Screwed and Tattooed, Six Ways ’til Sunday: The 6th Annual SLC Tattoo Convention

The telltale whir of many tattoo machines, a New York accent echoing on a PA and mariachi music (if you’re lucky) greet you upon entering Salt Lake City’s tattoo show. The sixth year of this colorful festival had some new editions, mainly in the art show department, and a special display I particularly enjoyed: what I’m calling the Upskirt Limbo. Note to next year’s female contestants: Please keep accidentally wearing skirts to the Limbo contest.

Nate Drew and CJ Starkey (outside left and right, respectively) with MC Chris Longo at the convention.
Photo by Kealan Schilling

Body art artists from all over the world now descend every year onto Flaco Production’s (CJ Starkey and Nate Drew of Lost Art Tattoo shops) finely executed convention. Japan, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, U.S. states as far flung as Hawaii and Alaska, and neighbors as close as Idaho, are all represented by artists - including piercers - with row upon row of booths full of clients. Tattoo conventions are unique among all others. The collective feeling in the air of needling pain can actually be heard, combining with the sight of blood dripping from under the cellophane of fresh and colorful new ink, makes for an almost tactile experience for observers. It is spectacular and one that can only be felt at this event.

Tattoo conventions aren’t only about watching people squirm under the needles, they’re also inspiring showcases for the talent of the artists in the form of daily contests. I walked into the Salt Palace through a crowd of cowboy hat-sporting Latinos with their hot Latinas as music from the Hispanic Valentine’s Day dance bled lightly through the walls to mix with the audio from the awards ceremony. It made an interesting sonic backdrop in the tattoo convention hall for MC Chris Longo, the Mayor of Tattooville, and his Brooklynese-inflected shenanigans. A character, tattooed to the gills (literally), Longo consistently spouted some hilarious shit. In response to a contestant’s portrait of a life-size cock: “Jesus Christ! Look at the whacker on that guy.” And in speaking to lovers with matching feet tattoos he actually said “the two of yous.” I didn’t even know people said that shit, but the Mayor’s east coast roots were showing like black on a bleach-blondebitch’s head.

Darcy Nutt from Boise won two best-of-day awards at the convention.
Photo by Chris Swainston

Tattoo of the Day ran three days straight and was split up three ways. Fortunately for underrepresented female tattoo artists, one of their own received that distinction twice. Darcy Nutt of Boise, Idaho won for her bearded lady tattoo––a traditional “old-school” design––and for a perfect portrait the next day. Some of the male artists were miffed at this, but the sets of three expert judges were completely different each day. Nutt was very impressed at her luck and humbly, and honestly, said “That’s cool man. But art is in the eye of the beholder. On one hand I aknowledge its bullshit and the other hand it’s very flattering. You don’t see a lot of women winning tattoo of the day, so that was very rewarding.” Especially twice. The winners of tattoo of the day received Dringenberg & Co. machines and I suggested Nutt split up her pair and give one to the duo of artists from Reno who won the final day’s contest. She politely declined.

Darcy Nutt's Bearded Lady
Photo by Chris Swainston

Absolute Tattoo in Nevada had two of their artists, John McCann (formerly of SLC) and Rick Clark, take their plaques for Tattoo of the Day home for their work of a skull in a foggy night replete with snake. Sounds a bit played out, but the gentlemen spent a few days on the excellently executed backpiece and brought some nice dimension to the traditional images.

February seems to be a great time to host the event and bring some tourists into town to stimulate things. CJ says, “One of the reasons we set it in February is so people can come out and take a vacation. The children area is really good you can bring your whole family. A lot of people come out and rent houses and stay at the hotels for like a week at a time.” At a time when Utah, boycotts included, really needs some cash the guys at Flaco are helping out. “The recesssion didn’t bother us one bit,” says Nate. “I think even if the economy keeps tanking we’ll be OK here,” says CJ. And next year? “We’re working on it already. We’re expecting to get even bigger. We’ve got another art show planned. We’re trying to get new interesting vendors and we’re gonna have to get some new tattoo booths. These guys are so busy some people can’t even get tattooed.” And what a sad world that is, where pigment-starved throngs go un-tattooed. Look forward to next year: the faint mariachi music, the tattooed wonders, and even more gallons of ink guaranteeing no one goes home empty-skinned.