Tattoo Arts Convention highlights Tampa’s ink cred

TAMPA The buzz of tattoo needles is the sound of creative expression and commercial expansion for Tampa a place where the business has grown to the point that the Tampa Tattoo Arts Convention is back for a second year.

Large and intricate tattoos have become a respected form of art, feeding a multimillion-dollar industry, with Tampa emerging as a hotbed for artists and their human canvases. The demand for custom tattoos is increasing.

Honestly, we cant keep up, said Jeff Srsic, 40, a local artist and co-owner of Redletter1, a tattoo shop in Hyde Park. The shop has a three- to four-month waiting list for consultations and six months more before the tattoo is applied.

The growth of Tampas tattoo culture can be seen in the changes the convention has undergone.

Last year there were 150 booths and about 4,500 guests, said organizer Troy Timpel. This year there are 220 booths, and an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 guests will fill the East Hall of the Tampa Convention Center.

Timpel, from the Philadelphia area, has more than 25 years of tattoo industry experience as an artist, shop owner and event organizer.

There are a lot of really great tattoo artists in the Tampa metro area, Timpel said by phone Thursday as he made the drive from Pennsylvania to Florida. His company, Villain Arts, hosts conventions in Tampa and seven other cities nationwide, including Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland.

During the convention 350 local artists from 180 shops are expected to tattoo around the clock, having booked clients months in advance. Featured as entertainment are cast members from the Spike TV network show Ink Master as well as burlesque dancing and a live painting demonstration on a 12-by-8-foot canvas.

Tampa Tattoo Arts will run from 2 p.m. to midnight today, 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 a day; $40 for a three-day pass. The event organizers ask that no gang colors be worn.

Hillsborough County accounts for 415 of the 5,270 tattoo artists spread across the 67 counties of Florida, said Steve Huard, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health. Starting in 2012, all Florida tattoo establishments were required to register with the state. Since then, Hillsborough County has climbed from 108 tattoo shops in 2013 to 117 shops in 2015.

Tattooing in the United States has seen annual growth of 10 percent during the past five years and is predicted to grow at a rate just slightly below that for the next five years.

Tattoo artists and shops nationwide grossed $722.4 million in 2014, and the growth could mean custom tattoos will be a billion-dollar industry by 2020, according to a recent report by the research firm IbisWorld.

Artists such as Srsic, pronounced SER-sik, charge $180 to $200 an hour more than some lawyers.

Srsic promises no flashing tattoo signs outside Redletter1. In fact, the shop doesnt advertise at all, relying on word of mouth to find customers.

Redletter1 celebrated its 10-year anniversary in June, and the team continues to push its all-custom work into the realm of fine art. Each tattoo at Redletter1 is an original, researched and developed for the individual client.

You dont have to get this blobby terrible tattoo anymore, Srsic said. The majority of our clients are young professionals that never saw the quality of ... tattoo they would be comfortable wearing.

Modern tattoos are as precise as a portrait.

If they see a tattoo that is well done and artistic, they cannot deny it is beautiful.

Jake Van Loon is a Tribune intern and student at the University of Tampa.

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Twitter: @jvanloon52