PHILADELPHIA The tattoo Manuel Eliopoulos got inked on his right thigh Friday - a striking depiction of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings movies - was still fresh, raw.

Nonetheless, artist Chad Miskimon was busy Saturday filling in Eliopoulos' second tattoo of the weekend, a full-color rendering of Superman on his left thigh.

"He's so iconic, you can't go wrong with him," said Eliopoulos, a 22-year-old University of Maryland student, comic book fan, and, for the last six months or so, tattoo devotee.

He and thousands of his tribe were attending the three-day Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention, a gathering many say is the biggest and baddest of its kind.

This year, 850 tattoo artists descended on the Convention Center, filling one of the giant halls with the incessant buzzing of their machines.

The convention continues Sunday.

The size of the gathering reflected not only the increased popularity and acceptance of tattoos, but the artists' rising skill, said Troy Timpel, who has been running the convention since 2002.

"The statistics of how many Americans have tattoos . . . is staggering," he said. "I used to joke that I tattooed the criminal, then I tattooed the cop who locked him up, then I tattooed the lawyer who got him off."

He calls the convention "a festival that honors the artist."

That was evident from Eliopoulos, who followed Miskimon, his Baltimore tattoo artist, here, saying, "He's the only one I trust to do my work."

Jimmy O'Hare came from Staten Island and planned to get three tattoos from artists he admired, including Eric Marcinizyn of Delaware, who was in the midst of tattooing a woman's face on O'Hare's lower leg.

There was no significance, necessarily, to the woman or the other tattoos he planned to get. The point for him, he said, was the artists, to "collect their work."

Each day of the convention features a tattoo contest, including a category to judge the best work done on site that day.

Timpel said one of the most original tattoos he had seen was a "peep show" that depicted marshmallow Peeps dancing on a stage.

The entire scene was rendered as though viewed through a keyhole and was inked on a man's rear end. He had more work on the front.

"I was judging that and he was like, 'You want to see the whole thing?' " Timpel said. "Whoa."

The artists came from all over the country and abroad.

Marcus "Gummy" Johnston and his wife, Ashleigh, had a shop in Queensland, Australia, before leaving on a three-month tour of the United States. They plan to open a parlor in Sydney when they return.

Marcus Johnston said Australian artists were gaining respect, adding their own flavor to the work.

"Australians have a different take on the American tattoo, I think," he said.

The types of tattoos available were endless. But was anything too crazy to ink more or less permanently on the human body? "What I would define as crazy is putting somebody else's name on your body," said longtime Philadelphia tattoo artist Don Juan. "If it ain't your mother or your Aunt Ethel, you need to be careful."

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