"What does your tattoo mean?"
It's a question anyone with any tattoo is likely to hear at some point, possibly from a disappointed parent or a stranger in a supermarket checkout line.
The thing about that question is it assumes there's a deeper meaning behind every tattoo, beginning even before it became ink on skin. That's a common misconception, says veteran tattoo artist "Gentle" Jay Blondel.
"People overthink it too much," Blondel said by phone from his shop in Belmore, N.Y. "People can just get stuff because they thought it was cool at the moment, and it really doesn't need to be anything more than that. A tattoo becomes significant because you got it tattooed on you. You're not going to remember some random Tuesday in 2012, but you'll remember the day you got your tattoo. You'll remember the story of what you did that day."
Many such stories will begin at the Tampa Convention Center when the Tampa Tattoo Arts Convention returns for its third year Friday through Sunday. The event includes tattoo contests, sideshow performers, art vendors and hundreds of artists from around the United States and beyond tattooing attendees on site.
Many of those artists are veterans of the wide array of tattoo-based reality TV. There's Blondel, who competed on Spike's Ink Masters, as did James Vaughn, Kyle Dunbar, Big Ceeze, Mark Longenecker, Aaron Is and Robbie Rippoll. Artists from the VH1 series Black Ink Crew, which follows the staff at a black-owned shop in Harlem, will be there, as will Big Gus, a coverup specialist from Tattoo Nightmares.
Other big-name artists include Shanghai Kate, an Austin-based grandmother whose 40-plus years in the industry include lecturing on tattoos at Columbia University and tattooing a dragon coverup and a wedding band on Howard Stern. Also there: "Bowery" Stan Moskowitz, a legend in American traditional tattooing and member of the Moskowitz tattoo dynasty that helped keep the trade alive in New York's then-hardscrabble Bowery neighborhood during the '50s and '60s.
The event brings out many heavily tattooed visitors, but Blondel said for someone who's considering their first tattoo, a convention is a great place to start. A huge variety of styles will be available in one place, from black-and-grey portraiture experts to artists who specialize in traditional Japanese-style work. Blondel himself does single-needle, an intricate, fine-line style that is extremely unforgiving. It's where his "gentle" nickname comes from.
"Getting a tattoo is not like walking into a store and getting a gallon of milk," he said. "It's a process. You have to communicate your idea and find the right artist, which can mean visiting a lot of shops. There will be all these people (at the convention) from all over the country you don't normally have access to. They're all at your fingertips. If you know what you're looking for, you'll find it, and if you don't know, you'll come away with a good idea of what's out there."
There will be plenty going on outside of tattooing, too. Much of that entertainment feels like a throwback to the days when tattooing was still considered a fringe interest. The Half Pint Brawlers, a company where all the wrestlers are little people, is set to perform. Other entertainment includes burlesque shows by Gia Nova, and live human suspension, in which performers hang by piercings through their skin. Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster on The Munsters, will be there signing autographs.