Chris Schulz Published

West Virginia Tattoo Expo Adds Second Weekend To Annual Event

A bearded man wearing a red shirt, ball cap and black gloves holds a tattoo machine over another man's bicep. The second man, also bearded and wearing a red cap and black shirt, has a jellyfish design painted on his arm as a template for the tattoo he is receiving.
Morgantown artist Jacob Gordon tattoos a jellyfish onto a client during the Spring West Virginia Tattoo Expo, April 14, 2023.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s just after noon at the Waterfront Marriott on the first day of the first annual West Virginia Spring Tattoo Expo. Each summer for a decade, the West Virginia Tattoo Expo has brought artists and enthusiasts to Morgantown to celebrate body art. This year, the convention added a second weekend which took place April 14 – April 16.

Artist Jacob Gordon is wasting no time in getting started on his client’s tattoo. His client today goes by the name of Bond.

“Yeah, like James Bond,” he said.

Bond is getting a jellyfish tattooed on his bicep, and although Gordon’s modern pneumatic tattoo machine makes no noise, the buzz of more traditional rotary and coil machines is already filling the air early in the day.

Gordon, a Morgantown-based tattoo artist, said he loves tattoo conventions for the opportunity to come together and learn from other artists, and would support having a tattoo convention every month if possible.

“All of it collectively kind of goes to pushing tattooing a little further in its journey, to maybe make it a little less taboo than it’s been in the past,” he said.

Rocco Cunningham, the convention’s event promoter and organizer, agrees. He said that the expo is not only an opportunity to network and see new friends, but more importantly to keep learning about the art and craft of tattooing.

“I was told by an older tattooer very early in my career that the day that you stop learning is the day that you need to just hang it up,” Cunningham said. “This gives the opportunity to see every facet of tattooing, every style of tattooing, and there’s always something to learn and take from every experience, from every expo.”

He attributed the event’s continued success, which has allowed it to expand into a second weekend, in no small part to Morgantown and the communal effort it takes to put on each expo. That includes help that comes from the city as well as the Monongalia County Health Department. 

Cunningham also acknowledges that a drastic change in cultural attitudes towards tattoos in recent years plays a role in the event’s success.

“It’s changed quite a bit, and it’s been enjoyable to see that transformation,” he said. “Tattoos are so much more widely acceptable, and less taboo than they were 20-30 years ago.”

Two men speak next to vibrantly colored banners of traditional tattoo art. Behind them can be seen more booths, and in the far background a sign reading #WVTattooExpo can be seen.
A row of presenters and artists at the Spring West Virginia Tattoo Expo, April 14, 2023. Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Cunningham said the interest for the new convention date, which brought in artists from as far afield as Los Angeles and South America, was just as high as the annual August event.

“We have over 200 tattoo artists here this weekend, which is pretty similar to our August show. The majority of the tattooers want to do both events,” he said. “We have something special going on, we’ve built a family environment amongst the tattooers and the facility and the town, but everybody just loves coming back to Morgantown every year.”

Walking around and talking to artists, family is a word you hear repeated. Artist Amy Lefebvre from Maryland said she had been on a waiting list for the West Virginia Tattoo Expo for years because of the event’s reputation amongst artists.

“I’ve always heard it’s a really good convention. I’ve heard it’s very hard to get into. I felt very lucky to be invited,” she said. “Everybody’s really chill and very nice, and it feels like family and not so competitive.”

Lefebvre said the setting doesn’t hurt either, neither for herself nor for prospective clients.

“I think it’s beautiful out here,” she said. “Also for a client, coming into a convention could almost be less intimidating than walking into a tattoo shop. They can learn and see, I think for a lot of people the unknown is the scary part.”

Client Devin Jones said she couldn’t agree more. The criminology major at West Virginia University said she came to the convention to take advantage of the variety on offer.

“This chance to come here and see all the artists from all over the place was really unique,” Jones said. “You got to see a little bit of everyone’s tattoo styles. The guy that just tattooed me, he’s from Philly. I also talked to a guy that was from North Carolina. It’s really cool to just see everyone come together here.”

Jones said she is already planning a return in August. 

“Even if I’m not coming to get a tattoo, it’s still really cool to walk around,” she said.