At the Baltimore Tattoo Arts Convention—the dirtbag comic con this city deserves, and where I got my first tattoo

The crowds of illustrated humans at the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend for the Baltimore Tattoo Arts convention bear striking similarities to the yearly Baltimore Comic Con that takes over the center in the fall. If it isn’t the same species of convention-goer, it’s certainly the same genus.

The prevalence of Deadpool t-shirts, the hourly sideshow acts and the literal five-person squad of psychopathic clowns set up in the corner of the show floor, all recall your typical Comic Con. While on the surface there’s a rockabilly/psychobilly/"hey-we’re-punks-but-the-1950s-sure-were-cool-huh?" white bread vibe to the affair, you can find people from all walks of life here if you take the time to look. Like Comic-Con, the thing that brings everybody together is illustration, although here the canvas is by and large the human body.

Look at it this way: If Baltimore Comic Con had an older brother who blasted Slayer and chain smoked in their mom’s car on their way to class, it’d be this tattoo convention.

The show attracts folks from all over the country to downtown Baltimore. Take Grimlin Venegas, a tattoo artist originally from San Fernando, for example. He’s been coming to the convention for four years.

“Baltimore’s a good city for tattoos. It’s an opportunity to do black and grey lettering in a place where it isn’t seen as much as it is back home on the west coast," he says in a soft-spoken voice, sitting at his booth, smiling, his glasses frames reflecting the overhead fluorescent convention center lights.

Beyond being a great opportunity to pick up some work—Grimlin said he’s doing some roses and a Punisher skull logo later that day—he finds that the show gives him a sense of professional community outside of his native California.

“When you do conventions...sometimes it’s a bunch of the same artists, you know?" he said. "So you get to meet people and become friends. If I don’t go to a show for two months and then I do a show, it’s like starting where we left off when the last show ended."

The layout of the convention floor should be familiar to anyone who’s ever gone to any kind of trade show: there’s booths for each artist or tattoo shop with a banner emblazoned behind a table; there’s tattoo-specific industry products for sale like ink refills or skin cream; and there’s the miscellaneous fringe merch that kind of sort of almost ties into the tattoo theme (backpacks, t-shirts, preserved animal remains, beef jerky). All of this is mixed together into a disorienting but eventually navigable experience. Oh yeah and head’s up: You can drink on the convention floo—$7 for a Natty Boh tallboy.

The table for Baltimore’s own DreamTeam Tattoos is just two miles from their tattoo shop on Howard Street in Mount Vernon. 20 year-old artist and soon-to-be tattoo shop co-owner Saadiq Tafari spoke excitedly as a stonefaced shirtless customer behind him received a fresh tattoo.

Tafari has been a tattoo artist for only two years but he’s been coming to the convention since 2014 and this is his first show as a pro instead of an attendee: "No one believes us this [but] this is our first convention. For me to go up to [another artist I admire] and for him to say, 'Yeah you guys are rockin like I like your work and stuff,' that’s a big deal for me, you know?"

Joining Tafari and business partner Scooter at the show was Scooter’s mom, Debra, who was there to support her son.

“It’s him. It’s something that he loves doing and he’s good at doing,” she says.

Debra says she was initially worried about her son’s choice of career but was relieved to find Scooter was working in “a really great industry” after doing some research.

“I’m just proud of him, I really am.”

Kate Sv, an artist with New York’s Lower East Side-based Sins & Needles, was originally an architect back in Russia. It was only after immigrating to the United States several years ago that she decided to become a tattoo artist two years ago. Sv’s background as an architect shows in her portfolio, which is full of fantastically beautiful yet almost mathematically precise drawings of animals and nature scenes. Two stand-outs: A cross-section of a Buick and a sea turtle with a massive mountain growing out of its back.

I knew I wanted Kate to give me a tattoo and, luckily, she had an opening in an hour. I picked a simple design (a skull drawing by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola) and a good pain-free location (right shoulder). Choosing a tattoo, for me at least, was difficult. I’ve had ideas for tattoos that, years later, I look back at and think about how embarrassing they’d be. You want something evergreen, something you hopefully won’t regret or get bored with. I choose the skull because it felt like personal: Skeleton images decorate my apartment and drawing’s jaunty floating crown and big Mignola-style teeth hit the right medium between spooky and funny. I love comics and getting an image from one of my favorite comics artists felt like the right move.

As Kate studiously filled in the empty sockets of my skull tattoo with her gun, we chatted.

"This convention’s very interesting, I have a lot of appointments," she says, before going onto tell me about a colorful, Japanese-inspired sleeve tattoo she’ll be doing later today. Tattoos can be painful but this one was easier than having blood drawn and it took less time than an oil change.

After she finished, Kate gave me the breakdown on caring for my new body art.Thanks to the multi-week healing process that it entails, a new tattoo carries only slightly less rules than caring for a Mogwai from "Gremlins." All I need to do is wash it twice a day, use an unscented antibacterial soap, etc. 

Walking out the convention center doors, my shoulder sore and covered in plastic, I pass by the crowds of tattooed convention attendees hanging out in the lobby. A mother with a sleeve tattoo pushing a stroller, conversing with her mother in Spanish. A younger guy in a baseball cap sketching on a tablet at a table next to a food stand across from 20-something denim and hoodie kids drinking coffee. Tattoos and tattooing are so much a part of these people’s lives, it’s more a kind of hyper-specific religious practice than it is your standard hobby. And for one weekend every year in Baltimore, the convention center becomes their chosen place of worship.