Hell City Tattoo Fest
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
When I get overly hyped, my guard goes up. If someone tells me how terrific something is going to be, rather than just sitting back and letting it happen, I'm apprehensive. Words, especially from folks who market and promote for a living, come easy. Positive results, they're harder to come by.
My favorite tattoo events are the ones where the promoters have it so under control that they sit back and get tattooed, while the show runs itself. Like the ones Steve Peace produces in Canada. Or when Bert Rodriguez masterminded Tattoos & Blues in Santa Rosa.
So when the emails started flooding in about the seventh-annual Hell City "Let it Bleed" Tattoo Expo in Columbus—no, make that Killumbus—Ohio, I had my doubts. Too many plays on words, I thought. Too many self-congratulatory press notices. Nary a day went by that an email didn't brag about various forums, book signings, websites, official clothing, special guest appearances and even a first-ever roast of a tattoo celebrity. Add the joke-telling of "Satan's Comic," a play area for kids ("bring the little devils") and plenty of cartoony, devil logos with dripping blood and swords and you have some idea what was in store during this "much anticipated"" and absolutely hellacious, three-day weekend. Nothing, not one devilish little thing, would be spared to ensure everyone had "one hell of a good time."
So, why did I go? Because Chris Longo told me to. That's right, Chris Longo, one of the industry's most knowledgeable and articulate members (read all about Chris in Skin&Ink's August 2009 Big 10 Questions). His actual quote was, "Hell City in Columbus is one of my two favorite tattoo shows." Chris said it, so that was enough for me. I called the airline and started to pack. There was no turning back, even when I discovered that Chris was Sunday night's designated roastee. Whew! Could it be that Longo had recommended this show because Hell City had proclaimed him "The Mayor of Tattooville?" Was I the victim of a clever marketing strategy? Was I being played like a trout on a hook?
No matter. I was wrong. Wrong, I tell you. Not only did the Hell City Tattoo Fest live up to all its hype, the promoter of this multi-faceted extravaganza, Durb Morrison, was affable, enthusiastic and skilled and, if that weren't enough, Durb's six-foot-something and looks like a movie star. Bummer. Now I had nothing to complain about.
Let's start with the hotel. The Hyatt Regency was fabulous. The staff was professional and friendly, there was a terrific custom-omelet breakfast, a huge bar area, clean restrooms, an outside smoking area (outside, yay!), spacious rooms with great views of the city, elegant room service, TVs that worked, plenty of big, fluffy towels and a long line of cabs outside to whisk you away to the airport for about twenty bucks. Plus, a couple of blocks down the road was the local Art District, which, to me, looked like a picture postcard from Beverly Hills. Lots of upscale restaurants, pretty girls in cocktail dresses, flashy Porsches and even a bright red Lamborghini convertible, for heaven's sake. Is there something happening in Columbus that I don't know about?
As for the tattoo event, the main convention hall was up and away from the main lobby. After boarding an escalator, strolling through a cadre of vendor booths and stopping at the ticket table, the action was just beyond the double doors. Nothing new here, just the standard flurry of artist booths, but at the far end was a stage with an enormous projection screen for viewing the tattoo contests. There were even, I was told, separate computer stations so each, competing tattoo was viewable onscreen. That way, the judges could peruse each item, one at a time, and mark their ballots electronically. Rather than waiting around for an hour or two for a manual tabulation, the results were immediate. The tattoos, by the way, were photographed digitally, when the contestants signed up and paid their ten-dollar entry fee. A fabulous innovation. About time. A-plus-plus-plus for that one.
The booths themselves were manned by the usual suspects, plus several marquee inksters like Jime Litwalk, Nikko Hurtado, Damon Conklin, Jon Clue, Big Gus, Dan Henk, Jo Harrison, Jeremiah Barba, Joe Capobianco, Randy Howell, Tim Kern, Rich T., Sean Herman, Jeff Gogue, Monte Agee, Mike DeVries and Robert Hernandez. And, of course, the brother and sister double-whammy of Hannah and Guy Aitchison. It was good to see Hannah. She was fresh off the L.A. Ink TV show and confided that she was no longer aboard because the producers wanted, as she phrased it, "more tits and less ass." Funny. Hannah looked great and, although she didn't actually tattoo this time, it was good to see her back where she belongs, pushing ink for real.
As for Guy, he and Michelle Wortman were the driving force behind what I contend was the highlight of the show, the Innerstate painting exhibition. Held down the hall in the Special Events room, this was an idea so simple yet so profound. Here's the picture: you'd enter this high-ceilinged, dimly lit convention room bordered by a short riser. Every ten feet or so was a tall, black, metal stand and protruding light bar that divided the area into spot-lit segments, each with its own overhead illumination. There were eighteen of these setups, bathing the work areas in a sexy glow. Under the lights were artists, well-known, hand-selected, talented tattoo artists, busily painting in watercolor, tempura and oil on their individual easels. I stress the world "individual," because these "let's all create something besides tattoos" exhibits usually mean Art Fusion, or as Chris Longo calls it "Art Confusion." That's when five or so tattooists line up in front of an equal number of large paper pads and draw with charcoal. Every few minutes (usually fifteen or twenty), they all move one place to the right (or left) and work on the design the others have started. This goes on until everyone has worked on everyone else's drawing. To be honest, I have never seen anything I'd want to hang on the wall come out of this art-school exercise. But to see great talents like Guy and Hannah, Nikko Hurtado, Chris Dingwell, Craig Driscoll, Jennifer Billig, Nick Baxter, Damon Conklin and Jeff Gogue work on canvasses live and in person right in front of you, that's a different matter. As far as I am concerned, it was a creative breakthrough and spot-on proof that tattooists can, in fact, produce truly significant art.
But that wasn't enough for Mr. Morrison. Just so all the bases were covered, at an end-cap in the main hall, there was another riser with five other tattooits doing the Art Fusion thing. By contrast, compared to the Innerstate exhibit, Art Fusion lacked pizzazz. I should also mention that, in the Special Events room were tables with Guy, Hannah and Shawn Barber selling the usual jams and jellies—books, flash, videos and T-shirts—and chatting with their appreciative fans.
As for entertainment, both Friday and Saturday night were replete with comedians, live music, circus acts, dancers and assorted hijinks. Did I mention the Hell City Sinema? (Get it, Sinema?) I never discovered where it was, but rumor has it that there was a viewing room showing various industry-related videos and films. There was also a G-rated Heck City Kid's Zone and a roster of cartoony, big-headed football-team-mascot-type creatures milling about the crowd. My favorite was the scary gorilla.
There were also a number of tattoo forums. I often complain that there is nothing instructional at these events, but Durb fixed that. The ones that stood out were Friday's "Why We're Tattoo Artists" with Chris Longo, Sean Hermann, Big Gus, Joe Capobianco and John Montgomery. On Saturday, Longo moderated "From Concept to Completion" with Guy Aitchison, Nick Baxter and Scot Winskye. Sunday featured "Leaps and Bounds," a step back in history with Lyle Tuttle, Marty Holcomb, Brian Taylor and Brian Brenner.
Great stuff to be sure. But all that aside, to me, the best part of the entire weekend was the time I spent with Philadelphia Eddie Funk and the vivacious Margueritte. She was a kick, and Eddie must have thought so, too, because I have never seen him so happy and full of energy. Eddie, as you know, had been recovering from a bypass for quite a while and we all thought he was slipping away—but not now. Perhaps there's no more two-fisted highballs for Eddie, but he's got a new trademark—an ear-to-ear smile. And when he sat down with Dani Oberosler and myself, Eddie told us a hilarious, heart-warming version of how he got into the business. A classic. All with his famous pompadour and canary-yellow blazer. They used to call him "Crazy" Eddie, but with his renewed vigor and positive outlook, he doesn't seem so crazy anymore.
To illustrate how well Durb had planned this show, you could actually talk over the background music without shouting. Even the walls were decorated—with full-sized sideshow posters. No two ways about it, this Morrison guy had it down. He planned every detail and give each person through the door, adults and kids alike, a lot for their money. And speaking of that, both the Innerspace exhibit and a room next door with its row after row of small, finished paintings by a raft of excellent tattooists were graciously placed on the free side of the ticket booth. What with the restaurant, the sprawling bar area and several vendors and exhibits outside the hall, there was plenty to do even before you paid your admission.
Yup, I had a great time. As Chris Longo said, Hell City in Columbus is one of his two favorite tattoo shows. I haven't been there yet, but could it be that Durb's Hell City show in Phoenix is the other?