By Dan MacIntosh
Unless you’re living with blinders on (in which case, I don’t ever want to carpool with you), you’ve most certainly noticed how tattoo art is exploding everywhere, with everyone from rock stars to girls next door as this emerging art form’s extroverted mobile canvases. Hmm, what would Leonardo da Vinci say?
Significantly, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Ink-N-Iron Festival, a multifaceted event that takes place annually at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. The gathering unites multiple special interests into one big, cool, cultural melting pot. Aficionados of hot rods, burlesque, 50s fashion and edgy music all heed that ‘all aboard’ call each June and gravitate to this historic, 1930s luxury ship where, most notably, 280 of the greatest tattoo artists in the world set up temporary shop. This year, 30 states and 25 countries will be represented at this unique festival.
Proudly, Inland Empire tattoo shops have always represented well at Ink-N-Iron. One regular participant in particular is Shawn Warcot’s Empire Tattoo Studios, founded in 1988, which bills itself as the longest running professional tattoo shop in the IE. It’s since grown to three locations, operating in Riverside, Redlands and Rancho/Fontana.
Ramon Rendon is one of Empire Tattoo’s primary tattoo artists, and performs his art at a shop that was in full swing long before tattooing went mainstream. After all, some are still old enough to recall a time when tattooing was mostly only relegated to sailors and ex-cons.
“The mid-90s was when everything started getting more trendy,” Rendon remembers. “That was when all the [tattooing] magazines came out and they started pushing it a bit more. Lyle Tuttle tattooed a few celebrities, which were seen by many, so they [the tattoos] got more attention at that point.” (Tuttle, by the way, is a pioneering tattoo artist from San Francisco, who has tattooed everyone from Janis Joplin to Cher). “Now, with all the TV shows going on, it slams the market and everybody’s getting tattooed.”
Indeed, shows like Inked and Ink Master, a tattoo competition reality show, have brought tattooing from the parlor floor into the American living room. This art is no longer “out there,” so to speak, anymore.
Rendon was immediately impressed with all the tattoo art he saw in various tattoo magazines as a young man. However, he didn’t jump right in to the act of putting needles into customer’s arms right away. Instead, he developed his artistic skills on buildings, first, before sticking it to humans.
“I started with graffiti,” Rendon explains. “I was doing graffiti and doing it on the walls, where I got to see the murals. That’s what took me into the art of everything. I’ve been drawing since I was about 9. But graffiti really opened my eyes with all the color and all the styles and what could be possible.”
Eventually, Rendon’s love of outdoor street art led directly to tattooing. “I picked up a machine one day, and the rest is history.” The road to becoming a tattoo artist for most practitioners usually includes an apprenticeship of some kind, just as with many other complicated work skills. However, Rendon mainly learned his trade on the job, instead. “I never had an apprenticeship,” he admits, “I learned all I needed to learn right off the top. I practiced tattooing myself, tattooing friends. I saw myself getting better and better, and my friends wanted more and more tattoos, so that’s how it all got started.”
If you’re a novice to this specialized art form, you may not realize how there are many different stylistic approaches to tattooing, and how there is much more specialization within the discipline than sometimes noticeable upon first glance.
“I like to do all styles,” Rendon relates, “but what really gets me going is black and grey realism; anything that has black and grey. I can do black and grey portraits. Black and grey florals. Anything that has black and grey is like second nature to me. I get in that zone and I’m just zoned out.”
All tattoo artists participating in Ink-N-Iron realize what a special event this Southern California festival truly is.
“It’s one of the shows that people from all around the world come to,” Ramon Abrego, of Artistic Element Tattoo in Yucaipa responds, when asked about Ink-N-Iron. “Every artist that works there is the best. I’ve been going since the festival started. It’s pretty awesome.”
Abrego, who also opened a second Artistic Element, this one in Hollywood, credits an eye-opening prison stay as the turning point in his life; that was the moment he just knew he wanted to contribute something truly valuable to the world. He initially learned art from his grandfather, Art Escamilla, who was a painter. But it was an uncle that gave him his first tattoo machine. And like a lot of beginner tattoo artists, he “cut his teeth” tattooing at home on friends and family (God bless these brave guinea pigs!) before graduating to professional tattooing, first at Carson Hill Tattoos.
Just to give you an idea of how huge the current tattooing phenomenon has become these days, Abrego was interviewed for this story while working in Germany, where he spoke at a tattoo convention. The next stop on his itinerary was a tattoo convention in China.
Abrego doesn’t believe there were any specific cultural events that suddenly transformed tattooing from the subculture to the mainstream culture. “I really don’t think it was TV,” he explains. “I just think everything evolves. Look at the movies, for instance. Movies are getting so crazy with the digital and the art. Everything’s getting better. With computers getting better, I think artists are getting better. And people are looking more at tattoos as art. Everything’s getting better. The tattooing equipment’s getting better. The ink’s getting better. “
Advancing technology makes it so much easier for tattoo artists to hone their skills.
“Back in the day, I used to look at tattoo magazines,” Abrego explains. “Now, if I need to look for something, I’ll find it on the computer to find the best picture possible.”
When he does decide upon an ideal image to use as his template for a tattoo, Abrego also has a few favorite styles he most often incorporates. “I do color portraits with color realism,” he explains. “And I do bio-mechanical stuff.”
Working in the hip environment of a tattoo shop sure beats what Abrego did for work before discovering tattooing. “I used to do road construction,” he says with a chuckle. And who wouldn’t rather lay ink than asphalt?
Some other noteworthy IE artists that will be present at Ink-N-Iron include Ben Ochoa, Shawn Warcroft himself and the legendary portrait artist Nikko Hurtado.
All roads seem to lead to Long Beach as the modern day tattooing Mecca because this city has a longstanding tradition linked to the art form. This is the locale, for instance, where Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo shop once operated. Located in a small building on the Nu Pike, his was the longest operating tattoo shop in America, which operated from 1927 to 2003. Long before the tattoo explosion of our current era, Bert Grimm’s was also one of the few places you could buy a tattoo machine, in fact. Ah, but times have changed.
Even if you don’t want to leave the Queen Mary with fresh ink on your body, there are still plenty of other things to do at Ink-N-Iron—especially if you love music. The legendary Iggy and the Stooges, led by the iconic Iggy Pop, are slated to headline a full day of music on Saturday night this year. The Dead Kennedys, pioneering California punks, and the contemporary retro soul of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings will also be on Saturday’s bill. Friday’s lineup is no slouch either and includes an appearance by rockabilly groundbreaker, Wanda Jackson (she once dated Elvis, you know), while Sunday closes out the festival with a whole lot of more relatively contemporary punk rock, including The Offsrping and NOFX. All this rock & roll makes sense, as punk rockers—and rockers in general—were early adaptors for tattooing.
A custom car show will include Barris Kustom City in conjunction with the festival. George Barris is most famous for cars he designed for TV shows. His immediately recognizable wheels include the Batmobile, Munster Koach, Beverly Hillbillies and KITT from Nightrider. His personal star collection includes the General Lee, Starsky & Hutch and the Monkee Mobile. If you’ve ever watched television, you’ve certainly seen his cars.
There’s so much to do, in fact, you may not fit it all into three days. Other festival events include a pin-up pageant, a vintage fashion bazaar, and even appropriate movies on the green.
For tattoo enthusiasts, however, the tattoo contest may be the pinnacle of the whole darn thing. Here, artists will have a chance to take home a Sterling Silver Sacred Hart trophy, awards said to be handmade by an Italian artist. If the festival’s website is accurate, these hearts were obtained from the Roman Catholic Church, with some aged at over 100 years old. Tattoo contest categories range from Best Tribal to Best Japanese, and almost everything in between.
Ink-N-Iron is unlike any other Southern California festival. Sure, it will probably draw some Fedora-wearing hipsters killing time with nothing to do between Coachella festivals, as well as a few aging Cali punks. But it will also offer more than just the latest in cool music; it will celebrate a deep appreciation for pop cultural history, from music to cars to tattoos. The fact that all of this creativity is displayed on and around the historic Queen Mary only deepens its significance.
The world of tattoo art is probably much bigger than you’ve ever imagined, and the three-day Ink-N-Iron festival offers wildly colorful evidence of that.
Ink-N-Iron Festival at the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (877) 342-0738; ink-n-iron.com. June 7, 8, 9. Tickets $60-$450. All ages.