Fan Expo Canada, the biggest pop-culture convention in the country, is on now through Sunday. And for thousands of people, summer isn’t summer until they’ve spent a weekend crammed inside a windowless concrete bunker in downtown Toronto, mingling (and shopping) with fans of every IP imaginable. There are live celebrity panels, cosplay contests — multiple opportunities to meet one (or a dozen) of your all-time faves. (CBC News has a full event preview here.) And for the visitor who wants a permanent souvenir of the experience, they can get tattooed right on the convention floor.
It’s a service that’ll be available all weekend as part of Tattoo Alley, an attraction the Fan Expo organization has run on and off in Toronto over the years. But how many people actually get tattooed at a con?
Fan Expo doesn’t have stats to share for the Toronto edition, but if you combined all their events in North America, more than a thousand visitors leave Tattoo Alley with fresh ink every year. The organization first began offering the service close to a decade ago, beginning in some of their U.S. markets, and they plan to expand in this country. “You never know what might pop up in Fan Expo Calgary and Edmonton,” says a Fan Expo Canada rep.
“Tattooing at fan conventions is a pretty new thing, especially in Canada,” says Chris Rhyason, a tattoo artist from Grande Prairie, Alta. In the industry for 20 years, this weekend will be his second time working a pop-culture convention, but the phenomenon “just makes sense,” he says. More and more tattooers are specializing in pop-culture designs, says Rhyason, and that’s the case for many of the folks appearing at this weekend’s con — though the most popular request doesn’t exactly require a niche skillset.
Autograph tattoos are a big seller. Tattooer Salem Harlow has already heard from a client who plans to swing by her booth after a meet-and-greet with Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund. But she’s also filling her book with custom designs — work based on shows and stars that are heavily featured at the con. That’s more like the stuff she does on the regular.
“The niche I work within is all nerdy fandom,” she says. “I’m a huge nerd myself.”
But what’s the geekiest tattoo she’s ever done? (Geeky in a good way, of course.) We put that question to a bunch of the artists appearing at this year’s event.
Salem Harlow – Immaculate Concept Tattoo (Calgary)
What’s the geekiest tattoo you’ve ever done?
The subject matter that I’m tattooing in, everything’s geeky.
I have gotten a lot of Pokémon [requests] because I’m currently trying to finish the first 151 Pokémon of the Pokédex in tattoo form. What I’m doing, it’s like the catchphrase — gotta catch ’em all. The original ’90s cartoon had 151 Pokémon, and I don’t even know how many there are now, but there’s the original 151, which everybody can recognize, so I want to tattoo every single one of them.
I have a poster that I’m crossing them off on, and once I complete it — like, I take photos of each tattoo that I have — I’m going to get a big poster blown up and I’m going to replace the original images of the sprites with the tattoos that I’ve done. I have completed 52 of them. I started in May, the end of May. So I did June, July and August. That’s primarily what my bookings are in Calgary right now, mostly Pokémon tattoos. (laughs) I believe I have one booked for the convention. I was just going through my bookings now. I think I’ll get to do a Meowth.
Katrina Barss – Good Point Tattoos (Oakville, Ont.)
What’s the geekiest tattoo request that someone’s come to you with?
Um, there are so many. One that I did recently was from a cartoon called Gravity Falls, and it was a watermelon jack-o-lantern. I did it, like, right underneath the girl’s butt and it was pretty funny. There’s an episode of the cartoon called “Summerween,” so she wanted something from that episode. I thought that it would be cool because it’s, you know, summer — so a watermelon — but it’s also Halloween, so it’s a jack-o-lantern.
What did you know about the subject when she came to you? Were you already a fan of the show?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m very into that cartoon. So as soon as she told me, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I’ve been pretty nerdy my whole life, and that’s pretty much all I do is watch, movies or cartoons and read comic books and play video games. So I’m very well versed. (laughs)
Would you ever turn someone down if you didn’t know enough about what they wanted a tattoo of?
No, never. If it’s a style I can’t do, for sure, I would definitely recommend they go to someone else. But I would never turn down a tattoo unless it’s vulgar or has profanity in it. I always like learning new things, and you know, one of the best parts of tattooing is you get to bond with your client over what they’re getting done. If you don’t know anything about it, that gives you so much time to ask questions and learn.
One of the best parts of tattooing is you get to bond with your client over what they’re getting done. If you don’t know anything about it, that gives you so much time to ask questions and learn.– Katrina Barss, tattoo artist
Whenever anyone comes to me with pop culture ideas, even if I’m not 100 per cent on what the idea’s from, I’ll do my research because it’s always nice learning about new shows or cartoons or whatever. If it’s a movie or just a couple episodes from a show, I always watch it and get some background and insight, and then I go from there and draw my design.
That’s cool. So have you discovered any new favourite shows that way?
Yeah! I booked one for the convention that’s of Fullmetal Alchemist. That’s an anime. I started watching a couple episodes of that. And I was introduced to a show called Over the Garden Wall a couple of years back from a client suggestion. That one was really good as well.
Tony Sklepic – Hivemind Studios (Edmonton)
What’s the geekiest tattoo request you’ve ever received?
I can’t say what makes one idea more geeky than the other, but I’ve done my fair share of comic book, TV, movie and video game characters.
My coworker is a huge Star Trek fan, so he’s got a leg piece I did of Geordi La Forge, Data and the Enterprise wrapping his calf. I’d say that one’s pretty nerdy! My other coworker also has a knee piece that I did of a Garbage Pail Kids/Mars Attacks mashup. That one was a lot of fun. I do think my favourite stuff is the more obscure subject matter, though.
There are definitely things that I tattoo a lot of, like Spider-Man and Ninja Turtles or the Joker. I’ll never turn down those pieces, and I always can do something fun and different with each one, but I tend to jump on ideas that I’ve never seen tattooed before.
About seven or eight years ago, I did an entire sleeve of Street Sharks based off the ’90s toy line. I thought that was a great idea that I hadn’t seen tattooed a million times over. Or a few years back I did a really fun portrait of Ernest P. Worrell. I remember that one being a really fun one that had myself and my client chuckling the whole day.
Chris Rhyason – Sterling Skull Studio (Grande Prairie, Alta.)
Tell me the story of the geekiest tattoo request you’ve ever had. Do any come to mind?
(laughs) Yeah, I’ve done a few of them. I won’t get into the subversive stuff because there’s lots of stuff — especially in the early days of my career — when all kinds of nefarious biker types wanted, you know, movie starlets in compromising positions or cartoon characters with their guts getting blown out. You know, all that kind of stuff. That’s the early days. These days it’s a lot more respectable.
One of my favourite ones that I’ve done — and actually it’s going to be on my banner at the show — I did Jessica Rabbit as a pirate wench.
What makes it the geekiest tattoo to you?
Well, it depends on how you define geek. I also have a guy who is a real gearhead — who, like, rebuilds cars and all that kind of stuff. And he wanted Oscar the Grouch driving a hotrod.
The guy with the Jessica Rabbit piece, he just loves pirate-themed anything and he love, love, loves Disney stuff. In fact, I did an entire sleeve on him — which might even count, too. I did an entire sleeve on that guy of rides from Disneyland: Splash Mountain; The Pirates of the Caribbean, of course. He was adamant about that one. The Buzz Lightyear game, the Tiki Room. What’s the one with the train? The roller coaster train? I did that one on his wife; she got that as a tribute to him. They both love Disneyland.
Are you a fan of Disney, of Disneyland?
I wouldn’t consider myself a geek about anything besides music maybe. But you know, I grew up on Disney and I actually wanted to be a Disney animator when I was a kid … until I found out I wouldn’t get to meet Walt Disney because he was long dead by that time. (laughs)
So to get this request, to have a personal connection to it, there’s something special about it?
Yeah, that’s right, and that’s what makes it fun for me, right?
If I’m doing a design — and I design it with the person there — as I draw it for them and I can see their eyes light up and they get really excited about it, that’s when I know I’m on the right track.
Kif Scott – Good Point Tattoos (Oakville, Ont.)
What’s the geekiest tattoo you’ve ever done?
I did a tattoo last year, and it was Spider-Man, but it was also a Squirtle from Pokémon, SpongeBob’s house and the castle from Harry Potter — and a video game that I actually had never heard of.
How did the whole design process begin? Like, what was the initial request the client came to you with? What did they say they wanted?
Some people really have a vision, you know, and this person was one of those people. We’ll always start the process with a consultation, and this person came in to see me and he had a laundry list of all the nerdy stuff he’s into. He just said, you know, “I don’t know how to put all this together.” I said, “I’ll take all your ideas and I’ll make a composition that’ll basically fill half your arm,” and that was it.
You mentioned you weren’t familiar with the video game. So what do you do in that kind of situation where you don’t know anything about the subject matter but you’ve got to make something that’s really meaningful for someone?
In that case? You know, he was specific about what he wanted to see and what was represented: a sword that had sort of pierced the ground and a howling wolf. I asked him if it’s a specific wolf and he said no. He gave me a couple photos of real wolves — and, you know, I know how to draw a wolf, so I figured no problem. (laughs)
But I do often require some very strict source material when I don’t know the game or the show.
Shannan Greeley – Good Point Tattoos (Oakville, Ont.)
What’s the geekiest tattoo request you’ve ever received? Is there a project that comes to mind?
Yes. I mean, I personally have a very geeky tattoo. (laughs) I have Chewbacca dressed as a Toronto Blue Jays player, and it says “wookiee of the year” instead of rookie of the year, which is pretty funny.
What’s the story there?
Big Star Wars fan. (laughs) I also like puns and I just thought it was hilarious.
A geeky tattoo request isn’t even necessarily geeky to me. It’s basically something that is going to make another fan smile.– Shannan Greeley, tattoo artist
In terms of geeky tattoos you’ve done, is there one that stands out?
I think the Adventure Time tattoo I’m doing on Thursday is pretty funny. It will be the character Lemongrab holding another character and yelling, “One million years dungeon!” That’s a pretty iconic line for anyone that’s an Adventure Time fan.
A geeky tattoo request isn’t even necessarily geeky to me. It’s basically something that is going to make another fan smile, and I think if you’re an Adventure Time fan, you know that line and it’s pretty great.
Deep down I’m a big nerd at heart, so a lot of the fandoms are things that I love. When I was invited to come to [Fan Expo] I didn’t want to pass the opportunity by to get to interact with a bunch of other people with very common interests, and to get to tattoo something meaningful or fun for them.
These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.