Joe Kregel shows off his new tattoo, which, when completed, will cover up an older, regrettable tattoo on his wrist. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Regrets take many forms: A missed baseball game. A failed test. A marriage proposal met with a “no.”

But with time, and effort, most can be pushed out of sight, out of mind.

That is not the case with the regret that Joe Kregel tries to hide most days. But with each glance at his left wrist, he is reminded again of the very poor decision he made many years ago. There, near the crease above his palm, sits a sloppy-looking black-and-red tattoo.

It is supposed to say “LOVE.” Instead, it looks more like “LOYE.”

The 29-year-old from Herndon, Va., knows it’s bad, so bad that he normally wears a watch over it and sometimes a long-sleeved shirt over that. Even then, enough of the red peeks out that it often draws attention and then Kregel finds himself, yet again, explaining what it is.

“It was poor placement when I was 18,” he told me when I saw it. I tried to avoid wincing. I failed. I cringed.

I’m sure he noticed, but after all, that’s why we were here, standing next to a portable stage in a Crystal City hotel waiting on three judges to signal they were ready for him. The judges at the Nation’s Tattoo Expo, in its summertime debut, had just declared winners for best arm, leg and overall tattoos, and now it was time for them to shine their table lamps on the bravest people in the room: the men and women competing for the worst tattoo.

For anyone questioning if bravery is too grand a word, imagine competing in a baking contest and handing three accomplished pastry chefs who had just judged souffles a plate of Rice Krispies treats. And not some creative pumpkin-flavored ones cut into perfect squares. We’re talking out-of-the-box, misshaped marshmallow mounds.

Bravery in its most cringeful form is owning one’s embarrassment.

Before Kregel stepped on stage, a trophy and plaque had been handed to the man who won for overall tattoos. He had a dad-bod belly, but when he took his clothes off and stood on a chair, wearing only underwear and tattoos from his collarbones to his toes, the audience looked on in awe. The emcee called his body “beautiful.”

This was obviously a man who knew how to make a croquembouche.


Contestant Kenton Mann is judged by Candy Dunbar, from left, Jason Sloan and Elyse Fox for best overall tattoos at the Nation’s Tattoo Expo on June 2. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

There are many people who believe that tattoos are dangerous or tasteless or that the body shouldn’t be defaced. Those people were not at the expo. Instead, it was filled with people who spoke about the process as the ultimate form of self-expression, an art they felt honored to serve as a canvas for.

But even they would agree on this: Not all canvasses end up in Picasso’s hands.

Sometimes those hands belong to a drunken friend or a stranger at a party or a tattoo shop employee who is available and cheap for a reason.

Tattoo artist Kristel Oreto said she spends more time covering up tattoos than creating new ones. She recently worked on a woman who told her fiance she couldn’t get married because she didn’t like the large letters inked into the skin above her chest that would show in a wedding dress.

The words those letters spelled out: “No regrets.” (Yes, really.)

In a portfolio of before-and-after photos Oreto shared of her work, the letters were concealed under bold, vibrant flowers. In another photo, a sad looking display of candy was turned into a colorful, inviting scene of sweets. When I met her at the expo, the artist was working to cover the wrist tattoo of a woman from Burke.

“They started calling me the coverup wizard,” Oreto said.

Gregory Piper, who put on the expo and owns a Manassas tattoo shop, said trends are often behind coverups. People look at what’s popular, go with the crowd and then later chastise themselves for choosing a design that feels far from unique. In the 1990s, that was the half-moon, half-sun tattoo. Last year, he said, it was a feather that flowed into a bird.

“Right now, the tattoo trend is ‘I want it upside down so I can look at it,’ ” Piper said. “In 10 years, this is what we’re going to be covering up the most.”

Piper has his own permanent regrets. Among them is a stack of skulls on the inside of his leg. The image carries a stigma that doesn’t match who he is, he said, and so he wears pants whenever he speaks publicly or goes to his 9-year-old daughter’s school.

“If I could start over, I would have traditional Japanese sleeves and chest panels,” he said.

Piper said he often advises young people to wait to get tattoos, especially when their designs involve their faces, necks or hands. He has even discouraged his oldest daughter, who will soon turn 20 and wants to study law, from getting any ink. She and her sorority sisters recently discussed getting the Roman numeral XI to represent the 11 of them, he said.

“I said, ‘What if one of you gets hit by a bus, or you make another friend and then there’s 12 of you?’” Piper said. “Keep in mind, this is permanent. This stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Unless, of course, you find an artist who can cover it up. The prize for the worst tattoo contest, which was officially titled “My Tattoo F’n Sucks,” was a $250 gift certificate to Piper’s shop, Exposed Temptations Tattoo.


Tristan Glenn competes for the worst tattoo during the Nation’s Tattoo Expo on June 2. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Joe Kregel shows off a tattoo he got at age 18 and regrets. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Five people lined up for the competition, and Kregel stood at the front.

Behind him was a young man from San Antonio who had given himself a tattoo on his lower thigh of a heart with the word “cold” in it. Get it? Coldhearted. Yeah, most people don’t either, which is why he was there.

Standing behind him was a man from Kalamazoo, Mich. He had a large tribal symbol on his back shoulder that could contain an insightful message — or not. He wasn’t sure what it was supposed to symbolize.

“Someone had a tattoo gun at a party,” he explained.

The sole woman in line pulled down a corner of her waistband to reveal her regret.

“A lion?” I asked.

“Everyone’s question lets me know how bad it is,” she said.

In the end, the tribal symbol won.

Kregel shrugged off the loss. He pulled up his sleeve to show that, even without the gift certificate, he is well on his way to fixing his regret. On his 29th birthday, he had a large bear tattooed on his upper arm. He now plans to have it colored in and surrounded by things that symbolize people in his family: A butterfly for his grandmother. An infinity knot for his father. And for his mother, a tree with roots that hide his old tattoo.

By next year, he said, his arm will be covered with everything he “loves” — and not loyes.