The Fifth Annual Live Free or Die Tattoo Expo will be a celebration of how far the art of tattooing has come in the Queen City. There will be artists, contests, bands and seminars. But, above all else, it will be one heck of a party, and that is exactly what Jon Thomas intended.
Thomas is the owner of Spider-Bite Tattoo and Body Piercing in Manchester and started the expo five years ago in celebration of a law change in the city. It maybe surprising to many, but tattooing was illegal in Manchester only seven years ago, according to Thomas. Six years ago, after hearings in the Superior Court and city meetings, the law changed and Manchester opened up to this mobile art form, just as other towns, like Salem and Derry, had done long before.
“It took a while for the city to wake up,” Thomas said. “Now tattoos have gotten more accepted. The artwork now goes way beyond what it used to be. The work going on is so realistic, it is amazing.”
When Manchester finally woke up, Thomas was ready. Since Spider-Bite was already a body piercing parlor, it only made sense to include tattoos. And even though Thomas doesn’t create them himself, his love of tattoos is quite evident.
“I’m completely covered,” Thomas said. “My back, my arms, my legs. I’ve always had a passion for tattoos.”
During the first year tattooing was legal, when Thomas first added it to his shop, he spent a lot of time visiting tattoo expos around the East Coast — New York, Philadelphia and Maine — getting a feel for the scene and promoting his shop.
What he found on these reconnaissance missions was a lot of hype without a great deal of delivery. This made him believe he could put on his own expo that was better. Thus the Live Free or Die Tattoo Expo was born.
Immediately it became apparent that Thomas had tapped a vein. That first year he had 93 booths for tattoo artists and other exhibitors and they quickly sold out. In an effort to grow the expo, he re-arranged things so the next year he could offer 120 booths. Each year since, the number of artists and vendors has risen, coming close to selling out those 120 booths. This year he has succeeded.
“It has grown a little bit every year,” Thomas said, “which you like to see. We are now the largest tattoo expo in New England and we keep working on it every year, trying to make it better.”
Tattooists and tattoo enthusiasts will find plenty to do at the expo. More than 100 artists from all over the country will be giving tattoos on the spot. More than anything else, it gives people a chance to walk around and show off their tattoos — with some incentive. There will be a tattoo contest, with such categories as Best Portrait, Best Color, Best Chest Piece, etc. Three years ago, a young lady approached Thomas and told him there should be a pin-up pageant. Thomas, always willing to give the people what they want, agreed. The first year it was a 1940s-1950s theme; last year it was military, and this year it will be a pirate pin-up, which will feature young women in their best pirate garb.
For aspiring artists or even seasoned veterans looking to pick up a tip or two, there will be seminars hosted by famed tattooists Lyle Tuttle (Lessons from a Living Legend) and Nick Malasto. What makes the expo so cool, according to Thomas, is that some of the best artists from around the country descend on Manchester.
“If a great tattooist lives in California, how often are you going to get out there to have him do work on you?” Thomas said. “At the expo, they come to you.”
Thomas said he once had a tattoo artist who did a lot of his work, so much so that when she moved, Thomas would fly to her new location for more work. The expo brings these artists home.
It also casts a mainstream light on what was once a subculture. More and more people are getting tattoos and these include office professionals and women. In fact, Thomas said the demographic of the expo is an even mix of men and women, with perhaps a few more women than men. This rising popularity has led Thomas to believe the expo will be around for years to come.
“Manchester needs some different cultural opportunities,” Thomas said. “No one, besides us, is really giving the people what they want to the fullest.
“When I put on a show, I want to make sure people are getting their money’s worth,” Thomas said.