Prior to going to the Ink Life Tour tattoo convention, I had been in contact with an old friend from years back, TJ Gallo, who was now tattooing in Ft. Myers out of Lighter Side Tattoo, owned by Sonny Schenk.
I had told him that I wanted him to tattoo me, and we talked about the design I wanted: a quote on my inner bicep.
I had let him know that I was in town and we met up at a restaurant right by Harborside Event Center where the Ink Life Tour was taking place.
We talked for a bit, caught up, and met his girlfriend who would be getting a portrait of Chuck Palahniuk on her thigh to be entered into the competition later in the day under the "Black and Grey - Small" category.
The first thing I did when getting into the convention was look for the booths of Lighter Side Tattoo, and Anchor and Iron Social Club from Atlanta, Georgia, who MonsterSteel had been in contact with to let them know I would be coming and that we wanted to meet.
I went to Lighter Side, met up with TJ who was stenciling the portrait he was about to do, was introduced to some of the apprentices and artists who also worked there, and instantly began asking them if I could take photos.
One gregarious character, Shady Smith (who was tattooing with Lighter Side, but mainly works out of Red Octopus Tattoos from Maryland, and would walk home with a 1st and 2nd place awards in Small and Large Traditional, respectively), was more than welcoming of pictures being taken of him tattooing and being tattooed.
Next I went to Anchor and Iron Social Club's booth, who seemed to be the main distributors at the convention.
Owner and artist Chris Taylor let me bug him with questions, as well as shop worker and artist Ryan Dominguez.
We went over a few questions, and I looked at the artwork both men had done, had on them, and I was soon inundated with colors.
One thing that caught my ear was, when asked about Ryan's specialty, he said this: "I'd say my specialty is sales and customer service, to be honest. I have no issue talking to people as if I've known them for years, and that makes them comfortable."
It was interesting to hear an artist say it was his personality that he felt was his best asset. Sure, he was confident in his work, but he truly felt customer service was essential.
Ryan introduced me to Joseph 'Joker' Marti from Ink Paradise Tattoos, out of Smyrna, Georgia.
A newer shop in Georgia, his take on the tattoo business was similar to the tone of Ryan's.
Most of the time, it's the artists artwork that helps bring people in.
Keeping them, and making them comfortable enough to come back, however, was a different thing all together.
"Customer service is key," Marti remarked. "If you're personable and bubbly, you're ahead of the game."
Both of the guys asked if I was getting any work done, and I explained my friend TJ was going to be doing work on my inner bicep.
They nodded in approval, and then I looked at some of their artwork, which was full of color and detail, as opposed to the simple script idea I had wanted.
The night went on, and I watched a knife-throwing act and a suspension show.
I'd check in at the Lighter Side booth and see the progress of the portrait TJ was doing, and then saw the final product which looked amazing, as well as a tattoo he'd done the day before.
As he prepared for the next piece he was going to do, he let me know that he'd be doing it quickly, taking a small break, and then we could work on mine. It was most likely going to be around 8 p.m. now.
I watched the musical guests Havok and Crowbar, and as 8 o'clock turned to close to 11:30, me and TJ met outside for a quick nicotine break and we had a conversation regarding my tattoo.
"... script is boring. Let's do something fun." He said grinning.
I thought quickly and asked about the traditional dipping sparrow design near the outside of the crook of my elbow.
I'd always loved the design, and saw the stencil on the Lighter Side booth's table. "I've been wanting to rock a traditional piece while I was here!" TJ said excited.
When it was finally my turn to sit in the chair, he asked about what colors I had wanted.
"I don't know. I know you're awesome at colors, man. Just make me pretty."
An unpleasant remark about my appearance was made by TJ, to which we both laughed and I called him a further unpleasant name. Then he began drawing the piece onto my arm.
Just as we began with the tattoo, punk-scene essentials Suicidal Tendencies began to play. Forty-five minutes later, my tattoo was done, and I was able to catch the end of Suicidal Tendencies set.
Just after midnight, as the convention began to die down and people started to leave, I said my goodbyes to the people I met and headed to the parking garage to drive back to my hotel.
Twelve hours of the convention, and I saw a great many of things: musical artists I'd grown up listening to, saw some amazing artists working in their environment, and a guy getting his head tattooed for hours who sat like a stone without a single complaint.
I walked out with a new tattoo, my feet hurting, and dreading my three hour drive home the next morning. All in all, it was a wonderful time. Thank you, Ink Life Tour.