What's in a tattoo? For some tattoo artists, it's a mere reiteration of a drunken mistake left bare to the world. For other artists, it's a manifesto, a perfectly designed logo to commemorate a moment in time. But that only tells half the story; something else occupies half of that particular space etched into a person's skin—the artist. Sure, tattoo artists have their own stories, their own will and testaments drawn and designed on their bodies, but a basic question that arises when speaking to these painted painters is what inspires them. For Bale Sisneros, owner and operator of Por Vida Tattoo (1014 Central SW), it was just something that he sort of fell into.
“I've just always been into drawing, ever since I was a little kid, and I got into graffiti in high school,” said Sisneros. “And some of my buddies that I did graffiti with started a tattoo shop, and I just picked it up like that. I fell in love with it.”
It's this particular love that cemented in Sisneros the idea that the art of tattooing is something to be shared. So he started the Duke City Tattoo Fiesta. In its third year, the fiesta is a way to bring tattoo artists from all over the world to Burque not only to share their work and maybe a few pointers, but to tattoo the people that make it all worthwhile—their fans and fellow artists.
“All these artists that we bring are hard to get to go out to tattoo shows because they're so renowned and they do their own thing,” said Sisneros. “That's what's so unique about this show, and they say this is rare. You don't see this many big tattoo artists in one place.
“We have Tommy Montoya from 'NY Ink.' He'll be there. We have another guy named Freddy Negrete. He's out of L.A., and they just did a movie on him called Tattoo Nation ... and he's famous. They'll both be there. We also have Immaculate Tattoo from Arizona; they're world-famous.”
Spectators can enjoy a multitude of activities at the fiesta, from schmoozing with the talent to viewing their portfolios. Many artists bring friends to act as samples of their work. A number of competitions (Sisneros' “favorite part”) like Best Sleeve, Large Black and Gray, and Best Traditional liven up the atmosphere with some friendly rivalry.
Almost like a serendipitous cog in the painted wheel, artists find their niche in the tattoo world. Whether they grew up imitating the blacks and grays of the aforementioned Negrete or translating the surrealism of Salvador Dali from canvas to skin, the act of creating work on a human body is not only an intimate practice, but for some, an inspired idea.
While it's nice that crowds of famous tattooers will call the Duke City home for a weekend, a little local flavor is essential to spicing up the event.
Ericksen, 33, representing Heart and Soul Tattoo (2108 Central SE), has been tattooing for “15 minutes,” though his facetious self-actualization is merely a ruse hiding the more complex entanglements he feels with the art of tattooing and its place in his life.
As I sat and watched Ericksen tattooing a woman's foot, I noticed that he speaks nonchalantly, never taking his eye off his work. He isn’t one to let distractions get in the way of his artistic abilities. Maybe that's why he was named Best in Show at last year's fiesta.
However he didn't attend the first fiesta because he “was at a bar, scoping out my future wife … considering I'd only been tattooing a few years, I wasn't really ready to go to a fiesta.”
Tattooing, once a frowned-upon art form, is now seen not only as a viable method of expression, but as something that isn't so easy to navigate in terms of classification. Sure, you have those who are good at sleeves, hyper-realistic portraits or even the more complicated tebori tattoo (a Japanese hand-tattooing style that uses a long needle, also to be featured at the fiesta). However, tattooing doesn't maintain that distant mystique of the unknown that it once held, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. More television shows, films, and documentaries are being made to showcase this art form for what it truly is: a potent form of popular expression.
“I think anyone who has the attitude [that] they are begrudgingly letting the cool seep into the mainstream is kind of a prick in my opinion,” said Ericksen. “The way I see it is that it's just an art form that humans have had since the beginning, anthropologically speaking. … The prohibition of tattooing in our culture was only a temporary and isolated incident.”
Regarding the festivities this year, Ericksen is excited for the Albuquerque scene to be represented at the fiesta. “I think that's cool. Those guys have done an awesome job of making sure that we have our own thing, and I think other artists will see that we can hold our own ... that we make our own work ... that we have a lot of ambitious artists here. It's a total celebration of our culture here.”