Expo thrives on the notion that tattoos aren't just for sailors and jailbirds anymore
Jennifer Newby is always surprised when her tattoos draw her negative attention. Women, she says, get more strange looks because of their ink, even in Santa Cruz, Calif. "I can go to the grocery store and I get asked about my ink or I get dirty looks," she says. Growing up in an open environment means the questions—“What are you going to do when you get older?”—catch her off guard.
"What do your parents think?" people ask. "You're too pretty to have tattoos," strangers say of her sleeves and full back tattoo.
Driving through the desert from the Physical Graffiti tour finale last year in Las Vegas, Nev., Newby had an idea. Why not put together a classy pageant, something you could take your parents to, a family-oriented beauty show of all the fine ladies out there with ink?
The pageant at this year's second ever Physical Graffiti Tour will be open to women 21-and-older. Contestants will be judged on poise, personality and overall appearance. The pageant judges will quiz the tattooed ladies on the history and background of tattoos and what they mean to the women. "We're going to judge them on how they carry themselves as ladies and how they represent themselves," Newby says.
The judges will be looking for someone who embodies what it means to be a "rocking chick with cool tattoos," she says, but also for someone who's down to earth, who could live right next door to you and you wouldn't mind them cat-sitting for you while you’re on vacation. "It's time to break the stigma. Tattoos are not just something you get in the navy or in prison or anything like that," Newby says.
The stat popping up in publications and tattoo TV specials claims one in eight Americans has a tattoo these days. That caught the attention of the tour's producer, Don Birchfield. "I've never had an original thought in my life," he says. "But I can follow a trend like catching a wave on a surfboard."
Birchfield, who hails from Phoenix, spent years assembling motorcycle shows, but he realized a couple years back that the motorbike heyday was passing. It was time to jump on something else. The news of how common inked skin has become captured his attention, as did the discovery of who offers themselves up as canvas. "It's the ministers, the soccer moms, the accountants. It's mainstream America. It's not the freak show you would think," he says.
The best part? The tattoo industry is under-appreciated, he says, and hadn't yet seen the kind of large-scale show he was used to putting on. "Not to slam these people who do these little bitty shows, but artists are used to getting paid $100 and a bowling trophy," he says. "And they're so happy they got that kind of recognition. It's absurd."
Birchfield has only one tattoo himself, a masonic symbol on the back of his neck. He's not sure if he'll ever get another, he says.
The tattoo artists will ink customers all weekend long. To even the playing field, only tats that are created at the event are eligible for entry into the four categories: old-school, color, black and grey, and Japanese. Each winner receives $1,000. Those four people then compete for Best of Show and another grand. The victors from each of the six cities can enter the finale, where the prize last year was $50,000 and a car.