13 Sep

H Street Festival Recap and Peek: The Best and Worst Tattoo Contest

Showing a Little Ink

Paul at the 2011 H Street Festival. Portrait by María Helena Carey.

I first met Paul last September when he was the master of ceremonies for the Best and Worst Tattoo Contest at H Street Festival. He was wearing a leopard-print catsuit and mirrored Aviators and was prowling around a catwalk while interacting with the audience and the contestants. He purred over a male contestant’s muscles; he leered playfully at another’s delicate back tattoos, which she revealed coyly by lifting up her hair. He whooped and hollered along with the audience when a minxy girl with a tattoo that ran up her entire right side, from the poky bump of her pelvis bone to her armpit, whipped off her shirt and revealed a lithe, gorgeous and tan body and a lacy black brassiere. She was a student at Gallaudet University, so Paul helped instruct the crowd on how to properly clap in American Sign Language: by shaking your hands high in the air.

The winners of the Best Tattoo were a very well-built guy with a full-chest tattoo that looked like a mythical bird and a petite woman whose back was alive with swirls of paisley. The Worst Tattoos were an uninspired homage to Spider-Man on a man’s hand –a poorly-executed spiderweb that radiated from the skin between his thumb and forefinger– and a woman’s atrocious drawing of what she had hoped would be a fuzzy teddy bear in tails, sporting a top hat. The ink looked blue-green and the Sasquatchy teddy bear saluted sadly, his likeness trapped in unmoisturized skin. The Worst Tattoo winners were offered a complimentary tattoo cover-up, courtesy of Paul’s studio. That’s one of Paul’s specialties: he covers up unsightly tattoos.

Paul originally studied to be a tailor, but when he moved to D.C., over 20 years ago, he became an apprentice at a tattoo studio. Now he’s a bespoke tailor of body art.  “My studio is not a ‘parlor;’ a parlor is the front room of a house…. this is a place of ‘haute tatouage.’”

Upon entering the ‘place of haute tatouage’ –a narrow, skylit room in the very back of the studio– I was struck by the calm and cozy atmosphere. ‘40s music was playing softly in the background, and the walls were lined with beautiful drawings and designs on tracing paper, held together by binding clips. Paul flipped through them to reveal different iterations of the same design: the first one is the conceptual drawing he produces after the initial meeting with the client. The second one is a careful repetition of the first, but it’s outlined and edited in red pencil as if it were a dress or a suit’s mock-up. Getting the tattoo you want hinges on making sure that it fits you like a bespoke suit: a tattoo cannot be so big it will overpower your frame, or so small that it’s barely visible. “Everything should be designed for longevity,” he adds. To achieve the illusion of the tattoo moving and harmonizing with the body, he consults anatomy charts and has a thorough knowledge of muscle and tendon systems. For especially complex cases, Paul can spend months designing a tattoo that will complement the area of the body that will bear it. Some of the work he’s executed has been very complex: he once tattooed a WWII-era aircraft engine –a cover-up for a large and inelegant tattoo.

Then there is the client he has spent over 260 hours tattooing: every Thursday for four hours, for over a year and a half. The man was badly scarred by MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus): his chest and arms were stippled with pink scars where colonies of bacteria had eaten through his skin. Paul spent weeks studying the pattern of the scars, trying to come up with a design that would not just cover them up, but that would be as organic as the arrangement of the scars. Finally, he had a flash of inspiration: a Japanese-style scene of wisteria petals floating in the breeze. From that original concept, a whole body suit emerged, with the petals as the common element. Paul is happy that the new tattoo “took skin [the client] was embarrassed to show and turned it into something beautiful.”

Paul won’t quite be breaking his own rule at this year’s H Street Festival — he will be putting on a show to amaze and delight, and as he has done for several years now, he will be there like a psychopomp, weighing the good and the bad as far as tattoos go, and showing everyone a rollicking good time. He will also be tattooing Taylor Gourmet’s owner Casey Patten with his very own barcode if someone wins Taylor’s first-ever Hoagie Eating Contest.

Paul is not just a tattoo artist: he is a modern-day shaman, who guides people through a process that can be as uncomfortable as therapy, but which ultimately seems to enrich their lives and may give them insights about themselves.

Take a trip down memory lane with last year’s Best and Worst Tattoo contest!

If you want to see what Paul has been up to, plan to make a trip up to Strathmore and see the exhibition titled Skin, which opens on September 15th.


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