New York - State of Mind

Published: 20 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 190, September, 2010

The New York City convention got started the year after the ban against tattooing in New York was lifted. Twelve years later it’s still held in the Roseland Ballroom, a couple of busy, bustling blocks away from Times Square. This is a convention that offers more than just tattoos, but all of that is happening outside the doors.



1997 was an important year for tattoo enthusiasts and artists in New York. That was the year when tattooing became legal in the city again. Before that people had to go to, for example, New Jersey to adorn their skin with ink based art.


The year after that, the first New York City convention was held. 

“There was a great need for a convention in New York at the time and it was started by Steve Bonge, Butch Garcia and Wes Wood. They were the owners and I was kind of the fourth person helping out,” says Clayton Patterson, now the only one left alongside Steve Bonge. 

From the start the convention has been held in the historical building that is Roseland Ballroom, located on 52 Street, just a stone’s throw away from busy Times Square, the heart of New York City. 

“Steve wanted a great historical building, a landmark with class, and he was able to hook up Roseland. It’s a cultural center where a lot of great bands have played and of course it used to be a ballroom. It’s a great place to have the convention. Also, in this area, the convention is a reasonably priced entertainment. For 20 dollars you get a full day’s experience. If you go to a movie and buy some popcorn, that’s 20 dollars right there. We also have good food at good prices.” 

One thing that strikes me during the weekend, though, is the almost complete lack of entertainment in addition to the actual convention. In conventions all over the world you get to see bands, burlesque shows and circus sideshows. But not here. Again it has to do with the location: 

“This is not an art show or anything like that, it’s a tattoo show. If you have bands playing it’s loud and hard for the tattooists to talk to the customers and it takes over. All the focus is on the band.”

Instead the bustling activity of the Times Square area is one of the main features of the convention in itself, according to Patterson:

“This is Midtown Manhattan. If you want to do something else for a while you can just walk out the door and go to David Letterman or a Broadway show or whatever. You can be entertained all the way from here to the first corner. Yesterday there was a block party right across the street, so why should we have Paul Booth doing art fusion downstairs?”

Aaron Bell, from Slave to the Needle, in Seattle, Washington, confirms Patterson’s theories. 

“This is my seventh year here and always I bring the family. Since we’re in Times Square there’s a lot to do of everything. There’s generally not a lot of culture in the States, so if you want to grasp a little of it, this would be the place.”

Friday is quite slow and as I walk around I can’t say that I’m very impressed by the artwork covering the skin of the visitors. To me a lot of it seems like European work, but sloppy. 

Come Saturday though, that all changes. It’s by far the busiest day of the three. The quality of the tattoos actually being produced at the convention throughout the weekend is as good as any I’ve been to, but on Saturday the artwork on the visitors’ arms and legs also seem to have increased a lot. 

On Friday, Ish, from Tattooish in Netherlands Antilles, walked away with the Best of Day trophy. On Saturday Placaso, from California, wins his first of two. 

Saturday is also the day when a lot of people go up to Paul Booth’s famous studio Last Rites after the convention closes, to view a gallery opening featuring macabre art made foremost by tattoo artists.

Paul Booth and Aaron Bell are both part of what Clayton Patterson thinks of as almost an international family gathering. A lot of the artists have been working the convention from the beginning and one of those is Frank from The Spirit of Art Tattoo in Bremen, Germany. He’s been coming to New York since year one. 

“The first year the ban had just been lifted and Frank Sinatra was dying so they were playing New York, New York the whole time, and we were all like a big family. We, who came from Europe, were also much respected. At a restaurant we even ended up in a picture in a news paper.” 

Since then he’s seen a change in the attitude in people in New York and at the convention. It has, of course, to do with another important date in American, and world, history, September 11, 2001. 

“The city changed and it’s not so much of a rock’n’roll city as it used to be. People are not so open-minded and happy anymore. They’re still a bit scared.”

He actually became a victim of this scare himself once, when he missed his only New York show so far:

“I was talking to this Pakistani business man in customs. I said some bad things about George W. Bush, which they heard, and they sent me home. I had to do two interviews at the embassy in Germany to be allowed back in the country.”

Although, when it comes to the actual art of tattooing, he instead finds Americans a bit more open-minded than Europeans. 

“In Europe you got to have this or that, but here you can change around, mix things up.”


So About That Ban....

Back in 1961, tattooing in New York City was forced underground when the City Health Department figured it had found a series of hepatitis cases coming from studios.

It wasn't until 1985 - 24 years later, but still 12 years before it would be legal again in 1997 - that the New York Tattoo Society came together. The society went on to form the basis of the group that would bring about the change that was needed - and these were people who really wanted change, but it took until 1996 for their efforts to truly come together.

To begin with, the city wanted to introduce totally unworkable regulations that included $5000 licencing fees, having their say on what kind of lights were used and even down so far as to what studios were allowed to use to decorate with. 

Eventually, sanity prevailed and a set of regulations that would work for both artists and the city came about - these included a $100 dollar licence fee and a health department examination. Conversely, artists found operating illegally, could face serious fines.

Which brings us to today where we find NYC to be a city bustling with activity some of the most famous names in the world...


Text & Photography: Simon Lundh


Skin Deep 190 21 September 2010 190