otzi by Austrian researchers, he had lines tattooed on his back, right knee, and left ankle. According to a February 2000 article in Discover magazine, the dark-blue and black marks were likely made by using a jagged bone or piece of sharp wood to inject ashes underneath the skin. Some physiologists speculate that because the spots on Otzi's body corresponded with acupuncture points, the frozen man used tattoos for therapeutic effect.

Much more recently, the voyages of Capt. James Cook to Polynesia in the late 1760s got British sailors hooked on tattoos. Fascinated by the colourful designs of the Tahitians, some of his crew members acquired the marks themselves. Back home, word of the exotic imprints spread quickly, and seaports became centres for the business of tattooing.

Its popularity escalated alongside that of the touring circuses in North America, which often featured tattooed men and women as part of their freak shows in the early 1900s--when it is estimated that as many as 300 completely tattooed people were employed full-time as such curiosities. (In that spirit, Thomas has arranged for a former professional tattooed circus performer to be at the convention.) Yet despite its novelty and mystery, tattooing has negative connotations that can probably be traced back to Judeo-Christian philosophy. The Old Testament passage of Leviticus 19:28 reads: "Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you."

Regardless, what was once exclusively associated with seamen and outlaw bikers is beyond trendy, with everyone--besides people who are even remotely interested in alternative culture--from fresh-faced girls to doctors and lawyers to seniors getting tattooed. Thomas recently coloured a butterfly on the ankle of an 80-year-old woman, who now regularly brings cookies to his shop. Some newlyweds have been turning to tattoos, abandoning traditional gold rings for bands of ink. While no single style dominates, among the more commonly sought-after patterns are Celtic, tribal, and Japanese.

The form's popularity has diluted its mystique, but with the mainstream has come sophisticated techniques--including shading machines and stencilled patterns--higher quality, and a spectacular array of designs.

Take those by some of the dozens of artists who will attend the Vancouver convention, which takes place May 28 to 30 at the PNE Agrodome.

Bob Tyrell, for instance, earned acclaim in tattoo circles for his elaborate design on Kid Rock's back: a fierce eagle with its wings spread, centred within banners that read American Bad Ass. But the Warren, Missouri--based Tyrell (bobtyrell.com/) is far more demented than that. A section on his Web site dedicated to all things "creepy" consists of such images as a frighteningly realistic portrait of Freddy Krueger, a demonized Mona Lisa, and a human flesh--eating alien. His drawings are as detailed as they are disturbing.

Jason Butcher, of Essex, England's Immortal Ink (www.immortal-ink.co.uk/), specializes in what he calls Biomech, intricate replications of the body's organs, bones, muscles, and tendons. Painted on the belly of a portly man, squiggly intestines are dark-brown and pink; a black-and-grey illustration of the vertebrae down another man's back shows the inner workings of the body in painstakingly exquisite detail.

Then there is the artistry as well as the magnificent spectrum of colour used by John the Dutchman in New Westminster, B.C. (www.dutchman-tattoos.com/). His radiant portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, for example, complete with a sunflower by his side, is as golden as a prairie sunset.

"It used to be the rose on the ankle," Thomas says, noting that women often choose their lower back or the skin between their breasts for the permanent marks, while men still opt for pretty much anywhere, in particular the shoulders but not the ribs, thanks to the inevitable and considerable pain involved. "Now it's custom work; it's about sitting down with a client and picking their brain, seeing what their interests are, so that they get something they're going to love forever, not just a year....Instead of the same old blah, there's been a whole renaissance.

"With the convention, we can bring the culture, a new awareness to the public. We can educate people on modern, safe, healthy tattooing with the best tattoo artists in the business."

THE VANCOUVER International Tattoo Convention will see about 85 artists from around the world in action. Besides doing individual designs, some will compete in categories like best sleeve, best back, and best work by male and female artists. Dave Green, co-owner of Vancouver's Sacred Heart Tattoo, who'll be attending the event, has been to similar gatherings in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary. (They're also hugely popular in Europe, particularly in Germany.) Describing his love of tattoos as a "healthy addiction", Green says this type of event makes the art form accessible.

"It's a chance to hang out with tattooers and to see the possibilities out there of what can be done," Green says in an interview in his Nelson Street shop. "People will be walking around with big work and complex designs; it's less intimidating for a lot of people who worry about walking into a tattoo shop and getting hounded. You don't have to get tattooed; you can see the show, see people's portfolios, and just hang out for the day."

Besides taking in a mind-boggling range of styles, people will be able to watch the aforementioned circus performer, Capt. Don Leslie, aka Mr. Sideshow. A self-described sword swallower, fire-eater, human blockhead, and tattooed circus man, the Chico, California--based senior will put on one act each day. Then there are local bands to catch, like Crystal Pistol, Zimmers Hole, and the Swollen Members, as well as vendors selling jewellery and streetwear. Also on offer will be seminars for professionals. (Tickets, at 604-280-4444, are $21 per day or $53.50 for a three-day pass, plus taxes and service charges. For more convention details, go to www.vantat.com/.)

There's a multidisciplinary element to the convention as well: Thomas has organized the Art Collaboration Project, in which a row of easels will be set up. Tattoo designers, First Nations carvers, and painters will be given 30 minutes at each to leave their stylings in pencil, paint, charcoal, or pastels, and will rotate from canvas to canvas.

THE WEEKEND GATHERING is as ambitious as it is unique, but that doesn't mean it was easy for Thomas to pull off. When he approached the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority with his convention proposal more than a year ago, Thomas was met with a flat-out no. Never mind how much he cares about the art itself; if his love of tattooing wasn't enough to make him persist, being told "you can't" was.

"I was given every possible hoop to jump through, and I did," Thomas says. "You can't let people walk on you. I went far beyond what they wanted."

Nick Losito, the VCHA's regional director of health protection, says in a phone interview that the authority initially declined Thomas's request because of potential health consequences.

Among the risks of tattooing, according to Health Canada, are contracting hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, herpes, and streptococcus and staphylococcus bacteria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists allergic reactions to tattoo pigments and the formation of keloids, overgrowths of scar tissue, as possible side effects. The organization also warns that although colour additives have been approved for use in makeup, none have been cleared for being injected into the skin. "Many pigments used in tattoo inks are not approved for skin contact at all," the FDA's Web site states. "Some are industrial grade colours that are suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint."

"Typically, we don't approve this type of event because it's temporary in nature," Losito explained. "If there are any adverse reactions or infections, the operators are already in another city by the time they are reported. But Rob came back, and we had another look and late last year gave approval with some conditions."

Among those terms were that Thomas provide multiple, supervised hand-wash stations; confirm the event would feature no other forms of body modification, like piercing or branding; compile written records of the names, contact numbers, and health-inspection permits of all artists; and have a strict rule excluding minors from being tattooed.

Thomas has also arranged for plastic coverings for the booth floors and tables to prevent cross-contamination and for disposable-tissue sheets, like the ones used in dentists' offices, to cover clients' chairs. A separate sterile room will be equipped with sterilization equipment and autoclave cleaners. Single-use needles get disposed of in special containers. Such measures, Thomas says, are part of any good tattoo shop's daily business.

"We've made it clear that this is a trial for the tattoo expo," Losito added. "If we get complaints or if we have concerns, it will be the first and last."

Kris Lachance-Peters will be giving a seminar for tattoo artists called Blood Borne Pathogens and the Principles of Infection Control. The East Lansing, Michigan, resident and owner of Splash of Colour Tattoo is also co-owner of Health Educators, which teaches people in the body-modification industry about safe practices. The former dental assistant says that although the industry has come a long way, there are still misunderstandings about proper sterilization.

"Sterilization affects your practice and it can affect the general public if it's not done correctly," the 33-year-old mother of one says in a phone interview from her studio. "The process is cut-and-dried whether it's dental, medical, veterinary offices, or tattoo shops. It's the same process. And it's so important that people understand those steps. A lot of artists don't even know they are entitled to a safe working environment. Their life is on the line.

"A lot of people [in the industry] don't know where to go to get that education. The Red Cross doesn't have specific training. Just because you can apply a Band-Aid in a playground doesn't help much in a tattoo shop."

The need for safe measures is one reason the Correctional Service of Canada is launching a pilot project that will see tattoo parlours open in six yet-to-be-determined federal prisons. According to a March 2004 report on CBC's Web site, more than 25 percent of inmates across the country have hepatitis C, and although it's impossible to determine if they acquired the disease via tattoos, it is known that nearly half of all inmates practise the art using whatever sharp objects they can find.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS matter to Thomas. He says checking out a tattoo shop's overall feel is vital, and he encourages shopping around.

"Educate yourself," he states. "The first thing to look for is cleanliness. Is the floor clean? The place should be spotless. The air should smell of green soap. Ask to see their sterilizers. Are they willing to show you? Are they helpful? Look at those things. Find someone you're comfortable with.

"Then there's the chance that their shop is clean but their tattooing isn't that good. Check out portfolios and Web sites; look at photo albums of actual work. Ask them to draw what you want first and show you. If they're not giving you their full attention, get up and leave."

Thomas urges people who are considering getting a tattoo, especially for the first time, to pick a design that has meaning. More than once, he has convinced young people to rethink a particular idea--say, their first love's name. Think Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder. Perhaps the biggest risk factor of tattooing is regret.

For Thomas, the tattoos that cover his body are a kind of psychological suit of armour. "It protects me in a certain way," he says. "If people see them and don't want to be around me, if they are narrow-minded, I don't want them around me anyway. But it's changing. Before, little old ladies would never come up to me. Now, they come up to me and ask me to tell them about my tattoos. That's beautiful."

And for the driving force behind this city's first tattoo conference, it seems equally poignant that the event will mark him--and others--for life.