Last Saturday on my way to the Seattle Center to attend the Seattle Tattoo Expo, I noticed four volunteers wearing "Seattle Paint Out 2004" T-shirts, busily scraping stickers off newspaper boxes and rolling gray paint onto utility poles. Billed as "The most significant graffiti clean up project ever!" the weekend-long event was sponsored by Seattle Public Utilities and a couple dozen local businesses.

When I arrived at the Snoqualmie and Alki rooms for the Expo, the rooms were buzzing with tattoo guns and men and women were casually draped over chair backs or stretched out on massage tables, chatting on cell phones or to their friends as artists outlined and filled in intricate pieces they had designed that day.

Along with announcing the various contests (Color Realism, Tribal, Pin Up, etc.) the emcee also discouraged visitors from stickering or tagging anywhere on the Seattle Center grounds, lest the organizers get slapped with a $10,000 fine. (Little did he know a crew was there to clean up right behind them.)

Super Genius Tattoo's Damon Conklin, co-organizer of the event with Gloria Connors, told me that he hopes the convention, now in its third year, "shows off what's possible in the tattoo world to Seattle while showing off what's happening in Seattle to the world." One of the goals of the convention is to elevate the status of tattoo art--not necessarily to museum-level (although Conklin said he wouldn't spit on SAM if they asked him to do something)--but for it to be considered with the same seriousness with which graffiti (or "spray can art") is currently treated. One way he hopes to do this is to organize an artists' retreat a few days prior to next year's convention where artists can work on collaborations or on honing their life-drawing skills (the latter being timely, as fantasy and realism are making a comeback in tattoo art).

A bit of cognitive dissonance was at play over the weekend as the city was simultaneously eradicating a part of this culture and sanctioning a significant event within it (the convention was sponsored in part by the City of Seattle). So on Sunday night, I was happy to see one of my favorite recent pieces of graffiti--a dancing hot dog on the side of a mailbox--had escaped the rollers and that the variously worded arrows ("Fear," "Above") slung from telephone wires were left untouched. I was also glad to know that an estimated 400 people were going home with works of art on their bodies that can never be erased.

kurtz@thestranger.com

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