At Tommy's Tattoo Convention, happening this weekend at Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, hundreds of tattoos will be created: skulls, monsters, flames, eloquent mottos, pretty girls, animals, birds. Compared to these, a spray of pink peonies may not sound all that special.
But it is. On Saturday, Bernice Julius is having a floral display tattooed on her reconstructed breasts. Julius, whose sister and mother had breast cancer, last year had a preventative double mastectomy after her own risk of breast cancer was diagnosed at 98 percent.
Julius is not only having the tattoo done, she's having it done right there on the convention floor. She wants women to feel as empowered as she did when she took control of her health by having a surgery many women would be afraid to have.
"It'll be done tastefully. It's not going to be 'here are my boobs, check them out, get your picture taken with me and my boobs.' That's not what it's about," Julius, of the Philadelphia area, said in a phone interview. "I just thought it might be a good idea to take the mystery away from what the surgery entails.
"I want to make something beautiful out of this," she said. "I want to show other women that they are still a woman and still can be beautiful and to not be defined by what happens to you and carry that burden around forever."
The second-annual convention, organized by Tommy Ringwalt, owner of Tommy's Supplies, a tattoo-supply firm in Somers, takes place Friday to Sunday, June 21 to 23, and will feature more than 100 tattoo artists who will take customers on a walk-up basis. In addition, vendors of tattoo supplies and accessories and tattoo-world celebrities will be there, including "Enigma Man," whose tattoos form a jigsaw puzzle, Amy Nicoletto of the show "L.A. Ink" and Steve Tefft, the Groton tattooist who last year won the title of "Ink Master" on the reality TV show of that name.
Julius' tattoo, however, is bound to be the talk of the convention, just as Angelina Jolie's recent elective double mastectomy became the talk of Hollywood.
Julius is traveling here with Kenneth Bryan of Glenside, Pa., who has been tattooing her for about five years. Bryan said he has tattooed reconstructed breasts once before, creating a little pink cancer ribbon. Still, this will be the first time in a long career of public tattooing that he's tattooed a breast publicly.
"If you're not showing a nipple, not much legally can be done, and there is no nipple to show," Bryan said. Julius said a small drape will be used to cover parts not being worked on at the time.
Bryan and Julius have traveled to conventions together, winning awards for his work on her body. Bryan said Julias is "almost body-suited out," meaning she has tattoos on almost her entire body.
"I look like I have a bikini of skin. That's the only spots not covered," Julius said. She has a geisha, a peacock, a phoenix, flowers, other birds. All of her tattoos are in bright colors.
"I want mine to look feminine. I never wanted to look like a suicide girl, with that hard look, really edgy, with skulls and crossbones," she said. "You'll like my tattoos even if you're not a fan of tattoos. All the doctors nurses in the hospital told me 'I never liked tattoos but I like what you have'."
Julius' health scare began last September, when doctors saw a suspicious spot on a mammogram. She had a lumpectomy and was told it was just a calcified lymph node and that she was fine, for now. She also was told that her family history put her future cancer risk off the charts. Because of previous health problems that Julias didn't want to discuss, she knew that if she got cancer, she might not be able to go through the normal treatments.
"I was so scared I got sick. I lost 10 pounds just waiting ... to get the biopsy and then the results of that. ... I don't want to live that way, worrying about this for the rest of my life. ... I said, 'This can't happen to my kids and my family, just take them off'.
"I had it done and I feel much better. A lot of women I talk to said to me 'I don't think I could do it.' I felt the same way. But after it was over it was such a relief. ... Being healthy is more important than anything. It's all going to get old and go south anyway."
Julius considered getting tattoos of nipples, which is a growing trend among women recovering from double mastectomies. Still, she opted for the flowers. "I'd rather look at flowers than fake nipples," she said. "That's just my taste."
Julius said she gets lots of comments on her tattoos, most of them nice, but not all.
"I was walking around Walgreens and somebody said to me, 'You're gonna regret that when you hit 40'," Julius said. Then she laughs. She is 56. "I said to them, 'that ship sailed, but thanks anyway'."
Tattoo conventions are held all year long all over the country, and Ringwalt travels to 18 every year. He added Tommy's Tattoo Convention to the mix last year. "Connecticut needed a foundation for high-end, quality-artists working in variety of styles," Ringwalt said.
Ringwalt grew up in Enfield and went to Fermi High. He inherited Tommy's Supplies from his father, also named Tommy, who founded it in 1993 and is now retired. Tommy Jr. is the owner now. His brother, Mark, is the supervisor. At their office next-door to the Four Town Fairgrounds, the Ringwalts supervise a staff of 13 who process orders from around the world for the company's tattoo machinery, gloves, needles, jewelry and a wide variety of inks in several brands, including Tommy's own.
Tommy's inks are made on the premises, and come in 85 colors with lively names like Dead Yellow, El Paso Sand, Rude Rouge, Killer Kiwi, Salmon Sushi and Zombie Puke.
The Ringwalts and their employees are good advertisements for their industry. Tommy has 11 tattoos, including portraits of his sons, Dante, 10, and Derek, 7. A dragon wrapped around a mountain covers his entire back. Mark also is covered with tattoos, including portraits of his daughters, Kylie, 8, and Brianna, 6. "I got 'em when they were babies, so I could keep 'em like that," Mark said.
Both have worked in the tattoo business for years, but say in the last 10 the industry has exploded. "You know it's getting big when health departments start jumping in to make sure there are standards," Tommy said. A licensed medical practitioner will examine and approve each booth at the convention.
Tommy said that last year's convention almost broke even, and he expects about the same this year. He is more concerned in these early days with visibility than profit. "I want to go a bit overboard so I can begin to build," he said.
SECOND ANNUAL TOMMY'S TATTOO CONVENTION will be at Connecticut Convention Center, 100 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford, on Friday, June 21, from 3 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, June 22, from noon to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, June 23, from noon to 8 p.m. One-day passes are $20, two-day passes are $35 and three-day passes are $50. A "Gold Pass," for $75, includes all three days, an after-care packet to treat new tattoos, a T-shirt and a necklace. For details, ticket sales and a schedule of events, visit www.tommystattooconvention.com.
Editor's note: This story has been edited from an earlier online version to correct the spelling of Bernice Julius' name.