"There has never been this many tattooed people in one room in a museum that haven't been asked to leave," said Bob Baxter, editor of Skin & Ink magazine.
Young women strutted the runway in bikinis; potbellied men wore shorts or underwear to show off their elaborately inked arms, legs and backs. Observers marveled at the images of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, adapted from stained-glass windows, that adorned the calves of Lucas Walther, or the 31 feline species that peered through jungle foliage on the arms of Jan Bishop.
"I like cats," she said, and what could she say, really, that her tattoos don't voice more eloquently?
The goal of the evening, according to Karen Milbourne, the museum's former curator of African art who has since moved on to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, was to explore "the most intimate of canvases, the skin itself, the membrane that separates our inner essence from the world around us and allows us to project a sense of self for others to see and others to interpret."
During the panel discussion, even renowned tattoo artists couldn't agree on the extent to which tattoos constitute art.
"Tattooing is not an art form. It's a practice," said Lyle Tuttle, a San Francisco artist — or perhaps practitioner — who began tattooing professionally in 1949 and tattooed Janis Joplin and Cher. "It can be done in an artful sense, but it's a practice."
"I think tattooing is an art form, a very permanent art form," responded Jacci Gresham of New Orleans, the first widely known black female tattoo artist.
"I think in most pre-Christian societies, they didn't get the tattoo for art," Tuttle said.
Everyone agreed, however, that tattoos have never been more popular, and that art-school graduates are raising the bar for body art by introducing innovative forms and techniques. Baxter said the past five years have seen an exponential increase in the number of talented artists.
"It is the greatest art movement since the Renaissance," he said. "There's never been anything like it — an art movement in which you go to a town and there's 30 to 40 tattoo shops in town, and they're all booked, they're all busy."
Tuttle said much had changed since he got his first tattoo at the age of 14.
"I retired about 15 years ago, because as tattooing became more popular, a better grade of artists came into the field," Tuttle said, "and so I retired to save what little reputation I had."