To hear Bill Canales tell it, he was first inspired at a 7-11 in El Paso, Texas. In the early '90s, his friend worked the graveyard shift at the convenience store, so Canales would hang around eating the hotdogs and reading the magazines—particularly Tattoo Flash, which launched in 1993 to exhibit tattoos as artwork.“It had all these things that I'd never seen before,” says Canales. “Growing up in El Paso, the tattoos that I did see were really crude, really just horrible things that were not very artistic. I didn't know what was possible at all. Then, when I saw this magazine, the stuff that they had inside of it totally blew my mind so I thought, ‘I've got to look into this. This is artistic, I could see something in there.'”Canales went on to enter Tattoo Flash's drawing contest, and he won. With the $100 prize, he bought a tattoo kit and gave himself his first tattoo, admittedly having no idea what he was doing. He practiced using the machine on his friends, but couldn't get the hang of it. Instead, he dedicated himself to designing and drawing until working up the courage to go to a shop.  “I knew of a street in El Paso called Dyer Street and that's where all the bad stuff happened, so of course the tattoo shops are there,” Canales says. “I didn't know what questions to ask, I was just hoping I'd be able to get some type of enlightenment there.” He left with a job and the platform to build a relationship with his first mentor, who showed him the rowdy inlets of El Paso. “It was more of a lifestyle that I was trying to live, going out every night, just doing the bad stuff that you're not supposed to do at that age with a lot of money in El Paso,” Canales says. “He was a wild man to be with because at that age, I was just a young kid... I needed that to really understand who I was, and I knew I wasn't that, so it was an awakening. I needed to be more focused, more business-oriented, more family-oriented; I don't want that wild life anymore. It's not productive at all. It's fun, but it's not necessary.”Through that job, Canales attended his first tattoo convention, which was held by his mentor. There he learned the power of networking and took up an invite to Holland to pursue his interest in Japanese-inspired tattoos. After a whirlwind of moves across the U.S., he settled in San Diego to work at Avalon Tattoo in Pacific Beach, arguably the best tattoo shop of the era. Later he began working at Flying Panther and in 2008, he finally opened his own shop, Full Circle, in Ocean Beach before moving to its current home in South Park.“We've been here ever since, and that's it,” Canales says. “I don't want to be any place else.”Ten years later, he's following in his mentor's footsteps by launching his own convention, the San Diego Tattoo Invitational, which takes place downtown at Golden Hall May 4 through May 6. However, Canales has a vision that deviates from how others have produced tattoo conventions. “There was a convention here years ago, I won't say their name, but it was just like, ‘this is what we've got? In San Diego?,'” remembers Canales. “It was just a free-for-all, embarrassing. There's amazing talent here, there's amazing talent that wants to come here. I mean, this is San Diego, who doesn't want to come here for at least a weekend? So I thought about it for a long time like someone has to do it. So I realized one day that I could do it.”He says the key is for the convention to be hosted by artists, for artists. “Conventions are usually like a circus act. They've got suspensions over here, fire-breathing over here, a petting zoo there. We're not a circus, this is a legitimate art form. Why does it have to be treated like some kind of sideshow? We're not a sideshow. Artists are raising the bar and people need to see that.”Also, few conventions host international artists, he says. “It happened once here and it was in ‘92 at the Bahia, and that was an amazing convention that everybody talks about even to this day.”For the San Diego Tattoo Invitational, Canales hand-selected more than 250 artists, including about 10 from San Diego and the rest from around the world. Each of them he either knows personally or is connected with. “All of these artists are just the top of the food chain in the industry,” Canales says. “I had to start inviting them about a year ago or so just because they're so booked out. They were all super grateful and wanted to come, so now the pressure's on to make it great.” His goal is to consistently have people getting tattooed, ensuring the artists are busy at their craft for attendees to observe or partake in. There will also be competitions in which people can enter their tattoos to win categories such as “best sleeve,” “best ornamental or tribal” and “best overall.” The convention has also teamed up with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for another contest: Five breast cancer survivors who have undergone mastectomies will be gifted a free chest piece or 3D nipple tattooing by local specialist Shane Wallin of Garnet Tattoo. Plus three-day pass buyers are entered into a contest to win sleeve work by Canales himself. For artists only, there will be workshops devoted to dragon design and composition, and another on oil painting, which Canales says more tattoo artists are experimenting with. “Artists see a lack of good shows that are happening and that's all that they want is a good show,” Canales says. “They don't want to go to sideshows and hear this horrible MC all day. They just want to be in this environment that is just art-based. This show is trying to be that way, and I think it will be.”