OROVILLE — More than three dozen skilled artists stood ready, in a large room buzzing with conversation, to produce their best work. Their clients wandered from booth to booth, chatting with the artists and inspecting images of what the artists could do, as these potential customers decided which professionals to contract for services.
The decision was a crucial one, because ... this artwork is permanent.
That was the theme at Sunday's seventh annual Tattoo Expo at Feather Falls Casino in Oroville. It culminated a three-day festival of ink, pigment or dye placed a short depth beneath the skin surface by way of a specialized needle in a deft hand.
Chris Earl of Feather Falls Casino, the event's organizer, gestured around the ballroom at many of the 40 artists on hand, rattling off their regular places of business.
Santa Cruz. Los Angeles. Texas. Utah. Oregon. One from Mexico. The tattoo professionals, many with elaborate displays showing their past works, filled the room.
"It's a walk-in event — first-come, first-served," Earl explained, adding that customers couldn't make appointments. They come in, decide which artist they'd like to hire, negotiate a price and bare the skin they want adorned. Then the work gets going.
The event started in 2017, but switched to a walk-in format in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.
Adam McFarland, originally of Springfield, Mass., but now living in Live Oak, said he would definitely walk out with a new tattoo Sunday. However, he was sizing up artists' skills before deciding which one he'd use.
"I'm checking out the artwork," he said, pointing to a display at one table featuring designs that the artist was capable of producing. McFarland said he was ready to pay between $500 and $1,000 Sunday for a job, the pricing for which would depend "on the size and the design."
"You get what you pay for," he explained.
At a nearby booth, Camille Mundh of Live Oak lay face-down while tattoo artist "Big Steve" Lewis of Marysville-based Artistic Temple Social Club meticulously added to the artwork on Mundh's left arm. She and Lewis have a solid professional relationship, with Mundh visiting him "every other Saturday," she said.
"My husband goes to him every other week," she said with a smile. Lewis nodded.
"I've been doing this for a while," Mundh said when asked how long she has been a tattoo enthusiast. She described the tattoo as a "sleeve" because it runs most of the length of her arm, and said Lewis will finish it soon. It has taken six sessions; some sessions take 1-2 hours while others require 3-4 hours, based on the complexity of that portion of the work.
When asked how painful the application process is, Mundh said "it feels like a bunch of bee stings.
"It probably hurts more around the bony part of my elbow, but I get into a 'zone' because I have a high tolerance for pain."
Mundh, who's a nurse practitioner, said "it took a long time to decide on doing my arms, due to my profession." However, she wears a lab coat while working, most of the time, but sometimes her arms are on full display.
"If patients don't like me because of my tattoos, that's their problem," she said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Lewis was dipping his needle into a thimble-sized reservoir of pigment, preparing for the next delicate application on Mundh's arm.
"It siphons the ink, then places it under the skin," he said, adding that it remains in place and is permanent, immediately.
The expo has grown to such an extent that it attracts accomplished artists of renown. For example, Oliver Peck of Dallas-based Elm Street Tattoo had a large and prominent booth. He has attended every one of the Feather Falls events except one, when he had a scheduling conflict.
Peck has appeared on Paramount Television's reality competition "Ink Master," which ran from 2012 until 2020. He said he appreciates the Feather Falls event, compared to the larger ones with many artists in large convention centers.
"This is one of the small events," Peck said. "It's more intimate and has a smaller group of artists. They use a lot more care."
Peck said he limits his sessions at events like this to two hours, then follows each session with a break before his next customer sits. He described his work here as "an American, traditional style — soul-type stuff."
He added: "I can create whatever idea you want," in a single sitting, because "at a convention, you don't want to get started on something big." That would require multiple sessions and Peck, along with the other out-of-town artists, wouldn't be around to finish the project.
Members of Oroville's American Legion Riders, from American Legion Post 95, provided volunteer security for the event.