Mary, Queen of Tats

Tattoos may be very much in the mainstream nowadays, but the people who come to tattoo conventions, like this past weekend's International Ink N Iron Festival, tend to be just a leeeeeetle more into it than your average mallrat with a butterfly on her lower back. Indeed, the Suicide Girls—quintessential signifiers of tattoos-as-commercialization—looked downright plain at their small booth outside the Queen Mary. Please, girls: If you're gonna sell a calendar to this crowd, it needs to have more than just CG cartoon drawings of yourselves. If you want to be pinups, you have to compete with the exhibitionists in attendance.

Just a few booths down from the Suicide Girls, at a booth titled “Sin for Sale,” you could overhear a comment that you wouldn't most places: “Can I have a 'Whore Fucker' T-shirt, please?” Still, that particular clothing item was but a warm-up to the best shirt of the show, which bore the slogan “Treat her with honor: Get on her and stay on her.” Ostensibly referring to a motorcycle, of course.

The coolest thing about attending the show in the company of a photgrapher is that when you have a camera and a press credential, women at these shows will expose their boobs for you. Not necessarily “on purpose,” but they aren't exactly shy—you ask to take a photo of their large back piece, and many will take down their top just so your view is unobstructed. Most people with tattoos really want to be looked at.

Emphasis on most: The crew at one booth got really pissy with my companion when she took a picture of their setup. She offered to delete the file, but the “aggrieved” parties merely said, “No, but you should ask first. Convention etiquette!” Let's review, gang: You're covered in body art, set up at a convention with thousands of attendees, and you don't want people to take your picture?

Inside the Queen Mary were three floors of tattoo booths, with inkers from around the world, and naturally enough, the Japanese were the craziest-looking. But when it comes to crazy pain, you can't beat sulu'ape—the traditional Polynesian style done not with electric needles, but rather with needles hammered into you with wooden sticks! Most convention-goers are pretty hardcore, but there was some serious wincing going on at Su'a Sulu'ape Freewind's booth.

Bands played on several stages—mostly country/blues types on the indoor stage, which brings up an interesting question: Why is it that so many of the heavily tattooed folks idolize people like Johnny Cash, Elvis and Bettie Page, people who didn't have any tattoos and, in fact, were all extremely religious? Now, I'm not saying they're wrong to idolize such people because all three are awesome. But somehow you'd expect maybe Henry Rollins, for instance, or Mike Ness, to hold more sway.

On the outdoor stages, country-ish acts had to compete with punk rock acts within mere feet of each other, which proved quite the challenge . . . but as if to school all their asses, the Queen Maryhorn blew a couple of times and drowned out everybody. Big boats are such O.G.s.

Inside the boat, drinking was allowed everywhere, which led to congestion-causing booze lines. Outside, it was confined to certain beer gardens. The bartender at one such enclave mentioned they had to be careful because, on the day prior, they had had a stabbing incident and a 4-year-old kid had been seen wearing an alcohol ID band, indicating there had been no discretion whatsoever in handing them out. Still, one stabbing incident at a show so heavily populated with bikers maybe isn't so bad statistically, right?

Those in attendance could freely roam the Queen Mary itself and eventually find their way to a ballroom upstairs, where a burlesque show was in progress, which meant skits featuring dancing girls who finally take their tops off at the end of a musical number to reveal large, star-shaped pasties. In between these skits were an overly long, ambiguously gay mime act and an amusingly low-rent magic show by a guy named Christopher Wonder, all hosted by a Bruce Campbell wannabe who spouted off lines like “Rentis a lot like AIDS, except you don't have to be gay to get AIDS. Think about it. . . . Think about it!”

The highlight of the day, however, was a most unexpected pleasure: bumper cars. And they were free. And right next to the beer garden. Legal DUI, baby! For those parents who had brought their kids and covered them in fake tattoos, this was a godsend. For the rest of us with lively inner children, it made life just a little sweeter. I must have ridden them at least 10 times, bruising my knees in some head-on collisions. Our photographer nearly broke her camera. But she's posted an online slideshow since, so I think it must be okay.

For lots of amazing tattoo pics from the show, check out our image gallery.

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