The First Amendment in Permanent Ink

Considering the hustle and bustle of the convention, it’s hard to believe that as recently as 2000, creating body art of any kind was illegal in the state of Massachusetts.

A snaking line of people feeds into the two metal detectors guarding the entrance to a large room in the Hynes Convention Center. In the surrounding crowd, some flaunt their sleeves of inked skin, while others walk with blank legs and arms exposed.

After the security measures, double doors open into a massive hall with five rows of booths, each packed with folding chairs and cushioned tables.

This is the 18th Annual Boston Tattoo Convention: 8,000 people roam the rows, drifting from booth to booth and approaching artists to question or compliment them on their tattoo displays.

Attendees lie stretched across cushioned tables, as artists diligently etch their designs. Half-naked bodies are not given a second look. In this space, the intimate artform is normal, even casual. The rhythmic buzzing of tattoo guns fills the room, mixing with the laughter of artists and attendees.

Piercing booths, pop-up shops, and tattoo ink companies are sprinkled among the tattoo artists’ stalls. A boudoir photographer advertises a raffle to win a $1,000 personal boudoir photoshoot for you or someone special. A climate change nonprofit representative calls out, “Do you care about the environment?” to passersby.

An announcement blares over the loudspeaker, asking attendees to make their way to the stage near the entrance. By the stage, an acrobat gracefully twists around a hula hoop suspending from the ceiling by two long ropes.

Becky Wilson
At the 18th Annual Boston Tattoo Convention, tattoo artist Becky Wilson focuses on inking a customer.

Considering the hustle and bustle of the convention, it’s hard to believe that as recently as 2000, creating body art of any kind was illegal in the state of Massachusetts. The ban started in 1962, fueled by fears of hepatitis outbreaks in the 1960s.

The existence of this ban, however, did not mean that people weren’t tattooing. Instead, it meant that tattoo culture existed entirely in secret.

“[Artists] were working underground. You would have to take your chances. There was no regulation, there was no oversight whatsoever. There was no way for the public to know that they were actually going to a professional because there was no professional status,” said Natan Alexander, a Boston-area tattoo artist and the convention’s founder.

Alexander is covered in tattoos. His hair is slicked back, the sides of his head shaved. Wearing a crisply-pressed button-down and taut suspenders, Alexander emanates composure as he welcomes guests into the event with a beaming smile.

Hannah Medeiros
Hannah Medeiros is a tattoo artist in Boston who specializes in blackwork etching style tattoos and stippling.

In the late ’90s, Alexander started Mass Ink Link, a website where people could email their state representatives about sponsoring various bills against the ban on tattooing. Along with other tattoo artists and supporters, Alexander pushed for three separate bills to lift the ban, each of which ultimately failed. Finally, in 1999, a legal effort led by the American Civil Liberties Union won against the state of Massachusetts. The ban was officially overturned in 2000.

The winning argument in the case stated that tattoos were an art form protected under the free expression clause of the First Amendment.

In 2001, Alexander started the Boston Tattoo Convention to celebrate the newfound freedom to tattoo. Alexander and other organizers work hand-in-hand with the Massachusetts and Boston Health Departments to ensure that the convention is a regulated space that fosters healthy tattooing culture.

Following the era of underground tattooing, Alexander hopes to create a safer, more inclusive tattoo culture — moving away from what he calls “toxic tattoo culture, which is more sit down, shut up, you get what you get.”

Not only are attitudes towards tattooing changing, but the demographics of tattoo artists have also shifted because the tattoo community has grown since the artform was banned.

“It was a really straight male-run industry. [Now,] there’s a lot more tattooers that are female, or non-binary, queer in the industry and more clientele that reflect that,” says K. Lenore Siner, a Boston-area tattoo artist also involved in producing the convention.

The Convention’s core purpose is to change the public’s perception of tattoo culture. It’s not just about the art itself, or the people who partake in it — it is also about creating an open and healthy environment for those who give tattoos and those who seek them.

“It’s about educating — educating people on what is a good tattoo, what is healthy tattoo culture,” Alexander says. “[Which is,] first and foremost, highly artistic, individualized, it is inclusive. And, it’s safe, in all caps.”