Tattooing Through the Back Door

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

I’m down here at First and First in Manhattan’s East Village and here I sit, trying to figure out the difference between an Ionic column, a Doric column and a magazine column, and realize that it all ties to history and to change.

Change? After 30 years of inkin’, all I’ve seen is change. In the nine-plus years that I’ve been in my little, taxicab-yellow shop (since legalization), the faces passing by have changed. There are fewer junkies stumbling past our door doing the Manhattan Mambo (three steps forward, two steps back, and hang). Platoons of the inked march by every day. People are heavily tattooed, better dressed and the streets are cleaner.

Mike Bakaty from the 1950s when he was serving as a radio operator on a Navy destroyer.

I came to tattooing through the back door, so to speak. It wasn’t my intention to pursue this as a career. I had other plans. I was going places and was off to a pretty good start. Until I did that first tattoo back in ’76, that is. All I wanted was to get some old work covered up. I had a few pieces from the ’50s, which were the result of a misspent youth and a stint in the Navy as a South China Sea sailor. I wanted something in the Japanese style. I had never seen anything like it. I first saw photos in National Geographic. I never knew tattoos could look like that. I was blown away and thought, That’s for me. I had just gotten a nice income tax return check. The stage was set and the hunt was on.

I came to tattooing long after the golden years at the turn of the 20th century, when, for a while, it was the provenance of royalty and kings. That was a time when the monarchs of Europe decorated their bodies with Japanese dragons, sailing ships and symbols of their rule. They don’t do that, anymore. I came years after the lowlifes and gangsters, roughnecks and seamen, who marked their bodies with symbols of world travel and status and intimidation. I came decades after the circus and carnival attractions, when people would flock to sideshows to see things exotic. When men and women, whole families, even children, had their bodies covered in exotic images, to earn their livelihood as human oddities. They don’t do that anymore.

I got to it late, while there was a lull in the action. The popularity and fashion had faded. I bet there were less than a thousand tattooers in the country back then. Tattoo shops were few and far between, except for military towns. It was the end of the era of bell-bottom trousers, love beads and killer weed. Tattooing was still practiced as a craft. There were specific rules for application. You started from the bottom, lines were consistent. A few strokes that way to color a rose petal. You skip-shaded, tick-shaded or dead-handed to make the image jump and create the illusion of volume or mass. It was true East Coast style in the tradition of the old Cap Coleman. It doesn’t necessarily go that way anymore.

By 1974, the days of buying a tattoo kit from the back of Popular Mechanic had passed. “Make money in your spare time, anyone can do it,” the ads extolled. You got three needles tied together with a thread. You got three bottles of ink, a charcoal shaker and a couple of acetate stencils, all for three bucks.

Make money [tattooing] in your spare time. Anyone can do it.

The Zeis (mail order) School of Tattoo was long gone. Apprenticeships were as scarce as teeth on a chicken. They were reserved for blood relatives or really close friends. No matter how much ink you wore, if you weren’t born to it, you weren’t getting in. It ain’t that way anymore, either.

It was a time when no one answered the questions of an outsider. Everyone would clam up. Access to suppliers (there were maybe two or three) was as guarded as atomic secrets. It was an era of the low profile, not to attracting attention or drawing heat. Not anymore.

But they did let me watch. And it took me a few years to realize just what it was I was watching. It was the application of a craft, the mastery of which, I believe, can open the doors to freedom from restraint and artistry. It was a craft that had a history going back thousands of years that I knew nothing about. That’s changed, too.

So, how did I get here, some 30 years later? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall (as the old gag goes): practice, practice, practice.

Catch you on the rebound.

— Mike Bakaty