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|| News Item: Posted 2007-02-27

Tattoo You
By Chris Detrick, The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Chris Detrick / The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Chris Detrick / The Salt Lake Tribune
Last winter I had the idea of putting together a photo collage for the annual Tattoo Convention in Salt Lake City, but I was covering the Utah State Legislature full time and couldn't get away.

Instead, I used the same concept during the Utah Gay Pride Festival in June. Normally, my photo editor Scott Sommerdorf cringes in pain when he hears the word "collage" used in budget meetings. This is because it is almost always used by the visually-illiterate "word folk," who skip by the idea of what a good picture story can communicate and just like to smash pictures together an call it a "picture package."

I rented a backdrop, set up lights and with the help of my assistant Ashley Franscell, took portraits of about 65 people. I put together a collage with 18 of the best portraits and submitted it to the weekend editors at the Salt Lake Tribune.

Originally, I was told that it would be the A-1 Sunday centerpiece, but I later got a call that the editors were worried about the content. They believed it was a little too risqué for our audience. Their reasoning was that some of the subjects were cross-dressing, some wore revealing outfits and some were sexually suggestive.

No matter how much I fought for it, it ended up in black and white on an inside page without a caption or a credit. And they cut it in half to put in a title. To me, it looked like an advertisement. Needless to say, it was a disaster and nothing like what I originally planned.

So, eight months later I noticed billboards announcing the Tattoo Convention was back in town and again pitched the photo collage idea to Sommerdorf. He then took my idea to the managing editor as a way to publish something with a lighter feel to it. We thought it might be a refreshing break from the recent Trolley Square shooting coverage that happened early in the week and dominated the section fronts for each day since.

The managing editor - who had dropped by the photo department to talk about some other stories - then talked to us about the idea and what I would be doing at the Tattoo Convention as well as my expectations for how it would be published. I reminded them how poorly the Gay Pride collage was handled and this was our chance to do it right. I was told that the collage would run on the front of the Utah section (our "B" section for local news), in color, in Saturday's paper.

I went to the Salt Palace Convention Center and scouted out the location and saw they had black fabric sheets as dividers in between all of the booths. I asked the manager if I could make some portraits for the paper and if I could use his black fabric for my background. He said, "Sure dude," so I began to set up the lights and umbrellas across from a vender selling tattoo related merchandise in the back corner of the room.

When I was almost ready, I asked the first person I saw to stand in so I could fine-tune the lighting and exposure. He didn't have any visible tattoos, but when I was finished, I explained to him what I was doing and inquired if he had any tattoos. He said he did, but didn't want to show it. I asked what it was and he said, "an evil, flaming PEZ dispenser."

As luck would have it, I too am a collector of PEZ and we spent a few minutes chatting about our slightly obsessive collections of plastic, multi-colored candy dispensers. (I currently have around 950…) He eventually opened-up and showed me his tattoo, located on his right side.

Photo by Chris Detrick / The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Chris Detrick / The Salt Lake Tribune

The Utah Gay Pride Festival
I walked around the convention hall looking for people with interesting tattoos. If I saw one, I would introduce myself and tell them what I was doing. Some were reluctant about having their picture published, but after I explained their photo would be one of about 16 pictures included in the college, most agreed to the photo shoot. Others told me they had a tattoo, but didn't want to show me because it was, as one 20-something with black hair and matching leather pants said, "its very private."

Some people were more than willing to show off their body art. One man Justin H., from Ogden, Utah wanted me to photograph his body art. They covered probably 85% of his torso and arms, front and back. For the front picture, he lifted up his left arm to reveal the tattoo continued into his armpit. I photographed him in that pose and then had him turn around so I could shoot the rest of the tattoo on his back.

When we were finished, he said, "you do know that it goes all the way down...." I said, "Oh really?!" then asked if he wanted to show it off. "Why not," he responded while starting to laugh. With his friends egging him on, he slid down the back of his Abercrombie jeans to reveal more colorful tattoo designs on both of his butt-cheeks. I took a few more pictures as onlookers whistled and hollered. I knew the paper wouldn't run the picture, but how often do you get to see - let along photograph -- an ass-tat?

One of the more interesting --- and probably painful --- tattoos I saw was that of Don R., from Salt Lake City. When he first approached me to have his picture taken, I didn't immediately see his tattoo. Only when he blinked did I get a glimpse of the small green four-leaf clover tattooed on his left eyelid. I pulled out the 50-macro and had him hold his eyelid shut so I could get a clear shot of it. When asked, Don said, "it did hurt like hell."

I also used the macro lens to photograph other small tattoos on people's hands, knuckles, neck, feet and ankles. Knowing they would be used in the collage, I wanted to have some visual variety so not every frame was someone from their waist up. Having these details helped with the flow of the collage.

In the two hours I spent shooting, I photographed a total of 21 men and 6 women. Obviously, I had an easier time convincing the men to take off their shirts than the women, but I did have one woman who wanted to show me her newest tattoo on her upper back. It was so new -having been inked at the convention -I had to remove the bandage in order to photograph it.

After I was finished, I packed up my gear and went back to the office to start editing my pictures. I talked with the page designer who told me that it was planned that I'd have an 8.75 by 6.5 inch hole set aside for the collage. The hardest part of this collage was figuring out how many pictures to include and the exact dimensions they needed to be in order to fit the design specs. Once I had that figured out, the rest was easy.

I ended up using 15 pictures in the final product. As promised, the collage ran on the front of the local "Utah" section and looked pretty darn good. It's great when ideas come together so well. And no, I did not get a tattoo myself, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't tempted. Perhaps next year I'll get racing greyhounds tattooed on my back.

(Chris Detrick is a staff photographer with the Salt Lake Tribune and is an occasional contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. You can view Chris's work on his member page:

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