Tattoo Travel Horror Stories
Tattoo artists travel a lot. Some, like Bob Tyrrell or Larry Brogan are, seemingly, off to some convention or celebrity appearance at least every couple of weeks. But, often, there’s a definite profiling going on: an attitude reserved for escaped convicts, serial killers and mad bombers. Sure, there are horror stories of having tattoo equipment confiscated or being hailed off to some bare-walled interrogation room because of a teenage DUI or an accusation from an angry girlfriend that got on your police rap sheet back in the ’70s, but, if you think before you travel, heading toward an airport can be relatively stress free. If you take certain precautions. Or get lucky.
Tattoo people like to travel. Artists, especially, realize that, the moment they land on foreign soil, tattooed folks are friendly, helpful and extremely accommodating. There seems to be a blood bond that is, perhaps, the best part of having body art. Case in point: Canada. Whenever I travel from the U.S. to Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver, for example, we are treated with an uncommon degree of thoughtfulness and an innate feeling of being a member of an extended family. For the most part, it is subtle—being picked up from the airport rather than told to “catch a shuttle,” finding flowers on the nightstand when a visit coincides with a wedding anniversary, that kind of thing. But that’s the exception, rather than the rule.
Several foreign tattoo artists, big names, who, prior to 9/11, used to frequent tattoo conventions in the U.S. have opted out and stayed abroad. Very rarely do you see the familiar faces of Tin-Tin, Henning Jorgensen and Alex Binnie, for example; tattoo celebrities, who, back in the “old days,” you’d run into on a regular basis. “It’s just too much of a hassle,” they say. “They confiscate our gear and ‘lose’ our luggage. We get to some show in the Midwest and our equipment is stuck in customs.” It’s a shame, really. It used to be so exciting to see major artists arrive from Europe, Asia and Polynesia, but not so much anymore. There are a few that jump through the hoops to attend the New York City Tattoo Convention but, for the most part, it’s few and far between.
It’s a little easier when you are an American and travel within the boundaries of the U.S. But not always. Take for example, the time I was stalled at the Miami airport by a security guard that took one look at my tattooed arm and demanded my luggage be wrapped in Saran Wrap. At a cost of thirty-five dollars. “How come on one else has to wrap their luggage?” I asked, knowing I had been singled out. “Everyone else is queuing up and getting on the plane.”
“Sorry,” said the guard, a uniformed lady in her mid-thirties.
“But I travel quite a bit, and this is the first time…”
“Can’t help you,” said the official. “We wrap your luggage, or you don’t get on the plane,” she said.
So, there I am, standing there, watching my roll-away being wrapped like a cocoon in yards and yards of plastic, while everyone else files by, including people with bags twice the size of mine.
I did my best to keep my cool, but not until I mentioned I was the editor of a tattoo magazine that, next thing I know, she pulls up her pant leg and shows me her butterfly. Then she pops a couple buttons on her uniform to expose the Boston Bulldog on her shoulder. “Wow,” I say and, just like that, she passes me through security, I’m climbing the ramp and on the plane.
More than once I handed a copy of my magazine (I always carry one, in case I need to prove I’m with the press) to an airport cop who stood between me and the boarding gate. It always gave me a laugh to look back and see three or four security personnel huddled around, flipping pages, smiling and giving me the thumbs-up. The same people that, five minutes before, when they first saw my tattoos, had me step out of line and open my bag.
And then there’s the time when my wife, Mary (who was wearing a sleeveless dress that revealed her Robert Atkinson and Leo Zulueta ink), and I landed in Houston. The George Bush Intercontinental, they call it. We had just gotten off the plane. As we exited the gate, it was rather sobering when the hundreds of people milling about and seated at the various gates went absolutely silent. Not a word. Just staring. Eerie is what it was. I guess they don’t have women with full sleeves in Texas. At least not at the airport.
It’s relatively unpredictable but, nowadays, walking around with tattoos is not the big deal it was a decade or so ago. You know, back in the days when people saw a tattooed person coming toward them on the sidewalk and crossed over to the other side of the street. The rule of the day back then was to wear a long-sleeved shirt and button up your collar. Otherwise, it was straight to the security pat down.
But times have changed, and tattooing is much more accepted, especially in big cities. The profiling that erroneously labeled everyone with a tattoo an escaped convict (or worse) has been replaced with people you’d never suspect flashing their ink in public. Just last month, I saw a stewardess with a rose tattooed on her ankle and a pilot with wrist ink from his days as a military flyboy. But even if they don’t have tattoos themselves, there seems to be a relatively cheerful reaction and even enthusiastic questions from onboard personnel, which is a heck of a lot more comforting than having the plane surrounded by squad cars and guys with too-short haircuts and cheap overcoats marching down the aisles and hauling me off to be interrogated (the kind of thing that happened around 9/11).
Come to think of it, perhaps getting through airport security has become easier because, even though things have loosed up a bit, I dress appropriately. You know, like the old days: wearing a long-sleeved shirt. There are people, like Lyle Tuttle, who have been traveling with tattoos much longer than I have, and, because of the way they dress (buttoned at the wrist, buttoned at the neck), no one would guess they have a full bodysuit. Or, if they do have exposed tattoos on the neck or hands, they smile, make a point of having their suitcase ready for inspection and put up with the inconvenience.
All in all, traveling to a tattoo event or a visit to a shop is (except for the cramped seats, mediocre food and lack of legroom) pretty enjoyable. Part of it is due, I’m sure, to my efforts to avoid trouble. I simply make it a point to play down the tattoos and swallow my pride. Frankly, I don’t think the airport security line is the place to make a point about whether having tattoos is my God-given right. Let’s face it, travel is exhausting and uncomfortable enough without inviting a confrontation with airport personnel. It’s so much better when the experience at the airport or on the plane is a pleasant one. You know, free of hassles and not being made to feel like some weirdo. But, on the other hand, that can be cool, too.