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Originally published Friday, August 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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What does a tattoo say to you?

Meet Damon Conklin, organizer of this weekend's Seattle Tattoo Convention. See him in his milieu, his roomy Super Genius shop on Capitol...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Meet Damon Conklin, organizer of this weekend's Seattle Tattoo Convention.

See him in his milieu, his roomy Super Genius shop on Capitol Hill. The music blares. Sample racks of tribal, skull and voluptuous-women tattoos hang from the ochre-colored walls.

See him in his milieu much later one evening, still in his shop, but with a blue "Bible Study" binder in his lap.

"If it's one point I always try to drive home, it's that you cannot judge a book by its cover," Conklin, 38, says. Tattoo enthusiasts have long been at the receiving end of gawks or scornful remarks. The heavily tattooed Conklin (arms, neck, back and hands) has had his share of looks. Moreover, in a tattoo world that embraces rock and heavy metal, Conklin is a rap, jazz and classical-music fan. And he's black.

"I've stood outside my shop and I've said, 'Hey, how's it goin,' to guys and they've walked right past me and they go inside asking to speak to a tattoo artist. I don't look like what society thinks a tattoo artist looks like," says Conklin, gold hoop in each ear; hair worn in an Afro. He also sports a skinny mustache and beard resembling the sort worn by Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction."

The Seattle Tattoo Convention, which begins tomorrow, is in its fourth year, exploding to 72 booths and 200 tattooists.

Seattle Tattoo Convention


When: Today through Sunday

Where: Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center.

Tickets: $20-$35 for a three-day pass

Information: www.seattletattooconvention.com

Sure, there's still something taboo about tattoos. Needles in skin; blood, pain.

But when tattoos are appreciated by both hobbits (Elijah Wood, et al.) and bubble-gum actresses (Mandy Moore), we're not talking subversive anymore.

One in seven adults, according to a 2003 survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, has a tattoo. There are now tattoo-themed reality TV shows. There are some 68 tattoo shops in the greater Seattle metro area; 273 statewide.

If you haven't seen a tattoo lately, you haven't been out among people. All kinds of people.

"I love orcas and butterflies and the sky and sea," said a tall, blond 35-year-old woman wearing a black sundress the other day. She looked like the sort of woman on her way to getting a mani/pedi. Instead, she was walking out with a freshly etched winged orca on her back. Her shop of choice was a Pike Place Market store called Madame Lazonga's: tasseled pillows, peacock feathers in vases; big-band jazz on the sound system.

At the other end of the tattoo-shop spectrum is Apocalypse Tattoo, whose specialty is the dark, fiery and fanged. This is the place to go if you want to look as if you've just been skinned. Or if you appreciate a nice image of bedroom behavior between a woman and the devil.

Somewhere in between is Conklin's shop. It has its share of naughty — "Tiki Heaven" girls — and nice — koi. Men wearing socks and Tevas; young women wearing Lance Armstrong bracelets or carrying Coach or dressed all in black.

"It never ceases to surprise me how mainstream it is," says Conklin, who says his clientele crosses all economic and ethnic lines. It's been about six years since Conklin was actually surprised by someone who asked for a tattoo.

"He was super clean-cut. A sharp dresser. He eventually took his jacket off and he had these two sleeves." (A "sleeve" is tattooese for a design that fully covers an arm.)

Conklin arrived later in life to tattooing. In fact, he used to think tattoos were reserved for criminals. But when he was 26, he got his first one: "a tribal sun thing" on his right shoulder.

An evangelical Christian, Conklin credits God for keeping him free of alcohol and drugs for the past 13 years. He decided to get that first tattoo, he explains, after meeting another sober guy who was an artist.

"Have you ever had a moment when you thought your whole life is changing right then?" he says. "When I walked in [for a tattoo], it was a whim. But when I walked out, I felt like everything had just changed."

Three more tattoos quickly followed. Conklin quit his job doing 3-D animation work for video games and became a tattoo artist instead.

"People really appreciate when you make them a cool picture they'll wear forever. I once did a portrait of a lady's dog on her arm and when she looked at it in the mirror, she broke down. No one's ever going to cry if you've drawn a monster in a video game."

Conklin opened his business 2 ½ years ago, one more counterculture Seattleite only to those who know nothing about tattoos or their fans.

And because he's a Christian and it's his shop, Conklin packs up his needle gun and hosts Bible studies at Super Genius after closing every Wednesday night.

Closing time is 10 p.m. But on this night, a tattooist in town for the convention accommodated a young Goth woman who wanted a black spade on her forearm.

So the other night, while a needle gun buzzed in a back studio, Conklin and four other Christians gathered on the leopard-print sofas out front. He prayed for a good convention.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com

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