- Let’s start with the basic question everyone asks, namely, what got you into tattooing?
The NYC Hardcore Scene!
I always loved tattoos. I featured them in all of my paintings and even met a few artists along the way. Timothy Hoyer, Cary Brief, and Eddie Deutsche all tattooed me in their apartments. In the underground network of illegal NYC tattooing! Timothy and Aaron Cain shared a small illegal apartment, not unlike most of the artists in those days.
I was working for Temptu, and they did tattoo shows. The community was very small at the time, but I met a lot of old timers, including my future boss Wes (of Unimax fame, operating in those days out of a basement apartment) and started to get involved in the scene.
- When was this?
- Were the few artists around big fish in small ponds? Did they make a killing?
Many were still operating off underground prices, but they did very well. I remember when I got tattooed at East Side Ink, as a potential client you had to call in from a payphone across the street.
- Tell the Cape Fear story!
I was a student at FIT specializing in illustration. Temptu posted a job on our student board for artists who did “tattoo designs”. I answered the call and ended up painting tattoo related artwork for fairs, movies, commercials, print ads, bands, art shows, you name it.
The producers for the movie Cape Fear approached Temptu. The company responded by having three artists draw renditions of “jailhouse tattoos”. One made it nice and neat, one thin and scratchy, and I rendered the requisite design (the name Loretta in a broken heart) as a blown-out, hand-stippled, jailhouse style tattoo.
The producers picked my design and asked me to create all the rest. I ended up fixing everything they were already working on, researching the requisite bible quotes, and fixing the pre-designed back piece so it didn’t look like Popsicle sticks.
After that, I got a tattoo apprenticeship at the very first parlor I popped the question. Peter Tattoo in West Hempstead, Long Island. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, does any 20 years old in college? But I knew I didn’t want a 9-5 job. And I have to say, maybe not by today’s standards, but considering the business in that era, I did have it pretty easy. I mean, I had two women working beside me, which was almost unheard of in those male-dominated days. My boss would slap my ass and tell me to wear heels and a skirt (which probably led to my adversity for dressing in those clothes) but that was it. I spent 4 years there, then left for a painting class in Florence, Italy.
- Let’s hear the Europe story!
Technically, I was still “owned” by Peter Tattoo. He told me I better not tattoo over there, but of course I did. I worked all over Europe, ending up at Alex Binnie’s “Into You” tattoo shop in London.
At Pete’s they had stressed that “bold will hold”, and pushed me to only do that, but in Europe, fine line was all the rage.
- What happened with Pete?
I ended up offering him $2,000 as an apprenticeship fee, and he told me “You know how it works you little c**t b***h…” I told him I wouldn’t tattoo but call him as soon as I got back. Then I went out of my way to never see him again.
I’m not knocking on him, that’s how old school people were back then, but it made me realize that the whole scene I thought would be shunning me was of no significance. I’ve seen hands broken, shops burnt down, and was told that I was going to have bleach thrown in my face, but it all passed. Maybe he was just nicer to girls.
- How long were you in Europe?
3 years. I had all new equipment in Europe. I couldn’t bring what I already had or Pete would know, so I got all new stuff from Micky Sharps. I made my own needles, I felt like I was starting anew, with smaller needles, more artistic designs, and working on my own out of an apartment in Europe. I barely knew what I was doing.
Fortunately, I pulled it off, and headed a month later over to Amsterdam, I worked at Hanky Panky’s wife’s place “Tattoo Peter”, headed to Luke Ackinson’s Checker Demon in London, did conventions and guest spots all over Europe, and then traveled back to NYC to work for Spider Webb. Now he was an eccentric artist! I love him but it was a total mind-numbing experience.
- How so?
Let’s just say that he’s very eccentric. He taught me a bit about the art gallery world. He’s a showman at heart, definitely an artsy nut job, but in a good way.
- Switching gears, you tattooed quite a few celebrities. What lead to that?
Being in New York City mostly!
I started out tattooing all my friends in the New York Hardcore Scene and related metal bands, which led to me going on tour with Machine Head when they did the first ever Ozzfest.
I tattooed backstage, in hotel rooms, met many more bands, and people just started flocking to me by word of mouth. I started working at East Side Ink, met David Blaine in the city, and he paid me a visit. He followed me to New York Hardcore, and then Venus, bringing many of his model and celebrity friends along the way.
I ended up tattooing Sarah Michelle Gellar at East Side Ink, and then Tim Roth at Sacred.
- One of your most famous clients was Rod Stewart. Did he specifically look for you?
His people called East Side Ink, asked for me, and the piercer just told the nonchalantly that I wasn’t in. I arrived shortly afterwards, they told me he’d stopped in, and to my amazement, they told me they didn’t take a message or get his number.
Fortunately, he walked in shortly afterwards, and I ended up tattooing him on three separate occasions. The news at the time all covered the event like it was a major story.
- Thanks for telling us a little about the early NYC scene Ronda! Let me get a brief chronology of the shops you went through back in NY!
I did a few months for Spider Webb, then Sacred, when it was a total flea market looking, obviously temporary place on Broadway. That was all in ’98. I was at East Side Ink for 3 years, New York Hardcore Tattoo for 2 years, Venus for 10 years, then headed down south to look after ailing family members.
When I moved back, it was to Long Island. I worked at Wyld Chyld, totaled my truck, and took some time off to recover, then headed over first to Lark Tattoo, and then finally your shop, The Abyss!
- Nice to have you Ronda!
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Dan Henk has been working in and as a part of the tattoo community for 20 years. He writes novels, illustrates magazines and books, and owns The Abyss Fine Art & Tattoo Gallery in Long Beach, NY, and competes in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu. Check out all his adventures on danhenk.com!