For a city often associated with religion and strict alcohol laws, Salt Lake City also boasts a vibrant and eclectic counterculture. This perception that Salt Lake City is a conservative town makes the city a hidden gem for a thriving tattoo culture. There are dozens of excellent artists and shops specializing in everything from traditional, black-and-grey, watercolor, realism to the avant-garde. With the combination of top-notch tattoo shops and the annual Salt Lake International Tattoo Convention, Salt Lake City is becoming a hotspot for body art as unique as the city itself.
CJ Starkey - Salt Lake International Tattoo Convention
CJ Starkey is the cofounder of Flaco Productions and the Salt Lake International Tattoo Convention. He originally moved to Salt Lake with artist Nate Drew (also co-founder of the convention and owner of Lost Art Tattoo) in the late ’90s, working/managing front-of-shop at Lost Art Tattoo. For him, tattoos are becoming more commonplace in general, and Salt Lake is really picking up on the trend. “It seems like people from here definitely have a thirst to express themselves and show their unique qualities,” he says. “Utah is down to express their individuality in a big way.”
Yearly, the Salt Lake International Tattoo Convention hosts artists from around the world, including a healthy showing from Salt Lake-based artists. For Starkey, the goal of the convention is to give artists and vendors exposure to a new audience and create a sense of community among tattoo enthusiasts. Since holding the first convention in 2004, Starkey has seen strong, steady attendance and positive feedback from locals and artists from out of town. “We have a few thousand folks each day [of the Convention]. We have a lot of repeat attendees,” Starkey says. “A lot of people take time to thank us for providing a community and common place for people to be surrounded by like-minded humans.”
Tattoo artist Mina Aoki, of Mercy Tattoo in Salt Lake City, divides her time between Utah and NYC, where she is also an artist at Fun City Tattoo. “I love working in both places in different ways,” she says. “I feel more at home at Fun City in New York because I grew up there—but I love meeting and sitting with Salt Lake people.”
An artist specializing in black-and-grey, biomechanical and Japanese styles, Mina has found an open and accepting clientele in Salt Lake. “Salt Lake is a great place for a tattooer to grow and the clients play a huge part in it,” she says. “It is unique because of the people. They have so much patience and trust, and that is not something you find very often.”
Mina’s brother is artist Shiro Aoki of Sweetneedles Tattoo. He moved to the Beehive State a few years ago from NYC. For him, conversely, the tattoo culture here is pretty in tune with the rest of the country. “‘Tattoo culture’ isn’t that different anywhere I've been in America,” he says. “It’s always the same kind of people getting tattoos wherever you go. Mountains and beehives are mad popular out here.”
The main difference to Shiro between tattooing in NYC and Salt Lake is that while NYC is more well-known for their rich tattoo history, Salt Lake has a unique cultural context behind the ink. “A lot of people I tattoo are former members of the [LDS] Church,” he says. “You don’t really come across that anywhere else.” To boot, “Tattoos look cool. Everybody wants to have some sweet skull and snake right on their arm … They always have been a way to set yourself apart from the norm and let people know you like to party.”
Originally from Southern California, Oscar Garcia—co-owner of and artist at Panther House Tattoo—considers Salt Lake’s natural beauty a major draw for attracting artistic people to the city. A painter as well as a tattoo artist, Garcia is known for his bold, dynamic tattoos and paintings, for which he gleans his inspiration from his natural surroundings. He describes his artistic eye as inspired by Victorian and romantic landscapes, and Japanese Woodblocks. “Utah has given me a life that no other place could have done,” he says. “The landscape, the people and way of living have inspired me to be who I’ve become today.”
With more and more Beehive State residents sporting tattoos—often with beehives and mountains, according to Shiro (I, myself, am guilty)—it’s clear that Salt Lake has a penchant for body art. With the amount of incredibly talented artists in the area and events like the Salt Lake International Tattoo Convention, it isn’t difficult to see why. Salt Lake City’s unique history, distinctive iconography and breathtaking landscape inspire equally captivating tattoos, as well as attract artists to the area. In addition to the shops discussed in this article, check out any of the other great shops in the city, including (but definitely not limited to) 27, Big Deluxe Tattoo, Good Times Tattoo, Lonely Hearts Club Tattoo, Look Look Tattoo and Yellow Rose Tattoo.