In March 2012, Bridgestone Arena played host to first and second-round games in the NCAA basketball tournament, tying up traffic and filling the district's sports bars. But the real March Madness didn't hit downtown until a few weeks later — when an anime convention and a horror-and-tattoo convention hit Lower Broadway in a perfect storm of geek culture.
At Robert's, revelers in bright white tops and ruffled blue miniskirts — a costume familiar to viewers of the Japanese animated series Sailor Moon — flounced through the doors of the venerated honky-tonk, settling in among tourists and grizzled regulars. Three doors up, the line outside Tootsie's included made-up ghouls with crusted fake blood trailing from their mouths.
The scene inside the Nashville Convention Center was no less surreal. Real-life pro wrestlers signed autographs and posed for photos, not far from where the foam monsters of Kaiju Big Battel — a touring troupe that essentially performs live re-creations of Saturday-morning Godzilla movies — bashed one another with fake concrete blocks. For three days, the worlds of Pinhead and Pokemon collided, and speed metal vied for attention with Speed Racer.
According to organizers, it was a scheduling accident — but a happy one. So much so that when the Middle Tennessee Anime Convention and the Full Moon Tattoo and Horror Festival convene this Friday through Sunday at Nashville's Renaissance Hotel and the classic Convention Center on Commerce Street, the now conjoined events are expected to bring more than 15,000 people downtown.
It's the tip of the iceberg, as comic book, TV and cult-movie conventions are concerned. With the flood-ravaged Opryland Hotel back in play after expensive restoration, and the mega-dollar Music City Center on track for its splashy May opening, this segment of the convention business has never been more competitive here. Already on the schedule for 2013 are, among others, a Comic City convention in May at Hotel Preston, a Star Trek convention in September at Opryland, and October's Wizard World Comic Con at the Music City Center with special guest Stan Lee.
But MTAC and Full Moon are homegrown events, as Full Moon co-owner Stacey Dixon points out. "They're both Nashville-based groups — we were born and raised and grew up here," says actor-model Dixon, who founded Full Moon with her husband, Lone Wolf Body Art owner Ben Dixon, and has starred in his and other directors' low-budget horror films.
Before last year, the two events had been building attendance in separate venues for more than a decade. MTAC grew from a few hundred "guys in a video room" at a Pokemon card tournament in the Days Inn Airport in 1999 to more than 7,200 conventioneers last year, while Full Moon shifted downtown from its longtime headquarters at the airport Marriott. The powers that be in each group decided to share the venues and merge the crowds into a bigger gathering, taking advantage of the availability of the hotel and convention center on the quiet Easter weekend when most business meetings are out of play.
This weekend's events will have specially dedicated programming and contests for their attendees, along with all kinds of costumes, parties, panels, merchandising, body painting and piercing, celebrities and autograph sessions, musical performances and artist Q&As, video and film screenings. Yet they differ in ways that show how geek culture has fragmented and diversified in the online era.
Full Moon, the horror and tattoo convention, is the one that most resembles the pop-culture stereotype of fandom. There'll be booths selling T-shirts, comic books and related merchandise, while collectors and die-hards wait their turn at the signing table with the likes of The Exorcist star Linda Blair and The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus. (The latter's midnight show Friday at The Belcourt with his cult favorite The Boondock Saints has already sold out; a Saturday screening of The Devil's Rejects with character actor Sid Haig appearing is expected to do the same.)
But MTAC may contain the most surprises, especially for those not familiar with anime — a catchall term for Japanese animation that encompasses everything from the most innocuous of children's fare to the excesses of what is called tentacle porn. MTAC is a division of Arts Cubed, a non-profit umbrella group that produces two annual conventions to celebrate and educate people about Japanese culture and geek culture. In addition to MTAC, Arts Cubed annually hosts the fall Geek Media Expo, better known as GMX.
To call this group a family is only slight exaggeration. When Arts Cubed president Lucas Leverett and MTAC executive director Holly Moore meet to hammer out details, the sessions often double as playdates for their children (Alexander and Isabella, respectively). MTAC weddings are a staple, and marriage proposals are common. The staff shares a love for the many facets of geek culture: anime, comic books, science fiction, video-gaming, role-playing, fantasy.
Thus at MTAC, attendees can choose from myriad panels — how to stage an elaborate Japanese "Lolita Tea Party" featuring oddly Victorian garb, how to talk to a geeky girl, how to make a cool costume on a budget. Costuming, or "cosplay," is a big part of the experience. Last year's event featured everything from full body armor to near-nudity.
Nicholas Qualls, MTAC's PR director, attributes the event's growth to a variety of factors — chiefly the propagation of anime across the U.S. by manga novels and comics, airings on The Cartoon Network, and availability on DVD.
"I got into anime during the late '90s/early '00s Cartoon Network era, with shows like Dragonball Z, Gundam, Rurouni Kenshin, and so on," Qualls says via email. "My college anime club hooked me into going to conventions, and the social environment and the thrill of the production has kept me going."
It could be argued that with comic-book movies like The Avengers forming billion-dollar enterprises, and CBS' geek-centric The Big Bang Theory among TV's hottest shows, geek culture has gone thoroughly mainstream. That hasn't happened yet with anime, however. Interestingly, while the mainstream stereotypes geek culture from computers to comics as predominantly male, anime conventions draw large numbers of female attendees. Not only is MTAC attended by women, it's run by them.
"I started attending cons in 2001, and I've been working them since 2006," says GMX programmer Angelina "Gelly" Rion, who also works as a baker at Maple's Wedding Cakes while pursuing a bachelor's degree in apparel design at MTSU. "For many years, I was a gamer and an anime kid, and my interests grew as I grew. Now, I'm happy to represent almost every aspect of fandom with GMX."
The financial impact of the broad fan base drawn by the linked conventions isn't clear. But Leverett says that based on hotel occupancy — and a conservative estimate of 9,000 MTAC conventioneers spending $30 on meals, with 2,000 spending $20 on merchandise — the two festivals have a combined million-dollar impact. As Stacey Dixon notes, the fact that other larger conventions have been emboldened to come to Nashville shows that something is happening here.
Beyond spending, the conventions may have more subtle effects as the city's population and interests broaden. Last year, MTAC conventioneer Kimberly D. Wiggins remembers going to SunTrust Bank on Commerce Street the next block over and waiting in line for a teller. In front of her stood a man dressed from head to foot in black, studded with piercings. He couldn't have been happier.
"This is the one time of the year," he told Wiggins, "when I don't feel like I'm the freak in the room."