PROVINCETOWN — Walk down Commercial Street in the summer and you’ll feel the buzz. Party conversations linger. Kids splash on the shore. New waiters rush to tables. Dogs wrestle. Drag queens prance. Quite a bit of skin is bared — and much of it is tattooed.
Some of those tattoos were likely done by artists here for a week at Tattoo Summer Camp.
“It’s like a vacation, but I get to do tattoos. It’s like a work-cation,” says Skribs, a tattoo artist who is originally from Miami but currently working in Atlanta at Live Free Tattoo. A week at the end of May marked Skribs’s fourth year at camp in Provincetown.
What he looks forward to here are “all the colorful characters — no pun intended.” As well as the “weird adventures this guy brings me on,” Skribs says, looking at Khristian Bennett — one of the three owners of Mooncusser Tattoo and Piercing, who doesn’t look much like a camp counselor but who just this week has taught Skribs how to catch squid.
Bennett, his wife, Andrea Tasha, and her sister, Deirdre, opened their walk-in studio in 2002 just after the state’s 38-year ban on tattooing was lifted. The three learned quickly that one thing they had in common with more conventional businesses on the Outer Cape was extreme seasonality. “We have our core group here all year,” says Andrea, referring to the shop’s artists. “But we need a lot of people for the summer.”
During the off season, Bennett travels to tattoo conventions. About 20 years ago, he started inviting artists he met at those get-togethers to come down for a week or two in the summer. He offered them a place to stay and the opportunity for them to practice their art.
Ten people visited. Then it was 20. The exchange had no name. The practice was unusual, says Andrea. For one thing, up until the early 2000s, artists were prohibited from working at others’ studios. Mainly, she says, tattoo artists tend to be cagey about sharing techniques.
“You would never go do a guest spot at somebody else’s shop,” she says. “That just wasn’t done. You were loyal to your shop. You didn’t talk to the shop next door.”
It felt different to be with people in a trade that’s traditionally so individualistic. Over the years, the visiting artists who were taken on dune tours, sunset walks, or joined in parades in town began to joke: “This is like summer camp.” The gig had a name.
This year, Bennett says, 77 visiting artists will be coming to town from New York to South Africa, each artist staying about a week.
“It’s a vastly different work environment than what I do at home,” says Westfield-based tattooist Tony Turrini as he prepares to ink a pair of giraffes on an arm. He’s been coming to camp for a decade now. “I’ve met dozens of great artists from across the world here,” he says.
To be clear, you can’t just sign up for this camp. You have to be invited. Bennett says those he includes are his “idols.” A majority follow typical Americana style, but with some twists.
With the advent of social media, people have begun following the guest artists’ work and some will come to the shop to get a tattoo by a particular visiting artist.
Reflecting on their tattoo summer camp’s place in a town full of artists and galleries, Andrea says, “We consider ourselves peripheral to that and part of it.”
Newly inked skin, seen on a walk along Commercial Street, is art, Bennett says. “It’s art for the people.”