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Tattoo seekers offer various motivations to get inked

Conventiongoers enjoy permanence, identity of body art

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From one booth to the next there was a buzz that sounded like an electric razor. People were staring intently at body parts. It would have been mostly quiet if not for the background music.

The scene Friday was the start of the third annual Salt Lake City International Tattoo Convention at the Salt Palace.

No one, however, was asking why someone would put a tattoo on his or her body — the artists and customers here had gotten past that.

"You could sit there and psychoanalyze all day long," said tattoo artist Bexx Miller.

She's done a bit of that herself.

"It's the most serious, serious form of self-expression," Miller said. "And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing."

In her explanation of why, Miller, 33, talked about how we live in a transient world, how people throw away things all the time, how buildings go up and come down — an emphasis on the temporary.

She touched on how getting a tattoo might be a means in some people's minds to separate themselves from the animal world.

Miller added that since humans have been alive they have been looking for ways to decorate themselves.

In short, a tattoo is simply something beautiful that a person can wear forever, said Miller.

She talked while working on Kandi Zamora, who was getting another dragon tattoo, this one on her right arm.

Why dragons?

"I love dragons," said Zamora, 24. "They're very mythical."

Zamora has tattoos on her hip, ankle, upper back and one of a name on her lower back that she won't talk about.

Zamora's husband, Sam, 31, was a few feet away, getting a tattoo from Miller's husband, Ben. Sam's "full sleeve" tattoo was made up of skulls mixed into an industrial scene.

Husband and wife (being decorated) would pay husband and wife (doing the decorating) in the neighborhood of $800 for both tattoos.

One of Sam's more compelling tattoos is of a name, Miguel, someone Sam is eager to talk about.

"We were like brothers," Sam said of his cousin. The tattoo records Miguel's years on earth with the numbers '75, when he was born, and '97, when he was shot in the back of the head.

"Never caught who did it," said Sam, whose job it is to locate underground utility lines for the state.

Why a tattoo on his arm?

"It's a remembrance for myself," he said. "He was a great guy — he had everything going for him."

Ben drew on Sam's arm before using a foot control to start the buzz of a five-point tattoo machine. His tools are sterilized in the same manner a doctor would use to clean instruments. Needles are never used twice.

A group with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department was walking around, making sure tattoos and body piercings were being delivered in the safest manner.

No problems here.

"Most here are elite," said health inspector Craig Weinheimer. Problems that do pop up are minor, like a paperwork issue, and are easily fixed. "It's pretty well run."

Chalk up continued success to convention organizer C.J. Starkey, who worked with health inspectors months in advance to make sure the hand-picked artists would do it right.

"All these people are our friends — our homies," Starkey said.

Starkey, who is also a tattoo artist, pulls in professionals for the convention from Oregon, California, Denver, Texas, Georgia, New York and even London. And a crew was on hand from the reality TV show "Inked" to catch the buzz on camera.

Still don't get it?

Well, Utah State University's David Stein, head of the psychology department, deferred to a tattoo/body-modification practitioner who gave four key reasons as to why:

Affirm a sense of personal identity.

Communicate some aspect of sexuality to others.

Social shock value.

Physical adornment or to enhance attractiveness.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people are expected to attend the convention, which runs through Sunday.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com