“For some reason it was already in my blood. I was the kid in the third grade putting all these stickers on me from bubblegum packages and my teacher would say, what the hell is on your chest? Sometimes you don’t realize who you really are then next thing you know you start doing it.” Jon Thomas, owner of Spider Bite Inc.
I’ve never wanted a tattoo, attributed to a childhood fear of needles. Although I’ve gotten over that phase (I think) I’ve always looked at tattoos as volunteering for massive, unnecessary, pain. Plenty of people who have been a part of the fabric of my life at one point or another have been tattoo advocates. Some, with hidden flash, others as walking sign posts, all from various backgrounds. In deciding to attend this year’s annual Live Free or Die Tattoo Expo in July, it gave me the opportunity to visit the mythical world of tattoo artists. I expected a sterile yet grungy atmosphere. I could not have been more wrong. And it led me to learn more about event organizer Jon Thomas, who’s built a tattoo empire here from humble beginnings.
More and more people are rejecting the status quo ideals and taking the faith-bound leap into unconventional careers that are a culmination of personal alignment. Thomas is one of those people. Born and raised in Manchester, Thomas, owner of the Spider Bite Inc., stumbled into his career through fateful happenstance.
I’ve arrived early for my interview, and as I begin to gather my belongings, I hear a dog talking ,not barking, but talking (those of you who are dog owners, know the difference). I take a quick look around and find no evidence of a dog. As I begin to review my notes, I see a tattooed/pierced man, clearly employed by Spider Bite, walking across the parking lot with an 80-pound light brown-and-white pit bull. They stand near the entrance door. The dog begins conversing with his owner in earnestness, and a short exchange ensues. The dog is insistent. The owner surrenders. He walks over to his vehicle, as an excited victor follows. He opens the door and pulls out what looks to be a portion of a tree trunk, the dog snatches it from his handler and takes off. I lower my window and ask if it’s a boy or girl, commenting on how vocal it is.
It’s a boy.
A friendly exchange begins between us and when I finally ask his name, he answers, “I’m Jon,” who, of course, would just happen to be the owner of Spider Bite – and my interviewee.
Thomas opens the door to his shop, Spider-Bite Inc., located at 179 Elm St., a conglomerate which has expanded to include Spider Bite body piercing, Tattoo Angus custom tattoos, and Manchester Adult Lifestyle smoke shop and novelties. Each space is open, airy, immaculate and welcoming yet sharply distinguishable. I’m immediately drawn to the idea that individual artist have their own “office” with a door and a window allowing for staff and patrons alike to clearly and easily see inside. Thomas takes me for a tour of each space. The young ladies behind the cashier station in the adult shop are genuinely friendly and respectfully detached handling patrons. The area is extremely bright, as large windows allow natural sunlight. The tattoo and body piercing shop share the same massive space. It is warm and meticulously kept.
In solidifying his loyalty to his hometown, Thomas says, “I bought my parents’ home, the house I grew up in, when they moved to Florida.”
In 1996 Thomas’ friend who owns a tanning salon is facing financial ruin. Deciding to assist his friend in gaining his business back by becoming a private investor, two weeks into their partnership Thomas’ friend disappears with the investment funds and Thomas becomes the owner of a business he knows nothing about.
“Actually, I did very well with the business. I made it work.” Thomas states in soft confidence.
The 23 year body piercing veteran is the creator/promoter of the Live Free or Die Tattoo Expo, of which tattoo artists travel to attend as far from California. In its 1st year the LFOD tattoo expo was featured in Savage magazine, a popular body modification publication among the tattoo genre set. Featuring 128 booths, which consistently sell out each year, in fact, booth bookings begin a short 2 weeks after the close of each expo, 12 years later and attendance surpasses 3000 persons.
Thomas goes on to explain, “I had a small empty room in the back of the tanning salon and I already had my nipples pierced. I had a good friend and I told him I wanted to get into body piercing, so we rented a video and practiced on our friends and I just did it. We opened a shop.”
At the time, tattooing wasn’t legal in Manchester, consequently body piercing was not practiced, as it was considered under the umbrella of tattooing. Thomas found the loophole that would allow his body piercing shop as his business was labeled a “tanning salon.” Six years later when the legalization was up for legislation Thomas’ shop was used as the example.
“I wanted to be the first to put on a tattoo convention in New Hampshire,” says Thomas, with a soft but clear sound of pride in his voice. “We already had a piercing shop and we were going around doing tattoo expos still promoting Spider, it was just known for piercing and we had a very, very good name and we would go to expos because that’s how you get your name out there more. When I do things I always analyze how people do their business, and when people make promises, they tell you they are going to do a certain amount of promotion, and they don’t do it. You pay money for certain services.”
Thomas goes on to explain, “They [tattoo conventions] were very disorganized, this is where I like to think I do a good job. I hire enough people and I have a really good crew that works with me so that any type of problem at my expo gets fixed right away, so people are very happy. They say our show is one of the most organized. I try to make sure the way I set up my shop it is very organized, very clean and comfortable which is most important to keeping people coming back … and being nice,” his signature smile lighting up his face.
When asked about his first show, Jon recalls, “The first show was actually really awesome! We did play piercing corset on one girls back. We tied a ribbon back and forth we got so much exposure we ended up in Savage magazine. Of course that got me more energized to do more shows.”
Building his empire was anything but an easy journey. Thomas faced the typical challenges of first time business owners. Cunning in his approach, Thomas recognized most of his future patrons visit the local mall for their jewelry; he cleverly set up kiosks in four essential malls within New Hampshire, strategically funneling his clients.
“I over exploded too fast when I started piercing I had the tiniest shop. This office is bigger than my shop. I started on the second floor next door. The building that touches this building is where I started,” says Thomas.
Given his current success, it would be easy to believe that Thomas had every intention of owning a shop.
“I never had a clue I was ever going to be in this business. Back in the day Headlines was the only sweet shop around and I said I would like something like this; it would be cool. I always liked tattooing and body piercing, but I never wore jewelry. I never had my ears pierced, ever, but I always wanted to,” says Thomas. “When body piercing came out it was more of an expression of self, everything was dainty for jewelry, but with body piercing you can really fit something that fits you, which is a lot better than regular jewelry. All of a sudden I’m falling into what I like without actually realizing I’m finally doing what I like. It just happened.”
Thomas recalls his father, a veteran, who passed away a few short years earlier, being ashamed of the stigma surrounding his tattoos. Now, he has grandmothers coming to his shop to get piercings. He groans about an across-the-board complaint, echoed in tattoo parlors.
“TV doesn’t help us because everyone thinks they can get a back piece in one day. They don’t show you all of what really happens that is why you are interested in the show. You don’t see the boring parts,” Thomas says.
In consulting with patrons looking for their first tattoo, Thomas smiles as he describes the typical issue of short-sighted first-time tattoo patrons.
“You try to explain to them you cannot give them what they want, then they get mad at you. But they are not realizing it’s going to look lousy 30 years from now. I mean, I like KISS but I wouldn’t tattoo them on my body,” he says.
As Thomas and I talk, his loyal side-kick assistant and master organizer, Jennifer Hrycuna, diligently plugs away on the computer.
“Jenn she’s my lifesaver. I never call a shop to get somebody. Somebody needs to call me. We see how good their talent is. We post mostly through Facebook. I’ll ask Jenn to look them up and she’ll tell me whether to check them out,” he says.
I inquire about Thomas’ body art, and he begins to explain select tattoos as sentimental pieces.
“These are three friends who passed away, way before their time,” he says, pointing to three blood drops tattooed on his arm. “This arm is about my shop. This was my dog Angus. That’s where Tattoo Angus came from,” says Thomas, pointing to the bust of a pit bull. “This is the first girl that broke my heart. That’s a logo – my original logo,” and right below his bicep appears the phrase, “He who dares wins.”
Regarding the future of his three-store conglomerate, Thomas says, “I’ve got eight more years – I want to retire by 60 and sell everything and just rent to everybody. It’s been 23 years already. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s like anything. Everything is getting tiring and I have worked it to hopefully become the most powerful and one of the best-run shops around, so I’ll have a nice body piercing/tattoo shop with a reputable name. I shouldn’t have a problem selling it.”
However, this is not the final chapter in Thomas’ business career. He unrolls blueprints detailing his newest venture, that does not include the pain of a tattoo gun or piercing needles. Clearly seeing he has the ability to bring life to his dreams, Thomas’ next phase is the creation of Angel City Music Hall, located below Spider Bite, complete with bar, restaurant, and live acts of varying music genres. He expects the hall to be completed in approximately one year.
“I’ve always wanted a night club. This is the nightclub. It’s going to be huge, like The House of Blues. I’m not just going to let any band come and play we are going to try and get the higher acts here,” Thomas says.
In speaking about the yearly expo, Thomas says of today’s artists, “Everything is so much better. The ink is better, everything is brighter and sharper, the artwork looks like a painting – that’s how good the art is, and some of the guys that work here are amazing. Steve Cummings would be our number one guy and Bill Rhine would be right behind him, and their work is just amazing. Everyone here is good, but they just stand out. ”
Fortunately I had the opportunity to meet with Bill Rhine and have a short conversation about how he became an artist. Photos of his work are on the wall in his office and his detail is precise. His use of color is just as significant as his use of black and grey. It is clear as to why he is one of Tattoo Angus’ top tattoo artist. In observing his virtuosity, I notice a few classic film B-movie monsters, and we find common ground. It turns out we are both classic movie fans.
For the past 12 years, The Live Free Or Die Tattoo Expo in Manchester has become a must-experience mecca for top performing tattoo artists. Ask a regular, and most will readily admit it is the premiere tattoo expo in New England. New Hampshire’s own LFOD tattoo expo is held at the DoubleTree Manchester Downtown, boasting one of the best tattoo expos in the northeast, with fans claiming that it supersedes Boston’s show due to the manageable audience which allows patrons easier interaction, and the ability to freely observe artists performing their technique.
“The Boston tattoo expo comes to my show to cross promote. We get along very well,” says Thomas. “[The organizer] tells me our Fridays are amazing. To hear that from him is amazing because he has been doing his show a little longer than I have. For another promoter to come up to you and tell you you’re doing a good job, that makes you feel very good,” says Thomas. “It’s very high-energy when you are there, too. You’ll see the best of the best and around 2,500 to 3,000 people, which makes it very steady all weekend.”
According to Thomas not all vendors are created equal.
“Usually people that aren’t very happy are people that just don’t know how to talk to people. You’ve still gotta say ‘hi’ to people and not look grumpy while you are behind your booth. That’s why some vendors are great at what they do and some vendors need to learn how to present themselves,” he says, noting that is where experience comes into play.
The chatter and buzz of tattoo machines rises as you approach the entrance of expo. A mystical undertone wafts through the room as tattoo fans and body piercing aficionados gather in celebration of their art. Patrons endure hours of pain, unapologetically inscribing their personalized expression. The stereotypical thinking of bikers and sailors as the only demographic vested in body art are long past, as participants of varied backgrounds proudly use their physique as their life’s canvas, reflecting joy and pain, interweaving imagery created by artists perfected in their craft, ranging from flash to realism.
While making my way through the expo, I round a corner and am literally stopped in my tracks by the perfect example of the art of realism. An artist is meticulously tattooing Davey Jones on the side of his models stomach and the animated eyes have literally caught my eye. I stop and watch in silence. Sophath Phing of Ambition Tattoo Ink and Gallery in Danvers, MA, a Cambodian native with no formal art experience, is a humble natural. He has previously covered his model’s back and half of his chest.
Phing’s model Jason Raimondi explains that once he saw Phing’s talent, he never went anywhere else.
“People put art on their walls – this is art on your body,” Raimondi says.
When I asked Phing about his most memorable tattoo, he recalls a woman who flew in from California to have him tattoo a tribute to her child who had recently passed away. Phing felt honored knowing that someone found his artistry so compelling they were willing to fly across the country for his services. In viewing his art, there is no question as to why; he earned First Place in Best Black & Grey Portrait, Second Place in Large Realism and Second Place in Best Chest Piece.
In interviewing several female tattoo artists, each story began exactly the same. “No one wanted to hire me because I was a woman. I would be too distracting. Men would ask for a ‘real’ artist.” Not only did the female artists I interviewed get their foot in the door, they made skeptics eat their own words. And now, the majority of their clients are men.
“I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” says Kayleigh Kerr (@Kayleighck on Instagram).
“My passion is drawing and all I wanted to do was draw every day, now I get paid for it,” says Allie Dutilhttps (@Allydutil on Instagram).
Tattoo artist Allie Dutil discussed a fascinating concept. When asked what her most memorable tattoo was, she detailed the method of mixing ashes of a passed loved one into ink used to create a tribute tattoo in their honor.
The expo is also full of entertainment. From beard contests to Burlesque, Pin-Up pageants to cringe-worthy side-show acts, there is plenty to experience at the LFOD expo. However, one of the most endearing showstoppers is Thomas’ pit bull Cooper, who freely explores the show, greeting vendors and patrons alike with his distinctive friendly bark, announcing his presence. If you are lucky, you may get the chance to offer some quick affection to this sociable and self-assured pup before he is off to his next destination. It has been rumored that Cooper has been caught red-handed on several occasions, covertly eating distracted patrons’ beef jerky, and as I was witness to Thomas extricating Cooper from the beef jerky vendor stand, I am inclined to believe the rumors are true.
Cooper, normally quite vocal, had nothing to say in his defense.
When he is not readily announcing his presence, he may be found in a chair sitting next to his owner – or just about anyone – enjoying the Pin-Up pageant. Each year during the LFOD expo, as well as during the holidays, The Spider Bite conglomerate supports donations to the Friends of the Manchester Animal Shelter, their primary charitable organization. A donation booth can be found at the entrance of the event.
One would never know Thomas is the promoter of the expo unless told. He quietly walks the aisles observing any possible issues, connecting with vendors and discretely enjoying the event. When asked what his next tattoo will be, Thomas answers, “I do three-and-a-half hours and I’m done! I don’t even want to get tattooed anymore. I’m done with my pain. Now it’s time for me to enjoy life. With 12 successful expos under his belt, plans for his new music hall in the works and a cohesive network supporting his efforts, it seems Thomas will accomplish exactly that.
He who dares, really does win.