The bar in the Roseland Ballroom is a dank alcoholic ward. The big bald bartender is wearing a white t-shirt, with a homemade message written in black magic marker: ‘I’m With Fudge Packer.’ Beneath it is an arrow pointing left. Between dispensing five-dollar Jager shots, he mugs next to his co-workers, evidently insinuating that they are packers of fudge all.

‘Ya getting a tattoo this weekend?’ I ask him. He rolls his eyes at me. ‘Yeah, on my ass,’ he says.

The Ballroom itself is a freaky concerto of the whine of tattoo needles, Bud Lite-induced moose calls, and the sound of chunky women complaining. This is the Sixth Annual New York Tattoo Convention, May, 2003. Carnival sideshow banners hang from the ceiling—‘Live Freaks!’ they promise. In exposed booths around the two-level ballroom, everyone in the tri-state area without a college degree is getting a tattoo.

On our first of the three days of the convention, the crowd overwhelms us. Doughy men in kilts eye the nubile hootchie girls who school like exotic dangerous fish. Butch guys purse their lips against the pain; their soul patches quiver. A few bulldykes saunter through, spiders curling up their massive biceps. They give a nasty look to the dumb kid in the Deep Throat t-shirt. The globe-trotting bad boys of the tattoo world at Triple X are having a beer while they leisurely tattoo. A fresh-faced girl’s tank top doesn’t cover her titties; they are very pierced. At the Tattoomania booth, a woman complains: ‘I could never live in New York, but everyone in Hollywood is in a band or whatever. ‘Like, hey! Did you see me in that movie?’’ With my back turned to hide my laughter, I imagine her making the international sign for bulimia. At Super 88 Tattoo, the Massapequa home of traditional Japanese work, they use the Japanese version of Saran Wrap for tattoo aftercare. That’s cool. Badass Shanghai Kate from Buffalo is inking a girl in a ‘tits for tats’ t-shirt. That’s cool too. ‘Report all complaints to the Board of Health’ say the signs everywhere.

Products are hawked. Tattoo Goo, for the life of your tattoo! The ‘Nobody Knows I Worship Satan’ shirts seem to be a big seller. They are only worn by people who look most like chicken-head-biting Satanists. Brass knuckle belt buckles appear, an item which I challenge you to say ten times fast. The International Tattoo Directory is as big as the Mexico City phone book. And to actually get tattooed here you must first make an appointment and then enter the Sterilization Room. I have Silkwood fantasies of this room. Really they probably just throw some rubbing alcohol on you and make sure your eyes aren’t completely jaundiced. But, as if in a bad apocalyptic movie, The Sterilized wear blue wristbands which they may not remove.

Amid the boring interesting madness, a performance begins on stage. The Great Nippulini has terrible long, braided hair, shaved on the sides. I’d like to shampoo him endlessly. A kid with a mohawk named Swivel helps the performer attach a bowling ball to clips that run through his nipples. By Swivel’s account, this bowling ball is ‘heavy as fuck.’ Knowing when to really work a theme, Nippulini removes the bowling ball and then attaches bowling pins to each nipple and swings them around like a cheap poledancer. ‘The new earrings that the chicks in the hood wear,’ he pronounces. A new volunteer helps Nippulini attach a 30 pound anvil to his nippleclamps. ‘I’ve never trusted a man with my nipples as much as I am right now,’ he camps meaninglessly. A girl in the audience shrieks. His nipples are horribly distended. For his final act, he tows four really skanky girls around the stage on a little cart, using only, of course, his awful awful nipples.

Back at the bar, everyone is drinking plastic-cupped cocktails of Ketel One and Red Bull. I look around. This doesn’t feel subversive at all. It’s not underground or freaktastic. It’s commercial. Where’s the anarchy? And, where’s the art? Leafing through dozens of tattoo books, the designs look stale. The popular big black tribal tattoo revolution is nearly twenty years old now. What’s the new hotness? Bugs, an artist from London, is doing a WPA/Cubist sort of tribal thing. It’s a little too unvivid for me but at least he has a house style. And really, this convention is an unspeakable parade of ass-crack. The sight is a weird melding of punk, heavy metal, and country, and it smells unmistakably of Bayshore and Bayonne. It is a trade show wrapped in a freak show. Under the bright white lights, all the tattooees look like corpses. It is not, however, a poser-heavy convention—you can’t fake a whole body covered in ink.

Mostly I figure: if I’m going to be subjected to this audience, shouldn’t I at least get the pleasure of hearing Def Lepard play?

Furthermore, if you’re going to spend fifteen grand tattooing your entire body, like, go to the gym once in a while. Just as I am thinking this I bump into a girl whose shaved pubic area says ‘↓ Jose’s.’ Her selfless carnality cracks my cynical crust. For a splendid moment I can see the attendees as sex radical revelers now, not merely inked up losers from the island of misfit Tommy Lees. And at least the convention is not without celebrity—Chuck Zito is here in a tie-dyed tanktop, signing copies of his book ‘Street Justice’ (‘From Hell’s Angel to celebrity bodyguard, the revealing autobiography of an American man.’) He poses with under-clad girls, leering guido-ishly. He is kind of hot, like a punched-in Sly Stallone.

On the final day of the convention, the air seems hazy in Roseland. I am convinced we are breathing a mist of human blood. Unclean, unclean. The first tattoo I see this day is a monster backpiece of Jesus Christ holding a crucifix and emerging from a crypt. Two cops compliment the tattoo victim. We also meet Vanessa, who has 30 hours worth of tats on her back of what seems to be Cher sprouting giant celestial moth wings. The tattoo competitions are taking place on the stage. In the best back and torso event, a man enters with a full portrait of Mount Rushmore… but with children’s faces. A girl with a nice backpiece gives the finger to a bunch of men who shout ‘Boobies!’ at her.

Other contestants include a Charles Manson look-alike with entire upper body black and white coverage of Noah’s ark, and Big John, who is really really big, and white, and not unhot, and who has some seriously incongruous refined Asian work—two beautiful blue sleeves that come down his chest and stomach in two split panels that leave a bare trail from his Adam’s apple to his crotch. Finally, a skinny Japanese man with hair to his ass and an Armani suit appears on stage. He rips off the suit to reveal a green sumo-style thong. His entire body is covered in gorgeous Buddhist tattoos. We have a winner.

Over at the Yugen Tattoo booth, an attractive and very Dutch artist begins new work by feeling a young girl’s calf. He touches the extension of muscles, the skin. Very tender. He sketches for a while on a sheet of paper. He then draws on her directly with a red pen. Thick lines, then he switches to a near-black pen. Flames down her ankle. The girl is very pretty and quite young, with curly brown hair past her shoulders. She could be a Sicilian beauty queen. The flames taper to an abstract womanly flourish. The girl’s cute and very normal-looking boyfriend crouches nervously behind her. What looked like flames is becoming a twisty vine-ish series of spirals. It’s actually lovely, both the intimate experience and the resulting tattoo itself.

Nearby, two scruffy kids—one, a pink-haired girl in a polka dot mini—grab a passing 50-something woman with short gray hair. They ask her to peel down her sweatshirt. Her right arm and chest are covered in golden color-burst tattoos like I’ve never seen before. The kids hoot and they all smile and touch each other.

But as the evening rolls on, people are getting loaded. There will be fights later. Smoking breaks out at the bar. Men in leather vests belch. Women fall off their stools cackling. Above the talk, the tattoo guns all have the same exact pitch to their needly buzz, and it sounds like paranoia. The bar develops more of a The Accused vibe. Just in case, I cruise the bathroom for hot lonely tattoo boys. In the line of mirrors, a lone foxy skater stares self-absorbedly at his new ink—a black skull on the shoulder, pooling up blood slightly. And back in the sticky-carpeted bar, near closing time, there is a really sordid biker three-way in the making. I hope that little lady’s up for all that extra weight.

Truthfully, there is no shortage of hot guys here—especially if you like them a little crazy. You could almost picture Kim Cattrall among us, tottering drunkenly in her heels, mercy-fucking some tattooed idiot just for shits and giggles. The only shortage really is of artistic imagination, true enough I suppose of any industry. Back outside Roseland in the spring night, husbands hustle their clean-skinned wives to the Bill Maher show next door, and across the street to Hairspray. Straight-laced Long Island Irish skulk in to Gallagher’s Steakhouse, staring balefully at the chain-smoking convention-goers. And then the tattooed citizens quit the convention and disperse throughout the city, their little messages, reminders, and omens secreted away under their clothes.