If you can believe it, from 1961 to 1997, there was a prohibition of tattooing in New York City. Despite the fact that this city was the birthplace of tattooing in America and that residents Thomas Edison, Samuel O’Reilly, and Charles Wagner contributed to the creation of the tattoo machine still used today, the art form and its artists, were driven underground for nearly forty years. This history of the ban, as well as a discussion about tattooing today in New York City, is the focal point of a storytelling show called Illegal Ink: The Bizarre History of the NYC Tattoo Ban on Sunday night, September 30th, at 7:00pm. The show will take place at Caveat, a speakeasy for intelligent nightlife on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that served and continues to be the epicenter of New York’s tattoo culture. Members of Untapped Cities Insiders can attend this event for free!
Christa Avampato, the producer and host of the event, got interested in the art of tattooing when someone close to her was seriously injured in an accident and found a profound sense of healing by getting tattooed. “Earlier this year, I started learning about the tattoo ban here in New York,” she said. “I thought I would put it into New York City’s Secrets & Lies, a storytelling show I run at Caveat about secret New York City history. I realized the storytelling of this era and in this community was so vivid that it could be its own standalone show. Every story I read led me to another and another and another. And certain names kept popping up over and over again. Mike and Mehai Bakaty, and their shop, Fineline Tattoo, were everywhere in my research.”
Under the guidance of his father, renowned tattooer Mike Bakaty, Mehai started tattooing when he was 15 years old in the family’s apartment at 295 Bowery during the ban. He went pro at the age of 18 and never looked back. (295 Bowery itself was a historic building even before Fineline originally operated there. In the 1800s it was the site of McGurk’s Saloon, the most notorious bar on the Bowery!) The Bakatys and Fineline are towering figures in New York City history. Fineline is the oldest continuously operating shop in New York, and the sense of history that lives there is palpable the moment you walk in the door.
“I was nervous to meet Mehai for the first time,” Christa said. “I’m very much a newcomer to learning about tattooing here in the city, and I know it’s a complex community that’s changed a lot over the year. The history is so rich, and I really wanted everyone I met in the community, especially Mehai, to know that I honor and respect what they do, and the legacy they carry.”
Luckily, Mehai is an easy, generous person to talk to and is very open about his career and the history of Fineline. “I grew up in the tattoo community,” Mehai told Christa. “And working side-by-side with my dad, I really got to know him as an artist. Our shop has always been a place where all kinds of people come together. A cop in this chair, an ex-con in that chair. Here everyone’s equal, and that relationship that forms between the tattooer and the person being tattooed is a big part of the work.”
After meeting Mehai, Christa made her way to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to talk to Stephanie Tamez at her shop, Saved Tattoo. Stephanie was interested in learning more about the Illegal Ink show, and Christa was hoping she’d accept her invitation to be in the show to talk about the important, and often overlooked, role of women in New York’s tattoo history. Saved, which Stephanie runs with her wife and tattoo artist, Virginia Elwood, is a beautiful example of the fusion of the art, science, and soul inherent in tattooing.
“When I met Stephanie, I definitely felt like we were kindred spirits because she’s so passionate about history and storytelling, just like me,” Christa said. They talked about how tattoo artists learn from one another, and how travel plays a significant role in the lives of many tattooers from a personal and professional perspective. “The history and the inspiration we get from each other as artists, that’s the heart of the tattoo community all over the world,” Stephanie said.
Illegal Ink also includes two talented and passionate photographers, John Wyatt and Efrain John Gonzalez. John Wyatt is recognized as one of, if not the, most prolific tattoo photographers in New York City. His book, Under My Skin, was made over the course of more than 25 years, and will be available for purchase at the show.
“Tattooing has held a life-long fascination for me since my early teenage years,” said John. “In 1977 I began photographing heavily tattooed people in their own environments. I wanted the viewer to see the subjects as people, hear their stories, which are in their own words and, hopefully gain a different insight about tattooed people than the generalized and stereotypical viewpoint that the majority of the population and media held.”
John will also share stories about his decades-long friendship with tattooer Thom DeVita, the first tattoo artist in Alphabet City who opened up his shop after the ban went into effect. Thom has had a lasting influence on many tattoo artists in the country.
Efrain John Gonzalez is a photographer and tour guide who leads walking tours about the nightlife and clubs of the Meatpacking District from the 1970s to the 1990s. A walk with him is a journey underground into the secret, and now vanished, side of New York City nightlife history. Part of Efrain’s work involved amassing an enormous archive of heavily tattooed people, tattoo artists, and the tattoo shops that were a part of the Meatpacking scene during that time. His book, Ink and Steel, will be available for purchase at the show.
“For the past 30 years has been seeking real life images that tells a story of people finding the path to their souls with tattoos and body modification,” he said. “These images show the desire, passion, and need to transform the human body into a living canvas, a personal medium that each individual can transform beyond the ordinary.”
In addition to these personal stories and histories, this event will also feature live tattooing onsite at Caveat. You can buy a ticket for the show or a combo ticket that also includes a tattoo from flash sheets provided by the onsite artists.
Caveat is located on the Lower East Side at 21A Clinton Street.
Illegal Ink: The Bizarre History of the NYC Tattoo Ban
Sunday, September 30th
Doors open at 6:30pm, show starts at 7:00pm, 21+
General admission ticket: $15 in advance / $20 at the door. Ticket plus tattoo: $40. Untapped Cities Insiders can attend this event for free (no tattoo ticket option).
Next, read our previous profile on Fineline Tattoos along with the History of Tattoo on the Lower East Side.