Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Festival: Inked Revelry Unleashed


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 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 has to be hilarious,” Cook said. I’m 35 per cent covered. I intend to cover an amount of skin; I don’t care what it is as long as it’s stylistically and aesthetically accurate.”

Upon entering the Convention Center, Cook navigated through security and ticketing with years of festival-going experience, quickly passing newcomers and climbing the escalators to the exhibit hall.

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A man grimaces as he gets his right arm tattooed. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA 

The Convention Center opened into a cavernous 528,000 sq. ft. space, complete 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 over 1,500 vendors.

He said that Mexican artist German Ramírez started as an apprentice at Chicago-based Dream City Tattoos and has since worked his way up to being a regular artist for the shop.

“I start by learning how to clean the area,” Ramírez said. I then learn how to assemble the machine with the needle and the inks and start practising on fake skin and my friends for free.”

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German Ramírez (right) stands beside a man he has been tattooing for three years. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA

Sitting at Ramírez’s vendor table was a shirtless man with long, curly hair. Ink figures covered 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 was 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.

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A man smiles at a vendor table, showing off his striking septum piercing and tattoos. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA 

At one end of the exhibition hall, a man dressed in a red hoodie and glasses and a red goatee got on the microphone and announced the next performance, such as a raptor display or Aztec dance.

Villain Arts will continue to expand its festival nationwide, 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 favourite part is the people. The family and friends I’ve accrued over the years have all become a tattoo family travelling each week. I see a lot of these tattoo artists and vendors sometimes more than I see my own family.”

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Rob Smith (left) and Dr. Carl Blasphemy (right) took a break while working at the festival. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA
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An, an Aztec dancer, blows into a conch during his performance. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA

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