Believe it or not, there was a time in the Big Apple when running a tattoo shop was as illicit an endeavor as operating a brothel thanks to a 36-year ban on the trade which finally came to an end in 1997 when the City Council brought the art form out of dingy and poorly-lit backrooms and into the well-maintained and professional studios people have come to expect today.
With the legality of getting tattooed no longer a problem, the next hurdle for those wanting to add flourishes to their skin involves not only choosing something that they can live with for a lifetime, but also finding both an artist and a tattoo shop capable of providing a safe, trustworthy and as pain-free a process as humanly possible.
Inked Magazine noted in 2015 that there were 277 tattoo parlors operating in New York City’s five boroughs. With each individual shop then having several artists on hand, people have been forced to consider thousands of different variables and techniques for one single tattoo.
Have no fear. We’ve sifted through the imagery, artists, and aesthetics of the shops themselves and settled on a list of five places that should be on your radar should you find yourself in New York City and become inspired to add a little ink to your skin.
Smith Street Tattoo Parlour
Specialty: American traditional
Bert Krak opened up Smith Street Tatoo Parlour in Brooklyn in 2008 alongside fellow artist/owners Steve Boltz and Eli Quinters – with artist Dan Santoro coming on board shortly after.
Unlike other shops where artists are insulated and only focus on their own work, the foursome is very much invested in the techniques and executions of their shopmates.
“Almost every tattoo that gets done – good or bad – we show off to each other,” Santoro says. “I think it’s a really good thing. I’ve worked in shops where I couldn’t even tell you the last tattoo that I saw of an artist for months. You kind of work in your corner of the shop, finish the tattoo, put a bandage on it, ‘see ya’ later.’ There’s no fun in that. I wanna see it. I wanna see what you’re doing. I wanna see if you did something that I should have been thinking about.”
When asked what makes a good tattoo, Krak said, “Clean outline, proper amount of black, proper amount of skin highlights. Something that you can tell what it looks like from five feet away, so you don’t have to get right on top of it to see what it is.”
For those wanting something that harken back to the days when tattoos truly represented the counter-culture, look not further than Smith St.
East Side Ink
Specialty: Traditional, photorealistic, black and grey
Having first opened in 1992, East Side Ink’s existence predates the New York City Council vote which made tattooing legal.
Their roster of award-winning talent – including Josh Lord who has been described as, “If Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Darwin had a love child and that kid took up tattooing” – all have a range of specialities which include traditional, photorealistic and black and grey.
The Village Voice noted, “East Side’s artists sling some of the most masterful, inventive custom ink in town.”
For those that need a popular culture/celebrity reason to pay a visit, East Side Ink has also proven to be Rihanna’s favorite place in New York City to get a tattoo and even got the shop in a little hot water in 2009 when she assumed the role of tattooer despite not having a license.
Kings Avenue Tattoo
Specialty: Traditional Japanese, American traditional, religious
Boasting a shop on Long Island and Manhattan, Kings Avenue Tattoo features 12 permanent artists and notable guests like Juan Puente and Tim Hendricks.
The owner, Mike Rubendall, has been called one of the city’s “Top Inkers” by New York Magazine who noted that his style and aesthetic is the result of meticulous research which not only makes the tattoo aesthetically pleasing, but that it also fits in with the mythology of Eastern tattoo attributes.
“If you’re doing a sleeve, you wouldn’t mix cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums,” he says. “If you’re going to do it, you should do it correctly, and with respect for the culture.”
Those that score an appointment with Rubendall – which often takes a year to secure – can rest assured knowing that the design you get will never repeated on anyone else.
“I will never do the same design twice unless its a logo or a special circumstance,” he says. “I will not duplicate someone else’s tattoo.”
Three Kings Tattoo
Specialty: American traditional, photorealism, text, Japanese, coverups
As the name suggests, the “Three Kings” references the shop’s owners: Matt Marcus, Alex McWatt and Myles Karr who have a roster of 16 other artists who make up their two studios in Greenpoint and the East Village.
Lauded for their professionalism and commitment to quality, it has been called one of the “best tattoo shops in Brooklyn for first-timers” thanks to their terrific “bed-side manner.”
Specialty: American traditional, Japanese traditional, Polynesian, single needle
Like East Side Ink, Daredevil Tattoo has been engrained in tattoo culture in New York City from the moment that it became legal to run a shop.
Co-owned by Michelle Myers and Brad Fink, they were forced to relocate from their original location on the Lower East Side in favor of new digs in the Chatham Square section of the Bowery.
In additional to quality work you’d expect from a shop that is continuously on “best of” lists as it relates to tattooing, Daredevil is also committed to honoring the past traditions and history of the art form with a unique museum that runs alongside the actual business.
The collection features artifacts from the early roots of modern tattooing with original artwork by Samuel O’Reilly, Bert Grimm, August “Cap” Coleman, George Burchett and Sailor Jerry as well tattoo artifacts like antique tattoo machines, original photos, news articles and sideshow banners.
For more tattoo coverage, check out our profile on hand-poke tattoo master Grace Neutral and veteran of the industry, George Bone.
- featured/main image: https://www.instagram.com/mauzaid/
- Smith Street Photos: flickr.com, nytimes.com, ootibilleaud.com, instagram.com/steveboltz
- East Side Ink Photos: instagram.com/paul_henri_doppia, instagram.com/mauzaid, instagram.com/laurenkoger
- Kings Avenue Tattoo Photos: davidadriansmith.com, flashtattoodesign.blogspot.de, kingsavenuetattoo.com/
- Three Kings Tattoo Photos: bedfordandbowery.com, notintentonarriving.com, imgur.com
- Daredevil Tattoo Photos: th-ink.co.uk, yelp.com, animalnewyork.com