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Big-T & the Bada-Bings

Girls and Cars and Tattoo Charms

By Molly Buck

It was the first sunny, non-humid morning in months as my friend Ross and I boarded the Long Island Railroad at Manhattanís Penn Station. We were heading for The First Annual Tattoo and Hotrod Convention at the Vanderbilt Ballroom in Plainview, NY, which took place the weekend of August 18th. I had never been to a convention of this nature before and had no idea what to expect besides shiny hotrods, girls in '50s dresses, and some bizarre tattoos. In the end, my expectations were accurate, though easily surpassed.

During the train ride, I reflected on the best tattoo I have ever seen, on the arm of my good friend, Brooke.  It started out as a vibrant blue toaster, cord and all.  Then a few years later she showed up with an entire red and white checkerboard countertop under the toaster, a box of cereal, a bottle of milk, a cereal bowl and a spoon.  It was a complete breakfast scene in bright primary colors on her right arm below the elbow.  She has been my hero ever since. 

While contemplating whether I would find any tattoo that impressed me more than that, I struck up a conversation with the blonde in dark sunglasses and bright red lipstick who joined our cab ride to the Vanderbilt.  She informed me that this show was a particularly big deal because unlicensed tattoo artists were allowed to participate.  Being thoroughly naÔve I expressed surprise that people were getting tattoos there and asked if people bought hotrods there as well.

"Iíve bought hotrods at these conventions before," she said.  "You get a good deal. You can get a whole hotrod kit at these shows for $3,000 to $5,000.  These guys got nothiní to do all day but drink beer and work on cars." 

I then asked the obvious, and was thrilled to hear her response: "Iíve got tattoos all around my waist.  I have a foxy little dress Iím going to change into when I get there to show my stuff."  It turned out that her boyfriend owns a tattoo store on the Lower East Side and had a booth at the show.  She would be spending the day doing some free PR for him.

Upon being dropped off at the gorgeous 1950s Vanderbilt Ballroom, the first thing that caught my attention was the absolute harmony between the shiny red, pink, yellow and flame-painted hotrods in the parking lot, the rockabilly music blaring from the loudspeakers, and the silver & teal sheen of the marvelous building.

A perfectly-coiffed woman in a red flared dress named Gwen Sprinkle gave me a tour of the various hotrods in the lot.  Her favorite was a glistening pink í59 El Dorado with huge fins, a convertible roof and taillights shaped like lipstick tubes.

The Vanderbilt is completely adorned in Art Deco furniture and artwork, with a balcony that surrounds the entire main ballroom, a stage, and two full bars.  It was an obvious destination for this retro gathering, but could also be an ideal venue for a wedding reception or swing dance party.  We arrived inside in time to catch most of the tattoo contest.  Each contestant came onto the stage and modeled his or her tattoo while the announcer asked four standard questions:  How long did the tattoo take? How long have you had it? Who is the artist? What does it mean to you?

There were a large number of "sleeves" in the contest, which are tattoos that cover the entire arm from shoulder to wrist.  Andrea, the 3rd place winner of the color tattoo contest, sported a sleeve with a maiden, mother and crone, designed by her fiancť at Phantom 8 in Englewood, Colorado.

My two favorite tattoos in the contest were a huge black and white John Wayne tattoo on the back of a very large man and a color tattoo of "Catholic schoolgirls fighting in church" on the thigh of a young woman, who modeled it in a plaid mini-skirt and pigtails.  A close second to these two beauties was the black and white tattoo on a womanís torso of her grandmotherís gravestone.

As it turns out, I would not have made a very good judge, I learned by talking with Oliver Peck, one of the judges from Dallas, Texas.  "Theme and taste should not be a part of the decision," he informed me, when I lamented that none of my favorite tattoos won.  "It is about how well the tattoo is done.  Are the colors solid?  Is the outline straight and clean?  How difficult was it to do?"  Since we couldnít talk about taste in tattoos, I asked him what his favorite hotrod was.  "Thatís easy, the í57 Oldsmobile Ė the black one with flames."  Iím sure that choice had to do a lot with how well the engine ran.

At this point I decided to check out the vendor booths upstairs in the balcony surrounding the main ballroom. I unknowingly entered "Satanís Sideshow," to find t-shirts with sayings like "Satan Loves Me."  I left pretty quickly, but not before buying a gas station attendant patch with "Tor" on it, for my co-worker of the same name. I later learned that the patch was a tribute to Tor Johnson, a well-known horror film actor whose credits include a number of Ed Wood films.

Next, I headed to "Koolsville Kollectibles" down the hall. The exhibit was full of í50s furniture, glassware, pin-ups, toys, clothing and more, and was run by the very sweet and kitsch-loving Woody & Mari-Anne.  After scoring a great deal on a fabulous sequined tank top, I went to the bar to congratulate myself with a vodka tonic.

By the time Ross and I left the convention, our heads were reeling with images of tattoo artists by the hundreds inking designs onto adventurous attendees, slick-haired bikers in leather and rolled-up jeans, stylish women with varying degrees of clothing on (depending on where their tattoos were), noisy hotrod and easy-rider motorcycle engines gunning continuously, and an overall sense of awe for a subculture in which contemporary artists and retro-culture connoisseurs collaborate to create an atmosphere of true pop art and decadence.

The highlight of the entire day occurred on the ballroom stage just before we left.  A woman clad in a sequined thong body suit came out on stage and proceeded to pick up a series of sparkly hula-hoops with her feet, spinning them up her legs to her waist and then up to her neck, one after the other, until she had close to 20 around her entire body.  When she spun these 20 hula-hoops, they covered her from head to toe, so that all the audience could see was 5í8" of flashing hula-hoop action. 

Sheís my new hero.  Iíll have to find a way to break this gently to Brookeómaybe over breakfast.

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