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Look Better Naked: Get a Tattoo

Mark Madden tattooing Ganesha on Dawn Marchant. (photo by Lori Joyce)

4th Annual Niagara Tattoo Expo this weekend

As far back as the mid-16th century crowds flocked to see people with deformities where exhibitions of Siamese twins, dwarfs and such were treated as objects of interest and entertainment. However, Buffalo had the unique honor of hosting the world’s first official “Freak Show” at the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Included in the parade of ‘freak’ midgets and humans with deformities was an exhibition of primitive Polynesians covered with tattoos who were gawked at and laughed at by the much more civilized attendees of the Pan Am. By contrast, in 2014 on (August 1-3) this area will host The Niagara Tattoo Expo at the Conference Center in Niagara Falls. The event, less than 20 miles from the 1901 Pan Am site, will bring hundreds of the best tattoo artists locally and from around the world. It will be attended by thousands of tattoo fans who will have splendid tattoos of their own to exhibit. Many of those fans will add a new tattoo from one of the Expo artists. Things have changed. 1901s freak is 2014s hip dudes and babes.

Artist Mark Madden, founder of and one of the Niagara Tattoo Expo sponsors talked about the event and the art of tattoo.

“It’s pretty much the Olympics of tattooing,” said Madden. “We’ll be doing live tattooing from Buffalo artists but also international artists will fly in. They’ll come in for three days and some of them will book appointments ahead of time through Facebook or their websites. Other artists will rely on people to walk through. People will just walk into the convention center and flip through portfolios and decide on an artist they want to work with. We’ll probably have eighty to a hundred tattoo artists who will be tattooing Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“At the end of every night there are tattoo competitions. A panel of judges select Best Sleeve, Best Old School Traditional, Best New School Tattoo, Best Backpiece, etc. Along with that, there’ll be local entertainment from balloon sculptures to live burlesque to live art on stage, a big graffiti mural outside, so it’s not just tattooing.”

All tattoo artists are not the same and Madden believes the Expo is a great opportunity to pick up a tattoo from an artist you may not otherwise have access to.

“Each of the local tattoo studios will represent, and we’ve got artists that specialize in different niches,” said Madden. “One artist may be known for doing portraits, another artist is known for doing old school Americana style tattoos, and so on. This is an opportunity when people can come in and say ‘okay, I don’t always have the chance to get this style of tattooing.’ For example, Loki Shane DeFriece is coming here from Atlanta. He specializes in kooky, fun, cartoony imagery. So if somebody wanted that specific style they’d look him up. There are some guys coming here from Spike TVs hit show Ink Master. Reality television has boomed the market of tattooing. Every year you see more and more lawyers, judges, or police officers with tattoos. Fifteen years ago you didn’t see anybody but rock stars, bikers and ex-cons with tattoos. Now it’s socially acceptable to have tattoos. Where back in the day it was considered more of a screw society movement, now it’s considered an art form. Part of the reason for that are advances in the technology. What we can do on skin wasn’t even thought about ten years ago.”

How many colors do you have available?

“I’m looking at probably fifty colors right now in my palette alone. If you can think it, there’s a company out there that has that color. In the 1950s there were only the basic four or five colors, red, yellow, green, blue and black. In the WWII era, black wasn’t available because we were at war with Germany and Germany was the epicenter of black ink. Tattoo artists would take a really dark green and mix in blue or something to try and make it look black.

“But beside the inks, it’s also the quality of the machine. This machine here sure ain’t the machine of the 1940s or 50s. They used to hand-prick tattoos. The Polynesians and the Japanese did all hand-poked tattoos. Nowadays, tattooing has evolved into pneumatic tattooing machines. What I’m using here is a rotary machine.”

What’s the best defense against a bad tattoo?

“Research. Research. Research. That’s it. Know an artist’s reputation, look through their portfolio; make sure you talk to somebody that’s been tattooed by them before. Do your homework. Anyone I tattoo has usually been sent to me by somebody that I personally tattooed. So that person is familiar with me and specifically wants my work. I’m booked up for three months and you know that no one is going to wait three months if they’ve never heard of me. A lot of people get what they call ‘impulse tattoos.’ No one gets an impulse tattoo from me. I don’t do them.

“One of the benefits of being booked up is it allows me to be a little bit strategic about who I want to tattoo. And it gives the client time to think, because a tattoo is permanent. If you’re going to get a tattoo you have to be ready to commit to it. Usually when somebody makes an appointment with me, from the day they made the appointment that tattoo design will end up being changed three times by the time they end up getting the tattoo done. It works out for everybody’s best benefit.”

How much of your work is cover up?

“I’ve done a good amount of cover up. People do make bad decisions. People love to be impulsive and then regret it later, so a lot of our business is cover up. There are certain artists that specialize in cover up and certain artists that won’t touch a cover up. The best thing an artist needs to know is what can be covered up and what can be removed with laser technology. You can go down the street on Hertel and get a laser tattoo removal over a few weeks and come back here in a couple months after it heals and then have a cover up. It makes it much easier if that initial first layer of skin is taken off a couple times.”

During this interview Madden was busy creating a tattoo on a young woman’s forearm. This would be her first tattoo and Madden was drawing the outlines of the elephant headed Hindu deity Ganesha.

“Every different culture has certain icons and Ganesha has always been a good one for artistic reasons, besides being a beautiful image he’s the divine patron of the arts. We decided to do a Ganesh on Dawn for her first tattoo.”

I reminded Madden that in the past females generally got very small tattoos, a flower, a Celtic cross or small ankh symbol.

“Yes, that’s true. Now that’s all changed. Now they have a whole market of models called alt models. Alternative models do not conform to mainstream ideals of beauty. They might be tattooed, pierced, have hair dyed an unnatural color, etc. You’ll see alt models now in books, magazines, television, everywhere.

“For a tattoo artist it’s how an artist puts art on a female that makes a difference. I would not do this tattoo of Ganesh on her the same way I would on one of my 300lb rock star guys. This one is going to be a lot more feminine. I’m going to pull out the eyelashes more, I’m going to make the flow of the lines a lot more feminine and curved, where as on a bigger, beefier guy I would make the tattoo bigger and beefier. For a girl to have a tattoo today it’s far more socially acceptable. But it has to be a good tattoo. You can tell from across the room whether that’s a jailhouse tattoo or whether that was paid for as a very expensive piece of body art, whether they’re a collector of tattoos or whether they got it in some basement. So that expense takes away some of the class stigma because now it’s like wearing an expensive piece of jewelry.”

Madden will tattoo anyone but he says the style of his artwork appeals more to men.

“Personally, I tattoo more males than female. That’s because in general guys are getting bigger pieces. You see women getting larger tattoos but I probably do about 70% male to 30% percent female. The other artist who works next to me tattoos mostly females. His ratio is probably 90% female to 10% men. It’s because of the style of work that he’s doing. He takes more walk ins. Women tend to get the smaller feminine stuff and his portfolio reflects that, so they’ll look through his portfolio and they’ll see more things to make them gravitate towards him and say ‘I want the birds I want the butterflies.’”

In addition to images Madden is very familiar with tattoo lettering, something every tattoo artist has to deal with. There seems to be more and more writing in tattoos today. In fact, there’s a whole book dedicated to tattooed words, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. I asked Madden whether script or print dominated.

“Nowadays it’s script,” said Madden. “The east coast has always been known for big, bold gothic lettering and west coast has always been known as curly, stroked out filigree style lettering. West coast has come over to the east coast now and you see a lot more of the west coast flowing script, where back in the 90s you’d see more of the old English chunky block print in tats.”

How about misspelled tattoos?

“It happens. That’s something I always tell all of my people, don’t ask the customer because they’re nervous. If the customer’s nervous they can easily make a mistake. As artists we think about script as an art form. So I don’t think about tattooing as letter by letter I think about it as this line to this stroke to this stroke. When someone’s writing out the original words for the tattoo it’s very easy to get confused or distracted. Distractions happen in tattoo studios all the time. Maybe they brought their girlfriend and they’re having a conversation, they’re not thinking about how to correctly spell ‘ridiculous’ and it will come out rediculous. So you’ve got to double check, triple check, there’s always time to make sure. We’re in the age of Google. We always double check online. And on our release forms we always make sure that if you’re getting script that you sign off on it. So they’re not coming back and saying look at what happened.

“Where you see that happen most is in foreign lettering,” said Madden. “Someone will come in and get a couple Japanese Kanji symbols. They don’t realize that two kanjis stacked next to each other doesn’t mean ‘mad man’ anymore, it means mad girl, or whatever. That happens all the time. Or they’ll get Sanskrit lettering and they’ll think they know what it means and then they’ll go to their local Indian restaurant where there’s someone who actually knows Sanskrit and they’ll look down and shake their head because that one thick accent or that one thin accent changes everything. Maybe now it says ‘I’m a bananna.’”

Although Madden’s studios are in Buffalo he’s done his share of out-of-town clients.

“I do a lot of musicians, athletes, too. Dennis Rodman is one of my clients. I’ve tattooed Dennis several times. Dennis kind of broke the barrier with tattooing. Nobody in the NBA had tattoos before Dennis did and once Dennis got that fame everyone in basketball had a tattoo. If you don’t have a tattoo in basketball somebody’s going to say ‘wow, why doesn’t that guy have a tattoo?’”

“It’s the same with rock stars. We’re headed to the Rockstar Mayhem Festival. I can guarantee you that if there are three different stages and forty different musicians ninety percent of those musicians will have full-sleeve tattoos.

“Nowadays, instead of tattooing from shoulder down they’re tattooing from hands up. They want to rush it, so the way people get tattoos has changed. Before you had a chest piece first and you’d have to have your shirt off to see it. Now somebody will jump right in and get a neck tattoo for their first tattoo because they’re eager to get that recognition. They’re skipping a couple steps and jumping right in and getting hands and necks for their first tattoo.”

How does Madden or any tattoo artist deal with the many curves in the body?

“That’s the thing, as an artist we’re never dealing with a flat surface and we have to take that into consideration. How the body’s going to move. So for me to tattoo an image on somebody’s ribs compared to their back, I’m going to go at the project a little bit differently. And because they’re moving and shaking and the human skin isn’t always taut we have to always be working on a moving canvas and a moving canvas with several shapes. Sometimes your design is going to have to adjust to a particular shape. So a lot of times if it’s a curve I’m going to design it a maybe a little bit thinner maybe a little bit longer and kind of over exaggerate certain areas to make if fit that piece of skin better.”

Madden’s Madd Tiki studio on Hertel Ave. is a lot like a comfy living room. There are plenty of tattoo images around but not the massive wall of flash often found in tattoo parlors of old. Flash is a stereotypical tattoo design printed on paper to give walk-in customers ideas for tattoos. It’s most common in street shops that handle a large volume of generic tattoos for walk-in customers. That’s not what most customers want today.

“Usually when someone comes in they have a general idea of what they want,” said Madden. “We’re a custom tattoo studio so we want to make their idea a reality. Back in the day in most tattoo studios you’d have a wall with flash and someone would pick number 27, the flower. Nowadays most people prefer to have a tattoo that is made for them by an artist that will never be created again. People want a tattoo that says it’s who they are. They don’t want to see their tattoo on someone else. Unless it’s old school Americana, that’s a case where you want to have an anchor that looks like your uncle’s anchor. Our studio will do stuff like that but in general you’re going to come in with a concept, we’re going to take it to the drawing board, we’re going to take out some references, we’re going to have a conference and then you are going to get a custom tattoo that was made specifically for you.”

Do people go back to the same tattoo artist over and over?

“Yeah, you do see that,” said Madden. “The majority of my clients I’ve been tattooing for over a decade. It’s not always true though. People have said to me ‘Mark you’re the only tattoo artist I would let tattoo me.’ That’s not for me. I’ve been tattooed by at least thirty-two different artists and it made me a better artist. I’ve learned from every artist that has tattooed me. And as a collector, if you’re an art collector there’s not a ton of art collectors that just collect Mattisse. Most art collectors are smart enough to have a good variety.”

Madden, like many others, is both artist and collector. There’s been a rising number of tattoo collectors who are not artists and those collectors are gaining a large influence in the tattoo world. That’s understandable, because if they’ve got a body covered with fabulous tattoos people trust their opinion. You see them at conventions posing with artists and they’re all over social media. Some of them have thousands of fans and their instagram following can rival that of the tattooer. No doubt there will be some at the Niagara Expo who will spend the whole weekend getting tattooed by multiple artists. Believe it or not, a serious collector can make or break a tattoo artist’s reputation. Fortunately, collectors are usually very positive because they obviously chose an artist whose work they wanted.

I asked Madden if anyone ever came in with a concept he refused to do.

“Without a doubt. I won’t tattoo racism, I won’t tattoo gang affiliations, I won’t tattoo hatred. I will tattoo ridiculousness. Fun ridiculous tattoos are great. But hate tattoos I stay away from and I won’t recommend anyone else, either. I’ll recommend they think about it.”

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