This coming weekend, the Mesa Convention Center hosts the 11th annual Arizona Tattoo Expo, where the tattooed and those looking to get tattooed can explore styles and designs by nearly 150 artists.

The convention draws upward of 7,000 people a year and is an opportunity to promote tattooing, said expo founder Sage O'Connell, who owns Urban Art Tattoo in Mesa.

Most of those who attend sport the full-range of tattoos, from sleeves to back pieces to tiny ankle tattoos, but O'Connell says nearly 25 percent get inked there for the first time - a phenomenon he attributes to the success of cable television series like "L.A. Ink," "Miami Ink," and "Inked."

"I see people that might not have gotten a tattoo that now have seen the show(s) where they saw other people that were like-minded and said, 'You know, I really want to do something that commemorates my father,' or, 'I really want to do something that shows my kids how much I love them,' " O'Connell said.

Sean Dowdell, owner of Club Tattoo with five Valley locations, said the TV shows have made tattooing more mainstream, showing that tattoos are a way of expressing people's individuality. In 2006, nearly 24 percent of American adults, aged 18 to 50, had at least one tattoo, according an article that year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dowdell, along with his wife and Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, opened Club Tattoo in 1995,when tattooing was just infiltrating the mainstream. Now, Club Tattoo participates in nearly 20 conventions a year.

"I think years ago, people associated tattoos with kind of a biker mentality or lifestyle," Dowdell said. "Now people will come up to you on the street and check out (your work) and recognize that particular style."

When he opened Club Tattoo, Dowdell estimates there were maybe four tattoo conventions each year worldwide. Now, "there's one every weekend, probably at three different locations in the United States alone," he said.

"There are so many tattoo shows that it's a bit saturated," he said.

One thing that separates this weekend's convention from similar ones is the focus on area art, Josh Gargalione said.

Gargalione, who goes by the name "Uncle Josh," has been tattooing for more than a decade and works at Lady Luck in Tempe.

Gargalione said a lot of the work done by artists at the convention is the result of pre-booked appointments. Last year, Club Tattoo had 18 appointments for four artists. Usually artists tattoo regulars or spend the weekend finishing large pieces.

The expo is more of an opportunity for artists and the Valley's tight-knit tattoo community to socialize, Gargalione said. More than 70 area shops are represented at the convention, though there will be an international artist from Spain and a few more from around the country.

"A lot of time, people will get tattoos from people that are out of town, because you don't have the opportunity to go into another state to go get tattooed," Gargalione said.

Like many conventions, the Arizona Tattoo Expo conducts contests - best black and white, best themed, most erotic - and seminars, including one on piercing by Dowdell, for tattoo artists.

Contest winners earn cash prizes, including $250 for the best tattoo of the day and $500 for best of show, and gain public recognition for their work, which often results in new and repeat customers.

In an effort to differentiate the convention, O'Connell is hosting a fine art show. The art, featuring everything from sculpting to airbrushing to oil painting, is all done by tattoo artists to showcase artistic ability, he said.

Arizona Tattoo Expo

What: The expo includes more than 150 artists from 70 area shops as well as seminars, contests and an art show. When: Noon-11 p.m. Saturday, May 21 and noon-8 p.m. Sunday, May 22. Where: Mesa Convention Center, 201 N. Center St. Admission: $20 per day, $30 for the weekend. Ages 15 and under free with adult. Details: 480-644-0812,

La Sumisa
AZ Central

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