On Sunday, March 23, 2014, Susette (a classmate) and I traveled up to Allentown, PA to attend the Skindustry Expo. The day started off with a kink when we arrived at the Holiday Inn and noticed how barren the lobby was. When we asked the front desk clerk where the tattoo expo was, she indicated that we were at “the wrong hotel” and that where we needed to be was “only twenty minutes away.”
Once we navigated our way out of downtown Allentown, which Susette mentioned looked like “one of those places in movies where you don’t want to get lost,” and found our way onto a main road, we relaxed for the “only” twenty minute drive.
When we pulled into the correct Holiday Inn, our reservations about finding the right place were alleviated: unlike the desolate, leaky parking garage in which we had previously parked (which would, in fact, make a great scene for a horror movie), this parking lot was packed with cars and civilization.
The weather was chilly and the wind blew around us as we walked up to the Holiday Inn Conference Center. The sun was hidden behind the clouds, and a grayish color seemed to splash across our surroundings. As we got closer to the automatic sliding door entrance of the hotel, I noticed that there were several people clumped together smoking.
When we walked inside, two things were clear: my lungs, and the fact that we were in the right place. Besides the countless people milling around holding drinks and bearing tattoos, a big sign read “Skindustry Expo.” To the left was a bar with nice, modern chairs surrounding it. To the right behind double glass doors was a bar/restaurant. In order to get inside the expo, we needed to walk straight ahead and to the left.
Susette and I both paid a $15 entrance fee (after Susette stopped at the inside ATM), and a tall man with lots of tattoos put a neon yellow wristband around each of our wrists. We then walked into the main room.
Immediately, my ears were enveloped in the buzz, buzz, buzz of tattoo machines. The plunge inside was overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, there were people getting tattooed: arms, legs, torsos, back. The room itself was small, and the effect was cramping. I was transfixed.
Each tattoo shop had its own booth, and most shops had signs displaying their name hanging on the cloth dividers between each booth. Susette and I decided that we would start to the right.
At the first booth we went to (Mike and Co), there were two artists behind the booth: one white male who looked to be in his fifties, and one Hispanic male who looked to be around twenty. The older male had dark brown and gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, and the younger male had thick, black curly hair. We first spoke with the older tattoo artist who, in addition to being in the middle of giving a man in his fifties a shoulder tattoo, displayed black shirts that read “Tattooed and Employed.” The man, who we would later learn was Mike, asked us where we were from. Once we told him the Philly area, Susette asked him if he had any of the “Tattooed and Employed” t-shirts in a smaller size. (All that was there were larges and extra-larges.) He told her that whatever was out was what he had and suggested that she could wear it as a nightgown and laughed.
We continued walking around the room checking out the various tattoo booths set up. There was one man getting a tattoo who was laying on his stomach while a tattoo artist was tattooing the back of his right leg. I noticed that his left leg was completely covered in tattoos. He was wearing dark shorts that came down just past his knee, and there was no skin exposed that was not covered in ink.
Susette and I continued walking around, and we checked out another booth’s display of past tattoos and sketches. We continued this process for several booths. One of the tattoo booths refereed us to a booth across from them, which was a tattoo removal company, suggesting that we “just talk to them because they are awesome.”
Susette struck up a conversation with one of the men behind the booth who explained that he was a doctor. He was of solid build, mid-thirties, and white. There was a video being displayed of the laser removal process and he went over how it works, how many sessions it would take, how much money it costs per session, etc. Susette showed him a tattoo that she was interested in having faded (not entirely removed), and he explained specifics of it to her. We both took his card and continued walking.
The expo was set up in such a way that there were two main aisles and thus three strips of tattoo booths. After we hit the entire first aisle closest to the back of the room, we ventured onto the middle aisle. We came across a booth (Mr. Blue Sky Tattoo) where they had tattoo machines on display that they had hand crafted and painted. It was an impressive assortment. I asked the man if he was okay with me taking the picture, and he encouraged me to do so. We struck up conversation for a little, mostly asking where we all were from, and continued walking after paying him and the machines another compliment.
Susette, at this point, expressed an interest in going back to the Mike and Co stand (where the Tattooed and Employed shirts were) to get a quote for how much a tattoo she was interested in getting would be. On the car ride up, she told me she was thinking of making an appointment for getting a tattoo done this coming Saturday, but, she expressed, she might get it done here if it was a good price.
When we got back to the booth, the younger Hispanic male asked her to write out the exact tattoo that she wanted. He spoke with an accent that was hard to place. She wrote it down, and he told us to give him about ten minutes while he sketched something out. We killed time by walking around and noticed that one of the booths, in addition to having their past work on display, also displayed their 2013 License and a CPR certificate. I looked to Susette on this, and she said that she had never seen booths display those things before.
We then went to another booth and while we were looking at their pictures, one of the artists broke in. He pointed to a tattoo and asked us if we got the joke: it was a picture of a rooster that was being hanged and was around the shin area. The man continued, “It’s a tattoo of a cock that hangs below the knee,” and began laughing. The person who was getting tattooed, evidently, was the wearer of that particular tattoo, and he laughed, too, and pointed to it on his leg. He was currently in the middle of getting another tattoo. We smiled and walked away not long after that.
We went back to Mike and Co. where the design was ready. The young male had gotten one of the words wrong. Instead of reading, “Great writers are the saints of the godless,” he had sketched, “Great writers are the saints for the greatless.” Susette told him the word was wrong, and he asked, “Oh, what should it be?” He got a new piece of paper and redid the sketch.
While he redid the sketch, we both noticed a woman with double sleeves. She was very attractive: she had on bright red lipstick, heavy eyeliner, and short brown hair that curled under. She wore bright red pants and a black top with white pinstripes coming down. Susette commented that she liked how she wore tattoos but was also still really feminine. I agreed. She was with, we later determined, the man with his leg covered in tattoos.
When the sketch was ready, Susette analyzed it and said that she loved it. She asked if he could add a quill to the sketch, and, when he did not know what she meant (it was hard to hear), she pulled up a picture of it on her phone. He added it to the design and made it look like the quill was writing the sketch. He asked if she wanted the writing in black and red, and Susette said, “I wanted everything black and white.”
While they spoke about the tattoo, I looked around and noticed all of the different hair colors present: there were people with green hair, people with blue hair, men with beards that went down past their chest, gauges, piercings under eyes, piercings on the back of necks, etc. I looked back at the tattoo artist and Susette.
The young tattoo artist, let’s call him A, showed a sketch of what he had done and said, “Mike, what do you think?” Mike said, “What do you think?” A said, “I don’t know that’s why I’m asking you.” “Yeah, I know,” Mike said, “I would say no less than two and a quarter.”
Finally, they settled on $200.
While A finished the stenciling, Susette pointed out to me that all of the needles were wrapped and that everything was in plastic bags for sanitary purposes. We looked around the booth and noticed that they had one chair. Susette said that she would have to lie down since she was getting the tattoo on her hip, and we wondered how they were going to work it out. Eventually, A went and got three extra chairs from the hotel and set them up in a row. He put down purple sanitary paper and made a makeshift table.
A sanitized Susette’s hip and placed the purple sheet underneath her jeans to respect her privacy. He set out four ink dips: three were black ink, and one was white ink. A unwrapped everything he needed from its plastic covering. He told Susette as she was laying down that she would need to put her arm over her head.
A white male who seemed to be in his late thirties came over to the booth with his son. His son looked to be about four or five years old and had a shaved head and was sucking on a lollipop. The man admired the “Tattooed and Employed” shirts and asked how much they were. When he paid Mike the $20, the man looked at the shirt and said, “Love it.” They walked away.
Susette and I had previously agreed that we were dying of thirst. It was taking A a little longer than we thought to prep everything, and when he left to grab some paper towels, I went and got two waters at the bar. When I came back, A was in the process of starting the tattoo.
I did my best to crane my neck and see what was going on without being a distraction for A. By now, the constant buzzing of the tattoo machine had become a familiar sound in the background. Susette had her arm over her head, and she was turned away from A so that he could have the best angle possible.
He continued working diligently: he would complete strokes and rub the excess ink away with a paper towel that was getting continuously blacker. At one point, Mike looked over to check on the tattoo and made a face that seemed to say, “Nice work.” I got the vibe that A was more of an “apprentice” due to how Mike was giving him feedback and, sometimes, instructions. For example, at one point, Mike said, “Dude, if you can’t see her, you have to turn her.” A nodded his head. Mike then said to the tattoo artist at the next booth (who was inches away from Susette), “Bro, turn your light on for him, if you don’t mind, since you don’t have anyone right now.” The man nodded his head, turned his light on, and repositioned it so that the light fell over Susette, giving A a better view.
As A continued to work, I wondered how Susette was dealing with the pain. She seemed to be doing alright, alternating between tapping her foot and pursing her lips. The tattoo was progressing nicely. A was clearly in the zone and was doing an outstanding job. He did the black ink first and then went back and added white shading in.
When he went to the quill and started shading it in, I knew that A was working on a painful area. Mike had said, Just wait til he gets to the quill area on her stomach. Ouch. A continued to work, rubbing on some type of ointment over the tattoo as he worked.
While A continued working, the next booth over had a customer who was getting a flower design on her right foot. She was in her early thirties, white, and had short red hair. She was with someone who may have been her husband and her son. Her son was about four years old. She hopped up on their bed and the tattoo artist who had turned on the light for A began stenciling in the rose. He kept the light where it was: it was covering both Susette and his own client.
When the man had finished the rose tattoo, which did not take long at all considering Susette was at least two hours in, (hers took perhaps twenty minutes), her son hopped up on the table after the tattoo artist had sterilized it. The woman who had gotten the rose tattoo asked her son if he was ready for his own tattoo. He shook his head yes. The tattoo artist sketched out a tattoo of a shin dagger, and his parents laughed as they told him to pull up his pant leg. He did, and the tattoo artist put the stenciling on his shin, rubbed it with a damp paper towel, and took it off. Someone walked by and said, “Welcome to the dagger club!”
His parents asked him how he liked his “tattoo,” and the boy said he liked it. His mom told him that he could show it off to all of his friends at school. He hopped down, and they left.
At this point, A had been working for about two hours at the tattoo. I stood the entire time trying to get a good view of the work. Occasionally, Mike, who was still working on the man with the shoulder tattoo, had to come out of the booth, and I had to maneuver myself so he could walk by, and then maneuver myself again so that he could get back in.
Finally, the tattoo was complete. A gave Susette a mirror and showed her the work. The tattoo did look great, and Susette said, “It looks amazing.” He took a few pictures of the tattoo and then covered it with a paper towel.
Susette stood up, and I asked her how she felt. She said horrible, and I told her that she did a great job. She paid Mike, and we walked away. I asked Susette if she wanted any food before we left the expo. We were both okay, so after Susette used the bathroom, we walked out to the car. It was around five-thirty, and the expo was closing at six.
Susette indicated that that was the most painful tattoo she had ever gotten, but she was very happy with the final product. As we drove away, we agreed that it had been an exhausting day. I said that even I was exhausted and I wasn’t the one who got a tattoo! Yawning, I realized that it had been a great day.
As Susette and I were making the rounds, we walked over to one of the booths and began thumbing through their portfolio. One of the artists came over and asked how we were doing. After we said we were just looking, he told us that the guys across from them are “pretty awesome” and that we should go over and talk to them just because of how awesome they are.
We looked and saw that they were a tattoo removal booth, and since Susette was interested in getting one of her tattoos faded so that a new tattoo could go over it, we walked over.
The name of the company was “go! tattoo removal.” Their slogan was, “Kids are forever. Tattoos don’t have to be.” There were two workers behind the booth, and there was a television showing the laser removal process. There was a thick crowd of people when we first got there, and we waited off to the side. When the crowd thinned, we moved in, and a man of solid build came over to us. He was in his mid-thirties, had short, brown hair, no tattoos, and was attractive.
He indicated that he was a doctor and that this was his laser (he pointed to the screen). Susette showed him her tattoo that she was interested in having faded. He informed us that black and red ink fade out the fastest, and after analyzing her tattoo, he told her that it would take about 2-5 sessions to fade. He said each session could take anywhere from 35 seconds to one minute.
Susette showed him a small tattoo on her finger that she was interested in getting removed, and he said that he could do that, too, at “no extra charge.”
The man was very informative and told her that he thought her tattoo would fade very nicely, but he said, “I believe in planning for the worst and hoping for the best.” While he thought maybe two sessions was all she might need, he said, “I would never want you to put that in your expectations.” He continued to explain that the fact that she was young and thin was working to her advantage to having the tattoo removed faster. He also said the fact that the tattoo was mostly black was working in her favor, too, since black fades the fastest.
He continued going over how the laser works, saying “Our laser doesn’t damage skin” since heat can aggravate the skin.
Susette was happy that the price was so good. She informed the man that her doctor had told her that it could cost about $500 a session to get her tattoo removed. The man professionally disagreed saying that her doctor needs to do his research. He was charging $125 a session (if she were to get it done today), but a typical session cost $150. He encouraged her to get a $50-off coupon for when she decides to come up and get it done.
We thanked the man and walked away, agreeing that he was very knowledgeable and had a great price.
During the outing, I learned what it was like to be, what felt like, the only person without a tattoo in a room. As the sounds of the tattoo machines buzzed away, I tried to gain familiarity with my surroundings. As Susette and I walked around, I absorbed the wide variety of people: green hair, blue hair, gauges, men with beards down to their stomachs, etc. I’ve seen it all before, but not housed together in one room. It was quite overwhelming at first.
I think I mentally clung to Susette. She was my link to the people in the room. If anyone asked, she was my friend with the tattoos. See? I belong here.
I learned a few things about tattoos from the outing. For starters, from speaking with a doctor at a tattoo removal booth, I learned that the ink color that will fade the fastest and is, therefore, the easiest color to remove during tattoo removal is black. I would have thought a lighter color would be easier. I also learned that tattoo machines can be hand made. As crazy as it sounds, I assumed that factories turned out tattoo machines, picturing them sliding out on a conveyer belt. One of the tattoo artists had several of his own hand-made tattoo machines out on display, and they were impressive. He was proud of them, and he should have been. I was surprised to see that there were children attending the event with their parents. A venue like this, where profanity and crude language swirled through the air, was not a place where I expected young children to be, taking it all in. Yet, they were there, and I did not judge their parents, but I made a mental note that this would not be an event where I would take my children.
It wasn’t until I returned from the expo that I realized how many times I heard “bro,” “dude,” and “man” used over the course of the day, mostly when men were speaking to other men. It was to the point that I did not write it down in my jottings, but from re-visualizing the event, these terms came to the forefront of my mind.
Questions that I still have: I am still trying to discover the motivation behind putting something on your body that is so permanent. Is it the meaning behind the tattoo that drives people or is it the look and what it says about you that drives people? I hope to find out more about this during my research.
Next, I will be visiting a local tattoo parlor in South Jersey. I hope that speaking with a tattoo artist one-on-one (even though I did this at the event, there was a lot going on, and it was hard to have a real conversation) will help illuminate some of my questions.
The outing was successful in that it was full immersion: it does not get any more interactive with large crowds of people getting tattooed out in the open for everyone to see. At first, I was scared to look at the people getting tattooed simply out of respect. I wanted to give them privacy. It became quite clear, though, that they did not care at all about this. You don’t get tattooed at an expo for privacy, I quickly learned. It was interesting to see the different places people were getting tattooed—on the foot, arm, hip, back, shoulder, calf, etc. It was great to see all of these people getting tattooed in different places and the different positions that they had to have their body in to get the tattoo completed.
If I went to an expo again, I would make it a point of talking more with people. While we struck up conversation with different tattoo artists, I would like to get the chance to talk more with them. (Of course, that was hindered because they were busy either tattooing, working on a sketch, or speaking with customers.) It would have been great to speak to someone getting a tattoo and getting down to the motivation behind it. My shyness crept over me, and I did not want to do anything but observe. Now that I’ve warmed up to the overall atmosphere of tattoos, I think I would be more willing to step outside of my comfort zone and strike up a conversation.
The portions of the reading that helped guide my field notes were from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. The book indicates not to write down opinions of people (such as the scene where the man was “crazy”), but, rather, writing down objective details, like the color of his shirt, his beard, etc. Throughout the entire experience, I made sure I wrote down facts and not opinions. This helped my fieldnotes because when I reviewed them, I was able to clearly picture the person and was not influenced by my feelings at the time when I wrote them. Had I had formed an opinion about someone early into the outing without really knowing anything about the culture, I would be portraying an inaccurate picture. Had I seen that same person at the end of the outing, I may not have written down such an opinion with a new awareness in mind. So, not wanting to jump to conclusions, I wrote down only the facts, and when I looked at my notes later, I had a clear image without opinions clouding my vision.