I’ve seen event fliers for months around Baltimore cafes and bookstores advertising the World Oddities Expo. Upon entering the lobby of the Lord Baltimore Hotel this past Sunday, Nov. 3, however, I saw little indication of the Expo’s existence, of tattooed viewers and strange relics on display.
The tall check-in room is crowded with Patriots fans and pumpkins, orange exteriors decorated with hot-glued puffballs and permanent marker.
Perhaps because it was the last day of the Expo’s run, an air of comfort permeated the entire event, despite its focus on the odd and the unsettling. Even when I rode the elevator to the main floor of the Expo, the setup seemed natural and subdued. Inside, booths selling artistic curio ran down to the windows that overlooked the last couple of blocks between the hotel and the Inner Harbor.
Stretched along the tables were wares of every kind and style — delicate and minimalistic metal masks, bone relics and displays, T-shirts and stickers advertising various aspects of goth culture, bugs mounted behind frames, a vintage vampire-killing kit, taxidermy of every kind, jewelry (a common theme) and prints of dogs and landscapes inked onto hundred-year-old sheet music.
I had only about five dollars in my pocket, and most of the noncommercial opportunities of the day had ended already (There had been various presentations on a variety of topics, although they were not widely advertised). Still, I enjoyed passing through the booths, either lingering on an interesting, glittering item or eavesdropping on the easy camaraderie forming between the vendors and their customers.
It was the easy flow of conversation, the readiness and friendliness with which my questions were answered and the genuine interest and immersion in what was being done at the event that stuck with me the most as I walked back toward campus a few hours later.
The unassuming and human presentation of the event meant that, no matter how strange and dark the art on sale or the costumes being worn or the manifestos and explanations of method seemed, I was always aware that an imperfect hand created and curated the oddities.
I left less with a feeling of having been ushered into a distinctly surreal, Halloweenesque world than with a feeling that the World Oddities Expo was a pursuit of fantastic spectacle and exploration of our societal perceptions of the dark and unearthly, while also being a very human effort. The juxtaposition of these two forces created space for the truly bizarre to be at once subversive and connective.
This connectivity, physical and mental, could not be more clearly seen than with the case of a woman who sat between the two tall windows at the end of the booths.
The top half of her face was painted with dripping, charcoal-like black makeup, as if it had been recently scorched. Her eyes remained closed for much of the time I watched her.
She was kept in place by countless metal hooks attached through her skin, which in turn were attached to ropes and a large metal hoop, pulling against her back and tattooed arms and manicured hands. A lit candle stood in front of her and she circled her upper body slowly, occasionally murmuring to herself or addressing the three attendants crouched around her.
When I asked a woman knelt in front of her what was happening, I was told that the woman at the center of the ropes was performing a flesh pull. These acts are usually done from the ceiling, but this one in particular was seated because the infrastructure at the Lord Baltimore Hotel couldn’t support a ceiling hang. The pain, the woman assured me, is overridden by the endorphins and adrenaline the experience invites.
What struck me was that there was no judgment, no remove, no threshold of interaction I had to cross before the wall between myself and the person I was speaking with came down.
While I was obviously unfamiliar with their subculture, my interaction with the performance was encouraged, and I was invited into the young woman’s experience if I wished to understand it. The spectacle and the performer, the seller and I were all wrapped up in one.
Later, I visited the tattoo show on the ground floor, a fluorescent room filled with the buzzing of needles, posters of colorful flash pieces up for grabs and various taxidermies, including a wild cat dressed as a bride. People stretched out on tables, needles pressing into their sides or arms or chests.
I bought a cheap poster and talked to some artists, circling the room and watching the small human interactions between tattoo artists, customers and customers’ partners or friends who had gathered to support them. I felt at ease, less of a visitor and more of a participant. When the surreal throws arbitrary social distance out the window, the experience becomes an intimate point of connection.
It is the community of the World Oddities Expo that really drives the event forward, ingratiating itself in the lives of all who pass through — although I would suggest bringing more than pocket change next year.