Zack Nute ignored the high-pitched tattoo machine hum. He thumbed a text message to a friend back in Washington state on his iPhone, totally undisturbed by the needle entering his beefy forearm a dozen times a second.
“This guy is the perfect canvas,” said Nick Reinert, the wiry artist behind the machine. “He sits still and his skin doesn’t swell up.”
The 19-year-old Navy man grinned, looking up from his iPhone.
“It’s starting to get a little tender right here,” he said, the needle still working away, “right by the elbow.”
His tattoo, a dramatic illustration of giant squid tentacles dragging a ship to the depths was one of many in progress, healing or getting shown off at Saratoga’s Civic Center Sunday afternoon. It was the second annual Tattoo Expo and the place was full of walking canvases at various stages of completion.
Guys with old ink from neck to knuckles chatted with girls sporting their first wrist-sized dragonfly.
Rock ’n’ roll music and the dentist-drill whine of needles formed a soundtrack for tales of pain and family memorials. There are plenty of tattoo styles these days and, according to event organizer Bill Lawyer, Nute’s is of the old-school variety.
“When I was young it was all servicemen and biker gangs,” he said. “Now these artists are just that — artists. They can do things on skin painters can’t.”
The expo was put on by Spaulding and Rogers, a tattoo shop and equipment manufacturer based in Voorheesville. Lawyer’s grandfather, Huck Spaulding, started the company, raising his kids and little Bill in the industry.
Decades after picking up the trade and some ink of his own, Lawyer was delighted by the turnout for his expo.
It was twice the size this year than last, which he said is due to an industry shift toward respectable tattoos.
Along with Nute and a young waiter named Sean Joyce, who laid painfully still while getting a five-hour neck tattoo, the expo drew mainstream people like Chris Cartin and Nicki Raymond.
The couple got each other’s thumbprints stenciled in heart shapes on their wrists. Cartin held their 3-month-old son, Milo, while Raymond got her work done.
“We wanted to do something meaningful,” he said, explaining how Milo’s tiny birth certificate handprints inspired the design. “When his fingers get large enough we’ll get his prints too.”
The day also held various best-tattoo competitions. A parade of diverse ink crossed a low stage showing the best of old and new.
With the possible exception of Joyce’s neck eagle, which he said “just looked cool,” each piece of design. however intricate or faded, held a story or some personal meaning.
Even Nute’s forearm squid, which he picked from a book of designs, was significant. The sea creature joined a large anchor tattoo already occupying the whole shoulder region.
“This whole arm is going to be naval stuff,” he said over the needle hum.
At 17, he talked his parents into signing some paperwork so he could join, following in his Navy grandfather’s footsteps. He spent the last two years learning the mechanical ins and outs of nuclear submarine reactors at the Navy’s Kesselring site in West Milton.
“I graduate Friday,” he said.
By fall he’ll be on the ocean somewhere and the irony of a sinking ship was not lost on him.
“It could happen,” he said, roughly as concerned about a possible death by drowning as he was about tattoo pain.