‘We’re tattooing doctors and lawyers.’
There didn’t seem to be much tattooing going on at The Smile, a hip coffee shop on Bond Street in Manhattan, where I’d heard you could get some skin art along with your carrot cake. I liked the 1900s boarding house style of the place, with its exposed brickwork and scuffed floorboards, dried flowers on the mantelpiece and shelves cluttered with empty bottles of Cutty Sark and old Sclafani tomato cans. I even enjoyed the soundtrack of John Denver singing ‘Take me home, country roads’. But I couldn’t hear the penetrating whine of the tattooist’s needle.
Turned out I was too late: the tattoo parlour had been dismantled, and The Smile was now a straightforward café. This was a shame, as I’d planned to use its existence as proof that tattoos had gone mainstream. No longer underground, or even particularly rebellious, they’d been subsumed by the beauty industry, sported by actresses and models with the same insouciance as jewellery and cosmetics, as easy to come by as hair extensions or false nails.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. I had better luck at my next destination, New York Adorned, a combination jewellery boutique and tattoo studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The operation was founded in 1996 by Lori Leven, who is officially a jewellery designer but also something of a legend in tattoo circles, having always combined the two arts in a single space. ‘Tattoos are far more acceptable now than when we started out,’ she confirms. ‘We’re tattooing doctors and lawyers. I think this began with fashion: people like Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen putting tattoo prints on clothing. People wore them and felt empowered. A tattoo makes a strong statement. After that, there was a logical next step.’
Leven was born in Queens and is a New Yorker through and through – when she spent some time in Los Angeles, she missed her home town so much that she moved quickly back. She remembers the first tattoo she ever saw up close. ‘I must have been eight or nine when my cousin came to dinner at my grandmother’s house for dinner with a rose tattooed on her shoulder. Everyone went crazy.’
A few years later, as a teenager hanging out at the beach, she spotted a middle-aged woman with a butterfly tattooed on her hip. That’s what I want, she thought. Legally, you were supposed to wait until you were 18. ‘But I stole my sister’s ID and got it done.’
Few people stop at one. Chris O’Donnell, a respected tattoo artist working at New York Adorned when I met him, got his first relatively simple, tribal design as ‘a natural progression from skateboarding and punk rock’. He was elated by the experience. ‘The first thing I thought of when I woke up every morning was that I had this piece of art on my skin. I wanted to relive that experience. I wanted more – I wanted bigger.’
When Lori Leven returned from her stint in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, she noticed a lot of tattoos around, mostly of the tribal style evoked by O’Donnell. This was interesting, because tattooing was illegal in New York City until 1997 – there were fears that it spread hepatitis. Yet New York had always been a hub of the art. The very first rotary machine was patented in the city. (There are two basic types of tattoo machine: rotary, which uses an electric motor to drive the needle into the skin, and coil, which uses an electromagnetic circuit and is based on the same principle as a doorbell. Coil machines are considered more modern, easier to use and less traumatic, but the rotary models have their fans.)
Leven knew several tattooists – she uses the term ‘tattooers’ – who were working informally out of their apartments. She rounded them up into a collective called East Side Ink, operating out of a three-bedroom apartment near St Mark’s Place. ‘I imagined it as a place where people could hang out, exchange ideas, just officialize this whole scene. The landlord hated it because people were always stomping up and down the stairs.’ By now, though, Leven and friends knew they were on to something. They opened a jewellery store with, concealed out back, a tattoo parlour: a speakeasy that served ink instead of hooch. Located on 2nd Avenue, it was the first iteration of New York Adorned.
‘It must have been the worst kept secret in New York,’ Leven laughs. ‘Everyone knew about it. We tattooed all the cops in the ninth precinct. They didn’t see it as their problem.’
Another famous New York tattoo artist, Jonathan Shaw, opened a shop with a sign outside reading ‘Cappuccino & Tattoo’. He stayed in business, which demonstrated the level of concern about the issue. Today, Leven’s operation is fully licensed and subject to regular checks by the city’s Board of Health.
Despite the fact that she’s now legal, Leven continues to design and sell jewellery. Her work sits perfectly alongside the exotic tattoo designs papering the studio, which seem to take their cues from the world’s more colourful cultures. She adores India and travels there often. ‘People sometimes assume my jewellery is directly related to body piercing, which is not the case. The body piercing trend was at its height in the mid-90s. We had a piercing shop in the East Village and they were doing a hundred piercings a day. But now it’s calmed down.’
Tattoos, though, are more popular than ever. At the time of my visit there’s a trend for getting text written on the skin. ‘Some people ask for entire poems. It’s a tricky one because skin is of course an entirely different medium to paper. Try tattooing a verse in copperplate on somebody’s ribs, for example.’
As for O’Donnell, he specializes in beautiful, richly coloured Japanese-style tattoos that take up entire blocks of body: imagine golden tigers or giant gem-coloured snakes rippling across a back or a torso. ‘But it doesn’t have to be big,’ he insists. ‘I just want to work on things I enjoy. People come in; we talk about their idea. These days, people know the kind of work I do, so they’ve thought about it beforehand.’
If he doesn’t like the sound of your project, he’ll politely turn you down. This isn’t some backstreet operation where you can get the name of your partner, pet or favourite rock star tattooed on your bicep – or even a Louis Vuitton logo.
Tattoos come out of the parlour
In 2011, luxury brand Louis Vuitton launched an online video featuring tattoo artist Scott Campbell. The three-part ‘day in the life of’ video was essentially a lengthy advertisement for a collaboration between Campbell and Louis Vuitton menswear designer Paul Helbers, who’d invited the ink maestro to work on prints for scarves, shirts, pants and even bags. Campbell – who is also a contemporary artist – was happy to oblige.
Scott Campbell is often held responsible for the ascension of the tattoo from a symbol of rebellion to one of status. He opened his first studio, Saved Tattoo, in Brooklyn in 2004. He has since tattooed models Helena Christensen and Lily Cole, the late actor Heath Ledger and fashion designer Vera Wang, among others. Marc Jacobs – who designs women’s wear for Vuitton – is a regular client: Campbell has inked him with such idiosyncratic adornments as the cartoon character Sponge Bob and a Simpson’s caricature of the designer himself. By 2009, when Campbell briefly moved his operation to the basement of The Smile café, he was charging US$300 an hour for his services (‘Manhattan ink: tat master Scott Campbell needles the stars’, New York Observer, 17 March 2009).
Inevitably, Campbell is described as a ‘celebrity tattoo artist’ – something that doesn’t seem to irk him. ‘All of a sudden, fashion is appropriating something that’s been near and dear to me for so many years,’ he told Papermag.
A lot of tattoo artists get defensive about it because tattooing is one of those things that you really have to commit to and devote yourself to completely… To have it appropriated by fashion and the mainstream media, there is a part of me that wants to say, ‘wait a minute, this is MY world,’ but at the end of the day, it’s not mine. With more exposure only comes greater understanding and appreciation, and I don’t think that could ever be a bad thing.
Campbell must also be given credit for seeing beyond the backroom clichés of the tattoo parlour.
Once I opened my own space and created this environment that was a little more forward-thinking and creative, a lot of these people who always wanted to get tattooed but didn’t want to deal with the sweaty biker shops responded to it. If there’s one tattoo shop in town that stands out for being different or a little more innovative, people gravitate toward that, especially people in a creative industry. (‘The unofficial tattoo artist of the “fashion folks”’, 3 September 2010)
In fact, another name may have had even more impact on the adoption of tattoos by the mainstream. In 2004, the French fashion entrepreneur Christian Audigier licensed the rights to produce the Ed Hardy clothing line, inspired by the imagery of a famous San Francisco tattoo artist. Thanks to Audigier’s knack for marketing – opening stores in fashionable districts and sending free product to celebrities – tattoo T-shirts were soon cropping up on everyone from Madonna to Paris Hilton.
Don Ed Hardy is a fascinating character in his own right. He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1960s, where he became skilled at intaglio etching – a printmaking technique that involves engraving images into a metal plate. But he’d been fascinated by tattooing since his childhood in the beach town of Corona del Mar in Orange County, California. ‘By ten he was drawing cars and eagles on kids’ arms with wet coloured pencils and Maybelline eyeliner’, reports the San Francisco Chronicle (‘Don Ed Hardy’s tattoos are high art and big business’, 30 September 2006). He borrowed ideas from tattoo catalogues advertised on the back of Popular Mechanics and the tattoos he saw on guys in wanted posters on post office walls.
As an adult he learned the trade at an Oakland tattoo shop run by Phil Sparrow, a former literature teacher who’d become a devotee of skin art. It was thanks to Sparrow that Hardy discovered Japanese ‘full body’ tattoos. In 1973 he became the first Westerner to apprentice with the Japanese master Horihide, where he ‘painted and pierced the skins of a number of the Japanese gangsters known as Yakuza’. Hardy also admires the late tattoo artist Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, who earned his nickname conducting tours of the Hawaiian islands in a three-mast schooner. Born in 1911, ‘Jerry first tried tattooing as a teenager by hand-poking designs on willing customers with whatever supplies he came across while hitchhiking and hopping freight trains across America. He landed in Chicago in the 1920s and connected with his first formal teacher, the legendary Gib “Tatts” Thomas, who taught Jerry how to use a tattoo machine’ (www.sailorjerry.com).
Who taught ‘Tatts’ I don’t know – possibly a pirate. He left his home in New Orleans at the age of 14 to travel the world. There is something about a tattoo that evokes voyage: mariners and drifters, shore leave in the South Pacific. The very word comes from the Polynesian ‘tatau’. As Hardy says, ‘the oral history of tattoos is fantastic’; he has published a number of books on the subject. He believes the urge to get a tattoo is ‘primal’: ‘Based on the evidence, the frozen mummies, the oldest members of our species had tattoos.’
Tattoos have been used as brands in the most literal sense: the tagging of slaves or convicts; the chill grey procession of Nazi concentration camp numerals. They have also been marks of courage, talismans against the evil eye, and declarations of love. And of course they are tribal, symbols of belonging, which is no doubt why they appeal to the fashion crowd.
Although Hardy still runs the Tattoo City shop in San Francisco, he retired from tattooing some time ago to concentrate on painting and printmaking. His ability to combine the worlds of high and low art, not to mention a savvy sense of branding, helped to bring the intricate craft of tattooing to a wider public.
The notional permanence of tattoos means that getting one is still a radical act. A tattoo hints at daring and creativity. As Scott Campbell implies, tattoos made it into the mainstream via creative professionals and people who wished to emulate them. It’s easy to imagine the frisson a doctor or a lawyer might get from the thought of the tattoo secreted beneath a conservative façade. But the ability of a tattoo to shock may be gone within a generation. In 2007, a Pew Research Center survey suggested that 40 per cent of Americans aged between 26 and 40 have a tattoo; and 36 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds have one. The figures indicate that, for some people, getting a tattoo may be an early manifestation of mid-life crisis.
For those who want to follow the trend without getting ink under their skin, temporary tattoos are everywhere. Even Chanel offers ‘exclusive, individual temporary tattoos, referencing iconic Chanel symbols and codes, hand drawn by global creative director of makeup Peter Philips’.
But what if you decide to go for it – to get the real thing? Lori Leven of New York Adorned has words of advice. ‘You probably won’t get just one, so plan ahead – think about what the end result might be and how you’re going to get there. This is not a casual decision; it’s going to affect your life, so treat it accordingly. Above all, never be trendy. Always get something tattooed on you that’s timeless.’