Arts & Culture

Write it in ink: Olympia isn’t just the state capital, but a tattoo capital as well

Olympia artists on display at Seattle Tattoo Expo

Bryan Childs of Spidermonkey Tattoos and fellow tattoo artists from Olympia will demonstrate their craft at this weekend's Seattle Tattoo Expo in the Seattle Center.
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Bryan Childs of Spidermonkey Tattoos and fellow tattoo artists from Olympia will demonstrate their craft at this weekend's Seattle Tattoo Expo in the Seattle Center.

If you go to this weekend’s Seattle Tattoo Expo, you’ll see lots of people with tattoos, lots of people getting tattoos — and lots of tattoo artists from Olympia.

The expo, in its 18th year, includes artists from across the nation, plus a few from countries as far away as Poland, but when it comes to Washington-based artists, the state capital is something of a tattoo capital as well — at least on a per-capita basis.

Four local tattoo shops are sending artists to the expo, open by invitation only. That’s more than any other Washington city except Seattle, which has 27 participating shops (and 725,000-some residents compared to Olympia’s 50,000 or so).

Since the expo began, tattoos have entered the mainstream, said expo organizer Jeff Cornell of Seattle. “It’s really not a fringe thing anymore,” he told The Olympian.

“What still surprises people oftentimes is how just regular people — teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers — that you wouldn’t think of as being the kind of people that would have a full body suit, it turns out they do,” he said. “You might run into your kid’s kindergarten teacher and find out she has a full back piece.”

A 2010 Pew Research poll found that 23 percent of Americans had tattoos, but for younger people, the numbers are far higher: 38 percent of adults under 30 and 32 percent of those 30 to 45 had at least one, compared with 15 percent of Baby Boomers and only 6 percent of those older than 65.

That’s a big change since 1996, when Cornell, the owner of Hidden Hand Tattoos in Seattle, started tattooing. “Part of the work was educating a public who believed that all tattoos were blue smears and that only sailors and bikers and hookers and criminals got them,” he said.

The prevalence of tattoo shops in Olympia, where you can’t walk far downtown without passing one, suggests even higher numbers here.

“It could be the youth culture here,” said Bryan Childs, who owns Spidermonkey Tattoos on Olympia’s Fourth Avenue. “Olympia is unlike most towns in the Puget Sound area. We have an old downtown area where people actually hang out.

“Olympia has always had a strong music and art culture,” added Childs of Lacey, who has been a regular at the expo since the beginning and will be there this year with five other artists from his shop.

There might be a political piece as well. In the Pew study, young adults who identified as Democrats or liberals were more likely to be tattooed than those who vote Republican or identified as conservative.

Demographic trends aside, tattoos are highly personal, Childs told The Olympian.

“The essence of a tattoo is a mark,” he said. “It can be almost a talisman, and that could be very personal. It almost always has some kind of deep meaning.”

He doesn’t see his own tattoos that way, however.

“I just like tattoos,” he said. “When I got into tattooing, there was something that made sense to me about being an artist and wearing the art as well, being a canvas basically.”

Defining a quality tattoo, as the expo aims to do, is no easy matter, he and Cornell agree. There’s technical skill and an artist’s ability to work with the limitations of skin, a medium that must be treated with care for proper healing and one that will age and change. Beyond that, good can be a matter of taste and style.

One clue to the importance of technical skill is the expo’s entertaining Worst Tattoo Contest, which offers the winner, so to speak, a gift certificate for tattoo time to fix or cover the unfortunate art.

“Sometimes people think that a bad idea done well is going to win that contest,” Cornell said. “That is not the case. We are looking for, ‘I was 18, and I got really drunk with my friends, and I couldn’t stop moving.’

“We’re looking for a technically terrible tattoo.”

If you’re actually getting a tattoo, of course, you want just the opposite, Childs said. “It has always been and always will be a buyer-beware market. You have to do your research.”

The expo is one place to do that, since you can see the work of 200 artists in one place — and that’s not including all of the tattoos you’ll see on other attendees.

It’s also a place to be entertained, with lots of competitions for the best tattoo in various categories, plus burlesque performances and “sideshows” such as aerialists, magicians and sword swallowers.

How about tattooed ladies, popular at the turn of the 20th century?

“There are going to be a few hundred of those,” Childs said, laughing. “Some might even have beards. You never know.”

Seattle Tattoo Expo

  • What: The 18th annual expo gathers tattooers (as the artists call themselves), the tattooed and the curious with opportunities to be tattooed and meet artists from local to international, plus contests, burlesque, sideshow acts and more.
  • When: 2-10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16; noon-10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17; noon-8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18
  • Where: Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, 301 Mercer St., Seattle
  • Tickets: $20 per day or $50 for the full weekend
  • More information: seattletattooexpo.com
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