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More Than an Expo

The BTAME Founders are Using Art as a Medium for Change in Their Community

It was never just about tattoos. Yes, since the event’s inception five years ago, the primary thrust of the Black Tattoo, Art and Music Expo in Detroit has been the celebration of the subdermal art within communities of color. That much is true. But take notice of the comma placed within the name. It’s not “Black Tattoo Art . . .” It’s “Black Tattoo, Art . . .” The comma denotes a series, and that series includes three distinct categories: Tattoos, art and music. It’s about creative expression in all its various forms.

So, if you thought it was just a tattoo convention, widen the scope. And then widen it some more, because there’s a much bigger picture here.

Their website explains it best, stating that their driving purpose is to use “art as the building blocks for change in urban communities.” The Expo itself was only ever intended to be their initial splash point, with the real effect being the ripples that result.

 

“We want to really be a spark for art education, whether it’s visual arts or dance, or music—whatever” explains Jason Phillips, event co-founder and owner of the Ink Spot, one of the Motor City’s top tattoo parlors. “That’s the overall goal; to get art in front of those who aren’t being exposed to it otherwise. We have people who are missing their calling, especially with the arts being pulled from public school systems. You’re missing the artists who could be that next great architect or planner because they’re not getting the exposure to it.”

To this end, Jason and his partner, Mike Burnett have formed a 501(c)3 parent organization that will now house the expo, as well widen the scope to include a variety of projects focused on empowering their community through art engagement. Though they’ve maintained the BTAME acronym, it now represents something bigger than one event. Instead of just an expo, it’sthe Black Tattoo, Art and Music EXPERIENCE.

“In a nutshell, we’re a non-profit to promote the arts and make that positive change,” Jason continues. “We kept the umbrella of the corporation broad, so we’d be able to work throughout the various disciplines of art to create different programs and work with different institutions. We’ll still be putting on the Expo, but that’s now just one facet of our efforts.”

“The first organization we’re working with is called Wellspring,” Mike chimes in. “They work out of our Brightmoor community. They’d received a grant to continue a summer program to fight illiteracy between kindergarten and eight grade . . . and they incorporated us into their program.”

For their part of the program, Jason created two images for the kids to work with, one for the older kids and the other for the younger, both conveying one simple message:Knowledge is power. The image for the elder of the age groups was of a boy and a girl, each of them wearing a crown, sitting in the grass and reading a book. For the younger group, the image was of two children, again one boy and one girl, reading together.

“Jason sketched out the concept and came up with the color scheme,” Mike continues, “but it was the kids who pretty much did all the painting. We donated our time to work with them every Tuesday and they just went at it.”

The summer program was capped off by a picnic attended by the kids, as well as their parents.

“The parents got to see what their kids had been working on,” Mike recounts, beaming through the phone. “They were just so proud. They couldn’t believe that the kids were doing what they were doing. They were amazed.”

 

The Expo is all well and good, but interactions like this are what truly lie at the heart of Mike and Jason’s vision: To empower and build up their community by igniting that artistic passion within the youth and letting that passion be the catalyst to trigger inspiration in their parents; to remind their community that art is more than just a hobby. It’s life—and it can be a living.

“When the adults see that their children have interest in the arts, they see that there’s something they can do to cultivate it,” Jason says,“and that there are professionals out here using this talent to be entrepreneurs and make a living for themselves. That’s important because adults often feel that art isn’t necessary and think their kids will just become starving artists if they pursue it.”

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Mike adds, “to show kids and their parents how you can make a sustainable living through art. You can be alright out here through art. You don’t have to shoot a basketball or hit a baseball. You can do more.”

If they have their way, this is only the beginning. Mike sees a world of possibilities and hopes these initial outreaches will inspire others to join in and support the cause.

“We’re building our portfolio to make it attractive to potential sponsors. Maybe we can get someone willing to invest. Through that, we can create scholarships; maybe even have a community center so kids can come and create—in all facets of art. A practice space and recording studio for music, a dance studio, an art studio where kids can come and work at an easel.”

As far as the Expo that started it all, you can expect another installment in 2020. Meanwhile, Mike is doubling down on his call to the industry for sponsors. “As I said last time, if you’re willing to take the black community’s money, you should be willing to reinvest some. Come work with us.”

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