For this week's Mahal, I met up with Clayton Patterson to discuss the history of tattooing in New York City. He has been photographing the tattoo scene both in New York City and around the world for over three decades and just recently held the book release for Ink & Steel: The Body Modification, Photography of Efrain John Gonzalez. I was fortunate to check out Clayton's never-ending archive and have a long talk with him about his role within the movement.
VICE: How long have you been photographing the tattoo scene?
Clayton Patterson: Ari Roussimoff and I started the Tattoo Society of New York in 1986. Prior to the TSNY, there was a short-lived society called the Tattoo and Body Art Society (TBASNY), but organizers could not keep it going. Artists and enthusiasts wanted to keep meeting with the stipulation that it just be tattoos and not include hair-styling, body-painting, piercing, body modification, and so on because in those days, tattooing was more conservative. The meetings were held on "do nothing nights," the first Monday of every month at 6th Sense Gallery on 6th Street, The Chameleon Club, The Pyramid Club, King Tuts Wah Wah Hut, Space at Chase, and CBGB 313 Gallery. Ari stayed on board until around 1990. He made a movie called Shadows in the City, which used many of the members of the society, as well as, other prominent LES and downtown characters like Annie Sprinkle, Kembra Pfahler, Joe Coleman, Jonathan Shaw, Nick Zedd, Tattoo Al, J.C. Fly, Greg Fly, Pulsating Paula, Larry "Ratso" Sloman. Elsa Rensaa, Taylor Mead, Bruce Byron, Valerie Caris, and Jack Smith.
Ari was the director, and I was the art director. The meetings were often entertained by harpist Daphne Hellman and her Hellman's Angles, and Mr. Spoons played the spoons. We had a long list of visitors, including; Grandpa Munster Al Lewis, Huck Spaulding, Crazy Ace Daniels, Spider Webb, Charles Gatewood, brandings done by Venus Body Arts, and many more.
Was tattooing ever illegal in New York City?
In 1961, the city council passed a law making it illegal to tattoo in NYC. As a result, by the 1980s there were very few tattoo shops. There was only Mike Bakaty on the Bowery, Mike McCabe on 5th Street shared a studio with Cat, Jonathan Shaw was in and out of LES, Darren Rosa in Washington Heights, Tom DeVita on the LES, Angelo at Champion in the Bronx, Tony Polito in Brooklyn, Coney Island Freddy in Staten Island, Mick Perfetto Brooklyn, Huggy Bear Brooklyn, Tattoo Al Queens, and maybe a few others.
What was your role within the struggle to keep tattooing alive and legal?
In 1997, Rudolph Giuliani was mayor of NYC. He was a law-and -rder kind of guy, and we knew he would shut down tattooing. Wes Wood contacted me, and I contacted Kathern Freed, our Lower East Side city councilwoman. The three of us with a lot of work and organizing were able to get the law changed, making it possible to once again legally tattoo in NYC.
What was the Tattoo Society of New York's role?
It was difficult to learn to tattoo in the city, but the TSNY changed much of that. Those interested in art and tattooing gathered at the Society meetings. The whole 1990s New York City new wave came out of the TSNY. The magazines came to the Society meetings. It is through the Society that Debby Ullman, who had worked at Outlaw Biker and Tattoo Review, moved over to Pat Rusians of Pink Coyote Designs, who was looking for an editor to start a new magazine. I introduced her to Jonathan Shaw, and they started_, International Tattoo Magazine_. At that time there were not that many photographers on the tattoo scene. Early on, there was Charles Gatewood. Then Steve Bonge started taking photos in the mid 70s. He was instrumental in getting photos of tattoos into Biker magazine. He became the lead photographer for International Tattoo.
Pulsating Paula and Bill Tinney were early 1980s pioneers getting their work into Easy Rider Biker tattoo magazine. At the Tattoo Society, Elsa Rensaa and I documented the meetings. It was at the meeting that I became aware of another serious documentary photographer by the name of Efrain John Gonzalez. I soon learned Efrain also covered body art, and S&M scenes. By the early 1990s, interest in tattooing exploded in America enticing a whole new breed of commercial photographers. In 1998, Steve Bonge, Butch Garcia, and Wes Wood the owners, and I came on board to create the first Annual NYC International Tattoo Convention. It was held at the Roseland Ballroom. After the first year, Steve Bonge, Butch Garcia the owners, and I organized the event. The convention is now in it's 16th year.
Where else in the world has tattooing brought you?
In 1995, I received a call from an Austrian by the name of Jochen Auer. He mentioned that he was starting a new family-entertainment concept show that he called “Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe.” His vision was to bring many of the high-level, underground creative niches together under one roof. There were beautiful soft-core erotic female dancers, a Mr. Chippendale, trendy fashion, custom cars and motorcycles, hair-styling, jewelry, Native American dancers, marijuana culture, piercing, tattooing, sideshow entertainers, all comfortably situated in a venue where all levels of society would be comfortable spending money in. My job was to bring famous American tattoo artists, sideshow performers, and to show my photographs and videos to the show. The show was a hit right from the start. We toured all through Germany and Austria. My longest tour was three months long. We recently celebrated the 15th year of “Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe.”
What do you find so compelling about Efrain’s new book?
Efrain’s life has spanned the arch of the movement. He was born in the Bronx in 1952 and grew up on Long Island. While attending high school, he spent four dollars on a used camera. That purchase was instrumental in placing him on the path that took him on his lifetime journey. In 1979 he moved to Brooklyn where he still resides. To pay his rent he spent his nights driving a checkered cab. The camera was his tool, and what he encountered on his night shift formed his vision and passion. He was attracted to the darker side, the underbelly that was in one way or another connected to the human body.
His journey took him into the sex clubs, the BDSM scenes, and the Meatpacking District’s street hookers and transvestites. In Brooklyn he met Huggy Bear who introduced Efrain to tattoo art. Huggy, a regular at the TSNY, brought Efrain to a meeting that opened his eyes to the diversity in the skin art world. Efrain is a passionate and dedicated documentarian and one of the few who has never wavered from his path or weaken in his passion for capturing as much of the diversity as was possible for one man to photograph. He captured many of the TSNY meetings. Went hard, traveled to places like the infamous Hell Fire Club, as well as just about every sex club he could get into in NYC. His passion and persistence pushed him outside the city to places like Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Orlando. He is not just a voyeur in the world of sex play, he is also a player. He never got a tattoo but he has piercings. He is a leader in documenting the NYC radical sex and the connections to body art. With his years of dedicated service to his passion he has created one of the most comprehensive overall archives of such material. Efrain is a rare one, one of the few. His latest book focuses mainly on the annual New York City International Tattoo Convention held in the Roseland Ballroom, covering the years 1998–2011.
Photos by Taji Ameen, Efrain John Gonzalez, and Clayton Patterson.