‘Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth’ leaves its imprint on Las Vegas

With dozens of the world’s top tattoo artists and hundreds more up-and-comers slinging ink, the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth made a resounding return to the Las Vegas Valley this weekend with a record number of artists and participants.

“It doesn’t matter if you started a year ago or if you started 30 years ago,” said Expo founder Mario Barth. “This week is as much about showcasing your work as it is learning.”

After a two-year absence, the annual tattoo expo and education conference hit the Las Vegas Convention Center with about 825 tattoo artists and roughly 55,000 convention participants from around the world. The public expo, which kicked off Friday and concluded Sunday, also featured two days of training and seminars, taught by the veteran tattoo artists for aspiring convention newcomers.

“We check their work when they’re applying, so we know their potential,” Barth said of the novice artists. “If you only take the best, how much better can you get? The newcomers will probably be better 10 years from now than the best today, anyway.”

For the first time in the expo’s 14 year history, the tattoo industry’s preservation and digital sides were also on display.

The event served as the official launch for the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art, an industry organization in the making since 2014, said association chairman Charles Hamm.

Hamm, who manned a large booth Saturday with physician Dr. Edward Cornett, proudly displayed the Cleveland-based organization’s signature innovation: framed cut-outs of tattooed human skin.

Cutting out and preserving tattoos allows families of lost loved ones to “save their story,” Hamm said.

Hamm, 60, an accountant, said the idea came to him a couple years ago while discussing the value of his body art with friends.

“I’ve spent about 150 hours at $200 an hour getting tattooed,” Hamm said. “I’m going to die someday and could get cremated like it never happened.”

“But these have meaning, and I want to keep them.”

The project, called “Save My Ink,” is coordinated with local mortuaries and funeral homes, Hamm said. Families of NAPSA members who participate in the project receive a $2,000 “final wish benefit” for saving one of the person’s tattoos.

“We really want this to happen,” he said. “And obviously not everybody is dying tomorrow.”

On the artistic side, more tattoo artists are shifting away from sketch pads in favor of computer screens, said expo spokeswoman  Lindsey von Busch.

Digital tattoo sketching on platforms like the Japan-based Wacom tablet allows artists to simulate design and placement of a tattoo on a client’s body, von Busch said.

“The artist takes a picture, designs the tattoo and shows you what it’s going to look like on your skin,” von Busch said.

Expo founder Mario Barth, 49, is on the growing list of prominent tattoo artists using Wacom. A 36-year veteran in the industry, the Austria native launched the annual convention in New Jersey in 2001 with only 150 tattoo artists.

By 2009, the convention was up to its peak of 750 artists and 52,000 participants in it’s first year in the Las Vegas valley. After a slight decline over the next four years and a year off in 2013, Barth moved the convention from Strip casinos to the Las Vegas Convention Center with hopes of growing it to a record number.

“If you bring the best, people will come,” Barth said.

Robby Gill, 48, a shop owner from Kingman, Ariz., waited patiently outside a meeting hall Saturday for the chance to meet Barth.

Gill, who said he also owns three shops in Florida and has attended tattoo conventions in both Miami and New York, hailed the Las Vegas convention as “the best in the industry.”

“I just wanted to thank him and show my respect,” Gill said. “Other shows try and lure you in for an experience, but this is quality-based.”

“No knockoffs products here and the focus isn’t on which models are showing the most skin,” he added.

Other show participants, like Karina Flores, 25, took part in the show’s body art competitions. Saturday’s show awarded trophies to owners of the best tattoos in six different categories.

Flores, competing in the “best black-and-white tattoo” competition, displayed her Guardian shoulder tattoo, of a woman’s face with an owl on top, to a crowd of about 200 spectators.

Like most of Saturday’s interviewed convention-goers, Flores emphasized creativity and meaning in selecting tattoo art.

“My tattoos reflect me and they come with a story,” she said. “And it helps when they look nice.”

Contact Chris Kudialis at ckudialis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283. Find him on Twitter: @kudialisrj

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