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Artist Jesse Smith aims to make Richmond Tattoo & Arts Festival the go-to show on the East Coast 

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Ash Daniel

It's a Monday night and it's $1 taco night at Little Mexico on Cary Street. Seat-by-seat, a table fills in the bar area. Everyone knows each other. The makeup of the group changes each week, which is how often members try to get together, though it's been a while this time.

One thing is always the same: Jesse Smith. Even when he's not there, his presence is felt. Smith started this regular meeting of tattoo artists.

Sometimes they draw together or explore other mediums — many of them have fine arts backgrounds. This time, when they're done with their tacos, the group is headed to a restaurant in the works on Broad Street called Switch. Smith has been commissioned to paint a 60-by-20-foot mural inside. He's drawn it out on an iPad and everyone has a piece to paint. Everyone gladly grabs brushes, cans of paint, mixing cups and settles in for a night of painting. Smith has a knack for bringing people together. Just ask Kenny Brown.

"I couldn't ask for a better partner," says Brown, who owns Jack Brown's Tattoo Revival in Fredericksburg. "Jesse is an idea man, a workhorse, and has a clear vision."

Brown is working with Smith for the upcoming Richmond Tattoo & Arts Festival held Sept. 28 to 30.

"What Jesse and I are doing is creating a space where people talk to each other," says Brown, who has been tattooing for 26 years. He comes from a traditional or old-school approach to tattooing. Smith is known for his new-school, illustrative style. Often the two types of artists don't mingle. Through this festival, the two are making sure they do. Each is responsible for inviting artists, guaranteeing that there is an even blend of crowds.

"At our convention, all the artists have respect for me and Kenny and out of respect for us, they respect each other," Smith says. "There are artists that come that I would never engage with. They drop those walls because of Kenny."

They both agree that art is art. No matter the style, artists like Smith and Brown work with people individually, day in and day out. They're helping each client bring a vision for a tattoo to life, often personal and always permanent. Brown calls it a "journey."

"There's something magical about the ordeal that you go through getting a tattoo and giving a tattoo," he says. "In that moment, you're traveling through that journey together. It's a real serious exchange of energy."

It's that respect for the art form that led Brown a few years ago to take over one of the longest running tattoo conventions in the country, alongside Smith. Billy Eason, one of the original shepherds of the art form, started it. After his death and a few changes of hands, the show's last owner, Nate Drew, asked Brown and Smith to take over.

"Jesse and I want this to be the go-to show on the East Coast," Brown says. "There's no reason it shouldn't be. Richmond is filled with the greatest tattoo artists in the country and not just that, but some of the greatest artists."

Together, they've pulled in names not only from Richmond but around the world, including Megan Massacre, Christian Buckingham, Josh Payne and Anthony Michaels. Smith also has organized a day of seminars with artists in and out of the industry including Eliza Ivanova, who works for Pixar Studios. The seminars will be held the Monday after the festival so artists who are tattooing can attend if they'd like.

Smith is also excited about the live art auction. Artists will paint 6-by-6-foot canvasses during the event and they'll be auctioned to raise money for Art on Wheels.

There will also be an air sex competition and sex party dating show. But Brown says he's most excited about offering live music every day this year. Bands include Dance Candy, Little Ozzy, Holy Roller, Trongone Band and Photosynthesizers. There also will be also a kids' section and a kids' tattoo competition. S

The Richmond Tattoo & Arts Festival will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at 1021 Koger Center Blvd. from Sept. 28 to 30. Showtimes and tickets can be found at rvatattooarts.com.

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