The TSNY (Tattoo Society Of New York) started in 1986. Here’s how it began. I saw an ad in the back of the Village Voice advertising the meetings of a tattoo club. It was called TBASNY: Tattoo and Body Art Society of NY, run by Roger Kaufman and a guy known as Mike, and it set up shop in the Sixth Sense Gallery. It turns out Roger could not keep the Club running, partly because he lived on Long Island and his own business to run. The more conservative group wanted the Club to stick to tattoos. They didn’t think other things that changed the body’s look, such as body painting, hair salons and beauty parlors, should be put together with tattooing. Note, by the way, there was a masculinity bias here against salons. As these conservatives saw it, hair salons were not barbershops. Barbershops were macho and they sat side by side with tattoo parlors in “men’s” neighborhoods, such as the Bowery. (Decades later in New York City, tattoo artist Friday Jones had the first spa, high-end, salon in NYC.)
At this point Ari Roussimoff and I (with the help of my partner Elsa Rensaa) decided to run and organize the Club, which most members agreed to. We changed the name to the Tattoo Society of New York. We moved from the Sixth Sense Gallery on East sixth St. to the Chameleon Club down the street, holding well attended meetings the first Monday of every month. The club continued to build. I would guess that one thing that helped us as directors of the society was that Ari and I were not in the tattoo business and had no monetary skin in the game (pun intended). We were open guys, embracing the new, interested in the people, the art, the styles, and the culture of the broadly defined body arts.
Like a book, the tattoo community can tend to insularity. The material in a book is dictated by the writer who chooses the subject. The tattoo “tribe” can be like that, a collection of like-minded people. Tattoo artists, like any artists, have strong opinions of what is good and bad, and what should be included in each definition of art. But, as outsiders, we had none of that. We made it our policy to, as Whitman put it, “contain multitudes.” As the club grew, our audience expanded to tattoo artists and collectors, bikers, students, intellectuals, gays, straights, media people, fine artists, photographers. This was a multi-ethnic and racially diverse crowd. Meetings were open to all who were interested in the subject. It was very important to me that the Club provide a friendly, welcoming environment, nothing uptight or discriminatory. After all, this is NYC, and on this small island we live side by side with every type of human being and behavior imaginable. Our Club members got along, our people loved it, and the club grew.
Not only did we work hard to keep an open atmosphere, but we also wanted to make it interesting, so we had a wide range of stage acts, contests, prominent tattoo artists and fans. This gave us a stable comfortably sized audience, made up of many regulars, with some making a long trip from deep in Pennsylvania and many coming from the tri-state area. We had chosen Monday because in NYC it was generally a do-nothing night, so we were not in competition with other events. The largest meeting was when the TV talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael’s crew taped a meeting, which was held at the Pyramid Club and attracted 600 people. The TSNY went on till tattooing was legalized in NYC at the end of 1997. Until it happened, I didn’t realize how the act of legalizing tattooing would have a huge impact on the TSNY. After legalization, attendance suddenly dropped to where we would sometimes get no more than 6 people at a meeting. I can’t fully explain this, except by guessing that now artists saw each other as competition. Also, maybe because things were more open, people wanted to create their own tribes.
Let me go into more depth on some of the points raised already. The TSNY went through a number of Lower East Side venues: Sixth Sense Gallery, The Chameleon Club, the Pyramid Club, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Space at Chase, CBGB 313 Gallery. We had bands, fashion shows, belly dancers, martial arts demonstration, photo shows, strong man acts, artist talks, slideshows and contests. Two of our regular entertainers were the harp player Daphne Hellman (Born Daphne Van Beuren Bayne, the granddaughter of the founder of the Seaboard National Bank), and her musical group Hellman’s Angels, who would sometimes feature a classic jazz guitar player or Mr. Spoons.
Some of the artists who gave talks and slide shows were Mike Bakaty, Mike McCabe, Shotsie Gorman, Big Joe from Mount Vernon, ►Charles Gatewood, Darren Rosa, and Crazy Ace Daniels, who included some tattooing in his presentation. Another notable night was when I interviewed Huck Spaulding on his history and contribution to the industry. Spider Webb with his Webbolets did a live art performance as did fine artist Robert Delford Brown. Venus Body Arts did a branding. When it came to contests, we brought in a roster of downtown celebrity judges, including Grandpa Munster Al Lewis, writer/editor Chris Pfouts, artist Joe Coleman, writer Kathy Acker, mathematician Adam Alexander, and illustrator Leslie Sternburg. Also on hand were many NYC artists, such as Huggy Bear, Tattoo Al, Coney Island Freddy, Coney Island Vinny, Tattoo Seen, Darren Rosa, Jonathan Shaw, Anil Gupta, Wes Wood, Sean Vasquez, Michelle Myles, Emma, and Craig Coolie. deVita came for the Huck Spaulding talk, and depending on the event other old school artists would attend the meetings.
One interesting highlight was that tattoo artist Bernie Moeller from Bristol, Pennsylvania, desperately wanted to challenge Walter B. Stiglitz (Tattoo Stiggy) in order to see who should be in the Guinness Book of World Records as possessor of the most individual tattoos. In 1992, I contacted the Guinness Record company in London, to set up an official count. After the count was done, Bernie was crowned the new world record holder for most individual tattoos.
Most of the places where we held our meetings had a bar. Clubs welcomed us because we brought a crowd on a typically dead Monday night. The way it worked was the venue provided a stage, lights, mics, and chairs. We charged $5 at the door and provided the show. The TSNY got the door, and the venue got the drinks. We used the door money to pay the door person, make invite cards, do mailings, and print the Tattoo Gazette. (Four of them came out, while number five was laid out but not printed.) As a sidelight let me mention that in one issue I did a piece on prison tattoos. The story centered on a Satan’s Sinner Nomads’ member Spider and his Sing-Sing prison tattoos. In a Martin Scorsese career retrospective at the Queens Museum of Moving Images, two pages from this article were displayed, because, as it turns out, my Spider photos served as an inspiration for Robert de Niro playing the tattooed Max Cady character in Scorsese’s Cape Fear.
By the way, over the years we had quite a few colorful personalities on the door, including Michael Wilson (the Coney Island Illustrated Man), Eak the Geek, and the man whose face is tattooed with Outer Space, (To be clearer on his tats, Eak had stars comets, asteroids and other celestial figures flying about his face.) Bob Bear. Meetings were 7PM10PM.
Let me say a little more about the guy I ran the Club with, Ari Roussimoff. He is an amazing painter and film maker, whose gritty film, Shadows In The City, featured many of the TSNY members and visitors. Some who appeared were Tattoo Al, Little Al, Mystic Warriors MC, Roy Sundance, Bob Bear, J C Fly, Greg Fly, Pulsating Paula. They were also parts for other prominent LES and downtown characters like Annie Sprinkle, Kembra Pfahler, Joe Coleman, Jonathan Shaw, Nick Zedd, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Elsa Rensaa, Taylor Mead, Bruce Byron, David Hayes, Valerie Caris, and filmmaker Jack Smith played death. Ari was the director, I was the art director, and played a bit part as a hustler, and a zombie
Ari and I both made the invites for the Society events. I concentrated on my black and white designs, which a number of people did not go for. Still, I was president and I sent out what I wanted. Years later, people are coming around to liking and being inspired by those images. And I should mention the shows were well documented by photographers like Efrain Gonzalez, Debbie Ullman, and, at times Charles Gatewood, as well as by Elsa Rensaa and I, who took photos and video.
Of course, let’s remember the TSNY was not about seeing famous tattooists or even just the entertainment. It was basically a social gathering. People met, hung out, shared. The whole late eighties/early nineties NYC Tattoo Wave came out of the Society. It was a magical time. NYC had once again stepped up to the international circuit. Famed Artists like London Alex Bennie, Vienna Austria’s Bernie Luther and Chicago artist Guy Atkinson passed through town and worked. One memorable 1991 evening at Space At Chase, Paul Booth, a beginning tattoo artist and an repo man, came in from Jersey, his girlfriend stunning the audience as she flashed a new black and grey back piece he had done for her. This was the first step into the public light of a man who became a tattoo celebrity. Kas from Japan found his place here as did Anil Gupta from India.
What I’m trying to help you see is that when you foster a sharing community, natural talent emerges effortlessly, not through competition but through mutual support. The TSNY gave birth to a group of world-class craftspeople who perfected fine art tattooing. As one example, Wes Wood and all he accomplished came to fruition because of what the TSNY opened up for him. Wes went on and created Unimax a multimillion dollar business, and opened a number of tattoo shops. Wes made numerous contributions to tattooing, and, most importantly in the early period, he was the go to guy for technical information. Wes is a detail guy and has a strong technical aptitude. He learned how to make machines, inks, needles, and the ins and outs of the medical information an artist needed to know to safely tattoo. He broke a number of artists into the business. Matty Jankowski, another regular, was a window designer for a store called Reminiscence. Eventually, Matty worked as manager for the 365 Canal Street Emporium, which Wes had set up. Wes gave Matty free rein. Later Matty set up an art gallery in Wes’s gallery space, and went on to develop the Body Archive. The TSNY gave Matty a career.
Because NYC is an information and media center, we got a lot of press coverage, especially in the tattoo magazines. Debbie Ullman, a regular, worked at Outlaw Biker, but then got an offer she could not refuse. Pat Rusians, of Pink Coyote Designs, offered her a higher salary and the opportunity to help guide the new magazine, ITA (International Tattoo Arts). Here’s the inside story of another development. Debbie found she needed an editor and she came to me asking who I would recommend. I set up a meeting at Jonathan Shaw’s studio and, as it turned out, Jonathan became the editor. The TSNY held monthly meetings for 11 years. I tell you, that’s a rare thing. Most tattoo clubs, or societies, do not meet monthly, are only business and have a short shelf life. The few that go on long term are specialized, exclusive ones, which only admit a few individuals who qualify and pass the set standards. But we ran wide open. Of course the National Tattoo Association has been going on for a while also but it only meets once a year. We got together, rain or shine, every month.
Having given you some of the basics about how and what went on in the Club, I’d like to step back and look at the broader picture, emphasizing the importance of the TSNY. In 1961 the New York City Council passed a bylaw making it illegal for anyone other than a trained medical professional to tattoo in NYC. This law all but killed the business. Shops were driven underground, with a few remaining open. Still, it was now difficult to get a tattoo. You would have to search to find a tattoo artist, and this new bylaw made people think tattooing was forbidden and taboo. Cliff Raven, Phil Sparrow, Ed Hardy would visit and tattoo in the city. Over time a few of the shops were: on the Upper West Side, David Slack; in Midtown, Ruth Marten tattooed in her loft 1973 - 80 (stopped because of AIDS), Bob Roberts tattooed in his apartment (left early 80’s), Spider Webb worked out of Annie Sprinkle’s salon and a few other places, Shotise Gorman (worked with Sider Webb started same time as Bakaty) a period of time before he went to New Jersey; Greenwich Village Michael Nomad early 80’s (died early wave of AIDS); Lower East Side, Thom Paul deVita 1961 was Gotham Tattoo on East 4thSt by Ave D, Mike Bakaty 1976 (MFA) later with his son Mehai on the Bowery, early 80’s Mark Mahoney, Jonathan Shaw Fun City mid-80’s (early 90’s broke in artists Baba Austin, Chris Carver, Snake Eyes and Dan, then Xavier Cavazo), English Craig, Mike McCabe 1987 shared a studio with Cat on 5th Street, early 90’s Tommy Murphy Mean Street, Timmy Hoyer, Donna Colelli, Carey Brief, East Side Ink starting in an apartment Sean Vasquez, Michelle Myles, Bill Beccio, Josh Moody, (1993 opened a street shop included Andrea Elston, Sean Vasquez, Clay Decker, Lori Levin as manager); Michelle 93 opened Dare Devil, early 90’s Paul Booth Last Rites on E ast 4th St., Craig Coole Abstract Tribal; Chinatown: Sacred Tattoo 1989 Wes Wood, artists Anil Gupta, Mike Bellamy. Dmitri Kyrlov, Sam, Sean Vasquez, Matty Jankowsky Shop manager; Washington Heights Darren Rosa at Rising Dragon; the Bronx had Angelo Scotto, Cubo, Louis at Champion, later 80’s Med of Tuff City, Tattoo Richie Seen; Brooklyn Huggy Bear, Tony Polito Old Calcutta (oldest continuing shop in NYC), Mike Perfetto at Designs by Michael Angelo, Steve Delgado working at his kitchen table late 80’s Vinny Jackson Coney Island Vinnie, mid-80’s Elio Espana did apartment visits and later became Fly Rite, in 90’s Carlo Fodera’s and Mike Pastore Enigma included Ruben Reyes, Tommy Hoolihan, Marcus Kuhn, while Staten Island had Coney Island Freddy and Tattoo Tod, Buddy Fair; and Queens Pete & Cubo’s Tattooing, Tattoo Al 80’s, and later in the 80’s a few others. From TSNY and Wes Wood Legalization.
By the late 1970s, around the country, where tattooing was legal, it was slowly climbing out of the grave of obscurity and was no longer only associated with criminals, bikers, and the military. Two of the driving forces who were leading the shift of tattooing from folk art to a fine art, were college-trained graduate of San Francisco Art Institute artist Ed Hardy on the West Coast, and School Of Visual Art and Masters in Fine Art from San Miguel Mexico Spider Webb (aka: Joseph O’Sullivan) on the East Coast. A tattoo renaissance was underway. Sort of.
California with its free, open environment allowed artists to work openly, share ideas, and, given everything was on the up and up legally, put their work out in the media, giving some the opportunity to become famous. In this heady atmosphere, many new directions emerged in tattooing. In this exciting, energized climate, tattoos began to move from just depending on flash for inspirations to explorations of the tattoo artist’s individuality, which came out in everything from original pieces to full-on body suits.
In NYC, the art boundaries were pushed by Spider Webb, deVita and visiting Cliff Raven, also a fine art graduate from University Indiana. Still, NYC work was generally dark and smaller one of designs. Try as hard as Spider did to go public, he remained underground. The greatest impact he had, and this held true also for Hardy, was through books, and later, after Gatewood introduced Vale to Fakir Musafar, which lead to the ground breaking Modern Primitives, (edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno; San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1989). These radical concept books took off, giving a new view of body art and tattooing.
Spider’s Heavily Tattooed Men and Woman, with intro by New Museum creator Marcia Tucker (New York: McGrawHill, 1976) and Pushing Ink: the fine art of tattooing / with Marco Vassi ; photography by Charles Gatewood and Spider Webb; illustrated by Spider Webb, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) and X 1000 R. Mutt Press, Mam’selle, Charles Gatewood and Spider Webb were all members of a clique they named R. Mutt Press 1977; Spider Webb, Both Sides of the Needle, Veronica Vera 2016 NY Tattoo History.. Clayton Patterson . And www.no-art.info/gatewood/obituary On the West Coast, Hardy put out five issues of Tattootime: New Tribalism (1982), Tattoo Magic (1983), Music & Sea Tattoos (1984), Life & Death Tattoos (1987), and Art From the Heart (1991).(You can get these at: http://www.hardymarks.com/books/edhardys-tattootime/) Horiyoshi, and Don Hardy also edited Tattoo Designs (Honolulu: Hardy Marks Publications, 1990).
Now as part of the explosion of interest in tattooing, well fostered by the TSNY, I got onto the international circuit. Here’s how it happened. In 1994 I got a call from Wels Austria. Jochen Auer, a young entrepreneur, was working on a new concept for a show. Jochen had a friend who visited the TSNY. Jochen looked in the information section of Modern Primitives and got my contact information.
He was going to call his show “Tattoo and Wildstyle Messe.” His thought was to create a show that encompassed a wide range of modern youth culture: tattooing, jewelry, fashion, leather, piercing, hair designs and make-up, body painting, eyeliner tattooing, and body modification practitioners. He also wanted a show that would encompass custom cars and motorcycles, hot rods, music, a soft strip show, Mr. Chippendales, sideshow acts, photo and video shows, scarification, food, and drinks. It would have to take place in a space with a large, fully equipped theatrical stage with a runway on which to present the stage acts. Jochen brought in other music, purchasing the rights to use certain popular songs, which would be background music. His musical choices really defined the show. It sounded great to me.
As the show grew he brought in Tom & Domino Blue of The Drumatical Theatre to stage the event and compose musical scores to go with the acts. I deeply respected how Jochen wanted to make the show of a very welcoming nature, something we had also striven for in TSNY. He wanted this to have something for everyone, tattoo and piercing enthusiasts, kids, adults who would never go to just a tattoo show, something of interest for all members of society. He did this by having hot rods, muscle cars, custom and classic motorcycles, hair salons, exotic primitive island art, Native American culture, photography and videos, fashion, leather clothing, jewelry, food, drinks, and incredible stage acts. As I saw in attending and participating in the shows, people came en masse. The people showing up to enjoy and learn were from all walks of life. It is no exaggeration to say this is highly unusual for a tattoo-themed show. Even to this day I do not know of any other show that introduces tattooing and piercing to such a wide spectrum of the population. I personally thought it was quite a gamble to do this in a conservative country like Austria, which at the time had very few tattoo artists. The show exploded on the scene.
This entertainment extravaganza started in 1995 and I was deeply involved from day one. Now, “Wildstyle and tattoo Messe” was not a tattoo convention but it included a strong show of tattoo artists, displaying their skills. Austria had never had a tattoo convention, in fact, at this time there were few conventions of this type in Europe at all, certainly none with piercing or scarification or sideshow stage acts. This was a first. It would feature the first public piercing in Austria, for one. And the show began with big plans. It was going to run in Austria and then go on tour. Believe you me, many hurdles had to be crossed and many doors opened in order to take this show around Austria and Germany. This paved the way for others to do tattoo conventions and alternative culture shows.
Why did Jochen call me? I could provide famous tattoo artists, photographers, and sideshow acts. It was a win-win scenario in that the artists I brought over now had the opportunity to work in Austria and Germany and even, on one occasion, in Hungary and Holland. A partial list of tattoo artists I connected to the show: Jack Rudy, Gill Montie, Spider Webb, Bill Beccio, Scotty Kelly, Leo Zulueta, Sean Vasquez; and from Japan: Hougen, Horizakura, Horimatsu, Horitsuna, Ishi Kaiichi, and from Singapore, Augustine. As far as sideshow performers, I conjured up: Indio the escape artist; all-around performer Harley Newman; Ula and Sharka, the Pain-Proof Rubber Girls; Slymenstra Hymen of the band Gwar; Lucifire from Scotland; Reverend B Dangerous; Todd Robbins, professor of sideshow entertainment; Kiva, the Fire-Eating Diva; Lucky Diamond Rich Guinness world Record heaviest tattoo person, and Maria Cristerna the Mexican Vampire Woman. Steve Bonge showed photographs; Billy Monroe, owner of Screaming Ink NJ and the Beatniks Car Club, sold Car Club-oriented tee-shirts, gear shift knobs and related items. I showed photos and videos as well as documented the shows. It’s 20 years later and I am still going to the shows. Meeting Jochen was a huge benefit to me and to so many others I got to the show.
Wildstyle and tattoo Messe did much to contribute to modernizing tattooing in Austria and Germany. The show toured around, giving many artists in attendance and members of the public the chance to see firsthand all these highly qualified artists with their own unique styles. Because the show was family friendly with a wide variety of entertainment and always in a top venue, it drew sellout crowds. Over 2 million people have seen the show since 1995.
Some of the tours were long; the longest tour I was on was three months. One feature of the show was that a “posse” of young tattoo artists went with, doing large volume shows every weekend, which allowed them to really hone their skills. Joining us from Vienna there were Ernst Polley and Siri. Coming out of Bad Ischl was Max “Tattoo To The Max” Hirnbock. As a sidelight, let me mention that Max, was working as a printer. Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe opened a door for Max, opening his eyes, as it were, to the possibilities. It gave him the push he needed to go full time. He is now one of the leading European tattoo artists. Wildstyle also changed Sean Vasquez’s life. I got him to Austria. He stayed and found a significant place in the Austrian tattoo scene. In the last few years he moved to London England. Indio also found a wife in Austria and moved there. Other cultural breakthroughs came in piercing. The first license ever given out in Austria for this activity went to Mario Barth, who was working with his wife Monika in Graz. At this time piercing was thought of as applied body jewelry. But Mario’s life quest was to be a world-class tattoo artist. In 1993, Beata Kolbinger got her piercing license, opening (with her husband Tony) Leguan Tattoo Studio in Wiener Neustadt. He did tattoos and Beata pierced….