Rumors abound but the practice of tattooing in New York City was not illegalized in October 1961 because of health considerations. Instead, the practice was banned for culturally valuistic reasons. To this day, the NYC Health Department has no record of any substantiated complaints of infection caused by tattooing on or around 1961. In its decision, the New York State Appellate Division called tattooing “A barbaric survival often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality.” During a time of supposed modernizing attitudes, tattooing was identified by some in power as an embarrassing pastime of the past that needed to go.
Tattooing did not disappear in the city in 1961. Instead, existing tattoo artists and patrons adapted to the ban and strategized how best to carry on in the shadows with the insuppressible art form. For 36 years until the relegalization of tattooing in the city in 1997, the practice was reframed by its new underground, countercultural, outsider mystique. Some tattooers like the Coney Island legend Brooklyn Blackie retired and moved upstate. Others went underground; Coney Island Freddie tattooed in Staten Island, Tony Polito and Mike Perfetto in Brooklyn, Angelo Scotto in the Bronx through the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s with an aura of tradition. During the 1970s, in iconoclastic, trendsetting downtown Manhattan, tattooers Thom deVita, Mike Malone, Richard Tyler, Ruth Marten, Mike Bakaty, Cat and others tattooed an expanded image lexicon from their artist loft studios. For a few years during the early 1980s saxophone player Bob Roberts, tattooed a rock and roll clientele in his loft a few blocks away from the legendary Max’s Kansas City night club where he played with notable punk rock bands.
The book documents several noteworthy underground New York City tattoo shop settings that played the odds there would be little if any consequence to tattooing illegally. Jonathan Shaw and his influential Fun City Tattoo shop is featured. Shaw operated in the back of a custom leather shop on E. 1st Street between 1st and 2nd Ave in the East Village several years before the 1997 re-legalization. He invited groundbreaking tattoo friends like Filip Leu to do guest spots at his shop and this upgraded the overall vibe of the illegal backdrop. Lori Levin and her New York Adorned jewelry boutique is featured in the book. Located between E. 2nd and E. 3rd Streets on Second Ave., the ‘back room’ area of the boutique established a reputation in the pre-relegalized scene and invited respected and talented tattooers to do guest spots. Timothy Hoyer, Marcus Pacheco, Sean Vasquez and CIV also cut their teeth in the underground NYC scene and are featured in the book.