John and Tracy Sexton of Lexington had tattoos done at this weekend's Immersed in Ink Tattoo Festival in memory of their son, Jackson, 3, who died in July of a seizure.
"It is a constant reminder," John Sexton said. On his right shoulder, he has a brilliant orange Japanese koi "because koi are a symbol of strength and perseverance in Japanese culture," he said. "When you see a picture of a koi swimming upstream, it represents facing challenges. If it's swimming downstream, it has overcome its struggles."
His koi is swimming downstream to symbolize "Jack isn't struggling anymore," he said.
Tracy Sexton had the initials JTS — for Jackson Thomas Sexton — tattooed on the inside of her right wrist. The Sextons' tattoos were created by artist Zaq Weaver of St. Joseph, Mich.
In competition Saturday, John Sexton's koi was voted winner of best oriental tattoo and best ink of the day.
The three-day tattoo festival at the Lexington Convention Center's Heritage Hall had 50 booths where vendors sold tattoo equipment, designs and ink in many colors. Almost every booth included tattoo artists.
This was the first time Immersed in Ink has been in Lexington. Owner Amy Gutierrez of Austin, Texas, said attendance was not as strong as she had expected. She does about eight shows a year and for several years has had the festival in Louisville.
But Gutierrez said perhaps some people came to the festival and went away with fresh ideas about tattoo art and the artists. "Quality tattoo art doesn't look like gang-related tattoos," she said. "It looks like what an artist would do on a canvas. But instead of a canvas hanging on a wall in my house, I collect art on my skin instead."
Gutierrez doesn't count the number of tattoos she has but the number of hours it has taken to apply the art — about 160.
On Sunday afternoon, artist Marcus Pender was tattooing Frankenstein's bride on the left hip of his wife, Jennifer, who had her first tattoo the day she turned 18. She is now 30, with bold, colorful tattoos on her arms, legs and torso. (Most states have regulations that a person must be 18 to get at tattoo.)
"The left side of my body is more scary tattoos," Jennifer Pender said. "The right side is happy," with cartoon characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and the Little Mermaid.
Pender doesn't worry that she might want a tattoo-free body someday. "I don't think there will be a time I don't like tattoos," she said. "If I'm old with tattoos, at least I'll be colorful."
Marcus Pender is an artist at Body Art Tattoo studio in Georgetown, owned by Dale White, who grew up around tattooing. His father, Roger, was a tattoo artist. "Back then he was doing mostly biker tattoos," his son said.
"Tattooing has come a long way compared to 15 years ago," Dale White said. "The equipment is better. The ink is brighter. It lasts longer on your body. And you can get any kind of design you want."
White does not see that many people in Kentucky with tattoos. "Kentucky is behind the times. You go to some places like Atlanta or Richmond, Va., or out in California, everybody's got tattoos. You look strange if you don't have a tattoo," he said.
There was entertainment throughout the three-day show that Gutierrez called "classic circus or freak show acts," such as a person lying on a bed of nails. Maybe the freakiest was human suspension.
On Sunday, the suspension artist was Codi Schei, who hung horizontally from four hooks that pierced her back. It was her third time to be suspended.
"It was awesome," she said. "I did a lot of spinning."
Schei is a member of Steve Bennett's 313 Suspension Team from Chicago. She swore the suspension didn't hurt, even when Bennett held onto her waist, so the hooks in Schei's back were holding the two of them. "It's just a different mind-set when you're doing it," she said. "I have a low pain tolerance. I'm a big baby, but it really didn't hurt."
Schei lifted her shirt to display eight tiny puncture holes in her back.
Bennett said, "Suspension has been a rite of passage for thousands of years. Not in Western European countries, but other parts of the world." He said he has been suspended 158 times.
Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010