Art therapy for the body and mind at the Philly Tattoo Convention

    “I was always an artist, a free spirit, the black sheep in a family of born-again Christians,” says Stephanie, whose limited clothing reveals many tattoos. “It’s a generation thing. When women of my parents’ age ask how I could do this to my body, I say that what’s important is inside. My Mother says, ‘God made your body a temple.’ I say, ‘I’m decorating it.'”

    Stephanie, from Old City, is hanging out near the booth of Art Machine Productions at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention at the Pennsylvania Convention Center last weekend. So am I.

    “Kids love my tattoos,” says crimson-haired Stephanie. “My sister teaches autistic kids in Camden. When I go in and read Dr. Seuss to them, they really wake up and pay attention. I am a character in my own life.”

    Her first graphic, at age 18, was the Japanese symbol for “live for today” — on her tummy. “Now I hate it,” she says.

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    Every image a story

    People say that they tell their stories through the medium of their bodies. The pictures represent the psychological pain and challenges they have lived through. With the exception of one man, biting and squeezing a gray t-shirt to counteract the pain, few people here grimace during the procedure. They need tattoos, and the short-term discomfort is part of the price.

    Dave Cheplivouza creates tattoos for a living. Licensed by the Philadelphia Health Department, he speaks freely about blood-borne pathogens and cross-contamination. He displays germicidal wipes and the paper-lined-with-plastic covering his table. He cleans subjects with anti-bacterial soap and uses disposable needles and “a lot of hospital-type safety.” After attending college to study art, he has specialized in tats for 14 years.

    The first tattoo Dave installed was a small kanji, an ancient Chinese character. “I was apprenticed under an expert,” he says, “and a kanji is easy for a beginner.”

    Now he is needling Sylvie, who is lying on her right side, wearing gray t-shirt, purple sports bra, shoulder tattoo and black lace bikini panties. Dave adds details to the “full-leg sleeve” on her left buttock, which already includes a phoenix and a Ganesha, the elephant-god popular in Indian art since the sixth century.

    “It’s a process,” says Sylvie. She and Dave have been collaborating on this project for a year, more than 40 hours so far. “You need to be in a special mind-frame,” she says. “My tattoos represent my life. The meaning behind every item is my character or a stage that I went through. If I’m having a bad day, we might have to cut a session short. When you’re emotionally drained, getting tattooed takes a toll.

    “Dave has seen my highs and lows. I’m so thankful that I found someone I can go back to. He wants the best for me. Tattoo artists become almost like your therapist.”

    Sounds like an ordinary relationship with a hairdresser.

    Holding Sylvie’s arm, stroking her face, is Brian, her “soon-to-be-husband,” who wears “only 4 or 5” tattoos. Brian, from Monroeville, N.J., says, “A lot of people regret getting a tattoo on the spur of the moment. My father was covered in tattoos, and he told me not to get them. So I thought about it for a year. My first tattoo was Chester Cheetah from Cheetos. I always liked his commercials, and I had a stuffed animal of him.”


    Dave wraps Sylvie’s leg in Saran. “That’s about three hours,” he says. “400?” She nods and pulls out a roll of twenties.

    Real people

    These folks are not the freaks I expected to meet. We’re all wearing all black, theirs with slits and lace, mine of whole cloth. They treat me like an interesting person, not the freak they assume I am.

    I stroll among 850 tattoo artists in the pandemonium of loud rock music and hundreds of buzzing drills.

    Villain Arts, of Philadelphia, runs tattoo conclaves around the world. This particular weekend brought in more than 20,000 people. Here you can buy books of tattoo ideas for $60 and up. You can find shirts reading “We will never regret our tattoos.”

    “Tattooed and employed.”

    “Kiss me, I’m Irish tattooed.”

    You can choose inks from a vendor with five oranges, six reds and “15 skin tones, if you want a portrait on your arm.” After-care lotion, paraben free, dermatologist tested and gluten free (You were going to taste it?). Perfume for sexy women.

    On the stage, where the show has just ended, stands a bizarre blue man, who makes “fringe” seem bland. On every scintilla of skin, except a narrow margin around the eyes, he is the color of denim. Jigsaw pieces outline the cobalt. His name, he says, is The Riddle. Foolishly I ask if that’s his real name.

    “Is anything real?” he replies.

    I move on.

    No regrets

    A woman in a bikini, the word “devil” embroidered on her tush, wears blond dreadlocks and red high-heeled boots. A wrap-around floral bouquet decorates her long neck, centering on an embedded diamond or diamond-lookalike. “It was awful when they put it in,” she allows, “but now I love it.” Her back displays the curves of the f holes on an upright bass.

    A booth of sexy-glamorous skirts and dresses. Two women vending jewelry, bones (yes, bones) and the skeletons and bodies of dead bats, embalmed in formaldehyde in their native Indonesia, beginning at $250 a pop. Who knew bats went with tattoos? Several booths promote tattoo removal, a more expensive and more painful process.

    Finally there’s Kathy, from the Greater Northeast, who works in housekeeping at Jefferson Hospital. It’s her 30th birthday, and she wants a tattoo. Flowers? A parrot? Butterflies? “Look at this hummingbird, Hon,” says her husband. They disappear in the crowd.

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