Flesh for Fantasy

It's a good thing Aaron Coleman is thick-skinned.

After all, the 32-year-old tattoo artist's pugnacious pelt has not only been punished by plenty of pigment, covering his arms, legs and back. But his durable dermis has even withstood all the disdainful dissing both the general public and the art world has levied at his lifestyle.

He's heard all the usual attacks before -- indictments such as lowbrow, white trash, or uncivilized -- and simply shrugs them off, talking about the inherent beauty of tattoos and the intricate skills required for creating the more impressive ink jobs.

"It's becoming regarded as a more legitimate art form, and people are getting way more into artwork that's just more visually attractive and involved way more craftsmanship," says Coleman, owner of Immaculate Tattoo in Mesa. "Someone doesn't have to tell you that it's good; you can just look at it and you're instantly attracted to what it is, or it makes you feel a certain way."

Although it's unlikely you'll be seeing any flaming skulls or tribal armbands hanging next to Mona Lisa in the Louvre anytime soon, Coleman and co-organizer Dale Orman, owner of Crawling Squid Tattoo Studio in Phoenix, hope this weekend's sixth installment of the "Tattoo A2Z" art show at the Paper Heart might help bring new fans and, more important, respect to their craft.

The exhibition, which hangs until May 30, boasts more than 150 entries from local and nationally known artists -- ink-slinging or otherwise -- demonstrating their artistic prowess isn't limited to the flesh trade. Paintings, photographs, prints, and mixed-media sculptures are included in the uninhibited exhibition with a rundown of names that reads like a needle-head's wet dream, with work from R.K. Sloane, Scott Harrison, Kevin Le Blanc, Tim Lehi, Rick Peters, Chris Bailey, and Stephen Blickenstaff, who created the iconic album art for The Cramps' signature platter, Bad Music for Bad People.

The usual subjects of strange creatures and surreal situations -- the stuff great tattoos are made of -- dominate the exhibition. There's XNO's painting Frankenpop, depicting Popeye the Sailor transmogrified into the classic monster Frankenstein, and The Last Supper, a collaborative print created by Coleman and Corey Lenherr featuring a horrific meal of cheap cerveza and human flesh that's attended by mummies, demons, Bob's Big Boy, and a three-headed "Osama Hitler Bush."

It's not all about fantastical realism, as Coleman and Dale Orman have thrown in works like Balinese demon masks, Japanese-style prints, concert posters, vintage design sheets from the 1940s and '50s, and the spooky sylvan-themed paintings of Club Tattoo legend and guitarist Chris Bailey (whose rock band, Smut Muffin, performs at the opening night event along with L.A. blues guitarist Jake La Botz, and the metal masters of Rapid Fire).

"Tattoo artists create 10 times as many drawings than regular artists do; it's just as complicated an art form," Coleman says. "I can guarantee that anyone that goes to the show is going to be blown away by something they'll see."