WILDWOOD — Kyle Dunbar has more than 20 years’ experience as a tattoo artist and the Flint, Mich., native is best known for his two seasons on Spike TV’s reality show “Ink Masters.” Kelly Colligan, a 23-year-old from Tuckerton, recently finished her tattooing apprenticeship with the Manahawkin-based studio Premium Blend. Now, she goes by the pseudonym Kelly Killagain in the industry.
Despite the differences in experience levels, both artists have something in common- they were tattooing this past weekend at the Wildwood Tattoo Beach Bash for the first time.
The convention, which is organized by local Mike Siderio of Rio Grande’s Rebel Image Tattoo, has grown to host more than 150 artists since it first came to Wildwood in 2010. Besides Dunbar, other celebrity artists like Amy Nicoletto from LA Ink; Ink Master contestants Gentle Jay Blondel, MMA Fighter Mark Matthews, Joseph Matisa, Jackie Jennings and James Vaughn; Best Ink season two finalist Alli Baker; and Tattoo Tony Rodriguez — tattoo artist to Bret Michaels and Lynyrd Skynyrd — came out to the expo this weekend.
Dunbar and his family have been traveling to conventions around the country for the last five weeks, and he says he enjoys life on the road, because that’s where he has learned the most, and attributes that experience to earning a spot on “Ink Masters.” When traveling, Dunbar says he has an opportunity to work alongside some of the best tattoo artists in the industry and forces him to “raise his game up.”
“You get more experience when you’re forced out of your comfort zone,” he said Friday at the convention, while he and his wife, Candy, set out business cards and ink.
Dunbar first appeared on “Ink Masters” for season three, where he made it to the semi-final round on the 12th episode before being eliminated. Then, he returned for season four, after earning the chance to come back by winning a fan-voted live tattoo challenge.
But he caused a stir when he was disqualified on the eighth episode of that season because he shoved one of the show’s judges, Chris Nunez, after Dunbar had been the center of many of Nunez’s critiques.
Dunbar says he earned the spot on the show in the first place for his talent, and attitude. In his hometown, he says he was fired from eight tattoo shops before he opened his own, Almighty Tattoo, in 2003. He worked there for 10 years before appearing on “Ink Masters.”
“When things aren’t right or I feel like there’s injustice, I have this tendency to stand up against them,” Dunbar said. “If someone tells me something that’s a lie, I hit them on it.”
Dunbar said he taught himself how to tattoo, and realized he wanted to be an artist after taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. Instead, he was placed in the infantry. He said he didn’t graduate high school, in order to avoid that placement.
His first tattoo was a crude, hand-poked “You Rule” lettering he had gotten at 13- and he never realized that there was real artistry in the industry, until he got another one years later at a professional studio. When he saw what tattoos could be, Dunbar said, he found his calling.
“I didn’t think highly of tattoos, I actually thought they were things that held you back in life, as they had held me back in life,” he said. “But, when I got a professional tattoo, it changed for me. I saw it as art.”
To Dunbar, the best tattoos are like pieces of art that hang in a museum: technically sound and interpretive. The only difference, he says, is that “the canvases can talk.
“I want to inspire thought and draw people in,” he said.
For Killagain, she approaches tattooing in a similar way. Before her apprenticeship under Premium Blend’s Ty Pallotta, Killagain received a bachelor of fine arts from Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. She focused on three-dimensional fine arts, and now takes the same approach to her work as a tattoo artist.
“The other day I did this line work tattoo of a dancer, but later on I realized I had done it in the same way I would have designed a wire sculpture,” she said. Later, Killagain added that dot work and line work, “reminds me of how I draw in my sketchbook.”
Killagain has one tattoo on her side, done by Pallotta. It’s of artist’s Esao Andrews “The Intrepid Seed.” While Pallotta was tattooing her, Killagain said they got to talking about how she was an artist. After Pallotta and his wife, Robyn, looked over her portfolio, they called Killagain and asked if she would be interested in interning at Premium Blend and learning how to tattoo.
Killagain said she chose “The Intrepid Seed”-which shows a young girl being carried away by an abstract balloon, as a sort of symbolism for her art career.
“I was midway through art school and I was thinking about this crazy choice I picked in life, and I had no idea where it was going to go,” she said.
While she had considered becoming a tattoo artist, she had given up on the idea by then after hearing horror stories about landing an apprenticeship. Her internship at Premium Blend made it clear that this was an ideal career choice.
“I think it’s kind of the perfect job for an artist,” Killagain said. “I’m constantly working and constantly creating.”
Tattoos weren’t the only body modifications celebrated in the Wildwoods this past weekend. Suspension acts, where human beings are suspended from hooks pierced through the skin, were performed throughout the convention.
Supa Niga, of West Palm Beach, has been suspended more than 300 times. There’s a blue tribal tattoo on his face, with gauges in his ears and nose. Underneath his eyebrows and across the bridge of his nose are small piercings, where he was to be suspended from this past weekend. When he talks about suspension, he gets a wide grin across his face.
“It’s my fun,” he said of the act. He said he first tried suspension in a small, intimate setting 18 years ago.
“I was literally, not for a better choice of words, hooked,” he said.
Besides the professionals, volunteers could also be suspended throughout the weekend for $150. Niga said that once people see it performed, many are often willing to give it a try. To him, the experience isn’t exactly painful, just a bit uncomfortable, and it forces his brain into that “fight or flight” mentality, which to him is a total rush.
“It’s your body,” he said. “Enjoy it.”