In Cambodia, Buddhist monks ink magical yantra tattoos on people's flesh to ward off evil. In Polynesian New Zealand, the indigenous Maori carve colorful swirls called ta moko into their faces to illustrate social stature. And in Miami recently, a pigtailed 20-something man named Mike Pinto etched the word ape onto his own jiggling, keg-of-beer gut because, well, he was "too drunk to spell Neanderthal."
Welcome to TattooLaPalooza, a tattoo and motorcycle show at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach). Jammed with booths brimful of local and national talent, it's a candy store for freaks and motorphile geeks.
One visitor is Dawn, a 26-year-old with wavy, dark hair who dates an artist from Fort Lauderdale's Tattoo Blues (927 Sunrise Ln., Fort Lauderdale). She wears a black veil topped with a tiny pill hat. Three glued-on plastic ants creep across her pencil-thin, tatted-on eyebrows.
When I approach, she shows off her right forearm, where a boy is pictured setting fire to a building. "This little guy right here," she says, "is to honor my father, who burnt down a school in Miami Lakes with his brothers when he was 7 years old, back in the '70s."
And why did these brothers, the eldest age 13 at the time, commit arson?
"Because they stole a bunch of paper and pencils from the school and were so scared they'd get caught that they decided to get rid of any kind of evidence of their crime."
I move onto Eric, AKA "Kracker," whose nickname is branded on the inside of his lower lip. The smallish, strawberry-blond piercer at Washington Avenue's Salvation Tattoo Lounge (843 Washington Ave. and 1413 Washington Ave., Miami Beach) lifts up his shirt to reveal a large, beautifully detailed heart designed to give the illusion its popping out of his chest. It represents his 6-year-old niece, who often undergoes surgery for cerebral palsy. "Every time she has an operation, it's like she comes back to life," he says. "It may not make a lot of sense, but to me, it symbolizes that constant rebirth and struggle."
On his stomach, there's a pin-up babe riding a rocket. His ankle shows off a weird Egyptian symbol for life that he says was done by an ex-fiancée. His arms are a rainbow of ink, with small stretches of bare skin. "I grew up in a small town in Illinois where it was looked down upon. Getting my first sleeve and seeing how people responded to it was very enlightening."
I wander down one of the red-and-white tented aisles, which hum with a mosquito-like buzz, and spy a shirtless man in leopard-print shorts. Two small, budding horns are implanted in his forehead. "Enigma," as he calls himself, is covered from the tip of his toes to the top of his shaved head with nothing but colorful puzzle pieces. "One day, I decided I wanted to be completely blue, so I did it one piece at a time," he says, lifting his arms to reveal a complete lack of deodorant.
His stench chases me to Billy Jack, an artist from Dallas whose full body suit of inked images stops right below his chin. He subscribes to a familiar philosophy: "First it started with my legs. Then I got the two sleeves and I was like, 'That's it.' Then I said I wasn't going to do my chest. Next thing you know, my chest and stomach are completely covered. Then I said, 'Never my hands or my neck.' But tattoos are like potato chips, man — you can't have just one. It's a social addiction more than anything else; it's the way people respond to you."
As the very mediocre-looking 30-something white guy shows off an Audrey Hepburn portrait piece he did on his extremely hot, blond wife's forearm, he adds, "You also can't ignore the sense of danger and sexuality that you emit when you've got tattoos. An average joe who's unlucky in love comes into my shop, and after a full sleeve, he'll leave and come back in a month for another one because he's getting laid all the time."
Ramona, a lanky 29-year-old Olive Oyl look-alike with curly hair and a septum piercing, credits Tattoos by Lou III (9820 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest) as the catalyst for all of her male conquests. An image on her left inner thigh depicts a yellow janitor's sign that reads, "Slippery When Wet." One on the right simply reads, "WWJD?"
"I know I'm not the most attractive girl ever," she says. "I've got to work with what I got, so if I can't be the prettiest girl in the room, I want to at least look like the most interesting girl in the room."
Or the sluttiest. Either way, Ramona is proud she doesn't have a lower-back tramp stamp — "you know, of some fairy or some trendy tribal crap floating above my butt crack."
"Those are the worst," says Adam Facenda, an artist and owner of Margate's True Love Tattoo (1400 N. State Road 7, Margate). "There are certain tattoos that artists hate doing, but everyone wants them — barbed-wire armbands, Chinese symbols. Now everyone's getting these stupid mustaches tattooed onto the side of their index fingers — you know, so they can hold them up under their nose. They all think it's so hilarious.
"A buddy of mine got so annoyed with doing these mustaches that one day he thought it'd be an even funnier idea to give himself a similar tattoo, on the side of the finger, but instead of a mustache, he tattooed a giant turd with a bunch of corn in it."
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Gross, but remotely clever. Though it's not nearly as comical as Scott, a husky 33-year-old in a purple beanie, who thought it'd be a real knee-slapper to use his abnormally large bellybutton as, um, a butthole... for a penguin. "I got it back in 2005, after seeing March of the Penguins," he says. "After seeing a penguin's life and realizing mine wasn't nearly as bad, it kind of inspired me to get off drugs."
"So this is kind of my way of celebrating that in, you know, a humorous way."
And just like that, I wonder if Scott knows how to spell Neanderthal.