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Skin Deep

The Phunk-N-Ink Tattoo and Music Festival hopes to open eyes… and earn a little respect

By Jim Fester

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-03-10


It’s probably safe to say Fort Wayne hasn’t seen anything quite like the Phunk-N-Ink Tattoo and Music Festival, happening at the Grand Wayne Center the last weekend in March.

Certainly we haven’t seen anything of this magnitude. Organizer and promoter Jayson Love, owner of Urban Expressions tattoo studio, promises to transform the stately Grand Wayne Center into a sort of “rock n’ roll circus” style event, complete with bands, belly dancers, BMX demonstrations (indoors!), art displays, contests…

And of course tattoos. Lots and lots of tattoos. More than 80 tattoo artists and vendors from around the Midwest will converge on the Grand Wayne Center that weekend, and it’s expected to draw around 2,000 people. “That weekend at the Grand Wayne, Fort Wayne is going to be pretty animated,” Love says.

Love adds that he sees Phunk-N-Ink as a celebration of the edgier side of the visual and performing arts, and as a way to bring the tattoo community together in a show of strength. “At this point of time, everyone is sort of doing their own thing,” says Love, who opened Urban Expressions in 2006 and has been tattooing since 1999, learning his chops on an orange in the early days.

But perhaps one of the main motivations behind the festival — for the organizers and those participating — is a chance to gain a little respect and validation for what they see as a very misunderstood industry and art form. “I got involved (with Phunk-N-Ink) because I have been in the tattoo industry locally for 14 years,” says Donny Manco, owner of New Republic Tattoos. “We have a huge opportunity here to showcase our industry. It’s almost like a boxer that trains for years without having a bout. I know that I do tattoos all day long, but as far as nurturing an industry that has never really had a formal presentation to the city… I feel like here’s an opportunity for us to formally say ‘here’s what tattooing is’. Thousands of people know about it locally, but as a whole, it’s never had a debut. This is a chance for tattooing to put its best foot forward, to squash all the remaining negativity that surrounds the business.”

It’s no secret that tattooing has sort of slipped into the mainstream in the past decade or so. Ask any tattoo artist in town and they’ve got a wealth of stories about clients they’ve worked on, people that they never would have imagined wanting a tattoo. “All the clichés people used to think, that only people who were sailors or bikers or whatever got tattooed… I think that’s kind of just gone by the wayside,” says Mike Stow, a tattoo artist at Artisian Tattoo Company, one of the studios taking part in the festival. “People don’t think like that anymore. We’ve got teachers and doctors and business owners… everybody is getting tattooed nowadays.”

“About two months ago, I tattooed a 76-year-old lady,” Stow adds, laughing. “She got a little tea-set on her arm.”

Stow says he gets a lot of requests for portraits, and has recently seen a lot of movie-themed ideas. A tattoo artist for about 10 years, Stow goes on to say that the only thing that really surprises him is the number of requests he gets for religious imagery or quotations.

Jayson Love says he sees a lot of clients who want names. “Either their name of their family, or someone that may have passed, or their children’s name, stuff like that.”

But there’s another level of client, people that Love refers to as “collectors.” These are the folks who… well, they’ve got a lot of tattoos, they’re familiar with many of the tattoo artists in town, and want something special. “They get actual pieces that require a little more time and detail,” he says.

Yet despite the many times you’ll hear a tattoo artist say that they see all kinds of clients, there’s still a stigma attached to tattoos. “The biggest misconception that people still latch on to is that it can be dangerous,” says Donny Manco, who owned Studio 13 with his brother Dominic for several years before opening New Republic. “It can be dangerous, lots of things can be dangerous, but we’re an industry that has been regulated locally for 10 years.”

Indeed, the Fort Wayne/Allen County Board of Health requires all tattoo artists to renew their license annually and to receive training in sterilization, blood-born pathogens, and a host of other potential safety issues related to the industry. Going through these steps is probably not any tattoo artists idea of a good time, but it’s obviously essential, and it’s something they take a certain amount of professional pride in. “It’s not only regulated locally but we self-regulate as artists who take pride in what we do and need our reputation for safety to draw clients,” Manco explains. “We take safety concerns very seriously.”

He adds: “It still shocks me when I hear people say ‘oh, can’t you get AIDS from a tattoo?’ or ‘won’t that turn into cancer one day?’ I’m not taking these concerns lightly, because you are dealing with people’s blood and skin, but any practitioner worth their salt has taken every precaution — not only required by the local ordinances but just industry standards — in order to make it safe.”

Jayson Love says that the Board of Health’s concerns about the event slowed things up during the planning stages. “There were some speed bumps in the road, but we were able to work them out and get things rolling,” Love says. “With the convention being so new, there wasn’t anything written, as far as ordinance-wise, to allow this to happen. The laws and regulation were unable to handle this type of event.”

“The health department was just doing its job. And they were doing it very well,” adds Love. “Information was the key. They had a lack of information, and I just answered all their questions to the fullness of my abilities.” The only people attending are Allen County Health Department certified. “Every license, every permit, and every ordinance will be followed by each individual at this event. We’re just dealing with professional shops.”

In addition to educating the public about whatever safety concerns they might have about tattooing, Love and the other participants also hope to clear up another prevalent misconception about what they do. Basically, they’d like to see tattooing get a little more respect as an art form.

Not that it doesn’t get some respect already. Jayson Love believes that one of the reasons that tattooing has crept into the mainstream in the last decade or so are the number of talented artists working in the field. “When the college-educated artists and the people with art degrees got into the field, it brought another aspect to the game,” he says.

Mike Stow agrees. “You used to have people who were tattooing… I wouldn’t have called them artists and they probably wouldn’t have called themselves artists, you know,” he says. “Then just over the years artists have just taken that medium and really exploited it.”

Stow himself is an artist who works with a wide range of media. Love also says he’s studied art, while Manco has an art degree from the University of Saint Francis (Jack Cantey covered several local tattoo artists in FWR #59, and we also did a story on Dominic Manco in FWR #80).

Manco says one of the reasons a lot of art school graduates go into tattooing is that it’s an opportunity to actually make a living doing art everyday. “Tattooing is edgy. It’s not a compromise artistically for an artist to get involved in tattooing,” he explains. “As a result, I see more and more talented artists coming from art school and going into the tattoo industry. It’s still the only way I can think of as an artist to make a full-time living making art everyday.”

“It’s not something I’m embarrassed to say I do,” Manco continues. “I’m a part of an industry that just emerged from the underground. A lot of designs that are on shirts, that are on packaging, they all look like tattoos, and I feel like ‘wow, I was a part of that cultural revolution.’ In that regard, I feel really proud. Like I said, it’s not a compromise.”

Also, working on skin can be quite a challenge. “I’ve studied art. I’ve studied sculpture, I’ve studied ceramics, I’ve studied many, many methods by which an artists expresses themselves, and none by a long shot, are as difficult to master as tattooing,” Manco says. The hardest part about painting, he says, is manipulating the paint. Tattooing exacerbates the difficulty on that end of the process — the ink — by putting it on a surface that reacts, like skin. “The dynamic is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s just a different thing altogether and makes it astronomically more complicated to create something that looks right.”

Mike Stow says sometimes, people bring in designs that look great on paper but don’t translate to skin. “Most of the time, that’s the hardest part. You’ll have someone who comes in and says ‘I want an angel with a horseshoe with lightning bolts with whatever.’ They name off 15 different things and want it in a fist-sized tattoo, which is just a lot of stuff to be cramming in there. And skin just doesn’t hold out as long as paper does.”

But while garnering respect and validation for tattooing is all well and good, those of you a little more familiar with the community, who are attracted to the form because it’s still not quite mainstream yet, can rest assured that Phunk-N-Ink isn’t going to be so respectable that it’s boring. Hatter, a piercer who works with Love at Urban Expressions (many tattooing studios also do piercing, and it’s subject to the same ordinances that tattooing is) says one of the attractions will be a suspension crew from Texas. “That’s where they put piercings into someone’s back and raise them up by rope and swing,” he explains. Not to worry; they’re not looking for volunteers. “The guy’s name is Spartacus. He’s with Atzlan Art Suspension with Sideshow Frank, one of the guys who pioneered suspension.”

The festival also features tattoo contests, live music, and two demonstrations by professional BMX riders. Additional stage entertainment includes The Fort Wayne Belly Dancing Troupe and The Jembe Drum Collective. Artwork from a variety of media will be available for purchase in the Art Gallery, while a Silent Auction will benefit Cancer Services.

Love has hopes for the future. “I’d really like to see the festival become an annual event,” he says.

For more information, go to: myspace.com/phunknink

Phunk-N-Ink hours:
Friday, March 27 – 2:00pm – Midnight
Saturday, March 28 – 12:00pm – Midnight
Sunday, March 29 – 10:00am – 6:00pm

Admission:
$12 for a day pass / $30 weekend pass / $2.00 off with a college ID.

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