THE TATTOO PARLOR
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
As a student at Pratt, I would, sometimes, hang around Times Square at night, sketchbook in hand. I had no sense of pending danger. “The Great White Way” seemed like the center of the Universe to me, epicenter of the fascination that brought me to New York, and therefore Pratt, in the first place. Impervious to the ne’er-do-wells who lurked there, I was too big and ignorant to harbor fear.
Nevertheless, one shady establishment on 6th Avenue did hold a kind of ambivalent fascination for me. I sensed an air of pending peril there. Much as I would have liked to go in just to look around, I would never dare. Nor would I have any reason, for I had no intention of sampling their wares. It was an old fashioned Tattoo Parlor. They were still legal then.
Its facade consisted of a lengthy span of plate glass windows, plastered with a graffiti-like gallery of spectacular and menacing tattoo designs. I found the iconography mesmerizing. This imagery had a potency about it that hinted at deep secret meanings and long-standing traditions. These powerful images spoke a language all their own, often strangely beautiful and vulgar at the same time.
Through the space between the art and neon signs, one could peer inside, to behold a complex array of scary looking paraphernalia, in the center of which sat an arsenal of electric implements, tipped with needles, and surrounded by a crowd of open jars of colored ink. The interior might have resembled the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, but for the walls, which were covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of tattoo designs.
The tattoo artist, himself, appeared to be the essence of unsavory. He was unshaven and seedy, with his sleeves rolled up, ready for business, and a lit cigarette dangling always from his mouth, causing him to close one squinty eye. He more resembled Igor, than the learned doctor. And his body was completly covered in tattoos. Apparently, the tattoo parlor was open all night, so a customer could simply walk in at any time, casually pick out a design, and then have to live with it, for the rest of his life.
I sketched a young sailor, with his fist tightly clenched, and arm held straight, grimacing in pain, as jet black ink was injected beneath his skin. It went in black, but came out blue. After the blood was wiped away; it appeared as a characteristic tattoo-blue line. I visited there, on several successive nights, sketching, copying designs, and making notations, with a potential painting in mind. The painting never happened. But it seemed like a good idea, at the time.
I wrote the above fragment just the other day in response to some comments in the Four Horsemen’s Forum. It was another memory, chosen randomly to be revisited, and then filed away; never to be thought about again. I do a lot of that lately, sorting out the moments of my life, looking for some meaning, and not finding any. Remembering how many choices were open to me, then, and wondering if I chose badly. One choice was to be an artist, but Fate, and necessity, not to mention my total lack of burning ambition, led me to design toys, instead.
Having a bad memory has made it easier for me to refrain from wallowing in regrets. But last night, while rifling through a box of ancient stuff, Fate tapped me on the shoulder and forced me to recall some history that I had conveniently swept under the carpet. My mother was prone to simmering with resentment, because I had run off to Europe, a year after my father died. And then, to make matters worse, I returned with what "the family" regarded as a “War Bride”. So, out of spite, she destroyed many of the belongings that I had entrusted to her care. And that painting of the tattoo parlor was among them.
Although, it was highly illustrative, and in the going style of the day, (I was a Ben Shahn fan), it wasn’t half bad. At the time that I was working on it; I had dropped out of Pratt, but remained a part time day student, and was applying to the Chicago Art Institute School. I needed a photo to accompany the application, so I set up a camera on a self-timer, and took this hideous self-portrait. I came across the negative of that photograph, last night, and scanned it to reveal me, looking like an arrogant asshole. And in the background, leaning on its side against the wall, was the tattoo parlor painting.
Realizing that the long forgotten painting actually happened, led me to search through a box of rejected color slides, where I discovered yet another photo. This one was taken while it was still a work in progress. Although, the painting is totally blurry and badly lit, it's visible enough to make me wish that I still had it.
The art depicts the scene, at night, as I recalled it. The posters on the windows, the well-lit interior, the tattoo artist, himself, with bluish skin, made more so by his head to toe tattoos, and his patron, whose head is half hidden by a window poster. Standing across the room, there is a lone spectator, whom I believe, is me, puffing on a cigarette. Reluctant to enter the tattoo parlor in reality, I put myself there in the painting.
In order to reassemble as much of the painting as I was able, I combined the negative with fragments of another, in which I looked even worse than in the one above, and turned the image sideways. I believe the top portion of the painting, which, here, is hidden by my body, was a sign that read, “TATTOO PARLOR”