Nestled in between New York City’s fast-paced Chinatown neighborhood and trendy, artistic SoHo district, Sacred Tattoo’s location perfectly reflects the duality found within this NYC-based tattoo institution. One part tattoo studio and one part art gallery, Sacred began as Canal Street Tattoo in 1990 as a result of founder Westley Wood’s growing supply business, Unimax, which, in turn, was the result of a (somewhat short-lived) desire to become a tattoo artist.
I got a couple of tattoos and I said 'wow, isn’t this great?' Just like everybody,” laughs Wood about his introduction to the tattoo world. Setting out to learn the craft at a time when tattooing was still illegal in New York, it soon dawned on Wood that finding supplies was going to be a real challenge. “I couldn’t find anybody; as far as I knew, there was nobody in New York at all. When I tried to inquire, it was like a stone wall,” remembers Wood. “So one time I was running around in New Jersey, I used to go and hang around at different tattoo shops, and I ran right across a place that said ‘Tattoo Supplies’, so I went in there and this guy’s name was Andy Keator – he was partners one time with Tony the Pirate but they split up and he’d been selling stuff, and he use to make a two-piece kind of frame, kind of unusual, use to make all the needles too, so I just became friendly with him and he sort of took me under his wing. He taught me how to make the tools, how to make coils, how to make needles, so I learned all the stuff from him.”
Wood began making supplies in his apartment in 1988, and by the following year he started running out of room. The challenge now was to find a place to keep his products and a way to regularly test them. “That’s how I really started Sacred: I said, I wanna have a shop to really test it out in real time, you know? See the needles are good, and stuff like that.”
Originally renting a space on Third Street – “You had to walk through the building, out the back, down the door; really weird” – Wood soon moved to a 600-sqaure-foot room in SoHo, which seemed like an outlandish idea at first. “I looked at the room and I said, oh my God, I can’t fill up this space, what am I gonna do? But then a couple years start going by, I rented another place on the floor and another place, and another place, so pretty soon the landlord says, ‘Look, we’re running out of space here but I have a place on Canal Street.’” That was the start of Canal Street Tattoo, and also the end of Wood’s short career as a tattoo artist.
“Halfway through 1990 a guy came in off the street and he said, ‘Oh, I found one of your flyers on the floor, in the gutter’, and he says, ‘My name is Anil Gupta.’ He didn’t know really how to tattoo at the time, he was from India, but I hired him. He started really, really learning tattooing but once he started drawing, the way he could draw was like a phenomenon, I just couldn’t tattoo anymore. It was like I felt bad ‘cause he was good just straight out of the gate and me, [I was] still struggling. That ended my career as a tattooist, so I just concentrated on making more stuff.”
Under Gupta’s request, the name of the shop changed to Kaleidoscope Tattoo, but once he left and was replaced by Sean Vasquez, the name was then changed a third and final time to Sacred Tattoo. Nowadays, Sacred occupies well over 3,000 square feet and thanks to a rather recent renovation, now also includes Sacred Gallery NYC.
Kevin Wilson, who manages both the shop and gallery (he started out as a piercer at Sacred and also worked with Wood at Unimax), is the mastermind behind these major changes. “My brain and my vision have always been in the art community,” explains Wilson. “When we had our 20-year anniversary, since our studio is so large, I wanted to change the atmosphere and really take the studio into a completely different direction from what it was used to, so we really started to refine the type of artist that worked in the studio and we launched the gallery.”
Described by Wilson as a fine arts gallery, Sacred Gallery NYC may be on the same floor as the tattoo studio, but “it’s separate at the same time. It has its own separate entrance; it is its own separate entity to the company,” and although the two spaces do interact, they are not necessarily always in sync. “Every so often we’ll show people who do tattoo, but for the most part we have people such as Shepard Fairey who has shown with us. He’s the guy who did the iconic Obama ‘Hope’ picture that everybody sees and he also does street art that’s known as Obey Giant... It’s not necessarily just tattoo-inspired art.”
With artists constantly submitting works to be shown in the space, Sacred Gallery NYC embraces an eclectic mix of styles. “Since we’re in a nontraditional atmosphere, I don’t play by the traditional gallery rules by saying, you have to show digital work in one show or you have to solely be a photography gallery, so if I know the works will match and pair up in a show, we’ll show all different mixed mediums...The vibe every month will constantly change for us.” The only criterion that does stay the same across all genres of work is whether, simply put, the art is marketable. “Rent is very expensive in New York City and the worst thing we wanna do is have a room filled with stuff that we know won’t sell,” says Wilson.
Also in charge of selecting and managing the artists who work at Sacred Tattoo, Wilson strives to achieve the same well-rounded mix in the shop as he does in the gallery. “I like to have each individual person who works at the studio have their own personal style,” he says. “If I had five people who did photorealistic work in the studio, it would pull away from each guy being able to try to get work done. If I have one person who really specializes in black and grey photorealism and another person who specializes in colour stuff, or another person who specializes in traditional, and another person who does Japanese-style work, it allows for almost like a fair playing field with each of the guys that work here.”
Having grown with Sacred Tattoo over the years, Wilson notes he’s witnessed firsthand the positive changes in the industry that have been brought on by the tides of mass media. “I think people, for the most part, have started to take tattooing a little bit more seriously,” he says. “With all the TV shows, they see everybody getting very large tattoos so their eyes are opened to oh, I don’t have to get this little Chinese character, I can actually get something that a person is gonna custom draw for me ... I know there are a lot of people who talk bad on the TV shows [but] the only thing it is, is the networks, they want to create drama, which gets people to keep watching these shows. The general concept of the show, like Ami James doing Miami Ink, or now he’s actually doing New York Ink as well, he’s about three blocks away from us now, in my eyes, it doesn’t do anything but help the industry and let people see that there’s more than just the pick it-type flash stuff. I don’t see any problems with it.”
Wilson has also experienced major changes in the shop’s clientele base and he cites two noteworthy catalysts. The first: location. “Years ago, when we were on the ground level, it was very fast-paced, flash-based-type artwork because you have a lot of tourists in the neighborhood. As we started to go off the ground level, we started to find our clientele started to shift. The tourists were left walking around on the street and buying their handbags and stuff like that, and we noticed that the tattoo artists that work here could really start to focus on larger pieces where they didn’t have to worry about being interrupted with doing the smaller stuff.”
The second source of growth and change: Sacred Gallery NYC. “The nice thing about having a gallery and a tattoo studio together is when people come in, especially like the fine arts community, you get a lot of people who would have never even wanted to come near a tattoo studio because there’s certain phobias and stigmas that could be attached with their thinking, like the old school mindset. And then they come and they see how comfortable the atmosphere is and how we cater to a different type of clientele and then next thing you know, we find out that we’ve started tattooing a lot of these art people. So it’s actually worked out pretty well for us,” says Wilson and adds, “that was one of the things we wanted to try to be able to do: pull both worlds together. We’ve had clients of ours who have been getting tattooed purchase from the gallery and then we’ve had people who have purchased from the gallery, and shown in the gallery, wind up getting their first tattoos from us.”
Sounds like the perfect marriage.
Kevin Wilson on... Bringing tattoo references
The more references you have, I’m all for it because at least it gives us an idea of what you have in mind. The worst thing the artist wants to do is just be left with a general idea and they wind up spending all this time on the drawing and they find out, when it comes time for the appointment, that it’s not what the customer wanted. Even though these guys are artists, they’re also being contracted at the same time, so our goal is to make sure that we are really hitting the nail on the head the first time around, so that we’re giving [clients] exactly what they want.
Kevin Wilson on... Booking an appointment
Sometimes we can do stuff the same day if they’re coming through and they have all their references ready for us, and it just needs to be modified a little bit to be tattooable. Other times, it could be a couple weeks to a couple months in advance. At the longest, usually, we’re about a three-month wait with some of our guys.
Westley Wood on... The New York Tattoo Society
I didn’t even know there was anybody in New York at the time that even made a tattoo, but right about that time, there was a bunch of people who were sort of up-and-coming like me. [They] use to meet every month and all kinds of people use to come. If it wasn’t for the tattoo society in New York, New York wouldn’t have happened.
Sacred Tattoo424 Broadway (2nd Floor)
New York City