Green Bay, Wisconsin
Rick Harnowski's 13th International Tattoo Convention
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
Like they say, "Getting there is half the fun." With Rick Harnowski's International Tattoo Convention, getting there is all the fun. Especially when, last time, we were snowbound at Chicago O'Hare and had to endure through sixteen hours and three flight cancellations. Rick, bless his heart, offered to send a staffer to drive through the snow and pick us up—four hours each way. On icy roads. We were grateful for the offer, but couldn't ask that of anyone. So, two years ago, we simply tossed in the towel and headed home.
So, it's been four years ago January since we visited Rick at the Oneida Casino/Radisson Hotel complex in the frozen vegetable section of the Midwest called Green Bay, Wisconsin. This was Harnowski's thirteenth event, but not in a row. There was a gap or two along the way, but now it happens every other year. Rick celebrated with Oliver Peck by offering twenty-dollar tattoos of the number thirteen (thirteen dollars with a seven dollar tip for good luck) to everyone in what seemed like a mile-long line. It depends on who you ask, but on that day the two of them inked either one hundred and eleven (according to the website) or one hundred and thirty-four (according to Rick at dinner) lucky thirteens on a whole lot of very happy inksters.
And then there was the impromptu celebration of Rick's fortieth year in the tattoo business, the venerable Chris Longo presiding. Sharing the stage were Rick's wife Barbara and hardworking sons Josh and Dan, C.W. Eldridge, Lyle Tuttle, Ray Youngman, Ray's son Jeremy, Mike Skiver and yours truly. Each one of us was handed the microphone to humbly mutter a few words to our dear friend. Unfortunately, we were all blubbering so hard that anything we said was practically unintelligible. Yay, Rick. What an accomplishment. Four decades. What a guy!
But that was not the only time a bunch of tattoo heroes got teary-eyed in Green Bay. At the after-party on Sunday night, the hat was passed for a man who is arguably the greatest convention emcee since Bert Parks. He is none other than Chris Longo, and, for those who don't know, Chris is the industry's most sought-after master of ceremonies, and he does it for free. "It's my way of giving back to the tattoo community," says the humble pipe fitter with the tangerine two-piece suit and hip-hop high tops. When Longo was presented the hatful of moolah and a sea of hugs, the blubbering continued as everyone toasted the surprised and grateful (more tears) mayor of Tattooville, Mr. Never Wears the Same Outfit Twice and King of Kool, New Jersey's own—Chris Longo.
The convention itself is four days long. If I am not mistaken, the only other tattoo event that lasts four days (Thursday through Sunday) is the Nationals, but half of that is taken up in meetings and workshops. Not at the Oneida. The doors were open to the public each day and the two main halls were wall-to-wall tattoos. And most everyone seemed to be working. Yes, Thursday was slow, but it had a strong pulse. Friday was dicey and icy (the crowd was modest even though the temperature had skyrocketed to plus-one degree) and Saturday was crowded and full of old-time energy. Even Sunday had a good turnout. This may be one of the country's top two or three conventions, but let's face it, fans, it was freezing! Phone calls were coming in every few minutes from stranded attendees marooned at O'Hare. Next time, people, remember to do what I now do, book your flight through Minneapolis. It's a beautiful airport and a lot more reliable than Chicago.
This year, the international roster featured artists from France (Bernard Soufflet), Japan (Nippon Tattoo), Canada (Studio Debile) and Denmark (Tattoo-Liz), but the biggest contingent was from The Netherlands (Marco Bratt, Wasabi Tattoo, On Edge and Tattoo Mario). The bright, shining stars from the U.S. included Lyle Tuttle, of course, Mike and Mary Skiver, Madame Vyvyn Lazonga, Bob Tyrrell, Larry Brogan, Cap Szumski, Shahn Anderson, Karen Roze, Tramp Welker, Rich T., Downer's Grove's Ray and his son Jeremy Youngman, Oliver Peck, Doug Hardy (whose father Ed's hand-painted mini-car was raffled off on Sunday), Eddie Peace's son LeDan, Marshall Bennett, Keith Underwood, Megan Hoogland, the Hive from Spokane, R.J. Musolf and Lisa Schmoldt. Plus one hundred or so more. Not a bad lineup, eh?
Yes, the design of the show and the artists in attendance were topnotch, as was the casino right next door. The connecting rooms at the Radisson featured Sleep Number beds (I'm a 66), the staff was courteous and Rick and his family, as usual, bent over backward to make everyone feel at home. There just isn't a more hospitable event anywhere. And, along with the presentations to Rick and Chris, there were a couple other memorable items.
One, of course, was the band. As you know, I'm a big music fan, but not when they play—all dials turned to eleven—right alongside the tattoo booths. At the Oneida, there is a bar area at the entryway, outside the convention site, across from the buffet. Every night at about ten, a group of feisty L.A. rockers (Los Angeles, not Louisiana) blew the room away. Consisting of the amazing Stephan Adika (De De Ramone), Gilby Clarke (Guns N' Roses, Rockstar: Supernova), Teddy "Zig Zag" Andreadis (Guns N' Roses, Alice Cooper), Eric Dover (Alice Cooper, Slash), John Corabi (Mötley Crüe, Ratt) and John Bonham clone Tommy Clufetos (Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Little Anthony & the Imperials) on drums, they may have just been winging it, but these polished pros turned the frozen tundra into a Dutch oven of tasty covers. Hey, the bass player even did a Who-style "windmill." Hot. While, back at the convention, pre-recorded '50s rock was the music of the day, allowing everyone to talk to one another in a normal tone of voice. Any other way, to my thinking, is insulting to both the artists and their clients. Hey, promoters, it's about communication, not creating an impregnable wall of sound where everyone is forced to scream over the ambient noise.
Another highlight was talking with upcoming and super-talented artists like Sean Herman (who we featured in the December 2008 Spotlight) and Nick Chaboya. That's a big plus—downtime to talk to people. So many of the mega-conventions are so noisy or crowded that there's no time to get to know anyone. The aisles look like the football game just let out and the artists are frazzled. What with three bars (there are two in the Radissson, one that featured a KISS tribute band), there're places to hang out and the guest rooms are perfect for taking a break for some puff and palaver. But—and it's an unfortunate but, because we really, really love this show—the food was only so-so. Not only did the restaurant and buffet close down and there was no place to get a bite to eat during mid-afternoon and late at night (the complex is located a ten-minute drive from any local eateries), but the very food that we raved about four years ago has taken a turn for the worse. The breakfast (it's free to every hotel guest) was, to put it gently, unexciting. No custom-made omelets, even though there was an unoccupied omelet station. What happened with that? And the steam-tabled food, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner, looked and tasted like leftovers. In fact, the ham slices that were there on Friday winked back at me on Sunday. The hotel restaurant was a little better, but not much. Service was slow and, being Wisconsin, most everything was either fried or smothered in cheese. Surprising, since the Radisson is usually excellent in this area. But not to worry. Rick and his crew will simply talk to the management and fix it for next time. Otherwise, guys, don't change a thing.
The crowd was good-sized, even though we're a recession. But while the tattoo artists had customers, the vendors suffered. It seems that tattooed people keep getting inked, no matter the state of the economy, but there may not be enough expendable cash for that commemorative T-shirt, neon Jesus nightlight or hardcover volume from the Book Mistress. Yes, the headliners seem to be okay, but there is a definite house cleaning going on among the newbies and the minimally talented. The economy may be saying goodbye to tattoo shops on every corner, but that's a good thing. After all, isn't the longevity of tattooing directly related to the quality of its art?
For me, a treat was spending time with Lockport, Illinois' Larry Brogan and his gal pal Jessica Weichers. Readers of Skin&Ink know that I am partial to the childlike tattoo art of France's Noon or Kevin Laroque's "farm flash," so when I saw Jessica's wonderful kid drawings with scribbled Crayola colors bleeding outside the lines, I was enthralled. So much so that I braved the needle for a Raggedy Andy on my shinbone. Everyone who passed by smiled. Because it's fun. And isn't that what tattoos are supposed to be about?
So, there you have it. Great, legendary artists, talented newcomers and a spacious venue with slot machines. Plus, the Green Bay airport is only a five-minute shuttle away. Who could ask for more? I just love this event. It's the best of all possible get-togethers. Anything Rick Harnowski is involved in has a special, classy hometown touch. And at a time when blatant commercialism has overtaken this wonderful, historic art form, this is highly encouraging.