Waiting in a line wrapping around the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Abra Cook pulled her black hoodie over her hair as frigid wind peppered ticket-holders with a light drizzle. Returning for her second day to the 26th Annual Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Festival, Cook was scheduled to complete a tattoo on her right thigh –– a trio of grinning, purple Pokémon: Haunter, Gastly and Gengar.
“At this point, [my next tattoo] just kinda has to be hilarious,” Cook said. “I’m 35 percent covered. I’m intending to cover an amount of skin, I don’t really care what it is as long as it’s stylistically and aesthetically true.”
Upon entering the Convention Center, Cook navigated through security and ticketing with years of festival-going experience, moving quickly past newcomers and up the escalators to the exhibit hall.
There, the Convention Center opened up into a cavernous 528,000 sq. ft of space, full from end to end with vendor tables decked out with artists’ banners and posters reaching down from the ceiling. The festival, hosted by Villain Arts, visited Philadelphia from Jan. 26-28, garnering more than 1,500 vendors.
Mexican artist German Ramírez started as an apprentice at Chicago-based shop Dream City Tattoos and has since worked his way up as a regular artist for the shop, he said.
“I start learning how to clean the area first,” Ramírez said. “How to put together the machine with the needle, the inks, and then I start practicing on fake skin and on my friends, for free.”
Sitting at Ramírez’s vendor table was a shirtless man with long, curly hair, with ink figures covering everything except an Illinois-shaped space from his neck down. Ramírez has been tattooing the man for three years, designing faces like those of drug-lord Pablo Escobar or Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata around his body.
While countless festival-goers could be seen laying, standing or sitting as artists worked on tattoos, the event by no means only trafficked in ink. Whole aisles displayed racks of merchandise ranging from artisanal shirts and posters to metallic artwork and taxidermy alligator heads.
At one end of the exhibition hall, a man dressed in a red hoodie, glasses and sporting a red goatee got on the microphone and announced the next performance, like a raptor display or Aztec dance.
Villain Arts will continue taking its festival across the country, with Jacksonville, Florida and Thompson’s Point, Maine next in line.
“I grew up in this lifestyle,” said Dr. Carl Blasphemy, the emcee of Villain Arts, which hosts the tattoo festival in 28 cities. “My favorite part is the people. The family I’ve accrued, the friends I’ve accrued over the years we’ve all really become a tattoo family traveling each week. I see a lot of these tattoo artists and vendors sometimes more than I see my own family.”