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Volume 73, Number 29 | November 19 - 25, 2003

Young tattoo artists etch out a niche in the Village

By Jessica Mintz

Villager photos by Ramin Talaie

Twace Martinez gave Ulrika McKenith a tattoo of a lotus flower and the Indian sign of ohm at Village Pop on Sixth Ave.

In a recent commercial for the American Music Awards, headliner names like Kid Rock and Madonna appeared as tattoos inked across a bikini-clad woman’s body. In Saks Fifth Avenue, the latest line of Isabella Fiore handbags sports tattoo-style motifs.

It’s official: Tattoos are everywhere.

That’s what the City Council thought, too, when they passed a law in 1997 to re-legalize tattooing in the city, formally ending the 36-year outlaw period imposed by the Department of Health in 1961, when an outbreak of hepatitis B was traced to a tattoo parlor.

Former Councilmember Kathryn Freed recalls the logic behind the law. “Everyone knew that there were all these tattoo parlors around, but because they weren’t legal, they weren’t regulated. It seemed to me that in the age of not only AIDS but of hepatitis, what they really needed to have done was to have someone regulating them.”

The Council and D.O.H. agreed that tattooing should be licensed, and that sanitary practices needed to be uniform and enforced, but they disagreed on the forum. The health code banned tattooing in the first place. But when the City Council forged ahead with Local Law 12 of 1997, the health code was modified to support the legislation.

Since then, tattoo parlors have erupted all over Downtown. Six hundred licenses were granted to individual tattoo artists in 2002 alone. In recent years, fewer than 10 complaints have been registered with D.O.H. per year.

Some tatoo parlors, like Sacred Tattoo on Canal St. and Rising Dragon on W. 23rd St., are internationally known, run by artists who came up during the tattoo “prohibition era.” And some, like the strip of neon-lit shops on Sixth Ave. below Cornelia St., are home to a new generation of tattoo artists who are cutting their teeth amidst adult merchandise, pot pipes and piercing stations, popularizing the bold lines of their street-inspired style.

Wes Wood, owner of the top-rated Sacred Tattoo and Bowery Tattoo shops, remembers the ’80s underground scene.

“We were just learning, tattooing ourselves,” Wood says. “When we started, there weren’t even any tattoo magazines.” At first, he posted no signs or advertising. Eventually, he became bold enough to advertise in papers like the Village Voice and take out listings in the phone book.

Clayton Patterson, who led the New York Tattoo Society (a tattoo artists’ collective) from 1986 to 1997, says that legalization changed the business a lot. “On a certain level, tattooing had a greater mystique and a whole kind of uniqueness about it. Tattoos now are, like, really common. You go into the youth culture now, nobody even questions tattooing.”

The good news for the business, he says, is that since it “reached mainstream status, it’s in a place now where it deals with quality, rather than, ‘Oh, it’s a tattoo.’ The stigma has disappeared.… Now it’s about having a work of art.”

For a while, the semantics of the business reflected the skills of the artist. “It used to be in the ’50s to maybe the ’70s, there were tattooers. They were anonymous,” says Wood. “Then they became tattooists in the ’70s and ’80s. Then they became tattoo artists.… Instead of becoming a workman, he became an artist.”

Now, says Wood, “because so many people have entered into it, there’s a tattoo shop on every block.… Tattooing has moved away from being something special, and is becoming more of a commercial commodity.”

For some of the tattoo artists who work in the lit-up storefronts on Sixth Ave., being a commodity is part of the journey, though definitely not the destination.

In Village Pop, 333 Sixth Ave., “Tatu” Paul Arcee, 31, and Twace Martinez, 34, pal around in the back of the shop where black swivel chairs sit empty on a chilly November evening.

“I did two apprenticeships, one in Long Island and one in Florida, and I did a lot [of tattooing] in Queens,” says Arcee, whose tattooing mantra is “bold will always hold.”

“We always keep doing the best. That’s what this shop is — to push our limits. I travel a lot, go to Europe, try to educate myself,” says Arcee, whose shaved head and shiny black boots give him a London-meets-Brooklyn look. “It’s like going to school.”

Still, in the competitive commodity age, tattooing profits change with the season. Arcee puts it best: “In the summer I can eat nice. Wintertime, I eat my ramen noodles.”

With all the butterfly-adorned ankles in New York, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that an artist might get annoyed by daily copycat flash work, but Arcee says he never gets bored. “I always try to change things a little for them, so everyone can have something original.”

Martinez agrees, and gives even the simplest tattoo 100 percent. “The world is small,” he says. “You could be on a train, someone might recognize you.… You want them to say, ‘Hey, that’s the guy who hooked me up,’ rather than, ‘Hey, that’s the guy who ruined my arm.’ ”

Martinez was doing piercing in a shop on St. Mark’s Pl. when he met a man named Calvin who, the way Martinez puts it, just knew Martinez was meant to tattoo. When Calvin passed away, Martinez inherited his tattoo equipment. “I did my first tattoo, and fell in love,” says Martinez.

As Wood says, everyone needs to practice on flesh. Martinez is now on the other side of the age-old apprentice/mentor relationship. In July, he agreed to take on Ulrika McKenith, a 33-year-old Swedish woman who taught school, welded, fixed cars and broke horses before deciding that she wanted to learn to tattoo.

Martinez teaches her everything, including the local history of tattooing on Coney Island and the Bowery, international and tribal traditions, as well as the mechanics of the business — assembling a machine, using different needles and inking techniques.

“I could probably take the machine and do it, but I represent him,” says McKenith, whose blond hair spills below her black ski cap and onto her “Swedish Viking” T-shirt. “He’s going to give me parts to a machine,” and when she can put it together by herself, she’ll be ready to tattoo someone, she says.

“I don’t want to just hang around in the shop,” says McKenith. “I want to be really, really good.” In the meantime, she’s paying what will be thousands of dollars to study with Martinez, in the hope that she’ll learn enough to open her own shop in Sweden, where tattoos are hot but tattoo parlors are relatively scarce.

Down the block a few doors, at Whatever Tattoo, Carlos Gonzales, 25, and Steve Kane, 31, have to edge down a steep flight of stairs to reach their tiny two-room tattoo studio.

Gonzales is from Puerto Rico, where tattooing is still taboo. He laughs about grandmothers who protect their grandchildren — and their purses — from him when he walks down the street. He shows off a book of his own drawings, gory and full of bulging eyes and monsters.

“Since I was little, I loved ghost stories, creepy stuff, horror movies,” says Gonzales, 25, who sports an all-black outfit and small hollow plugs in his ears. His own style hasn’t limited the scope of his arts education — he lists as influences an odd trinity of Dali, Picasso and H.R. Geiger, a hero to many tattoo artists and best known outside the tattoo world as the designer of the “Alien” movie creatures.

Even though he says that “the Village is a zoo,” and that his customers range from 18-year-old kids to nurses, lawyers and even a 70-year-old woman who came with her whole family to have a rose tattooed on her breast, the lack of originality in tattooing frustrates him.

“I feel like they’re buying furniture,” he says, and then, in an ultra-exasperated tone, “It’s for life. But they don’t understand.”

Kane, waxing philosophical, says that tattoos are “the only art you get to take with you when you go.” But he and Gonzales say they both do a lot of cover-ups — names of former girlfriends or boyfriends, or faded or poorly done tattoos.

“Now there are so many more bad tattooists out there,” says Kane, showing off on his arm the tattoo he designed after Sept. 11 — a bomb, inscribed with “9/11 NYC — Return to Sender.”

Customers have also started to seek out the better artists and demand original tattoos, instead of just wanting a tattoo for tattoo’s sake. Martinez and Arcee are hopeful that talented tattoo artists will “wash out the scratchers and the hackers” who have no interest in bettering their skills, and are only in the business for the cash.

A tattoo artist’s education is never over, says Martinez, moving to a back room to work on tracing and enhancing a tattoo he’s about to do. He says that lately he’s been practicing new coloring techniques, and hopes to break into the international tattoo convention circuit soon — generally invitation-only affairs. “I really want to expand,” he says. “I don’t want to be one of those kids who works in a small shop forever,” too intimidated to show their work in the real world.

In the front of the store, Arcee rolls up his sleeve to reveal a colorful Virgin Mary and a lucky horseshoe, working together to ward off an evil diving swallow.

“All bad things are attacking me, but I’m protected,” says Arcee. “All this stuff means something.”


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