While many Frederick businesses struggle to draw large crowds on Sunday evenings, the building was packed at Key City Tattoo at 5 p.m., as artists from as far away as Chicago and Atlanta lined the parlor.

“So I’ve done three [tattoos] today and yesterday I did two, and I still think I have a few more people waiting for me, which is really cool,” said Ashley Wollaston, an artist who came to town from Pioneer Tattoo in Chicago to attend Key City Tattoo’s Third Annual Invitational, a laid-back tattoo convention dreamed up by the local parlor’s co-owners, Gary Gerhardt and John Rippey.

Just as the constant buzz of ink pens filled the inside of the shop, the sound of cheerful laughter and light conversation filtered in from where an array of local food trucks lined up behind the store in the shopping center in the 900 block of North East Street. The invitational opened Saturday and continued until 10 p.m. Sunday, drawings plenty of clients from around the region and from even further afield to the shop’s doorstep to check out the wide array of artists and artwork on display.

“It’s basically a mini-tattoo convention that we put on with a group of our friends from all over the country because we have so much space here that we felt that we could utilize it to bring in some different artists and offer our business as meeting place,” Gerhardt said.

While the venue is just about tapped out at 16 artists over the course of the convention, the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive, with local businesses like Flying Dog Brewery and Cakes to Die For taking interest and offering sponsorship, drinks and food to draw a diverse crowd to Frederick, Rippey said.

While many customers crowded the parlor on Sunday, several employees from participating shops also took the opportunity to add new ink to their personal collections among the many out-of-town vendors.

Jamie Beshaw, 32, who traveled down with a shop from Rhode Island, sat for about two hours to get a new flaming devil head design added to his left bicep from Mikey Holmes, an artist who frequently travels from coast to coast offering his unique styles.

Many customers attended the event from around Maryland, including 24-year-old Sam Elliott, who has attended the event all three years and drove out Sunday with her boyfriend from Edgewater, Maryland.

“I love it, it’s awesome!” Elliott said, showing off a new tattoo of Kali, a Hindu goddess, that she had just gotten on her left thigh. “They have all this amazing food and then the artists just great.”

Elliott said she keeps coming back to the convention because, unlike other, larger events held in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the Key City Invitational feels more genuine, personal and comfortable. She was not alone.

“Is event is the best convention, or the best event with multiple artists at it,” said 33-year-old Colleen Campbell, who drove up from D.C. to get a new tattoo on Sunday. “When you go to the larger conventions they’re really highly commercialized and the artist tend to be pretty hit-or-miss, but not here.”

The convention was also a big boost for many of the vendors, who took the time to network among one another and build up their clientele by handing out business cards and pamphlets advertising their unique styles and shops.

For example, Wollaston was invited to the convention by friends of hers who she had worked with while guesting at a shop in New York. Through the convention, she was able to make new friends from as far away as North Carolina and elsewhere.

“For me, it’s been like, making the huge community [of artists] smaller, and it’s through events like these that I’ve met so many really cool people and I’ve been able to make new connections and build up my network,” Wollaston said.

While almost everyone present agreed that the convention was a hit, many of the customers who attended struggled with the question as to what their favorite tattoo was or why they’d decided to go with a certain design over countless others.

For hardcore aficionados like Campbell, the question of “why” was answered by a simple “because.”

“Well, today I got a cat head ... and it’s on fire,” Campbell said with a laugh. “So yeah, a flaming cat head. When you have more than 20 tattoos, you’ve passed the point where tattoos have meaning, you just go with what you like, whatever catches my eye.”

Elliott, talking about her Kali tattoo, was of much the same mind, saying she hadn’t planned to get the design, but immediately knew she was sold when she spotted the sketch in the artist’s catalog.

And her favorite tattoo?

“The one I just got,” Elliott said, laughing.

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Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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