Steel City Tattoo convention leaves its mark on Pittsburgh

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Christine Fogt was huddled over a laptop Saturday, trying to figure out which art she wanted to display.

In this case, the canvas would be her own body, and the painter would be her friend Sarah Miller, proprietor of Wyld Chyld Tattoo in Brookline and a star on Spike TV's "Ink Master" reality show last year.

Ms. Fogt, a youthful looking mother of a 15-year-old and 10-year-old, had driven up to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center from Louisville, Ky., to add another Sarah Miller masterpiece to her body, possibly on the left thigh, where Ms. Miller's earlier portrait of an exotic brunette now sits.

Officials from Shane O'Neill Productions, the organizers of the Steel City Tattoo Convention, which runs through today, said it isn't unusual for fans of particular tattoo artists to travel long distances to add another portrait or design to their bodies.

The most popular artists are booked two years ahead, and if they suddenly have an opening at a particular show, "collectors" of their work will fly or drive on an instant's notice to get there.

After placing second on "Ink Master" last year, Ms. Miller, a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, said she has been booked almost every weekend this year. She also has been invited to appear at tattoo shows in Germany, England, Ukraine and the Netherlands.

While customers like Ms. Fogt are living art exhibits, Mary Bierbaum represents another trend in tattooing.

Ms. Bierbaum, a 58-year-old from Erie, is part of the small but growing group of those 50 and older who are choosing to get inked designs.

She got her first tattoo, a Celtic design on her lower back, at age 50 after "sort of a midlife crisis." Saturday, she was reclining at the booth run by Firefly Tattoo of Indianapolis, to get a bicycle incised on her ankle, representing her favorite exercise.

A friend had drawn the bicycle, and tattoo artist Laura Black then transferred it to a stencil. She rubbed a special gel on Ms. Bierbaum's leg, which helped her skin pick up the ink from the stencil. Then she set to work with a rotary-engine tattoo machine, whose tiny needles pierced the skin the same way a sewing machine needle goes into cloth. The needles can be dipped into ink to absorb different colors.

Asked about the pain, Ms. Bierbaum deadpanned, "Childbirth? -- no, no, just joking, it's not that bad."

Most tattoo artists also keep a clean cloth clutched in their other hand, to wipe off excess ink and lymph fluid that the piercing releases from the skin.

Tattoos have become more mainstream in American society. Several artists said people would be surprised at how many doctors and lawyers have their torsos covered with designs under their business suits or scrubs.

Still, the main demographic for tattoos today is the Millennial generation, those who are roughly 15 to 30. A Pew Research survey of that group showed more than a third have tattoos, and it's increasingly common to see tattooed employees in white collar jobs.

When a tattoo artist is starting out, said artist Nathan Mould of Artisan Tattoo Gallery in Garfield, the first thing he needs is a good mentor to help him learn the techniques, particularly the right touch to achieve a lasting tattoo that doesn't cause scarring.

When she was training to become a tattoo artist, Ms. Miller said, she started on a grapefruit, whose rind has just the right depth. "When you go too deep, you can smell the citrus," she said.

Mr. Mould had one other fundamental tip for those seeking tattoos.

"If you walk into a tattoo shop and the floor is dirty, the equipment probably is, too."

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Mark Roth:, 412-263-1130 or on Twitter @markomar.


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