Meet the needles

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My late grandfather was a heavily tattooed ex-Navy man who spent most of the time I knew him devising reasons to keep his shirt on during trips to the beach. The self-mutilation that had seemed such a good idea in his youth was the source of much shame in his later years. Through his example, I learned two invaluable lessons: (1) Don't join the Navy, and (2) Never do anything to your own body that you can't change later.

Last weekend's Marked for Life tattoo expo at east Orlando's Holiday Inn-Select made me question the latter of those long-held philosophies. Today's illustrated men and women, I learned, comprise a proud and diverse societal subgroup. As one of the T-shirts that was for sale at the three-day expo proclaimed, tattoos are "not just for sailors and whores anymore." Oh, Pa; you were not too stupid, but too soon.

In its fifth annual edition, the event saluted not only the emergence of skin art as a respectable pastime, but the important role of women in its evolution. This was an affair for female artists only, a chance for the distaff practitioners of the trade to work their magic on victims -- I'm sorry, clients -- of all ages and both sexes. Some 35 exhibitors from such exotic, bohemian locales as Berlin and West Bradenton shoehorned themselves into their best leather bondage gear and warmed up their needles to leave an impression on everyone who entered their booths. A perpetual buzzing sound was heard throughout the hotel's ballroom as they set about their work -- as if a swarm of flies had attacked an outdoor pool party and kept its bug zapper working overtime.

Marking time

In Booth No. 5, Cindy Lael of the Daytona Beach-based Atlantic Tattoo dispensed smaller, "souvenir" tatts that took about an hour to complete. They were no major test of her abilities, but she wasn't discouraged.

"They come to my shop for the big stuff," she noted with relaxed confidence.

One aisle over, Denmark's Trine Nielsen tackled assignments that were significantly more involved. On Saturday, she spent an estimated seven hours affixing a demonic figure to the lower leg of a long-haired fellow who was dressed in bike shorts and a baseball cap. The following afternoon, she ate up another four hours attaching a similarly ominous image to a skinhead's skull.

The crowd included plenty of mohawked punks and bearded Hell's Angels, but more than a few motherly types were spotted making additions to their growing collections of personal accouterments. Outerwear was doffed and sweatpants hiked up around reddened haunches as customers milled about the hotel, giving their fresh decorations room to breathe. All-over designs burst from exposed shoulders; never have I seen so much flesh simultaneously displayed and obscured.

Photo-catalogs of the artists' past triumphs were laid out to help inspire the undecided. The cutest design: a cartoon portrait of the Grim Reaper as a baby. The oddest: a bust of Charles Bronson.

In the lobby, a subscription booth was set up where readers could purchase subscriptions to such lifestyle periodicals as "Outlaw Biker." The statuesque brunette who worked the station was free of visible tattoos but earned my admiration anyway by telling me that she had once removed a set of braces from her teeth using pliers and a cuticle cutter. Yikes!

Brand recognition

The expo was the brainchild of Deana Lippens, proprietor of Deana's Skin Art Studio on East Colonial Drive. But despite her status as the gathering's patron saint, Lippens was largely invisible during the proceedings. She spent most of her time sequestered in a private room off the main hall, supervising the judging of tattoos that were in contention for the weekend's coveted award trophies.

When the closing-night ceremony was finally held on Sunday, I was stunned that so many folks walked away with multiple awards, and that a number of them were said to have won in other categories last year. A few of the losers weren't as surprised, murmuring, "It's the same people who win over and over." Instead of grumbling, I'd be giving them props for having any skin left at all.

The rest of the event was bereft of hard feelings. Perhaps there's a solace in being among your own kind, but no matter how jammed the aisles became, "After you" and "Pardon me" remained the watchwords. If that doesn't seem like a big deal, visit a comic-book convention.

These people were polite, respectful and obviously overflowing with self-esteem. (You don't waltz into a PTA meeting with a death's-head on your neck if you're haunted by deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.) So I decided to join them by getting my very first tattoo. It's a nice, tasteful rose that now sits on my right shoulder, and the instructions that came with the temporary decal say that it should rub off in a week or so. If it doesn't, I suppose I can just use pliers.

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