Throughout our lives there are rare moments of instant connection. We enter a place and a sense of belonging strikes, quick and electric, like lightning. There is no need to hide your peculiarities or passions; the others in this place understand. It is like exhaling a breath you never realized you were holding. Something inside of you whispers: these are my people, my weirdos.
The sixth annual Hampton Roads Tattoo Arts Festival offered a sanctuary I did not know I had been searching for. It was more than a huge gathering of local and visiting artists. Being surrounded by tattooers working on clients would be inspiring to any tattoo enthusiast. No, the feeling arose from a deep place: somewhere within the dark and macabre tendrils of my soul.
It wasn’t just the art, the unusual fashion, or the gruesome displays of human endurance. These were all exhilarating aspects of the convention, worthy of entire articles of their own. It went beyond the tangible. For a brief weekend within the walls of Hampton Road’s Convention Center, the bizarre was beyond acceptance; it was celebrated.
While Friday was nowhere near empty, the crowd remained significantly smaller than Saturday and Sunday’s attendance. Booths stayed occupied with tattoo artists working on a piece, but they were more accessible to walk-up inquiries. Both the artists and their clients seemed more at ease with the smaller crowd.
South Side Pro Wrestling stole the spotlight twice daily throughout the weekend. Their show was everything expected of pro-wrestling: dramatic, entertaining, and funny. On Friday this meant dragging each other out of the wrestling ring to grapple amongst the crowd. Getting up close and personal with the audience added intensity to the already theatrical experience.
After getting a few chuckles from the show, I walked a couple of laps around the booths. Although I had only expected tattoo artists, there were also vendors, local non-tattooing artists, and a couple of non-profit organizations. Hampton Roads Tattoo Festival’s cofounder, Nate Hudson, confirmed “we have vendors, like Blankets for the Homeless and Pinups for Pitbulls… a lot of home-grown charities that we give a try to give a free space here in order to push what they’re doing.” The humanitarian within me applauds any inclusion of non-profits but these organizations had a lot to compete with in order to capture the audience’s notice.
This crowd possessed a high amount of morbid wonder, and I was no exception. Perhaps it’s the excessive amount of horror films but the Carnival of Curiousity and Choas held my attention. It’s not every day that you witness a man shoving nails up his nose. A similar interest attracted me to the Obscura Antiques & Oddities booth. Ghoulish creatures, creepy antique photographs and a human skeleton were sprawled across their table. Halloween had arrived in March.
More people meant more energy. The shows fed on the crowd’s enthusiasm. Pin-up girls flaunted tight outfits and retro hair-dos. They posed for the audience, hoping to take home the grand cash prize.
The contest is about more than just a prize, 4-time contestant Eva Pickel told me. Her favorite part of the festival remains “the variety of people that show up; so many different types of people from all walks of life, most of them with their own body art or really expressive with their clothing choices.”
Two women graced the stage clad in colorful body-paint. One donned a blue mystique persona. The other wore a half-angel, half-devil disguise. In the end, the angel-demon hybrid struck a chord with the audience.
Angels continued to be a theme at the festival. Around 10 pm, the crowd congregated to the main stage. They held up their phones, apt to capture the unfamiliar sight. On stage, Team TDH worked their magic. Ropes weaved around the rigging and through multiple hooks until wings emerged. The angel lifted off the ground, gracefully swaying to a soft song. Beauty overwhelmed the shocking visual of stretched skin, easing the audience into the suspensions.
Then team member Jay Garrett took the stage. “Free t-shirt to the first person who passes out,” the MC taunted. Jay pulled himself up, fitted through a single hook in his back. “This is the first year an audience member hasn’t fainted,” Team TDH’s Caitlin Brocato confided after the performance. This year the audience may have had stronger nerves, but a collective gasp escaped when Jay fell. “The hook straighten,” Jay gleefully explained. Team TDH closed their show with member Stewart Elkins’ suspension from his face and elbows.
By the finale I could understand how someone could faint upon witnessing this display. Team TDH’s show transfixed me. It was the perfect end to an eccentric event.
To all the tattoo aficionados, pain enthusiasts, and general art lovers: you have a home in Hampton Road’s tattoo scene. If you missed your opportunity, or attended and are now counting down the days until next year, have no fear; Virginia Beach Tattoo Festival will take place August 12th-August 14th at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.