Illustration by David Moore

For the eighth year in a row, the bodily-modified hoard descended upon Salt Lake City, coming from China, Taiwan, Japan, Germany, France, England, Samoa and all over the United States. There were tattoo artists with ready needles, body piercers eager to poke holes in anything that will hold still, psychics, belly dancers and ink enthusiasts of all kinds. For three days beginning Feb. 18, they occupied the Salt Palace for the 2011 Salt Lake City International Tattoo Convention. The convention’s theme fit the event participants: “Gypsy.”

According to Nate Drew, one of the convention’s co-organizers, The SLC Tattoo Convention is invitation only – not just any artist can set up a booth here due to the event’s high quality standards. “It’s most comparable to the convention in Frankfurt, which blows this event out of the water because it’s twice the size,” Drew said.

Drew has been tattooing for nineteen years starting at the tender age of 15 after being influenced by the “f***ing cool” tattoos of his uncle. He sat behind the information desk, munching on a slice of pizza and sipping a beer, and spoke about his initial motivations in organizing the convention.

“Utah is a place with so many extreme sports like snowboarding and rock climbing,” Drew said. “It’s pretty cool when you can go for a ride on your motorcycle and then hit the slopes that same afternoon. It’s just, there is almost nothing for the alternative life style here.”

While getting a bunch of tattoo artists and enthusiasts in a room together to talk shop doesn’t seem like an arduous task at first, running a three-day convention can be monumentally excruciating, requiring the patience of a saint and the organizational abilities of a robot with Asperger’s syndrome. However, Drew found that his first foray as a tattoo conventioneer went more smoothly than expected.

“The first year had a great turn out. We originally planned on holding it every other year but the turnout was so strong,” Drew said. “The vendors and shops called back and wanted to do it again. Things like that never happen. The highlight of this expo is the support of Salt Lake and the people who keep coming back. There is nothing like this. That first year had little quirks but no big problems. This year went with out one hitch. After seven years we have had an amazing volunteer staff. Without them it wouldn’t be so awesome.”

Tattoo artist of seventeen years and second-year attendee Chad Hartgrave of San Diego, Calif., explained that the organization of this convention is exceptional. “At some other conventions I have been to there were no tables or arm rests,” Hartgrave said. “And many times artists could be found working on the floor.”

Joey Lesspash of Philadelphia has made the trip to Utah for all eight years of the convention. Lesspash had great praise for Drew and co-organizer C.J. Starky. “I heard the guys putting this on organized a good convention. It has surpassed many expectations,” Lesspash said. “When you do an expo it is important to have good organization.”

Annie Hodges of 314 Tattoo in St. George first heard of the convention a few years ago through connections who told her that it was one of the premier body art pow-wows. 314 Tattoo had been trying to participate in the conventions for three years before finally getting accepted this year. “The artists are better here,” said Hodges. “[They’re] on a higher level, comparably.”

The expo also attracted big names such as Mike Skiver of Personal Art Studio, a tattoo museum located in Maryland. Skiver works with electromagnetic tattoo machines, which were invented at the same time as the doorbell. This is because they both use the same magnet-based technology. Skiver also has a collection of tattoo machines, autographs and pictures of Lylle Tuttle, a legend in the tattoo industry, which date back to as early as 1941.

Another big name was Ilene Roth whose husband, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, created the Rat Fink Company.

Most artists have little to no time between appointments. They can’t stop to chat with every potential customer who may or may not have money to purchase. Those who are searching for that “just right look” should do it on their own time rather than the artists’. “This isn’t a flea market,” Drew said. “Artists are to be respected. These artists have traveled and it’s customary to even buy lunch for them to show respect. The tattoos will be on your body for the rest of your life. Don’t haggle the artists.”

Randy Hall of Hero Tattoo in Conway, S.C., said that he’s been to conventions where people will stop by and look at portfolios and not be willing to purchase anything. “The people of Salt Lake City are a really good crowd,” Hall said. “They will stop by at the booth and look through portfolios, and then actually be willing to spend money.”

Over the years Clay Decker, an artist from Hollywood, Calif., has had a lot of his time booked from managing his shop. Now that it sold, however, he is able to jump back into the tattoo convention circuit. Out of all the places he could have chosen to reacquaint himself with tattoo conventions, he has chosen Salt Lake. His reasoning? “Never been to Salt Lake City, so why not?” Decker said.

As far as the artists’ feelings about Salt Lake City, many claimed that the people are amiable and hip. But is this the place for the ink fumes to permeate the air? “This scene seems to be resonating with the young adults here,” Decker said. “I haven’t seen much of the city, but the food is good and everyone is friendly.”