In the world of tattooing, it can be hard to be shocking.
“In this business, nothing is unusual,” said Jim Groncki, owner of A Lectric City Tattoo on State Street in Schenectady. “In this business, it’s a good way to learn not to judge. I’m just at a point where I go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s cool.’ ”
But even still, there are some tattoos that just stand out, either because of the story behind them, the people getting them or just the actual subject matter of the tattoos themselves. Sometimes, all three come together to create a memorable tattoo.
Richard Van, 31, has developed somewhat of a specialty at Lark Tattoo in Albany, inking celebrities onto friends and clients. According to Van, it all started with a client who came in asking for a tattoo of actor Bill Murray’s face.
“His story was, he just loves Bill Murray and he’s one of his favorite actors, but also, one of his friends was in a subway in New York, and he was on a train and he sees Bill Murray in the same train, and he’s just like, man, starstruck, speechless. It’s Bill Murray, you know?” Van said during a recent interview at Lark Tattoo.
As the client’s friend departed the train, Murray sneaked up behind him.
“He’s getting off the train and he’s walking, and he feels someone go up to him, put him in a headlock and give him a noogie, and then holds him and says, ‘No one will ever believe you.’ ”
Van has since given three Murray tattoos to different clients.
“I always liked Bill Murray anyway — so I just started doing Bill Murray tattoos,” he said. “People actually get them. But it’s cool, because you see a lot of memorial tattoos, hippie tattoos, things that aren’t as much fun, and I think it’s a good contrast because people want to get that stuff; you definitely know when they look at it, if it’s done well, they’re gonna be laughing; it’s gonna make them happy.”
Groncki has been a tattoo artist for 20 years, opening A Lectric City 10 years ago. Over the years, he has seen his share of unusual tattoos, including one he helped design for a woman to represent her husband’s occupation, a plumber.
“I came up with a spigot with a drip coming out of it, and out of the drip were the words, ‘Plumbers lay better pipe,’ ” Groncki said. “And we did that on her foot. She was just a fun person; she was an older lady. It was just a fun tattoo.”
Groncki first became fascinated with tattoos at about 8 or 9 years old. In the 1950s, his mother used to bring him to a cafeteria next door to the old Carl Co. department store in downtown Schenectady, where he had his first encounter with a tattoo.
“I always had a tuna fish sandwich and a glass of Coke, the old time glasses,” he said. “This guy comes out to take our dishes up and stuff off the table, and he had a greasy white apron on and a white T-shirt and a sailor hat, and he had four stars tattooed around his eyes. And I saw that, I thought that was the greatest thing in the entire world.”
Unlike Groncki, many tattooers come to the profession from an initial interest in drawing or fine art.
Jim Pardi, 29, of Sling’N Ink tattoo studio in Schenectady, went to college for graphic design and then photography. He met Mike Kirk, a tattoo artist, through a fellow student in his photography class whom he helped design tattoos for. Soon after, Pardi opened up his own business with Kirk’s help.
Not like paper
According to Pardi, making the transition from drawing on paper to drawing on skin, while not necessarily difficult, did present a new set of challenges.
“You know, if I had a dime for every time I heard somebody say that my job was easy because all I do is draw on people, I wouldn’t have to tattoo anymore because I’d be a millionaire,” Pardi said. “What they don’t realize is that it’s a lot different than drawing. Paper sits still and paper’s flat and hard; people’s skin moves, and you’ve got to take into consideration the people moving and the fact that it’s permanent. You can erase a piece of paper and throw it away.”
Actually, according to Van, the process is a bit similar to painting. The needle groupings used to lay ink down in the skin actually resemble paintbrushes that painters use, such as rounds, flats and filberts.
“It’s very much like painting, just not as forgiving,” he said. “You can’t rework an area four times. You kind of have to go in with a definite plan, and you have to map everything out.”
For those who dislike needles, there is actually not much to worry about with the needle groupings, Van said.
“You go to a doctor, it’s a hollow needle, it’s tapping veins, going through skin,” he said. “These needles go in between the fourth and fifth layers. So it’s kind of a very surfacey kind of sensation. It’s not like I keep jabbing you with a hollow, scary needle that’s pushing or pulling stuff out of you; it actually feels a little bit like a warm pinch when you do the line work.”
One of the reasons Groncki enjoys being a tattooer is because “people tell you everything.” One of his more memorable tattoos over the years involved removing, and then replacing, a woman’s name on a client’s shoulder.
“He came in and he had his wife’s name in a heart on his shoulder, and he was in a panic,” Groncki said. “He was going to divorce his wife, and his girlfriend at the present was his wife’s best friend. So he had to get his wife’s name off his shoulder and get the next one’s name on because it was the wife’s best friend, you know.”
“He comes back not two months later in a panic, ‘I’m going back to my wife. You’ve got to take the girl’s name off, you’ve got to get that off there before my wife sees it, and you have to put the same exact tattoo back on that was on there when we began’ — which is, I mean, almost Mission Impossible.”
For that reason, many tattoo artists don’t like tattooing names on clients and will attempt to talk them out of it. Tom “T-Bone” Martin, head tattooer at Lark Tattoo, said getting a name in a tattoo is “stupid.”
“I try to talk them out of it, but some people,” Martin said. “We just had another incident with a girl getting her boyfriend’s name, and it’s a month later, and they’ve broken up, and now she’s coming back here to get it covered up. Even though we give everybody the talk, it doesn’t always work.”
Pardi’s work mostly focuses on traditional American and Japanese tattooing. While he has inked a number of off-beat tattoos, including one for his neighbor, a barber who requested a tattoo of himself as Sweeney Todd, he tends to shy away from the really unusual tattoos.
“Some people come in and they do stuff for shock value and [crap] like that, and I kind of think that that’s not what tattooing should be,” Pardi said. “Some people do it and it’s funny, but I’d rather have people realize it’s an art form, you know, and do some cool stuff on them.”
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