A spate of stabbings ripped into San Antonio residents last weekend right under the noses of the San Antonio Police Department — but not a single arrest was made. Bikers, gang-bangers, punks, ex-cons, and accountants descended upon a single location from Friday through Sunday to risk spilling their blood. And everyone left wearing a smile. The occasion was the seventh annual Slinging Ink Tattoo Expo, one of the city’s two major skin-art conventions, held for the first time this year in a larger venue than years past — the 55,000-square-foot San Antonio Event Center.
By the reckoning of Silvia Fernandez, co-owner of organizer Nikita Productions, by the end of the second day more than 12,000 attendees had walked through the doors and into the cavernous building — which buzzed incessantly with humming tattoo guns — putting the expo on track to easily break previous attendance records. Around 240 tattoo artists flourished their needles, up from 200 last year.
The Current spent all three days at the expo with the goal of answering a single-minded question: What, if anything, distinguishes the San Antonio tattoo culture from other cities around the world? And from amid the skulls, roses, daggers, and hearts emerged a crystalline answer: It depends whom you ask. But consensus rests upon three points. The number of people sporting tattoos has grown exponentially in the city, as it has nationwide, but the San Antonio tattoo community — at least the devotees — remains relatively small. And the tat-hacks are setting up new shops as quickly and densely as Starbucks cafés in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, San Antonio has made more of a mark in the American skin-art tradition than many in the tattooed public realize. Tattoo legend Bob Moreau put the city on the flesh-decoration map in 1986, when he opened Perfection Tattoo. Doctor Bob, as he is affectionately known, originally apprenticed under John Stuckey of Custom Design in Houston in the 1970s, and went on to help forge what is now generally recognized by aficionados worldwide as the Texas Style. Under Moreau’s tutelage, prominent artists Chris Treviño, Shawn DeGan, Dave Lum, and Troy Curry refined the style and helped spread it throughout Southern Texas. DeGan, who still operates a Perfection Tattoo studio in San Antonio, tutored still more local artists, including local icon Weldon Lewis, who has owned Mr. Lucky’s Tattoo since 1992.
“We try to respect the old designs,” Lewis says. “Sometimes there’s some kind of urge to improve on them, but when you sit a minute and take a look, you realize that it’s a craft that needs to be done a certain way. It’s like playing music. You can sit there and strum a bunch of chords in a new progression or tempo, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be making better music.”
Texas Style involves thick, bold lines, strong, vibrant colors, and simple, often campy or whimsical images. In many ways, it hearkens back to the traditional Americana style popularized by legends such as Sailor Jerry, Lyle Tuttle, and Ed Hardy. “When tattooing started getting more popularized and more broadcast, a lot of regions started copying these intricate, fine-lined styles,” notes traditionalist Jedidia Reid, owner of Element Tattoos and one of the city’s most powerful young artists at 31. “But,” he jokes, “here in Texas we were a bunch of assholes who just kept drawing our big lines and bold colors.”
That’s not to say San Antonio has pigeon-holed itself as a standard-bearer of Texas Style or Americana. Artists point to the area’s rich Hispanic heritage of “cultural tattoos” that replicate or pay tribute to Maya and Aztec motifs, or the fine-line, black-and-gray Chicano styles that have proliferated in some tattoo parlors. Moreover, with the mainstreaming of tattoo subcultures on hit programs such as Miami Ink and L.A. Ink, regional differences among states or cities matter less and less.
In some respects, in part because of the energy generated by a relatively close community of diehard artists, San Antonio tattooists have the potential to forge ahead into new territory as quickly as new techniques and technologies become available. Mario Sanchez, the 39-year-old owner of Prick Tattoo, is one of only three artists in the U.S. doing painstaking single-needle miniature portraits. Wife and co-owner Roxanne sports several on her knuckles. Collectors, as avid human canvasses are called in the lexicon, have traveled from around the U.S., and from Mexico and Europe to go under his needle. A stream of inquiries from colleagues around the world finally prompted Sanchez to develop instructional videos on his techniques. “I think San Antonio can take its place alongside other larger, more well-established and well-known cities,” Sanchez says.
Surprisingly, most of the artists the Current spoke to at the Slinging Ink Tattoo Expo downplay the importance of the military influence on the local skin-art scene. “I started down in Fort Hood,” says Jennifer “La Flaca” Cordero, founder of MujeresInk, a new studio of all female artists. “I can draw dog tags or a fallen-soldier scene with my eyes closed. I got to San Antonio and it’s so exciting. Everyone brings in their own custom ideas, and I love it.” •
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