Marvelously modified men and women converge on this
historic hot-spot and declare their state of independence.


Welcome to the Woodstock Tattoo and Body Arts Festival 2003! See tattoos come alive! See naked flesh replace canvas and clay! See a tribe transform into a nation!

The Festival celebrates living art as Woodstock overflows with densely-decorated bodies. For a glorious weekend — September 5,6, and 7 — a flawless daytime sky envelops the New York countryside; at night the brilliant half-moon and Mars reign. Founded in 1787, this lovely little “art retreat” held its first local exhibition in 1903. The massive 60s rock festival occurred nearby; nowadays the “Woodstock” label looms massively and magically marketing-wise.

Behind every tattoo lies a great story. This event serves as a history lesson as well as a debaucherous blow-out.

Festival co-producer Curse Mackey lies in the grass, staring up at the sky, occasionally barking into a radio. Happy but stressed, he runs the show from his verdant vantage point. Hey Curse, what’s going on here? “This is the strategic gathering of the tattooing elite,” he replies. “The biggest and best art show in alternative/modern primitive/low-brow art — the cream of the crop. It’s an incredible cultural event.”

A film about Charles Gatewood’s life and work, Forbidden Photographs, premiers here. Charles, why are people so into body culture? “When we’re destroying the planet, and we’re alienated and fucked-up, a lot of people are looking back to primitive sources for inspiration. This event isn’t just a tattoo party; it’s a multi-dimensional festival dealing with all aspects of body art.”

Among the many happenings: an H.R. Giger exhibition and tattoo contest, the premier of Joe Coleman’s documentary, Rest In Pieces, an eight-band NYC rock show, various competitions, endless parties, a Relapse Records showcase, Spider Webb’s 9/11 exhibition, “youth-oriented art activities,” and a Modern Art Visionary exhibition featuring Steven Cerio, Winston Smith, Von Arno, Dragonfly, Stephen Kasner, The Pizz, R.K. Sloane, Frank Kozik, Skot Olsen, and others.

Tattooing booths crowd every club, hall, and restaurant as well as the local Harley shop. The whirring buzz of tattoo machines fills the air. Who’s this tattooing a pretty lady’s leg? “Pashe One. I work out of Amherst Mass.” What are you doing? “Biomechanical.” He continues etching the lass’s calf. Who are you, baby? “Laura Palmero.” What are you doing? “Laying down, trying not to think about what’s going on.” Does it hurt? “No, after awhile it doesn’t hurt. It gets numb.” Is it pleasurable? “In a weird way, yeah, it can be.” Can you fetishize the feeling? “You could say that.”

Hundreds of tattooees lie on tables or lean in chairs. grimacing against the needle’s unrelenting pain. Thousands of onlookers gawk or study. Tattoo gun in one hand, bloody rag in the other, the artists lean over their subjects, incising them with the noisy needle then wiping away a watery red patina. As bands belt out hoped-for hits, the real deal this weekend is on the hides of the decorated, who constitute a panorama of living pictures, designs, and words. Above it all, banners and posters blur into a stew of skulls, swords, eagles, hearts, eight-balls, et cetera.

Here’s a nasty-looking cat. What’s your name? “Brian. I do tattoos in the Catskills.” What do you like to do? “Women.” Brian offers forearms from which pinup-style broads beckon. “These are jailhouse tattoos. I did them myself, using opposite hands, with prison guns — a Walkman motor and a pen for a tube, a guitar string for a needle. The detail is better than commercial guns. You can blend colors better.” What do you use for ink? “Soot from burning hair grease mixed with water.” What were you in the joint for? “Robbery.” That’s cool. How long? “Ten years. I used to draw when I was a kid. My mother always said to go to art school. For what? To sit in front of the museum and sell paintings for twenty-five dollars? Then when I went away I started doin‘ tattoos.” How long have you been out? “About a year. Things are going well. I have a baby. There’s a lot of money to made in tattooing.”

Joe Hurwitz, an untattooed architect, walks his Doberman Alex who, surprisingly, sports a tattoo. Joe explains, “His tattoo is a series of numbers, in case he’s ever kidnapped for medical experiments. Legitimate experimenters will look for the tattoo first. They know where to look.” Only by rolling the dog over and spreading his hind legs can the tattoo be seen. Although sorta humorous, the encounter illustrates many dogs’ grim lot. Tattooing potentially saves their lives.

Ken Smith steps up. “My tattoo says, ‘If you give a chimp a gun, and the chimp shoots someone, you don’t blame the chimp. Danny DeMarco, 5/23/80.’” Who is he? “My best friend. He passed away April Fool’s Day ’01. He had cystic fibrosis. He was twenty.” Who did the tattoo? “San Diego Dave.”

Big Joe Phillips from Ft. Meyers Beach, Florida owns Big Stick Specialties. “We work on a lot of spring breakers. A lot of people on vacation. They get that tattoo they never would back home. We do a lot of aquatic stuff. We’re right on the beach. Dolphins, conch shells, starfish, seahorses — I got a seahorse right here on my elbow. We do old Sailor Jerry-style anchors. I’m working on getting the U.S.S. San Francisco on my chest. It’s the only ship that wasn’t sunk at Pearl Harbor. My grandfather was on it.”

Hey gorgeous, who did your tattoo? “Bruce Kaplan out of Westbury, New York,” answers Kellie DeMilp. “I have an Egyptian ankh, the symbol of life, on my arm with hieroglyphs of my name.” Would an ancient Egyptian recognize what it says? “Yes. This was a symbol on the tombs of royalty, to protect their spirits.” And you’re hoping that will work for you. “I hope so!”

Spider Webb holds court at the Town Hall Gallery, where his incredible 9/11 exhibition occupies the former seat of town government. “This is one of the most civilized festivals I’ve ever been to in my life. It’s like coming back home: I used to live in Woodstock. The last time I was in Town Hall, I was found guilty. This was the court room. Here I am meeting the mayor — it’s about time they wised up.”

Spider, what’s your favorite tattoo to give? “The canvas is ten times more important than the tattoo. A fuckin‘ tattoo is a joke. If you got a beautiful body, you can put dog shit on it and it’s still a beautiful body. Tattoos are really good things for ugly people, who need all the help they can get.”

Here’s Perry Woodin from Albany. “I have Albert Camus’ interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus. So it’s an existentialist representation depicting man’s struggle and the fact that we only have moments of reprieve. Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to push a bolder up a mountain, only to have it tumble down as he reached the summit. The tattooist is Jason Riggs in Indianapolis, Indiana.” So, it’s a metaphor for your own life? “I had physical pain of my own and I go through struggles, and I get these moments of reprieve.” Are you okay now? “Yeah. The tattoo helps a great deal.”

One of our all-time favorite illustrated ladies, the totally tattooed Katzen, explains her feline appearance. “I’m tattooed with tiger stripes from head to toe. My whiskers are piercings with Teflon wire. Ever since I was a child I saw myself with tiger stripes in my dreams. I did a lot of art based on that. I met The Enigma and we both wanted full body tattoos, so I started tattooing the stripes I painted on as a child.”

“I’m The Enigma,” her blue-hued companion proclaims. Jigsaw-puzzle pictographs cover every square inch of him. From his head sprouts horns. “You make an incision in the forehead and separate the subcutaneous layer from the fascia, and insert Teflon pieces starting with a smaller size so the skin stretches. The next step is to replace the Teflon with coral from the sea. Your body registers it as calcium, coats it with more calcium, and then you cut the skin off and sharpen ’em up. In a hundred years scientists dig you up, and the tabloids read, ‘Satan’s Skull Found.’ Well, I’m just planning ahead.”

Enigma, give us a sound bite. “Am I gonna be on the cover of Juxtapoz?” He exudes a pale blue aura. What part hurt the most? “My nose, of course.” Is your penis tattooed? He gasps. “Get your mind out of my pants! Let’s just say, women always say it’s size, but I say it’s color. It may be the smallest piece, but it’s the bluest” Indeed! How do cops react? “Actually, law enforcement agents are very, very friendly, because I’m a boy in blue myself.”

Joe Coleman and his wonderful wife Whitney walk by. Joe, are ya diggin‘ it? “The show is courageous. It’s very good for the first year.” What tattoos do you have? “I have portraits of my father and myself. I also have a skull, eagle, and snake. Jonathan Shaw did them all.” Coleman once painted a portrait of Shaw, and Shaw occasionally tattooed Coleman; therefore their renderings reciprocate in loops of mutual admiration!

The lovely London, a six-year-old beauty whose mom, Beth Spradlin, graces tattoo mag covers, displays her painted face. “It’s a pretty butterfly.” Another butterfly adorns her shirt. “I also like kittys and doggies and hamsters.” Will you ever get a real tattoo? “I don’t know yet. I might.” Do you want to keep that painting on your face forever? “Yes!”

Chrissy from Tattooed Kingpin in Philadelphia informs us, “We sell tattoo-related merchandise, like jewelry for stretched ears or baby clothes with tattoo designs like mom-and-dad hearts.” She says that many people have “at least one religious tattoo.” Do you? “No, not yet.” What’s the closest thing to a religious tattoo on you? Chrissy pulls up her sleeves. “Dracula.” Each shoulder sports the vampire’s likeness!

We run into Steven Blush, who’s staging the NYC rock bands and lecturing on his book American Hardcore. “Hardcore guys like Harley Flanagan of the Cro-Mags and Henry Rollins from Black Flag made it okay for what has become commonplace today — primitive, tribal rock themes. Harley had skinhead-style tattoos, and Rollins’ were related to his favorite bands.”

Here’s Rich T from the hillbilly region of Ohio: “I’m the vice-president of the Hillbilly Tattoo Club. My preference is doing traditional stuff. I’ve always worked street shops so I’m up for anything that comes through the door.” Rich runs a museum: “The Temple Tattoo History Museum in the back of my shop in Gallipolis, Ohio. There’s a collection of antique flash dating back to the turn of the century. The nicest piece is four panels of Texas Bob Wicks’ flash dated 1930.” It’s absolutely fabulous!

Les Barany, curator of the Giger show, appears. “Giger has always been influential in the tattoo world, because his paintings have a visceral effect so that people want to put them on their bodies. He has often been approached to design tattoos, but he doesn’t want the responsibility of desecrating people’s bodies. He feels terrible for all the bad tattoos his work has inspired.” The show at the Fletcher Gallery, H.R. Giger Woodstock 2003, presents Giger’s sculptures and prints, together with a selection of work from the artist’s private collection.

Up walks Bruce Bart, co-producer and the Festival’s main motivator. He proudly points out, “We’re giving the attendees a large dose of tattooing, piercing, and body mod, resulting in some raised eyebrows, dropped jaws, and heightened consciousness. The streets are bustling with color and harmony.”

And so on, as the crowd grooves for three fantastic days. But, like all things great and small, the Festival must end. Sunday night rolls around; the pool of hipsters grows smaller and smaller. In a final puff of smoke it’s over. How did it all go? Tom Blossom from Catskill Mountain Pizza says, “Yesterday was our busiest day ever for burgers and beer.”

Now it’s next year already, and here you are. It’s an even bigger and better show. Howdy!