The 14th Annual Motor City Tattoo Expo
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
With an enormous storm brewing on the East Coast and another time-tested promoter holding a competing event on the same weekend in Philadelphia ("There were no other dates available," he claims), the 14th Annual Motor City Tattoo Expo had a tough weekend ahead. But the weather held and, most importantly, longtime tattoo impresarios Tramp Welker and Brian Everett were at the helm. With these two icons in charge, nothing was going to get in the way. But even though the mercury peaked at fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, the prodigious Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center with its seventy-two floors, one thousand two hundred and forty-six rooms, fifty-two suites and one hundred thousand square feet of meeting space was toasty warm. Designed like a scene from Blade Runner, the enormous silo of a building (the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere) houses the world headquarters for General Motors, various shops and hair salons, three major restaurants and a spacious food court, all interconnected by a complex network of super-fast elevators, escalators by the dozen and super-courteous staffers that not only know what they are doing but are glad to do it. Even the security cops smile and say, "Good morning."
All that said and the economy in the dumpster, we wondered if the crowds would come. Arriving late on Friday, we talked to a few artists who were wrapping it up in the large but cozy expo hall. "A pretty good day," they told us. With five or so aisles and long rows of booths on either side, it was quite evident from the posters above each stall that the roster of artists was impressive. Tramp and Brian are masters at enlisting name artists from Jack Catfish Carl to Bob Tyrrell, Mike Skiver to Larry Brogan. Lots of established stars. And it wasn't just locals. The most distant travelers, of course, were Jordi Marques from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and Tommaso Buglioni from Ancona, Italy, but there were several tattooists from the far away West Coast like Mike DeMasi and Nikko Hurtado from Hesperia, California, Mike DeVries from Northridge, Dan Gilsdorf and Cheyenne Sawyer from Portland, Oregon, Big Gus from Orange County, SoCal's Lowrider crew (Ernie, Loko T., Jose Lopez, Jun, Tattoo Tony, Carlos, Rudy and Danger) and, of course, the man himself, Mr. Jack Rudy from Good Time Charlie's Tattooland in Anaheim.
With so many industry events in recent years, there's only so much talent to go around, but Tramp and Brian always mange to assemble a who's who of great artists. Some of them, like super-talented Monte from Indianapolis, are rare visitors to the convention scene, while others like Brogan, Tyrrell, Marshall Bennett, Jack, and (to my surprise) Chris Longo put their stamp of approval on the proceedings by just being there. Longo, you will remember, is the legendary master of ceremonies hailing from New Jersey, but he's such a fan of the show and its M.C., Carl "Dr. Blasphemy" Murray, that Chris took the trip from New Jersey just to show his support and hang out for the weekend.
And there were even more talented inkers, like Jay Wheeler, Justin Weatherholtz, Dan Henk, Jo Harrison, Tom Painter, Nick Chaboya, Joshua Carlton, Lisa Schmoldt, Half Pint, Kelly Gormley, Candy Dunbar, Jessica Weichers, Sean Herman, Scott Harrison, Mario Bell, Penny Schuhrke, Jay Strange and Jason McCarty. The list goes on and on. As the event rolled into Saturday, the crowds arrived, and, as I meandered down the aisles, practically everyone was working. Part of that was due, I'm sure, to the event website which featured the names of each artist in attendance and their contact information. Most tattoo gatherings may list the shops but not the individual artist names. The way Tramp and Brian do it, you can see exactly who is coming in order to make a phone or online reservation with the tattooist of your choice.
Another nice subtlety is the name of the event, Tattoo Expo—not Convention. Skin&Ink used to make a big point of that distinction. The true definition of a convention is, according to the America Heritage Dictionary, "A formal meeting of members, representatives, or delegates " which ninety-nine percent of the tattoo functions are not. According to American Heritage, an expo is "A public exhibition or show, as of artistic or industrial developments." We stopped making a big deal out that distinction some time ago, both because it was just too difficult trying to come up with an alternative word and because everyone misuses it anyway. It's like the word "decimate," which used to mean "to select by lot and kill one of every ten of" from the Latin decimus, ten (when a Roman legion failed in a mission, their commanders, as punishment, would decimate the army of three-thousand to six-thousand soldiers by killing ten percent of them). Now people use it to mean "wipe out a bunch of," like "the storm decimated the town." Same with the word "convention." People use it to describe any tattoo gathering, when, actually, only the Nationals is a true "meeting of members." So, congratulations to Tramp and Brian for getting it right. Just one more example of their incredible attention to detail.
Other people, by the way, have thought about using the name "expo," but when one of them did in Southern California they were threatened with a lawsuit by the people who use that appellation for their mega event at the Fairgrounds. As if they owned the word "expo." Lawsuit? Just another example of why non-tattoo promoters should stay away from our industry. Lawsuit. They should be ashamed.
Another feather in the Dynamic Duo's cap is the list of seminars. On the schedule was machine-building with Jerry Rigger, Danny Knight, Josh Ford and Todd Hlavaty, plus three focusing on black-and-gray techniques, one by Bob Tyrrell, another by Tom Renshaw and a third with Brian and Jack. Wow. That ought to cover it!
Okay, so what about the food? Because of the enormity of the facility, it's quite a jaunt to the various eateries. When you feel the urge, it's up and down numerous escalators or, in the case of the roof topper, an elevator. You've got three or four featuring American cuisine, there's upscale Italian, a big ol' bar in the lobby and, as I mentioned, a basement-level food court with a bunch of Mickey D clones, and, best of all, a Mexican fast food spot where you can build your own tacos and burritos a la the Subway franchise. We ate at the Coach Insignia on the top floor four years ago and Andiamo, the Italian place on the ground floor, this year. Both were excellent. Plus, if you want to venture into the outside world, there's an inter-city tram system that will whisk you to nearby Greek Town and its array of ethnic bars and dining places. But, at a brisk fourteen degrees, most folks opted to stay within the confines of the Marriott.
To me, the test of an event's success is how many artists are actually tattooing. Except for one or two artists who told me they forgot to alert potential customers on their websites, seldom were they just sitting and twiddling their thumbs. Even the vendors told me things were "not great, but not bad." As you might guess, with the Dow sinking like the Titanic, even the most dedicated collectors are purchasing fewer T-shirts, embroidered tour jackets and tattoo-emblazoned whatnots. The artists, however, always say they're doing great, but, keep in mind, tattooists, especially at a highly selective event like this, are the cream of the crop. Just the other day we got a call from a woman in Florida who said her boss, a speculator, didn't know a thing about tattooing but bought three tattoo sites that had gone out of business in Florida. He heard it might be a good investment. That said, you couldn't tell it by Motor City's Saturday crowd.
Sunday was a bit quieter, but the energy remained high, thanks to Carl Murray. His helpful and clear announcements over the public address system kept things interesting. Sundays are always slower, no matter the event. Sunday or not, I saw lots of people working. What with tattoo events sprouting up everywhere, I bet their promoters would love to have Brian and Tramp's Sunday crowd.
So, what's the downside? Frankly, except for the fifty-dollar taxi fare from the airport, I can't think of anything. The M.C. was super-conscious of the volume of the live music ("I want to make sure that everyone can talk over the band," said Murray); the tattoo contest entries were projected on a large screen at the back of the stage, so that everyone could see what the judges were looking at; there was cushy carpeting on the floor (so you wouldn't get shin splints from walking on concrete); the buffet on Sunday was one of the best I've seen all year; the rooms had nice, thick walls so you couldn't hear the people next door clanking beer bottles and getting into fistfights; there was a central command post where visitors could go to ask questions; you could see Canada across the river; there was a display of General Motors cars that let you climb around inside and jump up and down on the seats; the elevators went zoom; there were big, flat-screen TVs with digital programming in every room; the beds were firm and there were plenty of towels; the bathrooms had great showerheads; the tattoo activities were, basically, in one room, so the artists and vendors all got the same exposure; the overall quality of the tattoo work was exceptional; there was a perfect balance of old-timers, established legends and new kids on the block; and, last but not least, there were lots of pretty, tattooed ladies. Which is not to be minimized. Ever.