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At Tattoo Expo, they make the most of the skin they're in

People from all walks of life showed up at the D.C. Tattoo Arts Expo to share their personal stories and experiences with tattoos.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 10:30 PM

So much skin, so many possibilities to ink.

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Shirts are off, shoulders are bared, and pant legs are hiked up at a highrise hotel in Arlington, where the buzz of tattoo machines competes with heavy metal anthems and where inked art spreads across bodies like Tracy Taylor's.

Taylor's upper arm evokes Alice in Wonderland, with a version of herself as Alice near a blue caterpillar on a mushroom. Now, after almost five hours of painstaking work, her lower arm is a pinup girl as the white rabbit, set near a watch with the word late.

"I live in wonderland, so it's just my world," said Taylor, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Gainesville.

This is tattoo number eight for Taylor, who's attending the DC Tattoo Arts Expo, at the Crystal City Doubletree until Sunday, and this statistic could place her among beginning collectors.

Mandy Searer, 31, of North Carolina, lost count a long time ago ("I couldn't even take a guess") and was being tattooed on a two-inch open spot at the tip of her elbow. Her tattoo was a pink-and-white number.

"Lucky 13," she said.

Searer has been though a lot - a divorce, a bleak job hunt. "I need some luck in my life right now," she said.

"Oh, I like that," she told tattoo artist Kevin Kurant of Detroit as he finished the piece. "It's perfect."

There were more than 70 booths with similar scenes unfolding - hours of work on still bodies, pain from the needles, art emerging from ink across a wide and brilliant color spectrum: Skulls, flowers, portraits, Japanese designs, memorials.

Lately some tattoo artists say that larger designs are bigger than ever because, as expo promoter Greg Piper said: "It's harder to get a look with a lot of small tattoos." Those done as "sleeves" that envelop an arm or as full-back art are popular, he said.

Small tattoos are "like taking a big canvas and painting something little in the corner," said Aaron Bell, 44, a tattoo artist from Seattle. Larger work can be more expressive, he said, thinking of it as a choice between "a collage or a palpable piece of art."

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