Skip to main content

Hitting the Road with Kyle Dunbar: An Insider's Take on Tattoo Conventions

Former Ink Mastercontestant Kyle Dunbar has packed up his tattoo equipment and hit the road looking for adventure. With his family in tow, Dunbar will be traveling the country and trying to make a living as a roving tattoo artist. Over the coming months Dunbar will share his tales of the road with us here on Part 1.Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.Part 5.

I love that song “On the Road Again,” and once again I am. Actually, I’m sitting next to my wife and son flying to Alabama to continue on to Chicago for another Villain Arts tattoo convention. Not “the road” exactly, but, whatever. Remember how I hate flying? No. Well let me remind you. It sucks. I don’t hate the flying part. Actually, if I owned my own aircraft I would probably spend every minute I could above the clouds or sweeping through the sky over suburbia in great loops and barrel rolls. But I don’t. Instead I have to wait in line after endless line hoping to get through in time to run to our gate only to find out they changed the gate at the last minute and we have to run to a different gate.

Obviously, I’m not the only one who hates flying like this. I dare say 80% of people in the airport feel the same way. It’s obvious by the way they act as though everyone is in their way. People stop in front of you for what seems like no reason but to stop in front of you. They stow carry-on luggage the wrong way in the overhead compartments, assuring that some unlucky bastard (me) is going to “receive a courtesy baggage check” and have to store thousands of dollars of tattoo equipment in the care of the not-so-gentle baggage handlers. Leaving me worried and hoping there are no mistakes and my equipment makes it to the same destination as I do. The funny thing is that it is ornery travelers like me that make me hate traveling. Even armed with this knowledge I still can’t seem to change my behavior. I’m sure we all are nice enough people who love our families and fellow man, but somehow when we fly we forget about common decency; instead we look for reasons to hate everyone. Actually, I have found that the only thing that helps me is to look for people who suffer from the same problem and quietly take pleasure in how they handle the situation even worse than I do. But just how good can it be to amuse myself with someone else’s misfortune? The Germans have a word for it that I can’t spell, and being on a plane and too cheap to buy internet I can only hope to sound it out phonetically—“shouden froid.” (Editor’s note: Kyle is much closer than I was in guessing the spelling of this one. It’s “Schadenfreude.”)

Available at INKEDSHOP.COM: Women's "Don't Hate Me" Tank by Pretty Misfit Clothing

Available at INKEDSHOP.COM: Women's "Don't Hate Me" Tank by Pretty Misfit Clothing

Why do I do so many Villain Arts conventions? And why have you never heard of Villain Arts? Is this just a shameless plug for a convention group that I regularly attend to boost attendance just so I benefit from the increase in clients? Yes. I write this silly blog with no compensation. I’m just that egotistical that I love to think someone cares about the foolish drivel I have found to occupy my brain with that they might read it. So yep I’m pluggin’ Villain Arts.

Why have you never heard of (go there now)? Perhaps you suck at life. Or more likely you have heard of their show that comes to your area but it will be called “Blank Blank Tattoo Convention” and you don’t pay attention to who’s putting it on because who cares? You do!! Our at least you should.

As the popularity of tattoos continues to grow and grow so does the number of conventions and convention promoters. Many of them are good promoters who work tirelessly to assure both artists and attendees are well taken care of, and others are just trying to turn a quick buck. The bad ones often combine their shows with a bike or car show, or a washed up hair band. They do this to try to draw in a diverse crowd. But often the plan falls through and just cuts into the advertising for the tattoos. And they budget off the attendees, leaving less for the artists.

My family and I have been traveling for eight plus years. So we have been to great, good, and terrible conventions. We did some Villain Arts conventions but dropped them from our roster and began focusing on smaller shows to help keep costs down, bigger shows charge more for their booths. And I’ll admit I was once a “trophy whore” and in my quest for shiny plastic with faux marble bases I was drawn to smaller shows with less competition. After some years away we returned to do another Villain Arts convention and experienced the difference.

 Available at INKEDSHOP.COM: "Doomed Skull" Shot Glass

Available at INKEDSHOP.COM: "Doomed Skull" Shot Glass

Putting on a quality convention is an art and Troy Timpel, owner of, is a master at it. If we had not taken that time away maybe we would have never noticed the differences; those little things that make the big differences between having fun and not, between seeing people who want tattoos come through the doors and seeing people who want to see the remaining members of their once favorite rap stars trying to cash in on their glory days. Now I’m ranting! I love music but when you listen to a bunch of loud garage bands all day while you try to talk to potential clients only to have that same client explain that he’d love to get that tattoo but he just spent all his money on his tickets to see Cinderella (or at least their front man and a bunch of pissed off studio musicians hired to play his worn out songs) even the biggest audiophile would get angry.

Villain Arts focuses on TATTOOS. Tattoos are the main attraction and the entertainment is geared towards that with sideshows, burlesque and other unique acts that compliment the tattoo-centric vibe, not take away from it. Villain Arts also spends a crazy amount of money on advertisement and that pays off in huge crowds through the door. When we get in to a city with a Villain Arts convention the street teams have already been there and done their jobs. The billboards are everywhere and you can’t find a popular radio station that isn’t letting interested collectors of body art know what they should be doing that weekend.

If you’re an artist you should travel. It builds your experiences and understanding. Traveling forces a different perspective. It gives you the opportunity to learn from fellow artists. As artists we have a duty to observe society and traveling can provide a wider cross section to observe. And if you don’t you’re kinda being a dick to those who are stuck in a different job and can’t.

I meet artists who tell me they want to tattoo at conventions but they aren’t good enough artists yet. That’s some stupid shit. Are you getting better by not traveling? Do you learn more quickly around the few artists in your shop, or would you learn more surrounded by the best artists in the world? This is a cop out for the cowardly and egotistical. The cowards are scared of the unfamiliar and the egotistical are scared that their work won’t be as great as they imagine it is if they are compared to some of the industries best. Get off your high horse. Simply thinking you’re the best won’t make you a better artist. You need to adapt an “always learning” attitude that makes you never complacent no matter where you’re at with your tattooing. And if you’re a coward go get a salaried job. Tattooing just isn’t for you.

I told you I’m ranting!

My wife and I found that we love the challenge of being traveling artists. Yes, we’re “artists.” I know some of you are tattooers and enjoy the moniker so you don’t feel like you’re putting yourself on a pedestal. I see myself as an artist to feel the same pressure you shrink from. That pressure forces me to react like an artist and to think like one. I get paid for my vision and my technical ability. I’m told that it’s that quality that defines me as an artist so I’m happy to wear the title. It comes with a lot of perks like dancing in public places and being ignorant of current events just to name a couple. We’re finally about to land so I’ll continue at a later date.

Unisex "Skully Heart" Zip-Up Hoodie by Inked x Cartel Ink

Available at INKEDSHOP.COM: Unisex "Skully Heart" Zip-up Hoodie by Inked x Cartel Ink