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Lost Gem
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Clash City Tattoo

When I walked into Clash City Tattoos, Baz was hunched over his station, completing a tattoo sketch. The space popped with bold red walls, brightly colored ink bottles, and large tattoo designs. One could not miss the almost human-sized bass in the corner if they tried – “some friends just like to come in and play the bass, ” Baz told me as he shrugged his shoulders. Music influences much more of this tattoo shop’s ideology than I could have anticipated. Named after Baz’s favorite band, the space encapsulates the idea that just as The Clash could play such a range of genres, so too could Baz’s tattoos encompass all kinds of people. “Lawyers and rockstars alike listen to The Clash, ” he elaborated, “and I want my tattoos to unite my customers, just as a single beat can unite different listeners. ”Baz first visited the United States in 1991 while working on a cruise ship and was immediately drawn to everything American – particularly the music, cars, and TV shows. Working in a comic bookstore, he was captivated by posters for Iron Man, Planet of the Apes, and an assortment of cartoon superheroes. He claimed it was the “solid black lines, bold colors, and clear forms” of comic art that lent it a unique and sophisticated artistic quality. Moreover, his mother’s admiration for surrealist painter Salvador Dali offered him an early penchant for the freedom of abstract art anchored in bold lines – the ideal forms for tattoo art. Clients coming into Clash City Tattoos have usually heard about the store and like to visit with an idea of what they want inked. While Baz and his team are exceptionally friendly, asserting that their store “is a place that you won’t have to be afraid to walk into, ” they are also honest with clients about which designs work and which simply do not. Equipped with a creative bent, the team mostly designs custom tattoos using clients’ ideas. However, when someone comes in asking for a "full bible verse on their little finger" or an arrangement of “a heart with four names in it, two wings on either side, and a crown on top in the size of a fist, ” the team knows when to say “this isn’t working; let’s fine-tune. ” What is more, they pay exceptionally close attention to each client’s pain tolerance. While some can manage three hours of inking in a go, others (like Baz’s wife, he laughs) only last ten minutes. I asked Baz about the most challenging tattoo he was tasked with designing. When the bass player of globally-renowned British band Muse, Chris, asked for a tattoo of his son’s name, Buster, in Disney font, Baz started thinking of ways to make the design more complex and unique. A few days later, Chris and Baz were hanging out with a group of friends, when Chris recounted a story about Buster. The young boy was playing with his toys at home when he ran straight into the corner of an table and cut his forehead. But he continued with his play as usual until Chris’ wife noticed a large gash on his head and rushed him to the hospital. Buster was unfazed. The story inspired Baz to draw up the tattoo that now decorates Chris’ right forearm – a smirking cartoon kid with boxing gloves over the name “Buster” in striking black font. Chris loved it. Looking at Baz’s journey thus far, it is easy to see how he has settled into a characteristic set of themes and motifs. Through space backgrounds, gypsy girls, cartoon superheroes, and more, Baz eventually reached a signature design – “pin-up girls with stuff in their hair, ” as he amusedly called it. I was thrilled to see his gorgeous side profiles of girls with complex forms – ships, octopuses, and more – wrapped in the locks of their hair. Baz’s artistic genius spans a wide range of imagery, fixed into his defining black lines and bold forms.

Lost Gem
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Rising Dragon Tattoos

A native New Yorker with over thirty years of industry experience, Darren Rosa is the owner of Rising Dragon Tattoos. He is proud of his hometown, and would not think of having a shop anywhere other than “the best” city in the world. Raised in Washington Heights, Darren recalls living a fairly “sheltered” adolescence because his artist mother did not want him out on the streets, exposed to the drugs, gangs, and violence of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, he spent his time indoors, watching his mom complete her projects. From there, Darren admits he is not certain how much was nature and how much was nurture, but he developed a strong affinity for art, always painting and sketching, which he acknowledges “wasn’t good for [his] grades. ”While in college as a pre-med student, he decided to test out a new artistic medium and picked up a tattooing kit - the same kit that he then used to create custom designs for people in his childhood bedroom, making him one of New York City’s first tattoo artists. Out of respect for his mother – who was trying to study for a master’s degree - Daren moved his operation out of Washington Heights and up to an apartment in Inwood. However, the new spot was a long train ride for many of his clients, and he knew that “the action” was downtown in the “groovy” Union Square area, so he relocated again in 1992 to 19th Street. When 1997 rolled around and tattooing became legal in New York City, Darren figured he would need a ground-level storefront to meet demand, so he moved into the notorious Hotel Chelsea. He stayed there until finally landing on 14th Street in 2008, the present location of Rising Dragon. I asked Darren if he ever spent time around Union Square when he was growing up. A wave of nostalgia glossed over him as he smiled and disclosed that he had bought his first boombox nearby, back when the neighborhood was packed with haggling electronics retailers. Though the neighborhood has changed dramatically since then, Darren affirms that the move was good for business. Without too much competition on the street, his clients do not have to “price shop” and the environment is more relaxing. As I walked around Rising Dragon, I noticed quite a number of Japanese artworks on the wall, which Darren displays to honor the Japanese reverence for nature and their “complete language for covering the body, ” with timeless subject matter and “passionate symbols” that speak to the soul – inspiration for any artist. I also observed how clean Rising Dragon was. Darren explained that many fail to realize tattooing is much like a surgical procedure, so at Rising Dragon they take great care in preparation to ensure cleanliness and professionalism. The “family” of seven to eight resident artists – depending on how many guests they are hosting at the time – all do homework, practicing designs in advance, boasted Darren. To them, it is not about money; it’s about dedication. Darren confessed that in New York “tattooing’s more complicated now” than it was when he first started. The introduction of technology has made images of designs readily available to clients via Google and Instagram, forcing artists to broaden their repertoire. Darren finds that these days seventy-five percent of his clients request tattoos of lettering, words, and phrases. He finds that the increase in text is “a reflection of our time. ” With literal “text as a message gaining importance, ” it is something people want to carry with them on their bodies. With such a commitment to excellence, anyone could feel comfortable entering Rising Dragon. Darren shared that until a few years ago, it had always been a dream of his for a celebrity to walk through the doors, more specifically either one of his favorite actors and fellow New Yorkers, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. One day, he got a phone call from the receptionist alerting him that a young man had come in with his father to get a tattoo. The father turned out to be none other than Robert De Niro. Darren said he “tried to play it cool, ” but was too giddy, so he and De Niro spent the son’s session talking about their mutual affection for New York. Even though he’s already met one of his major life goals, Darren assured me he is not going anywhere, giving clients the security to form lasting relationships with their tattoo artists. On behalf of Rising Dragon, Darren firmly asserts, “We’re New York and we’re here to stay. ”

Lost Gem
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Red Baron Ink

After a thirty-six year ban on tattoos in the city due to a hepatitis B scare in 1961, the tattoo artists of New York fought for the right to ink. Many tattooers still practiced illegally, including Grant Lubbock, co-owner of Red Baron Ink. Grant came to New York after starting his career in Los Angeles and now thrives in the city’s tattoo culture. He works in his own studio where he can concentrate on “one tattoo, one experience at a time. ” He has lived a life of art and has always dreamt of his own shop. His BA in graphic art is proof of Grant’s dedication to all forms of expression, which he says keeps him “well-rounded” as an artist. Grant loves the subtlety and mystery of tattoos in New York. His previous shop, Abstract Black, was in LA, where everyone’s tattoos were “in your face. ” He has loved his transition to Manhattan. Grant’s wife, Giselle, is the co-owner of Red Baron Ink. She likes to describe their studio as “tiny but cozy. ” She focuses on managing the day-to-day business operations When asked, Giselle could not describe a typical client, because their customers come from all walks of life, similar to their tattoo artists. Red Baron Ink has four tattoo artists from around the world. They pride themselves on their artists’ diverse styles and ability to offer clients a wide range of artistic aesthetics. One of their artists specializes in watercolor and abstract art while Grant is known for his neo-traditional and bold designs. Clients are paired with the artist whose style most closely fits their desires. Grant’s advice for other tattoo artists? “Tattoo yourself, it will give you perspective and show progression. ” The artists of Red Baron specialize in custom art and never repeat the same design. It is a one-on-one experience, and Grant admits the client is “at [his] mercy, ” so he does his best to make them feel comfortable and excited for their new art.

Lost Gem
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Red Rocket Tattoo

While ascending a few flights of stairs, I was entertained by the photos and artwork on the walls, care of Red Rocket. Once inside I was welcomed by a large studio with ten stations where artists and clients were chatting and creativity was happening. "I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not drawing, " owner Adam Hays shared with me. He went on to tell me that as a child, he was always drawing on his body. He had a particular fondness for washable tattoos and his mom was kind enough to do this with him. "It wasn't until I went to a water park and there was a big guy with tattoos on his body and I asked him how come his tattoos didn't come off in the water, that I realized there was more to tattooing. " This was Adam's first exposure to the "real thing" and as they say, he never looked back. The studio does not use traditional stencil to do their work. Rather, they cater to people who prefer custom designs. "Men and women come in with drawings or a concept and we work with them. " The day I was there, Adam, and the guy he was working on, chatted with me about what they were doing on his arms. Over a period of time, Adam has been creating a mural on his skin. It is depicting a piece of Aztec history and includes a Mexican Indian princess. As the guy having his arm tattooed said to me, "There isn't anyone else that I would allow to be putting needles in me while giving an interview to you besides Adam. " The level of concentration is intense, but Adam is able to keep that going while speaking to me. I was mesmerized watching as he dipped the needle into organic vegetable pigment based paints and then did his magic. Prior to beginning this lengthy project, Adam explained to me that working on a blank canvas, this time being arms, he drew with markers, free-hand, to ensure that his customer was pleased with the design. Only then did he begin the permanent tattoo process. Thus far, he has been working on both arms for almost a year, with two sessions a month. Adam proudly informed me that he has made a name for himself - internationally, as he has been invited to practice his craft in Japan, South Africa and Europe. "You name it, I have probably tattooed there, " he continued. I found a shelf filled with trophies awarded to Adam and his studio including a recent one for best black and white tattoo at the NYC Tattoo convention. Red Rocket has been on 36th Street since 1998, when tattooing was legalized in the city. Adam deliberately chose a midtown location, upstairs, because he did not want to attract the walk in traffic that is customary in the East Village. He prefers people who seek him out, admiring and recognizing the talent and quality of his work and that of the other artists in his studio. Read more about tattoo shops of the Side Streets.