Pittsburgh Tattoo Expo celebrates self love through ink

Emily Fritz | A&E Editor | Geo Cuellar (left) of Rad Ink tattooed attendee Lux Betancourt (right). Many artists offered pre-determined designs but others were open to personalized pieces.

Emily Fritz | A&E Editor

Tattoo artists across the country were greeted by a special delivery back in November: a brown box from the DC Tattoo Expo. Inside, among different “swag” items and sweet treats, was the key to the kingdom: a scroll detailing their invitation to attend and participate in the seventh annual Pittsburgh Tattoo Expo owned and operated by Baller Inc. from Feb. 9 to 11.

Hosting in one of the few states left without federal regulations around tattooing, owner of Baller Inc.

Greg Piper felt that it was especially important to keep the artist list invite-only.

“I try to keep it old-school like that with really good, talented artists,” Piper said. “It gives artists a chance to watch other artists work and see what’s going on in the business.”

For the few who had turned down the invite, many more tattoo artists were ready to apply for the vacant spots. Piper reviewed every artist to determine if their portfolio was up to standard.

Having outgrown last year’s venue, the Sheraton at Station Square, the expo instead opted for the Wyndham Grand Downtown, where they had enough space to set up 167 tattoo booths, 340 artists and 5,800 guests in addition to vendors selling tattoo supplies, aftercare products and a master piercer.

Among the attendees was Omar Elias, who was eager to see the art and then later became one of the many visitors who received a tattoo or piercing during the event.

“I found a lot of stuff that was interesting … [Gabriella Rosa from The Sanctuary Art Studio] and the person next to her had the exact art style I was looking for,” Elias said. “The tattoo artist that actually did my leg happens to be from Ohio, just like I am. Now I’ve found a good artist, I like their style and I’m not too far from them when I go back home.”

A variety of art styles were represented, with American and Japanese traditional, neotraditional, psychedelic, fine line, realistic, cover-up and new school being among the most popular. Many artists, like Brooklyn-based artist Luis Garcia of Itzocan Tattoos, have explored a number of styles, but have found a niche that they enjoy most.

“I prefer fine lines,” Garcia said. “I try to work with the flow of the body … I prefer to play a little more with the designs. [It has] more freedom, instead of [being] realistic. I can play around a little more.”

Like Garcia, Julius Vargas of Sin Nombre Tattoo Studio traveled a notable distance to bring his studio’s work to Pittsburgh. Hailing from Jersey City, he shared more about how conventions come with increased exposure and a larger network.

“We’ve had people drive several hours just to come to the studio because the conversations they had at the convention [started] a new relationship with our artists,” Vargas said.

For many in the industry, tattooing goes beyond wearable art. For clients and artists alike, tattooing has become a source for self-expression, self confidence and reclaiming the narrative of the body.

“Body modifications can make people feel beautiful in their own ways,” said tattoo artist Jasmine Jimenez of SprINKfield Quality Tattoos. “I have a lot of clients that have self harm scars, they have scars from weight loss and they’re so self conscious of their bodies. Then they finally get tattoos and they’re like … ‘Now I’m not worried about these scars that I have.’”

For those who are less inclined to be inked, owner and master piercer of International Body Jewelry Kimberly Rowan explained how body modifications have become less stigmatized and more meaningful for the greater public over her 27- year career.

“People come up with really unique ideas on how they would like to curate their ears or their body art,” Rowan said. Clients often come into her shop in Norfolk, Va. to create piercing themes that center around astrology or birthstones. Rowan has also seen many clients seeking piercings following major life changes such as divorce, loss and grief.

“You get [many] different walks of life of people coming for different reasons for why they get pierced,” she said.

The Pittsburgh Tattoo Expo was a celebration of art as much as it was community. Well-known artist Robbie Ripoll, owner of Rad Ink Tattoo and Piercing and season five “Ink Master” competitor, found a deeper connection for the community at expo events than during the coveted competition-reality television series.

“I thought it was going to be ‘I get to shine and [this is] who I am’ and it really turned out to be ‘You have to make TV,’” Ripoll said. After his time on the show, the artist founded his own positivity motivational platform, “The Rad Movement.”

“Over 10 years after creating ‘The Rad Movement,’ I am really, truly feeling the positive effects of this community. I’ve shared hugs, laughs, tears and real life moments with people all around the convention center,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotional healing that happens in my tattoo chair.”