Whether you're tattooed head to toe or too squeamish to go near a needle, the Motor City Tattoo Expo promises a high energy feast for the eyes. This weekend the Detroit Marriott will host over 300 hand-picked artists and vendors from around the world to show off their work and mingle with the public.
This year's expo will feature live music, industry seminars, merchants, contests, a cash bar, and of course live tattooing for guests who book ahead on the event's website. If you're a professional looking to make connections, a lifelong enthusiast, or just interested in people watching, you would be hard pressed to find a better venue to immerse yourself in the world of tattooing.
"It's a great opportunity for the locals and people in southeast Michigan to meet first hand and see some of the world's greatest tattoo artists," says Frank Fisher from Eternal Tattoos in Brighton. "The whole tattoo culture comes together here in Detroit. You would have to spend a lot of time travelling to meet a lot of these people. This becomes kind of ground zero."
This year's roster of esteemed guest artists represents a wide array of tattooing styles, including (but not limited to) traditional, script, lettering, and black and gray. Guests include locals like Susannah Griggs and Caryl Cunningham of Eternal Tattoos, which organizes the event, as well as Liz Cook from Texas, Russ Abbott from Georgia, and Jess Yen, who is renowned for his Asian body armor tattoos. Artists from Germany and the Netherlands will also be in attendance, and Australian artist Terrence Tait will work in residence at Eternal Tattoos in Livonia the week leading up to the big event.
Fisher says he and his fellow organizers are planning many surprises for the public and the artists in attendance to make the 20th anniversary celebration one to be remembered. Fisher says he wants to keep most of them under wraps, but he was willing to divulge one — a new set of Eternal Ink colors called The Motor City Ink Set, which features colors related to automotive items, will be unveiled this weekend.
In the two decades Terry "Tramp" Welker has been organizing and curating the expo, it has graduated from a 15,000-square-foot venue near the airport to the 30,000-square-foot ballroom at the Renaissance Center. He credits the event's ballooning popularity with both increased respect for the art form and the wealth of emerging artists in the field.
"Tattooing really took off in the '90s when MTV started showing rock bands with tattoos," Welker says. "And look at how many professional basketball players are tattooed. So tattooing became more acceptable. It was kind of a trend, but it just exploded. Now I think there's more tattooed people than non-tattooed people, but it's also the quality of work you get. The portrait work is starting to look like somebody took a photo and just stuck it on somebody's arm."
Welker got his first tattoo — the Marine Corps bulldog mascot — when he was in the service. He worked as a diesel mechanic and a carpenter for a few years, but after he started seeing more sophisticated work being done with tattoos he decided to become an artist himself and start his own business. Welker founded Eternal Tattoos in 1980, and his business has since expanded to five Metro Detroit Locations with over thirty artists. He also owns Eternal Ink, one of the leading tattoo ink suppliers in the world.
Welker says the tattoo industry has long attracted artists from different fields, and this has helped the artform improve drastically over the last several decades.
"Back in the day it was just bikers and people in the service that had tattoos," He says. "Tattooing become more popular and opened the door for graphic artists, people that would have never thought about tattooing. You got a guy with a degree in art looking to try to find a way to sell his art. Some of these artists were working for comics. Maybe they never considered the industry because there were never opportunities they felt they could make a living on. Now graphic designers have a canvas wanting to be tattooed. They just have to be taught to use the tools of the trade."
Eternal Tattoos' Caryl Cunningham worked in the advertising industry for years before she became a tattoo artist. She says her perception of tattooing was turned upside-down when she started creating henna tattoos for a yoga studio.
"I was looking up henna designs and I would come across tattoo artists who were doing henna," Cunningham says. "And there was portrait work, and somewhat realistic floral work, and it was truly a decoration on the body. I was floored. Is it the sort of artform you're going to see hanging in a museum? Obviously not, but there are definitely artists that make fantastic tattoos that if you were to have them on paper, are absolutely art."
If you're considering a career change, this event is the perfect place to get hands-on experience side-by-side with industry professionals. Welker and Brandon Nieman will host seminars on rotary machines throughout the weekend, and Ahren Bloomquist will teach a class on tattoo machine tuning and maintenance aimed at both veterans and beginners. And for professionals, this is a great opportunity to learn about developments in the field.
"It's a chance for us to look at what's new in the industry as far as products and supply," Cunningham says. "The industry has changed a lot in that a lot of people are using disposable supplies more often, so that eliminates the worry about cross contamination. We're always sort of interested in what makes our industry safer for our clients as well as for ourselves: new products for healing, barrier protection, keeping infections from happening, and educating our clients and other artists about the latest in the industry."
Welker says he expects a diverse all-ages crowd this weekend, and he guarantees the uninitiated will walk away with a newfound respect for tattooing.
"If you're not getting a tattoo, you can just go and admire the quality of the work that's being done, and just be amazed at what the artists are capable of doing now," He says. "It'll totally blow you away. Even if you don't like tattoos, you will walk away appreciating the art. Chances are before you leave you're going to have to come back and get one."
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
20th Annual Motor City Tattoo Expo
Noon-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat.
and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun.
Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center
400 Renaissance Drive, Detroit
Tickets $20 (1-day pass); $30 (2-day pass); $40 (weekend pass) $40; free,
children 14 and under