Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, June 26 2018

Beginning this Friday afternoon, and continuing into Sunday evening, the area in and around Asbury Park’s Convention Hall will play host to an explosion of color and imagery that puts the wildest summer-casual wear to shame; a living gallery of bodies decorated in ways that were once the province of “primitive” cultures and “outlaw” scenes. The stage of the venerable venue will offer up an array of entertainments once confined to the forbidden corners of the smoky burlesque houses and carny sideshows — eaters of fire; piercers and suspenders of flesh; seductive dancing sirens with names like Lydia Vengeance, Dolly Dagger, and Cameron Catastrophe. The floor will be transformed into a fever-dream bazaar, offering the wares and services of artisans named Dedleg, Gutterteeth, and Jaded Moon. And, according to Shannon Moran, it’s a happening that will be “celebratory, super-upbeat…and genuinely positive.”

Returning to the famous boardwalk for its ninth edition, the Visionary Tattoo Arts Festival is at heart an all-welcome (and all-ages) love note to “artistic, expressive people” — and the often way-out ways in which they opt to express themselves. The brainchild and pet project of Ms. Moran and her partner in Brooklyn’s Triple Diamond Tattoo shop, British-born tattoo artist Jon “Jon Jon” Lane, the annual Asbury Park institution morphed out of the promoters’ earlier Visionary Expo event in Miami.

“In Miami we put more of an emphasis on live painting, and on art in general,” explains Jon. “After that, we embraced more of what was going on in tattoo art…and we kept the Visionary name, because we like to gear things toward innovation in tattooing.”

“The whole game is really UP these days,” observes Shannon in regards to today’s tattoo culture, a field of endeavor that’s been given a figurative shot-in-the-arm by a burgeoning social mediascape, as well as by advances in equipment and procedure. “The needles are better, the inks are better, and there’s a lot of young up and coming people who are really slaying it.”

“Tattooing is in a very exciting, strategic place right now…and whether you’re looking to get your first tattoo or your one hundredth, you’ve got an amazing array of art to choose from…it’s as personal and individual as selecting the perfect painting to hang up in your apartment.”

Promising some 250 artists on site over the weekend, the Visionary Festival floor boasts everything from those with a national profile via TV shows like “Ink Master,” to such hometown talents as Strangebreu and Marz of Asbury Park’s Old Glory Tattoo, Damion Deleon and Erik Schmidt of Neptune Tattooville, Patrick James Dean of Trident Arts in Long Branch, and Oscar Garcia from SoulKraft Ink on Asbury’s Memorial Drive. There are artists hailing from all corners of the Garden State, as well as from places that range from Woodstock to Brooklyn; Massachusetts to Maryland; Philly to Cincy; Frisco to Florida; Pittsburgh to Staten Island, and — in the case of Alex Greco — Italy.

“Alex specializes in abstract, geometric patterns,” says Shannon of this year’s participant with the longest commute. “We’ve got Hillary Blair, an up and coming artist who does some very exciting black line work…Alex Feliciano, who puts his own spin on traditional Japanese color work…and Dave Tevenal, who’s known for his bright, bold color work as well as for his superhero art and his paintings, which he also offers for sale at these shows.”

“It’s a nice mix of people and styles,” says Shannon of the “great marketplace where you can meet and get inked by some leading artists, many of whom have exclusive pre-drawn designs to select from…and you can do it without going through the trouble and expense of booking a trip to Italy!”

There’s much more in store than just the buzz of needles on willing flesh, of course, and for the duration of this weekend the Convention Hall complex will be offering up some vivid displays that include sideshow-style performance (such as Coney Island mainstay Dr. Claw), burlesque dance artistry (including Vivi Noir of Noir Follies), body suspension demos by Ascension, a “Dungeon Pro Wrestling” card, a live-paint exhibition by spraycan specialist Luis “Zimad” Lamboy, and even a Hot Rod Show of kustom-kar kulture. Many of these were featured at the former incarnation of Asbury Lanes, a landmark that Jon cites as having served as an “iconic” meeting-house for all things frankly offbeat, willfully bizarre, and cheerfully expressive.

“These people take their art to another, very personal level…they’re living their art form,” the co-founders explain of the subcultures assembled under their big tent. “It’s a really positive community to be a part of.”

And, as Shannon tells it, “this year we’ve added an all new fun and wacky avenue of entertainment,” with the first annual Mr. Asbury Speedo Contest on Sunday. Inspired by Jon’s traditional policy of “always being dressed in outlandish Speedos, as he goes around the event dealing with various little crises,” the competition is a newly inaugurated companion to Saturday’s returning Miss Asbury Pin-Up Contest, the winner of which receives prizes from Rebel Supply Company of Cookman Avenue, as well as a photoshoot spread in Perfectly Pin-Up magazine.

According to the organizers, interest in the Speedo contest — for which “an all-drag queen panel” will serve as esteemed adjudicators — has run high, with a full complement of locally based sponsors (including SoulKraft, Larry Cadillac, Pipe Dreams, Shape Shop, and the Empress Hotel) having come aboard. In thanking the businesses that have lent their loyal support to the festival through its years in Asbury Park, Shannon takes special care to name-check Philip “DJ UnclesNephew” Caporaso Jr. for his help, with the house/electronica deejay (known from sets at many an area club and Groove Cruise) cited as being “our boots on the ground in Asbury Park” by the Brooklyn-based Visionary crew.

While the promoters are currently kicking around the prospect of establishing an additional yearly event in a second location, the commitment to Asbury Park and Convention Hall remains in place, with Shannon observing that the venue and the host city possess “a lot of charm and a lot of character…it’s retro, it’s stylish, it keeps us on our toes, and we’re looking to preserve that feeling.”

Take it to visionarytattoofest.com for complete schedule details, links to individual artist pages, and additional info. Admission to the festival is $20 per day, with weekend passes available for $40 and kids age 12 and under admitted for free (attendees must be at least 18 years of age to get tattooed).