It was a weird mix of aesthetics when the Cleveland Rocks Tattoo Convention invaded the downtown Sheraton last weekend. For four days, tattoo conventioneers mingled in posh conference rooms amid candelabra-laden chandeliers, polished wooden dance floors, and dark, plush carpeting.
"It's like a heavy-metal wedding reception," one woman was heard to say.
Thus, the stage was set for a culture clash of Beverly Hillbillies proportions, with a throng of painted-and-punctured headbangers descending on an upscale hotel and its wide-eyed workers. But, with the exception of some dudes whizzing in the V.I.P. lounge Friday night and lots of empty beer bottles in the elevators, the convention went off without a hitch, drawing well over a thousand attendees on Saturday alone.
"A lot of people that don't know too much about tattooing see a convention, and they go in and spy on this alternate world that they don't normally get to see," says Anson Eastin, a tattoo artist from the New Breed tattoo parlor in Dayton. "They would never walk into a tattoo shop, but they'll come in here because it's a convention, a freak show: all the madness, all at once."
What kind of madness? Images of a leering nun with a pierced clitoris, drawings of angels engaged in oral sex, and fliers making the argument that, if Jesus were alive today, he'd be a biker: "Yes, if Jesus were on this Earth, in the flesh, he would be next to you, on his motorcycle, telling you he loved you," read a broadsheet handed out by Larry's Leathers.
There were also lots and lots of boobies. Every tattoo of a female -- even those of the most common variety, like a medieval damsel sparring with a salivating dragon head -- worked in a pair of exposed breasts somewhere. Why the preoccupation with hooters? Well, that tattooed R2-D2 on your neck significantly limits your chances of touching any real bosoms in the near future, so maybe an inked substitute is the next best thing.
What other designs are popular?
"The traditional work, like the old-school tattoos, is making a big comeback in the last couple of years," Eastin says. "By traditional work, I mean a bold outline, very simple color work, pin-up girls, and boobs. Other than that, you have the standards: butterflies, Japanese characters, the tribal stuff is still around."
The demand for it all wavered throughout the weekend. About the only gripe heard during the convention was the lack of work for some artists.
"The show itself is really good, the quality of work and stuff, but there could be more customers," says Christian Bolger, a tattoo artist from Fox Valley Tattoo in Cary, Illinois.
But if things were slow from time to time for the vendors, there was seldom a dull moment in the ballroom where the bands played. Most of the convention's fireworks were saved for Saturday night, when the best lineup of local heavy hitters since last year's Hess Fest took the stage. The lone out-of-town act, New York's Bad Wizard, kicked the night off with an impressive set of drunk-and-disorderly rock, with lead singer Curtis Brown stomping and stammering while sticking his hands down his pants, Al Bundy-style. Toward the end of Disengage's set, a buxom lass in hot pants commandeered the dance floor and proceeded to breathe fire and set her arms ablaze. But not even that floor show upstaged Disengage, which turned in one of the weekend's most powerful performances, abusing the crowd like tap beer to the digestive tract. Keelhaul countered strongly, with barrel-chested-man metal and lots of gnarly, pained facial contortions. Boulder ended it all with blaring Cro-Magnon rock, featuring selections from its forthcoming disc, which sounds like an early entry for Metal Album of the Year.
"It was a good time," says Red Giant singer/guitarist Alex, sporting a fresh tattoo from Chicago artist Ben Waaah, who also worked on Disengage frontman Jason Byers.
"I love coming out to something involving the fringe element of society," he adds with a chuckle. "Which we all are."