The Thin White Duke - Duke Riley

Published: 26 February, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 222, March, 2013

Initially, Duke and I had decided we would do our interview over here in England as he was in London at the time, but due to the severe damage caused by Hurricane Sandy back at Duke’s home, he decided to go back to New York City to help with the clean-up, so I caught up with him about a month or so later on Skype.

There are still a lot of problems in the Rockaways, without a doubt. Most of my neighborhood still didn’t have power until the last week-and-a-half or so.

A lot of the shops are still closed, and will be for months to come. When I first came back, parts of it looked like the movie, The Road. Staten Island and the Rockaways were the two areas that got hit hardest, and I helped out in the Rockaways as much as I could. The cars and streets were buried in four feet or more of sand, several blocks in from the beach. Entire houses were washed away. And there were boats scattered up and down the street.

“East River Tattoo is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which, despite being quite artisan, is now becoming pretty gentrified. My business partner and I moved our shop out to Greenpoint in 2000, and shortly after that he decided he wanted to pull out of the business and do something different. So I took over the shop and changed the name because I never really liked the original name that much. It was called Cherry Bomb which I was never crazy about.

Aesthetically, everyone that works at the shop all have very similar interests but take different approaches, and that has a massive impact on the shop.

There’s a little bit of everyone in the way the place looks. Sue Jeiven does taxidermy, so a lot of the taxidermy stuff that’s in the shop is hers. Everybody has different things that they bring in to make a collective expression.

“From the get-go, we created that old aesthetic. It reflected a lot of the stuff I was doing in installation art at that time. I had done this one project where I rebuilt a turn of the century tavern out by the beach that was shut down. There was a whole complicated history about this place and these people trying to separate from the city. So a lot of the stuff that I used to decorate the bar were these old bottles that I had uncovered and dug up from the beach, and all this old driftwood and whatnot. Now it seems like this interest in reclaimed wood and old bottles and stuff has become very popular throughout Brooklyn. I was interested in things that looked different from other tattoo shops that were out there at the time, not because I was trying to set myself apart, but I was interested in looking at slightly different things, and looking at tattooing in a slightly different way.

“At that time, the focus of what was considered traditional tattooing I was very interested in. Mainly, people thought of traditional tattooing as what was going on in the World War II era, but I was a lot more interested in looking further back in history than that. So, for example, what was taking place on whaling ships in the nineteenth century. It’s proved difficult to get hold of documentation from that era, though.

“A lot of the projects that I was working on, had me travelling around and visiting maritime museums, historical societies, and folk art museums; there was a lot of reading and research involved. It was all informing the art work I was doing, which by extension affected the kind of tattooing I was doing.

“I grew up around the water. I worked with my uncle when I was a child and a teenager, working in the seafood industry, so I spent a lot of time around the fish docks in New Bedford, South Boston and Gloucester. This was at a time when the industry was much less regulated, making it all the more interesting. There were some pretty crazy things going on back then; it was a different world to what it is now. I’ve done a few relatively long sailing trips and everyone in my family owned boats, so I spent a lot of time fishing on the Cape and the north shore.

“I had always been interested in tattoos since I was a kid. I knew it was something that I always wanted. I remember seeing all these guys at fishermen’s bars that had tattoos. Later on I experimented with building my own machines and doing some kind of jailhouse tattooing. Eventually I moved into a building with some guys who were tattooing out of their apartment and they taught me how to tattoo and later they opened up a shop. That’s how I learned. This was back in the early ’90s. In fact, right now is the 20-year anniversary of when I started tattooing.

“People ask me all the time how I manage to fit in everything that I want to do, and my answer is simply that I just don’t do a lot of things that everyone else does. I don’t really shop. I always kind of look like a shit-bag. I come into the shop looking like a homeless guy. I don’t really watch TV. I pretty much just work on stuff that I have fun doing constantly. I have more fun making stuff, going out and taking adventures on boats around New York, than I do watching other people do stuff on TV.

“Everyone that works in the shop has their own side-stuff going on too, which is great: Sue Jeiven has her taxidermy; Maxime (MxM) has Sang Bleu (independent fashion magazine) – so you’ve always got a different group in the shop every day, which is cool. Sue wandered in one day and introduced herself; we talked for a little while and I decided to hire her. I had heard about Liam Sparkes because he was doing a lot of line-work too. He came out from London to visit Thomas Hooper once, and someone told him about me and he came down and introduced himself. He showed me some of the stuff that he was doing and he asked if he could tattoo there, and of course I said yes. It was cool meeting someone that was doing similar stuff to me. I met Maxime through Liam. We have a great group of artists working at the shop. The weirdest thing about my shop is that everyone hangs out with each other when they’re not working. My experiences before East River were that everyone would do their thing, but then they’d just want to get out of there. I feel like we’re all good friends.

“Despite all these tattoo television programmes and the commerciality of it, I still think that it is one of those things that is still immune to being broken down, because at the end of the day there really is no other way to do it. There are so many other skills that we have seen replaced either by machines or some other form of mass production, or even just systems of passing information on that were once done in the form of apprenticeships. But tattooing is a very hard tradition to break down. It’s interesting that for such a long time it had that low brow stigma, but now there are so many other forms of respected crafts that no longer have any element of integrity to them at all anymore. People will always care about a tattoo.

“Currently I’m working on a few different things outside of the shop. I’m working on a couple of public art pieces here in the city. One of them is a big mural that is all going to be cut out of aluminium down by the south street seaport; it’s about 36ft long and 10ft high. It’s telling the story of the ferry service that used to run in New York City. It was basically one guy and a row boat going back and forth across the river. I’m also working on a book cover for Nick Cave. And at the same time we’re moving the shop once again to a place just down the road, so I’ve got a lot on my plate currently. I’m working on a couple of other projects too, but I can’t go into them in too much detail… sometimes they blur the lines of the law.

“I did a project a few years ago that had to do with an underground river in Cleveland where there used to be a bunch of hobos that lived there from the turn of the century right up through the Great Depression. In the process of researching that, I read about John McCook’s census – a well-recognised barometer of what was happening with the economy. He travelled through the country trying to make an estimate of how many hobos there were. So, I decided to re-do his census. It involved a lot of freight-train hopping and things like that, which I’d always wanted to do since I was a little kid. While I was researching the underground river, I managed to break into the sewer system to find the buried river. It was amazing. Navigating our way through the sewer was a long, drawn-out challenge, and particularly sketchy and dangerous at times. There was a point where we almost all drowned when there was a particularly heavy rainfall while we were down there, right after discovering this incredible underground pond where there were actual fish living.

“I built a submarine based on the first submarine ever built that was used in New York harbour to attack British ships during the Revolutionary War. There weren’t very clear blueprints that I could access, but I found a little museum dedicated to the guy that built it in his hometown in Connecticut. And there I could access notes that he took on how he built the submarine. Eventually I was able to build it, but I made a few slight changes. I used poplar instead of oak. The original one was covered in tar, but I used fiberglass just to make sure it was safer.

“I used it twice. My original plan was to use it to go after the QMII. We got spotted by the coast guard the first time we launched it into the harbour; they told me I couldn’t have it out there because the QMII was in town, and I was like ‘Oh right, sorry, I didn’t know!’ Then I had to wait until the next time the QMII was in town. I almost succeeded, but the coast guard got to me again…”

East River Tattoo

113 Franklin Street
(+01) 718 532 8282


Text: Tom Abbott; Duke