11th annual North Carolina Tattoo Convention

by Amy Kingsley

Inside the ballroom at the downtown Marriott it’s buzzing like a Biblical swarm of locusts. The sound of the tiny pistons of a roomful of tattoo guns injecting ink under exposed dermis almost drowns out the music blasting from speakers at the back of the room.

Smiles are about as common in this place as an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Arkansas forest. The artists knit their brows as they trace the fine lines. The best customers stare blankly, the worst grimace and flinch.

This is the scene on the first day of the 11th annual North Carolina Tattoo Convention, hosted by Little John’s Tattoo. The convention ran Sept. 9-11 and featured 57 tattoo artists from 35 shops across the country. About 40 percent of the shops hailed from North Carolina.

‘“It’s a good way to see an artist that you like,’” said Brian Demaio, a 30-year-old body piercer at Little John’s. ‘“Instead of having to travel to California to get a tattoo from somebody, you can get it here.’”

Saturday night featured a tattoo contest with 14 categories. Body piercers and other body modification specialists shared chandeliered digs with the tattoo artists.

‘“Tattooing isn’t like other jobs because every day you have to go in and be Picasso,’” said Frank Thrasher, a tattoo artist at Smoking Guns in Fayetteville.

Mike Sears, 38, provides the 300 pound canvas for Thrasher’s latest masterpiece: an elaborate skull framed by foliage and pin-up girls extending from his belly button to his chest. Sears lays prostrate on a table, his baseball cap pulled over his face. No stranger to the needle, Sears displays the oldest of his 20-odd pieces, a faded bird inked when he was 15.

‘“Some people are big pusses,’” Thrasher says. ‘“Big Al over there, when he starts getting tattooed, he ain’t so big anymore.’”

‘“I’ve seen a guy passed out once getting a tattoo,’” Sears says.

‘“This one guy, he came in to the shop to get a full back piece that took 30 hours,’” Thrasher says. ‘“And he came back to get a chest piece. Allan shaved him and when he touched him with a ball-point pen, his eyes rolled back into his head and he passed out.’”

Sears, who works as a bouncer, followed Thrasher from Fayetteville to Greensboro to have the piece worked on at the convention. Thrasher estimates that the entire piece will take 12 hours broken into several sittings. By early afternoon on Sept. 9, they are fours hours in. The outline takes three of those, and Thrasher is now delicately shading the skull.

‘“Out of a bunch of friends in high school, I was the one who could draw,’” Thrasher says about his introduction to tattooing. Prodded about the first piece he ever did, he will only answer that he was 15, and that his equipment was ‘“primitive.’”

Thrasher and the other tattoo artists work in an environment that is a far cry from primitive. All of those inking, piercing, branding or otherwise modifying flesh adhere to strict health department standards. Each booth at the convention holds at least one autoclave for heat sterilization, boxes of rubber gloves and a trash can reserved for the disposal of used needles.

Despite what Pamela Anderson might say, the tattoo trade is pretty innocuous, according to Thrasher. He and Sears do point out a few risks for people interested in getting a little work done.

‘“Your mental health might suffer if you make a bad choice,’” Thrasher says.

‘“If you get something on you of a hate nature and you go out in public, your health might be in danger,’” Sears adds.

Looking down at the behemoth below him, the wiry Thrasher points out the most obvious threat to his bespectacled person. ‘“My health is in jeopardy if I f*ck up.’” Then he flexes his wrist and touches the buzzing gun back to Sears’ stomach.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at