Kimberly Sheridan explores the world of tattoos in her column Tattoo Ink. In “But It’s Just One Word,” she shares her experience as a tattoo shopgirl and dealing with customers.
Before clients talked to a tattoo artist, they talked to me. For a year in my late twenties, I worked behind the counter at Red Rocket Tattoo in Herald Square, New York City.
Like all industries, but to a greater degree than most, tattooing contains insiders and outsiders—and many people, including most customers, fall into the outsider category. The ten artists at my shop usually didn’t want to explain rules, restrictions, and pricing to folks who wandered in cluelessly asking for unreasonable things. I didn’t blame them. This was a tattoo shop, not a clothing store. Can I get Rihanna’s tattoo? It costs that much? Clearly, potential clients didn’t know how they’d have been treated twenty years ago asking these inane questions. Their commitment to permanent ink was cursory—they often seemed resistant to the very thing they were asking for.
Like all artists, but to a greater degree than most, tattooers want to create art that challenges and fulfills them and not just pander to every request solely for financial gain. This wasn’t a career the majority of them chose because they were invested in customer service and conventional professionalism. So, I was often the bridge. I was the middle-woman, educator, emotional laborer, or … shopgirl.
Herald Square housed the famous 34th Street Macy’s, towering office buildings, clothing chains, hole-in-the-wall jewelry shops, best-coffee-advertising bodegas, and one tattoo shop. Red Rocket was above a burger joint, behind a nondescript metal side-door, and up two flights of narrow stairs. Once you stepped inside, the space itself was inviting. The waiting area had two brown leather couches and a large wooden-trunk-as-coffee-table with all the artists’ portfolios. The walls of the shop were crimson red and covered with framed artwork.
I stood behind a glass-case counter filled with patches, stickers, and handmade silver jewelry made up of anchors, roses, and skulls. The inside of the counter, walls, and mini-fridge were covered in stickers from tattoo shops all over the world—a maximalist visual feast. Staff photos, artfully taken black-and-white mug shots of the insiders holding letter boards in front of our chests, hung above the counter. They showed our shop duty and the date of our entry into the tattoo-world establishment.
I wasn’t a tattooer, so I wasn’t fully on the inside, but I had my foot in the door and I enjoyed being part of the family. I wasn’t working at the shop very long when one of the owners, Mike, brought in a cake for my 30th birthday: a small chocolate cake with yellow frosted flowers and 3 & 0 candles on top. As someone who wanted to be a tattooer and trusted within the community, I was moved by this thoughtful gesture, this small kindness.
My shop nickname was “Kimbo Slice,” after the 6’2”, Black, heavyweight streetfighter, because I was a black belt, albeit also a 5’8”, white, soft-spoken yogi. Our motley crew always had jokes and good-natured pranks to liberally spread around. Once, I unrolled my yoga mat that I kept at the shop to find printed photos of Kimbo holding a giant ax inside with neatly cut word bubbles affixed to his mouth: Whatchu know ’bout happy, baby? / After getting your stretch on, let’s build some shit. One artist kept leaving his dirty coffee mug on the windowsill—instead of cleaning up after him, my boss taped the moldy mug to the guy’s station, criss-crossing it with twenty strips of tape with Sharpie dicks drawn on them.
There was a daily war at Red Rocket over what music to play. Two of the tattooers would quickly descend upon the computer and play death metal for as long as they could. One of the owners inevitably vetoed the noise, saying repeatedly that you couldn’t expect customers to sit still and stay calm while getting punctured 3,000 times per minute when listening to Cannibal Corpse or Lamb of God. Everyone loved Mariachi El Bronx, the LA punk band who crossed over to Mexican folk, incorporating full charro suits, horns, and violins. It was the rare, and maybe only, case of bridging the taste gap between hardcore metal and Waylon Jennings. The music was fast-paced and catchy enough to keep the artists awake and focused, but not so grating it would terrorize the clients. Along with the hotly debated shop tunes, there was the constant steady hum of tattoo machines: zzZzzZzzZ.
While I managed the front, the artists had plenty to do. What most customers didn’t know was that tattoos, even small ones, required a good deal of work. The chosen image had to be drawn or printed out and traced by the tattooer. If the client wanted revisions, the sketch needed to be tweaked, and the image was blown up or reduced on a copier for just-right sizing. It was then made into a stencil to be placed on the customer’s skin. Sometimes, if the placement was off, it had to be scrubbed off and replaced with a new stencil.
The artist’s station had to be set up, which I did for them if they were busy. Dental bibs laid out on the cart to catch runaway ink and blood. Cord, power supply, and squeeze bottles covered with plastic. Tattoo machines prepared with sterilized tubes and new needles pulled from insulated pouches. Little plastic caps stuck to the bib with a glob of Vaseline so they wouldn’t budge and filled with enough ink to get through the session.
After the tattoo, this elaborate set-up had to be broken down. Carefully. Single-use needles went into the biohazard sharps container, tubes went into the autoclave for sterilization, and everything got wiped down with MadaCide, which is powerful enough to kill HIV and Hepatitis. Naturally, this process had to be repeated each time.
About fifty percent of the time, customers would want to negotiate the price of a tattoo. They’d be willing to spend more than a hundred dollars on common purchases like boots, handbags, and jackets—but not on something etched into their dermis that they’d wear forever.
About fifty percent of the time, customers would want to negotiate the price of a tattoo. They’d be willing to spend more than a hundred dollars on common purchases like boots, handbags, and jackets—but not on something etched into their dermis that they’d wear forever. People perceived our hundred-dollar minimum as a rip-off or simply exorbitant: But it’s just one word. It’s just a bird silhouette. I thought this was an obviously skewed value perception, but I was also the one behind the counter and I’d try to patiently educate them.
Fielding questions and making suggestions, I’d explain to customers if the tattoo was upside down, even though it was for them, it should for aesthetic reasons be right side up. I’d inform them tattoos that were too small would get fuzzy over time as ink bled, and words would become illegible. That we couldn’t fit five things into a square inch. What I gathered was almost everyone wanted a tattoo, but that almost no one wanted it to be visible: a mini-rebellion with no real skin in the game. Did they like the idea of having one more than actually having one? Did the conformity of an overused design feel safer than a unique one?
My heart went out to the tattooers who were rarely asked to do sizable custom work, but to mimic a celebrity’s tattoo or some Pinterest image done thousands of times, as original drawings in their notebooks blinked and sighed. I’d explain to the customers it would be better to have the artist redraw the concept, have it be the only one of its kind. If the text was hand-drawn, it would have more character than a font. On repeat, how white tattoos often didn’t work and how black ink lasts the longest. How ink on fingers falls out and potentially needs to be retouched soon after and, no, we absolutely wouldn’t do a first-time tattoo on hands or necks. No “job-killers,” as we called them, for someone who’d never walked through the world as a heavily tattooed person and understood what that meant. Lawlessness, meet gravity and rules.
Occasionally, customers didn’t want to talk to a woman, but evidently didn’t know how lucky they were to avoid a first encounter with some of the boys in the back. One guy came in with his girlfriend and was persuading her to get his puckered lip-print tattooed on her butt. She was clearly not convinced, nervous, and giggly.
“Stop being a pussy,” he told her, more than once.
I lost it: “Get THE HELL OUT of my shop.”
The artists were in the back, hidden but overhearing, and not about to step in—instead of ready to come out and unleash their fury, they were gleeful like kids on Christmas morning to see me mad. I had a reputation for unholy patience. They reveled in trying to find ways to poke me and hated how insufferably calm I was.
We had illegal access to our roof, four floors above street level. I’d hear honking and see little ant-people scurrying down below as I spread out my yoga mat on the uneven tar rectangle. It was a pleasant distance from the chaos but still encircled by tall buildings. Windows allowed nine-to-fivers see me in half-moon pose or the artists smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee before opening our doors at 12:00 noon.
In the middle of the shop, there was always somebody drawing or painting at the big stainless table—before we opened or after the sun went down, sometimes both. Tattooing wasn’t just a job; it was the air they breathed.
At 8:00 p.m., the end of the workday, I counted the money and paid artists their cut. I emptied the garbage bins and carried the big bags down the stairs and left them on the soiled curb. The tattooers and I would often head to the local pub. We’d order beers and greasy food and take over a large table, a ship of colorful creatures in a sea of monotone midtown businesspeople.
We weren’t located in the mecca of tattooing on the gritty Lower East Side, or in Brooklyn, or the places in New York where you’d expect to find a shop. Maybe our location contributed to a certain kind of walk-in client and pedestrian or run-of-the-mill requests, but industry-wide gripes were common.
From our shop’s vantage on Sixth Avenue and 36th Street, our crew would gather to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Bizarrely large balloons of Snoopy and Spider-Man floated by our large windows, bouncing and waving to us. From our corner perch, we could see the eastern side of Macy’s, the largest department store in America. Their logo has always been a star, based on the red star tattoo that R.H. Macy got as a teenager when he worked on a Nantucket whaling ship. Little did customers or shoppers probably know, a nautical star ensured a sailor could always find his way home.