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Bakaty’s World: Tattooing Enters the Mainstream

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

When the phone rang a few months back, I picked it up and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was Bob Baxter asking if I would be interested in writing a column for Skin & Ink. He wanted me to do an East Coast slant. I must say I was kind of stunned. I don’t consider myself a “word” man, per se. I found it curious that anyone else might.

It must have gone something like this: “But, Bob, I’m not a writer.” “It’s no big deal Mike, it might even be fun,” said Baxter. “They’d only have to be from 800 to 1,000 words and can be anything you want to write about.” There must have been a pause, as I ran words through my head. “But Bob, I don’t know 800 words!” Another pause. “But Mike, they don’t all have to be different.” “Oh. Okay, give me a few days to think on it, and I’ll call you back.” He must have asked the questions, because here I am.

Mike Bakaty in front of the soon to be new location of Fineline Tattoo at 21 First Avenue.

Mike Bakaty in front of the soon to be new location of Fineline Tattoo at 21 First Avenue.

I’ve always counted myself as a low-profile guy, as much by circumstance as by choice. Coming out of the ’70s instilled it to a degree: bootlegging for 20 years (while tattooing was banned in New York City) prompted me to lay low.

It’s been my observation that our trade, craft, profession, art (it’s been called all of that and then some) is, and has been, a natural magnet for journalists. I think it’s the draw of the ancient and arcane. Similarly, I think that drawing has changed the big picture, both figuratively and literally.

The most democratic form of expression on the planet.

The rise of tattoo publications from the mid-’80s to the present has, in effect, let the cat out of the bag. It’s generated worldwide interest. It’s given rise to a change in the practice and, more importantly, to the overall perception of tattoos and tattooed people.

It’s no longer solely in the realm of bikers and sailors, drunks and misfits. There are those out there, however, who still buy into that old cliché. It’s “the most democratic form of expression on the planet,” as someone once put it.

By the mid-’90s, tattoo shops had sprung up and been legalized in parts of the world where it had been banned for decades. There are shops all over Europe and Russia and China. Exposure has stirred new interest in the traditional tattoos of tribal cultures throughout the Pacific. Even conservative states like South Carolina and Oklahoma have given way to legalization. The veritable flood of exposure has pushed tattooing into the mainstream. We’re out of the shadows and into the light of worldwide visibility.

You can’t open a magazine or newspaper without seeing something on tattoos. There are “reality” shows featuring tattooed people. It’s on buses and billboards. You name it, it’s there. It’s even spawned styles of clothing. Tattooing seems to have entered fully the world’s visual vocabulary.

From before the American Civil War, well up into the ’80s, tattoos, to qualify as such, had to fit certain criteria. They had to be strictly emblematic, like a military patch or decal. Line work had to be consistent. The design had to be big, simple and bold enough to be recognizable 25 feet away, as exemplified in the beautifully engineered designs of Sailor Jerry Collins.

Twenty-odd years of high exposure have brought new, rare talent to our profession. Many are art-school trained. They are the young men and women who have the fire in their bellies to be the best. No reverence for the past. Straight ahead, take no prisoners. They’ve brought new images and techniques that were unimaginable within the older conventions of tattoo. Every “ism” in art history has been tapped into. Gothic to pop art, and then some. An old art school adage says, “The sign of an immature artist is how much he steals, and the sign of a mature artist is who he steals from.” I think there’s some truth to that.

We see more “world-famous” shops, “superstars”, entrepreneurs and one-trick ponies. And endless scratchers. It’s a double-edged sword. Around here you can’t swing a cat without hitting a tattooer or a wannabe. The winds of change have blown and anything is possible. The only rules that apply are no rules at all.

The funniest thing is happening, however. Over the past couple years more and more people come into the shop and ask, “Do you have any designs by Sailor Jerry?”

Oops, I gotta go; the phone’s ringing.

Catch you on the rebound.

— Mike Bakaty