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Active Cultures: a meeting of human canvases

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Tim Krings won't say how many tattoos he has. Not that he's kept count.

"I tell everybody I've got one," says Krings, a longtime biker whose friends call him "Freebird." "I'm 90 percent covered. I've got a little bit of space left on my legs and my buttocks and that's about it."

Krings's arms are decorated with Aztec designs--faces, eagles, a buffalo, and feathers--as well as "biker stuff." On his back, beneath a soaring eagle, a Native American warrior on a horse charges through water; in the background are mountains with tiny braves perched on the cliffs and hidden images in the rocks.

Those elaborate markings are a far cry from the crude homemade jobs he carved as a boy in Elmwood, Wisconsin, in the 50s. He did his first tat when he was 12--his initials on his hand. "I used a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in india ink," he recalls. More followed, including the words "love" and "hate" on his knuckles a la Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He got his first professional tattoo, a sailor girl on his upper arm, in 1958, on his first leave from the navy.

After he was discharged in 1962, Krings started having second thoughts about what he'd done to himself and decided to remove the words on his knuckles. "I took a needle and some bleach until it came out--that's how bad I wanted to get rid of it," he says. "That's why I only get tattoos where people can't see them. If I put on a shirt and a tie, no one would know that I have any--I'd look like any other jock out there."

After he left the navy Krings traveled a bit, and eventually landed a job as a machine repairman at the Caterpillar plant in Aurora, where he worked for more than 32 years. He started collecting tattoos in earnest in the mid-80s, when freehand artists who created custom work began to revolutionize the trade. He traveled all over the country tracking down the best artists to execute his tattoos, many of which were inspired by southwestern art.

About a decade ago Krings hooked up with another enthusiast named Robin Hanson (aka "Booger") at a tattoo event. Hanson and his wife, Marla, had been producing tattoo conventions in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and Krings decided to join them. For the past six years Krings, and now his wife, Joanie, have done the local legwork for their Chicago-area shows. At the "jamborees," attendees can get inked by some 100 tattoo artists from around the U.S. or have their work judged by a panel of tattooists and instructors from the School of the Art Institute. The categories range from wildlife ("any nondomesticated animal or living entity not human") to portraits ("must be recognizable as the real person depicted") to "working tattoos"--which almost always attracts a man with a bunny image on his stomach who puts a jelly bean in his navel and then pops it out. "When he lets it go, it looks like the rabbit is doing his thing," says Krings.

From time to time, Krings has talked people out of getting tattoos "if they're not sure what they want." The warrior scene on his back, which took about two years to complete, covers some images he got in the navy and during his "partying days" in the late 70s and later regretted, including a pair of crying and laughing baby faces, a sailor, some nude women, and "a rat holding a wine bottle that must have meant something to me at one time." These days the tattoos that mean the most to him are the portraits of his parents that cover his lower legs. "If there's somebody around who hasn't seen them, my dad will say, 'Hey, show them your legs.' He's pretty proud of them--he has one of the magazines they were in sitting right by his recliner."

Krings admits there might not be too many new tattoos on the horizon. "I still get a good one once in a while," he says. "But my tolerance of pain isn't that good anymore."

The Inkin' Lincoln Tattoo Jamboree takes place Friday from noon to 11 PM, Saturday from 10:30 AM to 11 PM, and Sunday from 10:30 AM to 7 PM at the Ramada O'Hare, 6600 N. Mannheim in Rosemont. The entertainment includes music from Stone Connection, Traffic Jam, Midnight, and the C.J. Stanley Band. It's $10 per day, or $25 for a weekend pass that includes admission to two contests. Call 630-375-0857 for more.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.

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