Once-Dying Art of Tattooing, Vibrantly Alive Around New York City
In the early 1950’s when he was just 13 years old, Mike Bakaty, 74, got his first tattoo for only 50 cents of his name on his arm, basically “out of boredom.” When he was in the Navy he got even more tattoos because “that’s what sailors did.”
In 1970 he moved to New York City – the birthplace of modern tattooing. “Tattooing in New York City in the 70’s was essentially a dying art,” said Bakaty. The fact that this tattoo culture was dying out is primarily what got him interested in the world of tattooing.
Bakaty opened Fineline Tattoo in 1976 during the midst of the underground atmosphere of New York City’s ban on tattooing, which was in effect from 1961 to 1997. The New York City Health Department ordered that all city tattoo parlors had to close down due to an alleged series of blood-borne hepatitis B cases linked to tattooing in the late 1950’s.
Instead of closing down, New York City tattoo artists began to operate underground for 36 years, in secret backrooms and loft apartments until the ban was lifted in 1997.
“Tattooing wasn’t as out in the open as it is today – I was aware of probably six to eight tattooists working in New York City, Brooklyn, the Tatoo_mikeUse Bronx, and Queens and they all worked underground,” said Bakaty. “When I started tattooing in 1976 there were probably 500 tattoo artists in the whole country,to tell you the truth,” he said.
Today tattooing has developed into an art form as opposed to a stigma that was once associated with those in the realm of macho male drunken sailors, outlaw bikers, thugs, and criminals. People who are inked agree that some stereotypes associated with tattooing still persist, but because of the exposure that tattooing has gotten through the media, Hollywood, rock stars, celebrities ranging from Johnny Depp to Lady Gaga, and kitschy tattoo television programs like LA Ink or Miami Ink, it no longer is considered taboo or deviant to get a tattoo.
But when Bakaty started tattooing in New York City, the tattoo taboo very much existed. Bakaty recalled that from the 1940’s up until the mid 1960’s there was virtually no sterilization, hygiene, or running water in tattoo shops – they were referred to as “bucket-shops.” The artist would tattoo next to a bucket of water with a sponge in it, and that same bucket of water and sponge were used to wipe down every tattoo the artist did that day.
In those days tattoo artists had to have a sense of how to make tubes and needles. They had to have knowledge of how the tattoo machinery worked and an understanding of the different types of pigments because tattoo supply stores were just not available the way they are today.
But these tattooists never thought about sterilization, wearing gloves, changing the needles, or even changing the cups of ink after every client. Bakaty said that when the tattoo was finished the artist would swipe a glob of Vaseline over the fresh ink and stick a piece of newspaper to it – when the newspaper fell off the tattoo was considered healed.
It was later discovered that although there was indeed a lack of sterilization in the tattoo industry, hepatitis was actually never linked to tattooing. “When tattooing started becoming popular people got concerned and they got the perception that because there is blood involved people are getting diseases – it’s that perception that drove all of this hysteria,” said Wes Wood, owner of Unimax Tattoo Supply and former tattoo artist. Wood, along with Clayton Patterson, was involved in the effort to legalize tattooing. “We just represented the interest of the tattooist,” he said.
In 1990 Wood opened up Sacred Tattoo on Broadway, right between Chinatown and SoHo, even though it was still illegal to tattoo within city limits. He held meetings every month in his fairly spacious 3000 square-foot tattoo shop in the 90’s and everyone from tattoo artists to tattoo enthusiasts attended.
Wood and Patterson were voted to be the representatives of the tattoo community and they did all the negotiating with the Health Department. Wood and Patterson also played a significant role in the organization of New York City’s first tattoo convention in May of 1997, three months after tattooing became legalized. “The Health Department didn’t put up a fight when it came time to sign the law legalizing tattooing,” said Wood.
On March 27, 1997 Mayor Giuliani signed into law the bill lifting New York’s 36-year ban on tattooing. On that day Spider Webb, a known tattoo artist during the prohibition days, stood on the steps of City Hall with a top hat and long feather plume machine ready to ink the city’s first legal tattoo in over 36 years.
Wood said that Kathryn Freed, former Lower East Side City Councilwoman and coordinator in the effort to legalize tattooing, found out in the 90’s that the Health Department knew in 1961 that tattooing did not cause any spread of hepatitis. The so-called deviant tattoo world was easy to peg for the spread of blood-borne disease.
One opposition that the Health Department had to the re-legalization bill was that they just did not have the budget or staff to carry out the licensing and inspection provisions, which were mandated by the new legislation.
“[Hepatitis] was just all over the place across the country. People didn’t know where it came from, but the popular view by the general public was that tattooing was a savage barbaric practice – it had to be that there was something psychologically wrong with you to do that to yourself,” said Wood. “The only tattooing people saw was when you went to the circus to see the freaks,” he said.
Wood first got into tattooing in 1985. After learning to tattoo he became interested in how the tattoo machinery was made. “I got a couple of tattoos – there is no reason why – it just popped into my head – I had the desire. It’s like asking why you fell in love – you don’t ask why you fell in love because that wouldn’t be a valid question – it just happened,” said Wood sternly. Today his forearms, legs, back, and chest are covered in tattoos.
The tattoo meccas of New York City during a significant portion of the 19th century were established in the Bowery of Chatham Square and in Coney Island. The rebellious tattooists that survived in New York City during the ban had to build up their clientele solely through word of mouth.
Up until the ban was lifted Bakaty of Fineline Tattoo originally operated out of a private loft in the infamous Bowery and ran ads in the Soho Weekly News even though tattooing was a violation of the health code. He relocated Fineline to 1st Avenue on the Lower East Side where he stills tattoos today alongside his son, Mehai Bakaty.
Fineline Tattoo is a small tattoo parlor with its walls lined with the Bakaty boys’ original flash art of dragons, eagles, tigers, panthers and Celtic knots. Fineline Tattoo, in business for over 30 years, is the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan.
Mehai Bakaty, 38, was introduced to the world of tattooing by the age of four. “Tattooing means the world to me,” he said. By 10 he was building his own tattoo needles and by 16 performing his first tattoo.
“The biggest difference in the tattoo industry is the homogenization of it – it used to be folk-art made by real people for real people and now it is this cookie-cutter pseudo-world elitist kind of thing,” said Mehai. “In the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s there were a lot of weirdo tattoo artists you went to in the Bowery – it wasn’t this rock and roll community, TV enterprise it is today – it’s kind of interesting how tattooing had to be destroyed in order for it to come back to life,” he said.
Tattooing in the United States all began in New York City in 1846 when Martin Hildebrant, a German immigrant, opened the first American tattoo shop on Oak Street in Lower Manhattan. In 1891, New Yorker Samuel O’ Reilly invented the first electric tattoo machine, which was a modification of Thomas Edison’s perforating pen transforming tattooing into a quicker, more attractive process even though the pain one goes through to get a tattoo will never dissipate.
“It started in the 1980’s when tattooing was becoming a new artistic view – people wanted to disassociate their selves with the American view,” said Wood who grew up in Long Island in the 50’s and the only tattoos he ever saw were on Popeye. “America began to see good people had tattoos. When we saw Roseann Barr on television with a portrait on her chest that blew everyone away,” said Wood.
It used to be a rarity to see a woman with tattoos and now women make up half the clientele for most tattoo artists.
By the 1980’s tattooing became an integral part of society – it was no longer part of a subculture. In 1981 MTV, an American network based in New York City that was the first 24-hour music video cable channel, took over the air waves and had a prominent impact on the music industry and popular culture. At the time many of the members of hair metal bands displayed on MTV such as Mötley Crüe, Black Sabbath, and Guns N’ Roses had obscure tattoos on their arms and torsos. Tattoo popularity only grew from there.
Tattooing in present-day New York City has done a complete 180-degree turn from where it was back in the prohibition days and even before that. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that there are currently approximately 1,900 licensed tattoo artists in New York City, which is a shockingly dramatic difference from the six to eight tattoo artists Bakaty knew of in the 70’s.
New York City has played a significantly singular role in the history of tattooing in the United States, but tattooing goes way beyond American soil.
Tattooing was also an ancient worldly practice, which was performed ceremoniously and used as a symbol representing a certain rite of passage. Ötzi, who lived around 3200 B.C, is the world’s oldest mummy and was found to have tattoos of about 60 short, parallel lines on his lower spine, right knee, and ankles.
Today tattooing has worked itself so deeply into America’s mainstream culture and people give a myriad of reasons to permanently ink their skin. Some people get tattooed to mark a turning point in their lives, to exemplify their individuality, to give “meaning” to their aesthetic, to express themselves visually, to be hip and keep up with the trends, or just because they simply like the way a tattoo looks. Whatever the reason may be, tattooing in New York City has exploded from the prohibition days into such a widespread art form that old-timer tattoo artists like Mike Bakaty would have never imagined it could be.
“Tattooing has changed because of exposure and the artwork is infinitely better because the influx of artists has gotten a lot better – of course by that same token that exposure has lead people into the world of tattooing who probably shouldn’t be within 20 yards of it,” said Mike Bakaty with a sigh of honesty.
And most people whose skin is significantly inked would agree with Bakaty.
“A lot of times people come in [to Daredevil Tattoo] indecisive about what kind of tattoo they want – they usually ask us what to get. These people clearly shouldn’t be getting a tattoo,” said Beau Brady, 27, a tattoo artist at Daredevil Tattoo on the Lower East Side.
Brady’s body is heavily inked with American traditional tattoos and Japanese style tattoos. “People used to automatically assume that I went to jail, but now people look at me and just think that I must be a tattoo artist because of what they see on these TV shows,” said Brady.
There is no doubt that television has influenced the general public’s perception of tattooing for better or for worse.
Jon Clue, 37, turned down a position to be a part of the main crew on one of the more popular LA-based tattoo television shows because he believes that “television has ruined tattooing.”
“These days I really feel that most of the people getting tattooed are just trying to compete with their friends or because they think that now tattooing is on television it will make them look like something we all know they are not,” he said.
Clue realized his love for the volatile art form of tattooing at an early age. At age 13 he tattooed a symbol for “New York hard core” on himself with black paint and an airbrush needle during school, resulting in a week of suspension.
“Tattooing is a very expressive art form and it is also an opportunity to share with the rest of the world a little bit of who you are. It definitely communicates, in a sense, to the rest of the world a little bit more of your personality, but to attach meaning behind the imagery is straight up pretentious,” said Clue.
At 15 he tactfully convinced his parents to take him to a professional tattoo studio to get his next piece done – his justification was that he would just tattoo himself again. His parents surely believed him. They wound up taking Clue to supposedly one of the best shops in Phoenix, Arizona, where he lived for a short period of time. On his right shoulder blade he got a sizable medieval style dragon with a skull in the grip of its claws.
“I have enough tattoos to cover most of my body – I like to consider it one, and one of these days it will all be unified,” said Clue. That medieval style dragon that he wanted so badly as a kid is no longer visible on his body – he got it covered up years ago.
Clue has been tattooing out of his apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York for the past two years, but his career as a tattoo artist blossomed in the summer of 1993. Clue started out tattooing as an apprentice under “Tattoo Lou” Rubino in his legendary studio in Selden, Long Island.
Rubino started his tattooing career in the early 1950’s in New York City. “Lou had a lot of interesting stories to share from the brutal days of tattooing sailors and bikers on the Bowery back in the 50’s,” said Clue. When the tattoo ban hit, many tattoo artists like Rubino moved out of the city and preceded to evolve with the art form elsewhere.
“As an art form I’d have to consider tattooing a very high honor and also a great responsibility, but at the end of the day I’m still only making pictures and to try and make it sound any more profound than that would again be very pretentious,” Clue admits.
Peter Cavorsi, 49, tattoo artist and owner of Body Art Studio in Brooklyn has been tattooing for 31 years and admits that now it is much easier to make a living tattooing than it was a couple decades ago when some tattoos were about $5.00. Cavorsi is a 31-year tattoo artist and still has the same customers from 25 years ago who were former sailors and bikers. The range of his clientele now has become more diverse. Most of his customers are women and now he even tattoos white-collar professionals like lawyers and doctors. TattoocavorsiNamed
The reason for his diverse clientele is because of society’s acceptance of tattooing. He compares tattooing to decorating a home. “Say you have a room with white walls – a lot of people like to paint things up and decorating that room would be like the equivalent to decorating your body. Some people just like white walls and nothing hanging up,” he said.
Tattooing has transformed into such a widespread and accepted culture and also plays a significant role in many peoples stages of growing up. New Yorkers who decorate their bodies usually anticipate their 18th birthday because by the time they turn 18, it is legal for them to get tattooed without parental consent.
Matt Denzler, 30, got his first tattoo on his right arm of a wizard’s upper body holding up a staff with smoke coming out of it on his 18th birthday, as planned. Denzler’s arms, right rib cage, and right lower leg are covered in tattoos ranging in themes from fantasy adventure to World War II depictions.
In honor of his grandfather, who was a waist gunner on a B-17 in World War II, Denzler got a sizeable tattoo, covering his entire right rib cage, of a B-17 bomber dropping bombs and shooting down three German FW-150 fighter planes out of the sky. His grandfather flew 12 missions and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Nazi’s in Romania. “In my eyes he is the greatest man that I have ever known and so when he died last year I knew I wanted to get a tattoo that honored him,” said Denzler.
When Denzler gets an idea for a tattoo, he simply goes out and gets it done and then his thought process about that tattoo is over. Some of his tattoos were done by Clue in his Bushwick apartment and this tattooist-tattooee relationship developed into a friendship.
“Modern day society is more accepting of everything that our older generations may have frowned upon and that is a good sign. Most of the things people looked down upon or judged people for in the past are no longer relevant in today’s society. Who really cares if a guy is covered in tattoos? He could be a doctor or a lawyer – not just a ‘punk,’” said Denzler.
As soon as Martin Hladik, 26, turned 18 he got his first tattoo on his chest of a rendition of an Aubrey Beardsley picture – a cherub strolling with a gallows over his shoulder. Although he has seven tattoos, he says he would never tattoo his face. “I use my tattoos like a map of my life. Almost all of them have a specific meaning that relates to a period in my life, and when I see them, it helps me remember,” said Hladik a Brooklyn resident.
On the other hand, Hladik believes most people get tattooed just because they think it looks good, “hence all of the terrible coy fish and tribal tattoos you see around – some people have terrible ideas of what looks good,” he adds.
Nikki Chu, 21, also waited until the legal age of 18 to get a tattoo. She admits that the only reason why she waited was because she thought if she went to a tattoo artist who follows the law she would get better work done, which she admits is not true.
At 18, Chu was very spiritual so for her first tattoo she got the symbol for the root chakra on the back of her neck. She currently has three tattoos and has plans to sleeve her arm, which is a term for a tattoo starting from the shoulder and ending at the wrist. “I feel more excitement of having something with ‘meaning’ added to my body – but I must admit that the lining process feels like a razor being dragged across my skin,” she said.
Although today’s society is definitely more accepting of tattoos, Chu still finds trouble qualifying for certain jobs at establishments like Rite Aid, Forever 21, and medical offices because of a “no tattoo policy.” She currently works as a front desk secretary in a medical office and covers up her tattoos everyday.
Dylan Giangrande, 19, got his first tattoo when he turned 18, of a classic edition of a microphone on his upper left arm. He wasted no time inking up his skin after his first tattoo. He currently has eight tattoos and more to come. “Getting work done releases a great amount of tension and creates a tone of personal stamina. Including the satisfaction of the work being completed, getting a tattoo is definitely a form of escape, expression, impulse, and hormonal or human liberation,” said Giangrande, a native New Yorker.
Giangrande agrees that modern day society is extremely accepting of people with tattoos because more and more people do it everyday, which “makes it easier for people to digest and understand it,” he said.
Anthony Lombardi, 21, is a music journalist with 14 tattoos, all of which are literary or musically affiliated. On his outer-right forearm he has tattooed “the power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it,” which is a George Bernard Shaw quote that he feels sums up his outlook on life most accurately. “I cannot be running back & forth forever between grief and high delight,” is another quote he has tattooed and it is from the novel Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger. Lombardi said he has never identified as much with a character than he does with J.D Salinger’s Zooey Glass.
“My tattoos are bits and pieces that I feel illustrate my identity and the little components that make up the pastiche of Anthony Lombardi,” he said. “Each one, I feel, represents a different facet of my character.”
LombardiarmsNamed2 The same artist has been tattooing Lombardi since the age of 18 when he got his first tattoo of a ladybug on a web between his index finger and thumb on his right hand. His grandfather, uncle, cousin, brother, and mother all have that same ladybug tattoo.
Lombardi has plans to one day “stitch” all the literary quotes on his right arm into a “quilt.” “Each patch will contain its own quote with mock-stitching encircling it, creating the illustration of a ‘quilt of literary quotes,’” he said.
“I’m assuming that frat-boy douche-bags with tattoos of tribal symbols and barbed wire and chains get tattooed to get laid, and a legion of empty-headed party girls get Asian symbols to add depth to their vapid personalities. I get tattooed because, to me, they’re the most permanent expression of any given value I may have – even if, in hindsight, it was merely fleeting, it still represents a pivotal moment of my life,” said Lombardi.
The popularity and acceptance of tattooing has undoubtedly evolved over time, but the reasons given to the meaning of a tattoo has never changed. A tattoo is a way to give your skin a permanent representation of who you are and where you’ve been, and there is always going to be a portion of the population that is going to want to get inked. Jon Clue, a Brooklyn-based tattoo artist said, “At least it’s not so shocking now to see someone with a full sleeve serving you your meal.”
Latest posts by Natalie Musumeci (see all)
- Once-Dying Art of Tattooing, Vibrantly Alive Around New York City - August 9, 2012