All tatted-up and no place go? Think (and ink) again

Ink master: Daron James is making the first tattoo fest a local affair. Photo by Max Cooper

A tattoo festival in Asheville? Could there be any doubt?

The city that Rolling Stone calls the new freak capital of America is more than a natural fit for the Asheville Tattoo Fest, Daron James believes. It’s a supernatural fit, he said.

“Asheville? Are you kidding?” James, one of the producers, said. “All the clubs and dreads and piercings and tattoos? We might as well make it the tattoo and piercing capital of the world.”

So much tribal culture exists in Asheville that James found nearly everything he needs to put on the event, locally. “It all kind of fell into place, like it was something meant to happen,” the owner of Diamond Thieves Body Piercing and Tattoo in West Asheville said.

One of the more surreal developments was co-producer James Vaughn’s being selected, after work on the festival had begun, as a contestant on Spike TV’s Ink Master reality show. The way that the Asheville Tattoo Fest has come together sends chills up James’ well-inked spine. 

No longer the mark of an outlaw, the tattoo is about as mainstream culturally as you can get. A third of people in their teens and 20s have one, according to the Pew Research Center (half of them have two to five, and 18 percent have six or more). One quarter of people in their teens and 20s have piercings that don’t involve the earlobe (70 percent of which are hidden by clothing, which makes you wonder all the more what’s inside the wrapping paper).

MSNBC in 2010 cited a several-years-old study indicating that there were about 15,000 tattoo parlors in the United States. James says there are nearly two dozen of them in Asheville, and indeed, Yellow Pages lists 21. For the festival, James is drawing upon the city’s army of ink artists, as well as from countries such as Japan and Peru.

More than 80 artists from about 50 shops will be working on the Renaissance Hotel’s convention floor, creating the kind of buzz, amplified many fold, that only those who get and give tattoos know deep in their bones. “You’re going to hear the ambience of tattoo machines all weekend long,” James said, savoring the thoughts that those words conjured in his head. 

Like any festival, this one has ancillary events. On the stage in the middle of the room March 17 will be a performance by the Cut Throat Freak Show, which bills itself as “a madcap blend of classic and original sideshow stunts executed with just enough precision not to maim anybody.”

Outside of the room will be a small museum of tattooing, as well as an area where people can see work by Asheville artists such as Dustin Spagnola, Adam Strange, Mark Carter and, maybe, Alli Good. Hanging March 16 will be work by UNC Asheville art students. There’s also Art Fusion, from 5-8 p.m. March 16, in which five artists will work on five canvases, rotating every five minutes. 

“There’s gonna be some of the most awesome cars and motorcycles in Asheville,” James said. “Daytona Bike Week is same week, but I’m getting calls from all over, like from Florida. It’s kind of neat that people are interested in bringing their motorcycles to this show instead of for Bike Week.”

At an evening party March 15 at the hotel’s Top of the Plaza, the festival will present a lifetime achievement award. At 8 p.m. March 16, there’s a pin-up girl contest, brought to you by the lovely ladies at Pinups for Pitbulls, a nonprofit organization that raises money to educate people about pit bull-type dogs and breed-specific legislation, through the sale of its eyebrow-raising calendars. The $5 contestant entry cost in any of the three categories — classic, military and swimsuit — benefits Brother Wolf Animal Rescue.

All day March 17, attendees can have their tattoos judged in 24 categories, such as sleeve, Asian and tribal. “If you have a whole body of tattoos, you can enter them in all the categories,” James said.

“My idea was to bring the art world of tattooing to the art world of Asheville,” he said. Creating a benefit for other businesses, the festival will send participants into downtown on scavenger hunts to complete tasks, such as (perhaps) getting a photo of themselves downing a chocolate stout at Lexington Avenue Brewery or getting a shot of themselves with Krista Neary at Flipside Boardshop.

James thinks the festival will be a big success.

“Look at the people that live here,” he said. “We’ve got super-huge gay and lesbian community, rock ‘n’ roll community and tattoo and piercing community. I like to look at Asheville as a melting pot for culture. And I don’t know a single culture out there that’s against getting tatted and pierced.

“Well, there’s some. But we’ll leave them out of it.”

— Paul Clark can be reached at

what: Asheville Tattoo Fest
where: Renaissance Hotel, 31 Woodfin St., Asheville.
when: March 16-17 (11 a.m.-midnight, $20/day), March 18 (11 a.m.-8 p.m., $20 or $45 VIP pass for weekend and parties.

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