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'Our bodies are temples': Art of the tattoo celebrated at Richmond festival

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The Richmond Tattoo, Art and Music Festival returned after a two year absence.

Jason Vice, a hospital orderly from Cincinnati, jokes that he lives up to his name.

“I have a few” — vices, that is — “Tattoos being one of them.”

Wiry and sporting a white goatee, Vice spent at least 13 hours this past weekend flat on his belly, stretched out a folding table while Josh Payne, a heavily inked tattoo artist from Denver, etched on Vice’s left calf a multicolored fantasy of dinosaurs being blown up by crashing UFOs.

And, Payne acknowledged with a smile, there are those who say he, too, is appropriately named. Payne makes his living creating art with an electric-powered, high-speed needle. It is used to wound flesh in a design of one’s choosing, often accented with a rainbow array of indelible dyes.

Trevor Carson, a burly U.S. Navy sailor from Hampton by way of Houston — who was having tattooed on a lower leg a rose-wrapped likeness of the face in Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream” — put it this way: “It’s temporary pain for forever beauty.”

For 2½ days an estimated 4,000 people — many of them tattooed, others un-inked but curious — streamed through a Chesterfield County hotel for the Richmond Tattoo, Art & Music Festival. It goes back nearly 35 years and was started as a trade show. This year’s was the first since 2019, having been interrupted by the pandemic.

While coronavirus masks were rare, tattoos were plentiful. And some sporting them were eager for more. The droning buzz of the hand-held devices used to create tattoos — some refer to them as “guns” — was a sign of brisk business, even in the closing hours of the festival Sunday afternoon.

For safety and hygiene, needles are only used once, then thrown away.

“Nobody wants to use a needle twice,” said Big Jaz, a Brooklyn, N.Y., ex-pat who works as a tattoo artist in Norfolk.

Damian Barley of Richmond, a bartender at the hotel, spent his break prone as Jake Raburn, a tattooist from Las Vegas, fashioned an elaborate pattern on Barley’s right calf. Barley, 27, was 16 when he got his first tattoo. Designs on his upper arms are tributes to his little brother and late sister. Stars are reminders of his years in the Marine Corps.

“They call it ‘ink therapy,’” Barley said of tattooing. “I always feel better after I get one. I think of my body as a canvas.”

Raburn got into tattooing as many of its practitioners do: through art. As an early adolescent, he became a drawing and painting enthusiast. Raburn has been a tattoo artist for six years, having served with what he described as an “old-school apprenticeship” under a veteran of the craft.

Among the tattoos that adorn Raburn is one just above his brow that is intended as a warning to others. It reads, in an Old English font, “Anti-Social.”

Raburn said that an inebriated passenger on his flight to Richmond from Nevada began pestering him during a layover in Austin, Texas: “I told him, ‘Man, read my forehead.’” Raburn, whose studio in Vegas stands in the city’s art district north of the casino-lined Strip, said cabin attendants had the man removed from the aircraft.

Tattooing is ancient, with humans using for thousands of years permanent designs on their skin as emblems of faith, status symbols, bravery and punishment. In recent years, tattoos — and piercings — have become increasingly popular among generation s.

Perhaps affirming its Gen X and Gen Z vibe, Richmond ranks third behind No. 1 Miami and second-place Las Vegas for its number of tattooed residents, according to a 2019 segment on the NBC morning show, “Today.” It attributed Richmond’s distinction to tattoo shops aplenty — about 14.5 per 100,000 people — in a city that’s home to 229,000 people.

A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center indicated that nearly 40% of people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo. You have to be at least 18 to get a tattoo in Virginia, under a state law that allows those younger to be tattooed with the consent of a parent or guardian who must be present at the time a minor is inked.

Cervenna Fox, a Briton who lives in Las Vegas, was 16 and still in England when she got her first tattoos: likenesses of swallows on her hips. Now 31, Fox is covered with tattoos, many of them recalling her British heritage — a fox on her right arm and a lion on her right leg. There are also images of ancient weaponry, including an ax and malice.

Fox — who is also a burlesque artist, performing in a shimmering, silver bustier and feathered fans — said that tattoos are illustrated stories not unlike what might be seen on walls of an ancient shrine.

“If you have a look at temples, they always have art that tells a story,” said Fox. “Our bodies are temples.”

jschapiro@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6814 Twitter: RTDSchapiro

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