By Danny Claser
In 2009 I was free and clear from break-up with a female tattoo artist who was on the show LA Ink. In the time we were together we spent a lot of time traveling the world doing tattoo conventions. I fell in love with the atmosphere and the people who attended these expos. It reminded me of being on Warped Tour when I was a traveling musician. I think I connected to this messed up, chaotic, yet beautiful carny way of life where nothing had stability yet it was stable in the storm. I missed being surrounded by people the world looked at as weirdos or circus freaks. The musicians life is not that far off from the tattooers lifestyle and somehow porn stars and gypsies all seem to fall under that umbrella as well...
While spending sometime up in Sydney, Australia at the Body Art Expo there I met an amazing guy Rich Sedin who I instantly connected with. His family threw the Melbourne and Sydney expos, which are wildly successful. This guy totally nurtured me in such a selfless way, and showed me everything it would take to put on an expo.
In 2011 when I got back to Hawaii, I met up with my best friend Kevin Read and our "braddah" Palani Fernandez and we came up with the crazy idea of throwing an expo in Hawaii. I remember asking everyone around and the same answer came back as to why there never was one before. "You can't throw an expo here..." they would say. So we asked "why" and the reply was always "I don't know, you just can't."
I have never been one to take NO for an answer and we were amazed no one chased down the part after "I don't know." We added one more partner, Tama Hall, who has incredible coordination and management skills, and we started chasing down the "YES" to do an expo.
We spent an entire year facing unreal opposition. People telling us we couldn't pull it off, people saying it was going to ruin the industry in Hawaii, the department of health not wanting to deal with this extra labor and politicians who thought the industry reused needles with a prison mentality. There were some archaic mindsets we were going to need to change if this was to happen. Our opposition in the industry ironically came from only a handful of artists, who for the most part were not born and raised in Hawaii like we all were. The overwhelming support from the local shops on all islands outweighed the handful of naysayers so we kept trucking.
We spent a lot of time down at City Hall talking to politicians, working with the state to show how valuable an expo could be as an asset to not only our state, but to our culture. We met a politician named Will Espero who loves the arts, all forms. His son has tattoos and he saw the value not only financially for Hawaii, but culturally, so we trudged on. We felt so lucky to at least have one person who saw our vision. This would grow amongst others in the house.
The naysayers continued with words like "you guys will be lucky if you get 2,000 people" and "you guys are going to throw an event that spreads infectious diseases" or "the owners of the Hawaii expo are a huge conglomerate with high-powered lawyers from the mainland."
Little did they know, all four of us grew up here, we had no high-powered attorney, just an amazing lawyer named Greg Frey from Coates & Frey who came on and has never, not once, charged us a penny! Imagine that! A lawyer who doesn't charge ha-ha, are we in heaven!? I think we just may be, because Greg has turned out to be not only an amazing lawyer but an amazing friend and guess what, he has a massive back piece from world-renowned artist Mike Ledger. They also thought we had nothing to do with the tattoo industry but did not realize that between the partners, we own five shops on Oahu one of them being the legendary Aloha Tattoo in Waikiki that was formerly run by a man we consider a father and uncle Larry Hanks. His son Jacob who is an award-winning artist is without a doubt our brother and we grew up with him since we were 11. A lot of misinformation from these folks, but we fought through it.
After a long hard battle and many grueling buttoned up meetings and Senate hearings we got our win! It felt like we had been sitting on trial for a crime we did not commit. All because we wanted to do something good and a few people could not get past their own personal agendas to let us make that happen. No BS, I felt moved to the point "almost" of tears. This wasn't about business anymore, because if we wanted to be business, we would have been cut-throat and barbaric in our approach. I was moved because I knew the impact this would have on OUR people, our culture, our state and ultimately the industry itself.
On Aug. 3rd-5th, 2012, we threw our first ever tattoo expo in Hawaii. We officially made history. We helped change laws for the better, and as we watched that line stretch all around the building, I knew we had done the right thing. They said we would be lucky if we got 2,000 for the whole weekend... We did much more than that. Our "official" numbers were above 15,000 however a lot of mainland artists feel it was around 30,000 ha-ha, because it was honestly that packed. The state reaped the rewards from the weeklong stay of most artists that put monies spent in the millions for Hawaii. We had Hula, Chinese dragons, a skate ramp, live music, a VIP lounge all decked out, classic cars, motorcycles, burlesque, models... you name it. We had guys like Lyle Tuttle, Gill Montie, Rick Walters saying, and I quote "This is one of the best tattoo conventions I have ever been too, thank you." We had traditional Tatau from Sulu'ape Peter, we had the Pa'uhi crew doing traditional Kakau for Hawaii. We had new schoolers, old schoolers, legends and tattoo TV stars all rocking and rolling.
We were and are so committed to our artists that we even threw them an unreal Artist Appreciation Party the next day out on a secluded sandbar island. We brought them out on boats, and Sailor Jerry provided the rum, we provided the food and beers and everyone partied so that we could not only show them our Aloha, but make family members out of everyone.
Our event was built on the foundation of Aloha and Ohana (family) because that is who we are as a people and because of that, everyone from last year and much more are returning for 2013.
We changed the game as a team and as a family, and all because we asked the question, "Why."
I would be lying if I were to say our even didn't have hiccups. It did. We had a major issue with the way the state administered the testing of tattooers in Hawaii. Up until this year January 23rd, the state would proctor the exam two times a year by sitting you down, making you take a test in one hour, without knowing what to study or what the exam was. For 2012, our hands were tied. We got the expo to happen but we could not change this medieval test from 1981 that no longer was up to the standard of the industry nationwide.
Due to that, it was very unfortunate that 30 percent of our mainland artists failed their exam, and 70 percent passed. Artists like Mike DeVries, Mike Demasi, Ruthless, Roman, Big Gus and a few others were not allowed to tattoo. It was very unfortunate and these artists are MORE THAN competent but if you told me that I had to take a test on how to put together a suspension bridge and I don't know shit about what's going to be on that test, odds are, I'm gonna fail too. I also have to give these guys mad props because they came out like Marines, first in the trenches to experience our expo and although it left a little sour taste, they are all coming back for 2013, which leads me to tell you the great news!
As I mentioned before, on January 23rd of this year, we were able to work with the Department of Health and REMOVE FOREVER the old testing system that was in place from 1981. In working with them, they met with representatives of other states and worked alongside OSHA to create an exam that can not only be taking year round, (24/7) but it can be taken online! This new exam is a BBP course that is specific to Hawaii and you have two hours to complete it from the comforts of your shop or home. You also can take breaks if you need to and jump back in when you are ready. The exam is designed so that you learn from it, not so that you are tricked out of passing it and learn nothing. If you fail, you can take it again for free. You only pay once. Everyone wins. The money and resources that the state was bleeding by proctoring a test even they did not really understand can now be saved and put elsewhere. The artists no longer need to fear flying to Hawaii and not passing since it's all done from home and we now, get to see more of your faces in Hawaii.
So onto that and I will wrap this up. We are 100 percent sold out this year. We sold out five months in advance. Next year I feel will sell out quicker than this year. Our line up is unreal! I have been to many conventions, and I am not biased, but I think we landed in tattoo expo line-up heaven.
You can go to www.HawaiiTattooExpo.com to see our artists, and there are more very large names we will be releasing shortly. We want everyone who has a passion for tattooing, getting tattooed and loves Hawaii to come and enjoy one week with us every summer. We have registrations for 2014 and we MAY, and I quote MAY open up around 6-8 more booths for those who did not get in this year but it depends on our floor plan. Artists who wish to be on our hold list can e-mail us from our page.
Anyhow, thank you to TAM and Nicki for supporting us and sharing our success. We are honored to have them with us in Hawaii this Aug. as well. Life is good, and it's only getting better out in Hawaii. Come check us out guys. It's worth the trip even if your just hanging out.
Interested in checking us out? All our testing info, artists and vendor info, can all be found on our website: www.HawaiiTattooExpo.com