The Colors of Their Skin

New York City’s first tattoo convention, which opens at Roseland Ballroom on May 15, will double as a long-awaited coming-out party for a community that’s been underground for most of the past 40 years. No one can agree on why New York banned tattooing in 1961 (some say it was a hepatitis outbreak; other say it was a clean-up effort for the 1964 World’s Fair), but the years of prohibition drove some tattooists off the grid, others out of the city, and still more into retirement.

By the nineties, enforcement had lapsed, and 50 or so unmarked shops were operating around town. But it took a well-organized coalition of artists and enthusiasts – unprecedented in this subculture of temperamental individualists – to get the ban officially lifted in March 1997. “For the community to put their guns down for the weekend and get a committee together was amazing,” says Michael McCabe, author of New York City Tattoo. “It ran totally antithetical to tattoo culture.”

Local members of that culture credit the behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy of Clayton Patterson, president of the New York Tattoo Society, and Wes Wood, owner of Sacred Tattoo. The two of them – Patterson in his signature skull-embroidered black baseball cap, and Wood obligingly dressed in a sports jacket – led a group of heavily inked, leather-clad followers to City Hall, where they addressed a group of City Council members. Afterward, Deputy Health Commissioner Benjamin Mojica testified that tattooing poses no significant health threat, and the matter was resolved. “It was like the heavens opened,” says Wood.

In keeping with their reputation for fractiousness, however, tattoo cognoscenti are deeply divided about the bill’s impact. Wary of the increased competition it has brought, Thom DeVita calls the days of outlaw tattooing a “paradise lost,” and Jonathan Shaw, of Fun City Tattoo, feels legalization will lower artistic standards: “When it was illegal, it was all word-of-mouth and the strong survived. Ninety percent of newcomers have no credentials, and often their work is really awful.”

One of the few artists who supports regulation, Darren Rosa of Rising Dragon Tattoo, fears the Health Department won’t be able to keep up with all the new shops. “It’s the ones doing piercing, tattooing, and selling drug paraphernalia in one little shoebox without separate sinks that concern me,” he says.

Well-known New York artists, from Andrea Elston to Shaw and Rosa, will tattoo at the convention, which will also draw on New York’s carnie past, with an exhibition of sideshow banners and performances by a bearded lady, contortionists, and a sword swallower and his whip-wielding partner.

Wood doesn’t find any irony in the community’s easy transition from underground subculture to well-organized professional network. “Our philosophy in legalizing tattoo was in the spirit of free enterprise,” he says. “Tattoo, historically, doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s always been a folk art.”

The Colors of Their Skin