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Anyone Can Buy a Whole Shop from the Back of a Tattoo Magazine

This article first appeared in”Bakaty’s World” by Mike Bakaty in the July 2007 issue of Skin & Ink.

For a guy who has trouble putting words together in the course of a normal conversation, this writing stuff don’t come easy. I guess I’m not a natural born yacker, like some people I know. You tell ’em, “Hey,” and you get a half hour discourse about whatever.

For me, trying to write about anything requires, I’ve discovered, a good deal of rummage and rumination. It’s like getting ass and elbows into a smelly old steamer trunk. I have to rummage through what’s available over a 70-year accumulation of assorted bullshit, and hopefully, a few kernels of truth and knowledge will emerge. Then you’ve got to sort out the last 30 by ┬ácategory, chew it over in your head, and see where it leads you. Rummage and rumination. Not bad, huh?

National Tattoo Supply catalog from Philadelphia Eddie, circa 1976

 

National Tattoo Supply pricing sheet

 

In looking back, one of the most amazing shifts in the tattoo world has been one of availability. What was once restricted to the realm of the initiated (tattooers only) is now available to the general public. The first time I saw a tattoo supply catalog lying around the shop in upstate New York, it was as if I had seen the Holy Grail. I reached for it only to have it snatched away. “This isn’t for outside eyes, it’s for tattooers only,” said the professional inker.

These days, anyone can buy a whole shop from the back of a tattoo magazine (with one exception). This could also include a how-to CD. “No Experience Necessary, Anyone Can Do It, Make Money in Your Spare Time,” echoes in my memory. Capitalism, man, it’s what made this country great.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying one way or another whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m just saying that things have shifted.

Chuck Eldridge supply catalog, circa 1981

 

Interior of Chuck Eldridge tattoo supply catalog.

 

Back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when a particular supplier began advertising, it was not taken lightly, at least not in the part of the tattoo world with which I was acquainted. The sheer thought of availability to the public was seen as the equivalent of old Judas ratting out the “Naz” (as Lord Buckley might have put it). There was talk of retaliation and possible violence against the perpetrator. The sacred ark of the tattoo covenant was about to be breeched. It was about to be infiltrated. The Huns were at the gate!

To my knowledge, nothing came of the threats to the supplier. I, however, got a few of those 3:00 a.m. anonymous phone calls warning me to “get out of the business”. This, at a time when I was only tattooing family and friends, in exchange for rolls of paper towels and jars of Vaseline. I wasn’t even in the supply business. Getting started back then was not for the weak of will or the squeamish. It definitely required a good deal of resolve and determination. I’m not sure I had any of that, it’s just that I didn’t know any better.

Huck Spaulding and Paul Rogers supply catalog, circa 1982.

 

Ad for Huck Spaulding lightweight tattoo machine.

 

The hunger for knowledge of my newfound pursuit had me running to bookstores. I went to libraries and magazine shops. I went anywhere I thought I might find things printed (the guys who came up with Google were still waddling around in their Huggies). There was almost nothing to be found on the subject of tattoo. There were no magazines (nobody had done that yet). What few books I could find, dated from the turn of the 20th century to the mid 50s, were primarily sociological and psychological studies done in institutions. One went so far as to state: “If a tattooed person hasn’t spent time in prison, it was only that they hadn’t found their crime yet.” Boy did they get that wrong. Or did they?

There have been more words written about tattooing over the last 20 years then there have been in the previous five thousand (since we’ve known humans have been doing it). Big shift.

Big Joe Kaplan supply catalog circa 1982

 

 

The primary source of information and communication in the tattoo community back in the ’70s (aside from personal correspondence) was through monthly newsletters issued by various “tattoo clubs.” You had to be a professional to join, and you had to subscribe. You had to send in a business card to affirm your professionalism, and whatever subscription costs. That really nailed it down. You even got a certificate.

Sometimes, they had good information. Sometimes, they even had grainy photos of various peoples’ work. It was in-house only, so to speak. It was strictly for the eyes of the initiated, not for the public-at-large. You almost felt like you should burn them after you read them, anything to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. In the end though. what they mostly communicated was pissing and moaning, about this guy or that guy, about this supplier or that supplier. I gave up on them after a bit. These days, bookstore and magazine shops have whole sections on tattoo and tattoo-related subjects. That’s not to mention CDs, tapes and “reality” TV shows.

The other day, an old Chinese guy was standing on the curb looking into the shop. After a few minutes he came in. It winds up that he’s selling machine-assembled, pre-soldered and sterilized tattoo needles in every configuration, which are manufactured in Hong Kong. And he’s selling them door-to-door! We told him we made our own. We had to show him. He told us he had never heard of that.

In the end, I guess, you have to ask, “Did that availability, in one small way at least, diminish one part of an ancient craft?” On the other hand, as you think about it, if you let a puddle of water just sit, if you don’t stir it up and make it shift or add a little water from time to time, it’ll just get scummy and stagnate. It will eventually dry up. That definitely wold have been bad. Machine-assembled needles?

Hmmm.

Excuse me, but I have to duck into the back. I need to shift and rummage and ruminate.

Catch you on the rebound.

— Mike Bakaty