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Tattoo art gets under your skin

Mike Wells, 19, of Idaho Falls, watches with apprehension as piercers Fay Hammond and Colleen Weenis apply a
Mike Wells, 19, of Idaho Falls, watches with apprehension as piercers Fay Hammond and Colleen Weenis apply a "crown of thorns," a piercing consisting of a ring of interlaced needles poked through the scalp of apprentice tattoo artist Jon Slichter, at the Ink Travelers tattoo and body piercing convention Saturday. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Jon Slichter tapped out the pain with his foot.

The 27-year-old asked for a break, breathed deep, and then thumped his chest with his fist.

“OK,” he said, signaling for two piercing artists to continue poking more than 30 short needles through his shaved scalp. The group was creating a “crown of thorns” on Slichter’s head at a tattoo and piercing convention called Ink Travelers, being held at the Coeur d’Alene Casino this weekend.

“Ouch,” said onlooker Ken Cromer, a maintenance worker at the casino, who stopped by the convention during his lunch break. Cromer called the event the most unusual show the casino has hosted.

“Some (casino customers) are a little freaked out,” he said. “The older ones, especially.”

Convention founder Felicia Conley predicted 1,000 to 1,500 people will have attended the three-day event before it ends tonight. It’s the fifth Ink Travelers convention, which brings mainly Northwest tattoo and piercing artists together to learn new skills, attract new customers and show off their work.

“The artists will flock together because they’re all so good, and they’re all so arrogant,” said Tom Bishop, who helped organize the event. “Some of these people almost come with an entourage,” he added later.

The convention includes contests such as best tribal tattoo, best old-school design and most unusual piercing. Today’s competitions run from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Jodie Soto’s backside was the first thing attendees could see as they entered the convention room Saturday afternoon. Soto, 30, came from Seattle to get a tattoo on her lower back from Pat Fish, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based tattooist known for her Celtic designs.

“I wasn’t going to get a tattoo unless I could get it from her,” Soto said.

The mother of three described the pain as “less than childbirth.”

While the tattoo was Soto’s first, tattooist Josh May of Missoula lost track of how many he has.

“I’m working on just getting all covered,” he said.

May calls his left thigh his “sketch pad,” where he practices designs. His arms are covered in Mexican Day of the Dead designs, a portrait of blues musician Robert Johnson and a Japanese geisha. May’s forearm features a foot-long design of the Virgin Mary, her arms outstretched.

“It’s an homage to my mom,” he said.

Tattoos have become more common in the last five years. Bishop said young military enlistees, rock stars and the subculture crowd are still getting them, but so are grandmothers and professionals. Bishop himself works in the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services’ medical fraud investigation unit. During the week, he wears shirts and pants that cover most of his body art.

“Anybody who’s going to get stuff on their necks and hands is really serious,” Bishop said. “You’re limiting where you’re going to go in life.”

But Frank DuBarry, 31, said the ink that covers his face has opened doors in the arts community.

“It was a way to express myself in less words,” he said of the 11-year-old tattoo. “It weeds out people I don’t want to talk to anyway.”

When asked why they tattoo and pierce themselves, some attendees said it’s for spiritual reasons. Others consider their bodies canvases for art. And some just shrugged their shoulders, unable to explain.

The convention left a few of the casino’s gamblers baffled.

“I think it’s a waste of money and a waste of good time,” said Harry Martin, 81, of Fairfield, Wash. “But everybody has their own opinion.”