Tattoos have been an age old tradition in a multitude of cultures all over the world and have not only lasted the test of time, but evolved to mind blowing levels of skill and passion from technology to technique. They have belonged to the outcasts, outlaws, and misunderstood of society for the better part of this past century but have slowly become more prevalent and accepted in everyday conversations and work forces. Resurrection Island Tattoo Convention proved that professionalism, creativity, tradition, family, fun, passion, and above all; tattoos, all belong in the same conversation.
Over 150 artists, vendors and thousands in attendance came together to enjoy, showcase, laugh, network, continue traditions and support each other thanks to Wheeling, West Virginia’s Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Dennis Gilbert of Breaking Skin Tattoos & Body Piercing. An event of massive proportions not only hosting the countries top award winning tattoo artists of various styles including traditional Tebori, some of which had even been competitors on Ink Master, but also hosted a plethora of various entertainers such as dancers, sideshow performers, live outdoor performances by Autograph and Great White, as well as several unique and talented vendors of all walks of life for an entire 3 days spanning the Labor Day weekend. I had the distinct pleasure of getting to interview some of those in attendance while immersing myself completely into the unmistakable magic that was happening all around me. If you missed this monumental event then this intimate overview of one of the most memorable experiences of my life will just have to do.
I caught up with Dennis Gilbert, tattoo artist of 15 years and owner of Breaking Skin Tattoos & Body Piercing who not only hosted the event, but judged every one of the tattoo award competitions held throughout the weekend to showcase and honor the artists in attendance, and to really get a look into the artist/client relationship. “These tattoos have been mind blowing.” said Gilbert. “These are tattoos that nobody around here has seen done. There’s people here getting tattooed by contestants on Ink Master, people they have only ever seen on TV.” We also discussed breaking the stigma that the media has mostly portrayed of people with tattoos. “Even the people of the casino are seeing that we are just nice people.” Gilbert explains. “This impresses everybody.”
On an equally impressive note, I also got a chance to talk to the two performing sideshow acts, The Stolen Stitches and the nationally recognized Captain & Maybelle, who have appeared on America’s Got Talent as well as several Ripley’s Believe it or Not publications. Danger Dave of The Stolen Stitches explained their approach to sideshow entertainment is trying to keep the traditional tricks of the spectacles and being innovative. “We are Pittsburgh’s premier graveyard carnival of the undead, with things like ‘Bed of Nails Bowling’ and ‘Esophagus Sports’ to keep it fresh.” His partner on stage, Claudette Sum Sum adds “We draw inspiration from several past acts like Coney Island, but like to keep it disgusting with our classic theater act ‘The Sword and the Stomach.’
Another head turning duo of sideshow variety I got to witness in person is the well known Captain & Maybelle who are multiple time World Record holders for freakish human endurance feats. “We have a lot of fun if you couldn’t notice” said Captain with a grin on his face. “We have been together 23 years and there is nothing better then to have your ‘High five partner’ with you to celebrate victories and to also have that person call you out when you screw up.” I asked the lovely Maybelle how traveling the county had been for them so far this year with the pandemic playing any factors. “This has been our 15th city since May and the most important thing has been to have that ‘High five partner’ to keep motivating you.” Captain Steel added “Getting out to see our fans and trying to get back to normal as much as we can, being on top of making sure were vaccinated and doing our part to stay safe and keep everyone else as safe as possible.”
Further into the entertainment aspect of this jam-packed weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the Monster Dolls girls, a Darkcore Cabaret dance group from Cleveland, Ohio that display a style of dance and storytelling unlike any other. Elaborate outfits, makeup, masks, various forms of freestyle and choreographed dance makeup the context of their show. Their leader, Frankie Von Doll explained “We evolve every show, you’re not going to see the same exact outfits or costume looks twice. Our characters and outfits develop with extensive backstories. It’s not just an artform it’s a lifestyle.” Scary Ann Stalker adds “The character development really brings the whole group together.” Getting a look inside what they do really showed me how set apart these girls are from other dance groups. As Frankie put it “Not a lot of dance groups incorporate acting.” Angelique Graves spoke on the group as well saying “My character portrayed as Death got to see every character at their most vulnerable state.” The uniqueness they bring to a stage and the world of acting and dancing is something to only behold in person, and I strongly suggest seeing these girls in action for yourself.
Diving deeper into the world I had now become very much apart of, I took it upon myself to talk to several of the tattoo artists to get a more intimate look at their work, their personalities, and the history that lead them to this moment. Gypsy of Prestige Body Arts, located in Avon, Indiana, who has been professionally tattooing since 1992 relayed to me the other aspects of tattooing that most would never even consider. “I’m not sure who knows more about your skin, me or your dermatologist. There is a lot more to tattooing than just drawing pictures on skin.” His client Karen laid patiently and continued to get her cover up worked on as Gypsy explained, “Even though her and I had talked prior about the design, I couldn’t physically see her tattoo as she came from afar to this convention just to get this done, so I had to apply the idea in a freehand sketch when she got here and that’s when the design came together.” There is a certain kind of in-the-moment magic that happens in a situation like this, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it happen right before my eyes.
Throughout the three day event were various award ceremonies for top competing tattoos in several categories like Best Tattooed Male and Female, Best Black and Gray, and even Worst Tattoo. The most prestigious of the awards, Best of Show Tattoo, was awarded to Mohawk Jesse of Inspire Body Art. Lily V. Sixx had the opportunity to talk with Jesse and his client Ashley, about the award-winning masterpiece. “Ashley has gotten tattooed by me before and knows I prefer to have some creative control for the pieces I do. She sent me some references, gave me her leg, and trusted me to make a sick piece.” explains Jesse, furthermore labeling his style as “Abstract Realism”.
My head spinning experience at this larger than life event taught a lot of people about a very important aspect that has become somewhat lost in these last couple years of uncertainty and chaos; acceptance. This was a judgement free zone of love and excitement for art, oddities, opportunity and expression. A showcase of like-minded individuals with a lot of the same goals in mind; progression and growth. I personally cannot wait for next years Resurrection Island Tattoo Convention, those who will be returning and those that will be attending for the first time, only to experience the same powerful notions of unity, collaborative work ethic, and the need to stand out from the rest. An event like this is meant to change your perspective or enhance what you already know to be true. Art is anything but dead.