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

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 10:30 PM

So much skin, so many possibilities to ink.

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."

Jonathan Vega, 29, of Allentown, went all out for the big creation, etched over his back during six hours: a heaven and hell piece, with demons coming out of rocks and angels fighting them with swords - set below an earlier tattoo evoking Michelangelo's God.

"It's the everyday battle of good and evil," Vega said. "Everyone has choices of good and bad."

Les Boyd, a University of West Virginia graduate student, celebrated his 25th birthday by getting tattooed across his right calf - a fierce red Japanese mask of aggression, not far from another mask depicting a loving, responsible, guardian of others.

"It's finding that balance between your impulses and desires, and your responsibilities and morals," he said.

Getting a tattoo, Boyd said, "hurts like hell" but it's "one of those things where you want it, and then once you get it you fall in love with it."

In an era of the tattoo-studio reality show "LA Ink," more attention has come to the tattoo world, and perhaps more diversity. "I've tattooed vegans and I've tattooed hunters," said Ed Lott, 38, a Seattle artist. "People you'd never imagine are tattooed. People can be completely suited under their clothes."

Even politicians, he added, reminded of his location in Washington.

Politicians?

"Well, I tattooed a Republican assembly person," he said.

Think floral.

So it was for Karen Van Name, 31, who works for a defense contractor and wanted a new tattoo on her shoulder to obscure a killer-whale done when she was 18.

Now she was going for an array of lilies after recently getting a yellow rose tattoo behind her ear in memory of her grandmother. Down the road: three butterflies, one for each of her three daughters.

"I like scrapbooking, and I think of this as a scrapbook I can take everywhere with me," she said.

Portraits also are common, and Jen White, 31, was sporting one of her deceased pit bull, Precious. White works at Naked Art Tattoos in Odenton, Md., where she had it done by her artist colleague, Halo Jankowski, 27.

Jankowski - with a mohawk, piercings and an untold number of his own tattoos - was busy with free-style art on the expo's opening day, recreating the forearm of John Etman, 64, a client who flew in from Texas.

"We're kind of just making it up," Jankowski said, working on a skull design with an airbrushed quality.

"I finally found a true artist," said Etman.

Some at the expo say this is what tattooing is all about, including Taylor, whose Alice in Wonderland tattoo was done by Rhiannon August, of Rick's Tattoos in Arlington.

"I love being a walking piece of art," she says. "I dreamt about this last night. I've been talking about it for weeks."

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