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The Point Is Self-Expression, Say Tattoo Enthusiasts

Times Staff Writer

Draped belly-down across two folding chairs, Tim Conrad contemplated his personal journey as emerging work of art.

In a distant corner of Fairplex’s Building 5 in Pomona, a bank of audio speakers the size of offensive linemen boomed heavy-metal music. Around Conrad milled hundreds of men and women with black or sherbet-colored markings on their arms, necks, spines and heads. Behind him, Terry “Wookie” Hoffman of Club Tattoo in Tempe, Ariz., was inscribing a black, 8-inch Celtic cross on Conrad’s shaved right calf.

“I’m doing my body in a bunch of different stuff,” explained Conrad, a bespectacled 29-year-old carpenter from Chino, as Hoffman’s buzzing electronic needle nipped his skin. “I’ve got stars and the moon on my right arm, and on my left arm I’ve got old-school stuff like a pinup girl. And I got stuff on my back too -- my last name and a dragon.

“I want to do it from head to toe,” he said. “When I pass on in, like, 40 years, I want my whole body to be tattooed, like my body is an art canvas.”

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Conrad’s family illustrates how freely tattooing ink now flows in the American mainstream. He, his father, brother, sister, stepbrother, two stepsisters, two cousins and several uncles have been permanently decorated.

The practice’s popularity is why the Body Art Expo is taking place through 7 p.m. today at Fairplex.

A similar event in July got so crowded that fire marshals closed down ticket sales eight times.

That expo drew 22,000 people, according to organizers. The current event, featuring 147 tattooers, body piercers and sundry merchandisers from as far away as New York and Japan, was meant to accommodate those shut out the first time. Organizers expect 35,000 to attend, making it among the larger of the dozens of tattoo conventions held each year around the world.

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To the uninked, this fascination with body-marking may seem curious, to say the least. But some practitioners believe that it’s an outgrowth of people’s instinct for self-expression.

“It’s part of the human need to extend ourselves,” said “Shanghai Kate” Hellenbrand, a Buffalo-based tattooer who, at age 60, has been at the craft 33 years. “It starts at about 13, when we begin to identify ourselves as individuals and to claim our bodies. Tattooing is claiming your body for yourself, with a story in it somewhere that reminds you who you are.”

Across the aisle from where Conrad was receiving his hourlong, $180 calf tattoo, 72-year-old Lyle Tuttle sat greeting visitors from an empty booth bearing only his name. He drew a steady stream of starry-eyed well-wishers saying things like, “I just had to come over and shake your hand.”

Tuttle is a storied San Francisco inkslinger, now retired, whose clients have included Janis Joplin, Cher and Peter Fonda. Often referred to as “the father of modern tattooing,” he designs tattooing machines and founded San Francisco’s Tattoo Arts Museum, said to hold the world’s largest collection of tattooing artifacts.

An animated raconteur and iconoclast, Tuttle is tattooing’s unofficial historian and apostle to the unmarked world. He is typically paid to attend such events as the Body Art Expo, and has logged as many as two dozen a year.

Tattoos, Tuttle said, “are a practice. They’ve always seemed to me like travel marks or souvenirs of certain experiences. In some primitive cultures, that’s exactly what they were. You went through some rite of passage, and you were given a tattoo to prove it.

“Tattoos go back long before recorded history,” he said. “All six major religions have had prohibitions against tattooing, which tells you they’ve always been something that stirs things up.”

Over the years, Tuttle has watched tattooing evolve from the province of sailors, soldiers and bikers to a phenomenon “that is more widely acceptable today than ever before in the modern era.”

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A key element in that evolution, he said, has been women’s interest in tattoos, beginning in the 1970s. Women, he said, brought tattooing out of its dockside hovels, prompted better hygienic practices and “generally made it a kinder, gentler art.”

The new acceptability of tattoos has also brought better artists into the field, to the point that, “nowadays I’d have a tough time making a living at it,” Tuttle said.

He long ago achieved Conrad’s goal of total-body marking. Beginning at age 14 with a small tattoo of a heart bearing the inscription “Mother” (it’s still visible on his right forearm), Tuttle has gradually been covered in illustrations from his ankles to his wrists to his neck.

His “body suit” is arrayed exactly like long johns. As is the case with many older practitioners, he is appalled by the facial and head tattoos now common among younger devotees.

“Us older tattoo guys, we’re not very flashy,” he confided. “I might wear a short-sleeve shirt, but my tattoos, they’re mine. It’s a matter of privacy. Hey, I look civilized with my clothes on.”

Hellenbrand not only eschews facial tattoos for herself but also refuses to do them on others. People who get their faces tattooed, she said, “are either very disturbed when they get it, or they become disturbed afterward, because they end up so isolated. And I don’t want anyone regretting having come to me.”

The ethical tattooer is keenly aware that his or her creations do not remain on a wall somewhere awaiting viewers.

“People have to come and see a painting on canvas, but a tattoo, you never know where it’s going to go,” said San Francisco tattooer Bill Salmon. “It’s a very personal art form that goes out into the world.”

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For many practitioners, the fascination is working in the medium of living flesh, as opposed to inert canvas or clay.

“When you go to do a picture in somebody’s skin, you get one chance to get it right,” noted Bret Zarro, an upstate New York tattooer and accomplished painter. “It’s the most unforgiving medium there is. There’s no erasing in tattooing.”

Whether employing tattooing irons or the rarefied Japanese art of tabori (which uses a long stick with needles at its end), tattooers seek to deposit ink in the dermis, the middle layer of skin that does not periodically slough off, as the outer layer, the epidermis, does.

Placing the ink too deep, into the blood-rich layer beneath the dermis, results in the color being dispersed by the circulatory system and the lines of the image blurring. This so-called “blowing out” is the mark of the “scratcher,” or untrained tattooer, said Hoffman, as his tattooing machine minutely nibbled Conrad’s calf. “What you want is a real crisp, clean line.”

Conrad contorted himself to look at the nearly finished Celtic cross.

“Aw, man, that’s bad,” he said. “I like it.”


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