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Mike Bakaty—Another Good Man Gone

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This is getting too hard to handle anymore. Mike Bakaty, one of our dearest friends and a man that, for many of us, was why we got involved in the world of tattoo in the first place, died last night. Anytime I was near Manhattan, I made it my duty to visit Mike’s shop at 21 First Avenue. It was always the best part of traveling from the West Coast… it was like visiting Bert Grimm, Sailor Jerry and Pablo Picasso all in one. A consummate artist, Mike clung to the old school way in both his art and his lifestyle. Nothing fancy, just a reality check for the rest of us. I close my eyes and see him now, four or five of us, at the shop, with his son, Mehai, shooting the shit by the front window.

Mike Bakaty

Mike Bakaty

Mike’s wife, Yvonne, called this morning to give me the news. Mike passed peacefully, spending the last months calmly planning his… departure. All the ducks in a row, that’s the way he was; dealing with the reality of death through the reality of life. And when I asked Yvonne if there was anything Mary and I could do, she thanked me for kicking Mike in the pants and encouraging him to write “Bakaty’s World,” for Skin&Ink. Here’s one of those brilliant columns:



One thing you never hear in a tattoo shop, when someone is looking at a person’s new tattoo is, “Holy mackerel, that looks like shit!” The general response is, “It looks great,” or at least a serious nod of approval. Then struggling for something to say, mumble, “Where did you get it?” making a mental note not to go to that place or person. What the hell, a tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo.


Mehai and Mike

You can’t help but wonder what some people are thinking, when they get the tattoo that they get, and who they get it from. It’s not just the image. More often than not, it’s in the underlying drawing―looking like it was done by a semi-talented twelve year old.

It can also be in the execution: knotted, broken, inconsistent line work, for example. It could be in the piss-poor shading, if any at all, or in splotchy, muddy colors. It’s everything that you don’t want to see in a permanent mark on the human body. A waste of precious skin. Though one has to admit that even a bad tattoo carries a certain punch, more often than not, the work was done by a “friend.” These same folks, unless it was a particularly brutal job, will swear undying allegiance to the person that did it, their artist/friend. When questioned, it’s “I don’t want to be unfaithful” or “ I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” And then there’s the eternal classic, “It didn’t take too well.” What the hell, a tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo. As my son, Mehai, says, “You know, pop, people would rather have a good tattoo experience than a good tattoo.”

I think there’s truth in that.

Back around the time that it dawned on me that I could draw better than what I was doing off of the few sheets of commercial flash I had, I was tattooing a number of young guys from the Lower East Side, aspiring bent-nosed types, you know what I mean? Whenever they got work, you’d be paid in single dollar bills. If you did an eighty-buck piece, you got eighty singles. The one time I asked about it, the response was, “You do dollar action, you get dollar bills.”

Fineline NYC


One of these guys showed up one day wanting to get a grim reaper, which, of course, I had. The thing was, it was a piece of commercial flash. The image had passed through a hundred or more hands before it landed on that particular sheet. I thought it was really lame. The skull was lumpy and the teeth were disproportionate to the size. The fingers and arms looked like a bunch of weenies on the end of a stick. The drapery in the robes was non-existent. In other words, it looked like shit. I knew I could draw it better.

I ran this down to the kid and told him to give me a couple of days for the redraw. I did the skull without the lumps and made the teeth proportionate. The arms and fingers looked like bones, and it was more gestural. The robes looked like drapery out of a Renaissance painting. Not a bad job, if I said so myself. The upshot of the whole thing was, when the guy came back a few days later, I had him look at my drawing and compare it to the original. “Yours looks too real,” he proclaimed, as though he’d come face-to-face with the Reaper himself. “But the other one looks more like a tattoo. That’s the one I’ll have.” A tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo.


At the Window

The thing is, as you think about it, that attitude was not necessarily unjustified. The artwork, needlework and iconography of tattoo had remained basically the same for a hundred years or more, with minor variations. Everyone was doing the same thing. What stylistic differences that existed were not as per the hand of individuals, but rather regional. An “east coast” style was characterized by its telltale black shading, and a “west coast” style is where the modeling was done in color values. I’ve even heard of a “midwest” style, although, after thirty-odd years, I’m damned if I know what that might be. That’s all changed.

My old pal, E.J., brought to my attention a recent book, Micro Trends by Mark Penn with Kinny Zalesne. It states that back in the seventies there were about three hundred tattoo shops in the U.S.A.. Today there are more than four thousand. How many tattooers? Multiply that worldwide. On top of that, there’s a small army out there just drawing flash, some of it amazing.

We’ve seen a veritable flood of exposure and tattooed people―from five million in the seventies to an estimated thirty five million today. They encompass every racial ethnic and socio-economic class, a truly democratic cross-section. Who knows how many books, documentaries and periodicals? There’s been a tidal wave of talented individuals and an avalanche of availability in materials and equipment that have given rise to images and techniques that were unimaginable thirty years ago. And yet, with the quality of work being done these days, there are those still out there for whom a tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo. You gotta wonder.


Door Painted Black

Catch you on the rebound.

―Mike Bakaty, Fineline Tattoo, New York City


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Mike Bakaty (Buh-kay-tee) opened New York City’s Fineline Tattoo (, in a loft in the Lower East Side in 1976, when tattooing in the Big Apple was illegal and forced to exist underground. Still pushing ink today at “2nd and 2nd” with his son Mehai (who, under his father’s tutelage, made needles at fourteen and performed his first tattoo at age sixteen), Bakaty is credited with having the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan. He also penned a column, “Bakaty’s World,” for Skin&Ink magazine, educating us all about the roller-coaster life of a big-city tattooist, years before the advent of documentary TV shows and heavily-inked celebrities. Among his little-known credits, Bakaty has a selection of his art displayed in the permanent collection of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. One of the industry’s great storytellers, Bakaty was in his shop every day, dispersing wisdom, cool comments and old-school tattoos to all who wandered through the door.

with 6 comments

Written by Baxter

January 30th, 2014 at 12:40 pm

6 Responses to 'Mike Bakaty—Another Good Man Gone'

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    30 Jan 14 at 3:51 pm

  2. Mike was my mentor. He introduced me to the world of tattoo. I wrote this in his honor. You are welcome to use it, if you choose to do so.

    -Shotsie Gorman

    For a man, there are along the road in life those men, whom you react against in your youth. Those who by the shear act of defying them set a tone in your life. You try to be independent of thought and deed but always referring to their weakness as symbol of your strength. Albeit sadly, that leads you to not knowing yourself well enough to see past the defiance, anger and hurt that you perpetuate against yourself by constantly reacting to those often cruel unconscious people long ago out of your life, and the memory of their actions below your conscious self. This can certainly lead to an unhappy life.

    Meanwhile, if you are lucky and you suck it up take some four minutes of courage as I had –you meet one of your teachers! There are those who make a mark in your life that reverberates, in ripples for the balance of it. Milestones are set when you are around these men. Lessons are learned by a demonstration of a life well lived. Demonstrations of the courage of spirit are acted upon and fleeting by. If sadly you miss them you could be lost forever. If you don’t see them its because you are buried in your own head filled with fear and anger. These men present a showing of devotion in love, honor of friendship, care for family and a burning in the creative life.

    These people are funny they have depth from flying around the origins of the universe to the bawdy have a shot and beer dirty joke. They burn bright like the stars and they push out the darkness.

    Yes there are men who take the time to mentor a young person -they exist.
    Somehow they see themselves there in you pissed off face. I am not sure I have this capacity although I tried to nurture it in my self after having brushed against it.
    These men have the capacity see passed the unconscious rage to the glimmer of hope of creativity of the possibility of living the good life in these younger men.

    These men are like jewels in that they are so rare. Often they are so well hidden in their truth that they would be passed by those who do not have the eyes and ears to take them in to as it were value them. The greatest teachers are playing the clown hiding their power. Often they are sitting in a Tattoo Shop, a garage a construction site or Finnelli’s artist bar in Soho NYC

    Yes they are rare– they seem to slip in an out of your dreams of your early life forever and indelibly mark you by their generosity of spirit and sometimes with the they even leave and indelible mark on your skin.

    Who in your life has shown you it is possible to be an intellectual and build a house with your hands? Who in you life path has risen from the depths of anger to the revelation of knowledge, of spiritual curiosity?

    There are those men who can show temperance and forgiveness in their children’s naive transgressions. Showing them the wrong of their actions without the guilt or oppression of their spirits. I have had the great benefit of having come across one of the teachers of the world. He was not hiding on a mountaintop nor living with the clock people in a cave overlooking the Rubber Rose Ranch. I found him on the third floor of a loft construction sight on Waverly Street in Manhattan. I was a pissed off Twenty years old in 1970! I knew no one in Manhattan and I was seeking work, as a carpenter while I dreamed of becoming a well know sculptor.

    I found a dumpster filled with trash saw a light on the third floor and two guys were coming off the freight elevator I tried to get to it before it closed missing it, I asked

    “ Hey who is running that job on the third floor?”

    Oh that’s Mike Bakaty’s job one of the guys replied.

    I cupped my hands over my mouth and yelled up “HEY MIKE, MIKE BAKATY!

    He peered down at me through an open window, thirty feet up, squinted at me with a suspicious eye,

    “Send down the elevator! Will yah! ”

    I nearly used up my few minutes of courage just doing that.

    When it opened He starred at me “Do I know you?”

    I shook his hand said

    “You don’t know me, Mike Bakaty. I am Shotsie Gorman. I am new in town– I can work hard and I am here to help you get this job done!

    Shotsie Gorman

    30 Jan 14 at 7:40 pm

  3. Oh DEAR Mike! The “UPSHOT” is that I will see you on the “other side” Rest in Peace My Brother, My Friend…All the time AND those Christmas Eve’s we spent together will be forever in my heart! You are ONE OF A KIND! Me,Max and Bettie Paige will Miss you So Much…Until We Are Together Again!

    Sandee Wright

    30 Jan 14 at 11:17 pm

  4. The bar up in “tattoo heaven” must be getting pretty full. Bert Grimm and Sailor Jerry are going toe-to-toe over the role of tattooing and the media, while Mike Bakaty and Paul Rogers sit back and smile, regaling each other with tattoo stories …. Huck Spaulding is tinkering with some metal gizmo he had hidden in his cowboy hat during his transition. Betty Broadbent and Elizabeth Weinzirl are serving drinks, and also serving up ample portions of skin for perusal to the heavily-inked crowd. Makes me miss all the fond memories of them on this planet.

    Mary Jane Haake

    31 Jan 14 at 11:04 am

  5. I always figured that I had known Mike Bakaty long before he did my first tattoo. It turned out we actually did live within a few blocks of each other for many years. That would have been back in the ’60s. Before the Lower East Side became the East Village. We both figured that at some time or another we’d been in the same places, maybe shared a joint or three. He still carried the mellow vibes of those fine times. We kind of worked this out as Mike did that first tattoo and then several more over the years.

    Mike’s “shop” was in his loft on the Bowery. That was back when tattooing was illegal in New York City. In time I came to Mike for another, larger tattoo. He drew out a piece for me and started it in that loft space. A few months later he finished it in his new – and legal – shop, Fineline Tattoo on Second Avenue.

    For the past 17 years, that bright yellow store front of Fineline has been easy to spot. It was a street shop in the old-school sense, a part of the neighborhood, and it was infused with Mike’s same mellow vibe. When he wasn’t working, you could also spot Mike curled into his favorite spot at a corner of the window.

    Yesterday Mike’s son Mehi painted the window gate black. I walked past it this afternoon. There was a bouquet of flowers and note about Mike’s passing.

    Maury Englander

    1 Feb 14 at 9:03 am

  6. Mike Bakaty was an active artist showing sculpture in Soho galleries and being reviewed in Artforum in the 1970s when Soho was the epicenter of New York City art, then the cutting edge in the world. Not liking the scene much, he realized that not one of his fine art colleagues could create a quality tattoo. In short, he walked away from a fine art career, to become one of the leading tattoo artists in the USA, his drawing surpassed by none. He was a superb draftsman (a visual artist who specializes in artistic drawings). These original drawings were the underpinnings of spectacular tattoos that made their way from paper to skin, from graphite to ink.

    Not only was Mike Bakaty among the few tattoo artists who had a Masters degree in fine art, but in 1976 established Fine Line Tattoo in New York City, the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan. When tattooing became legal in NYC, Bakaty obtained the first license issued. He set the standard and continued to raise the bar as he worked continually for forty years, never losing his enthusiasm for the medium. He was a consummate artist focused on his work right up to the end.

    Mike Bakaty tutored and mentored Mehai Bakaty, now an equally brilliant tattoo artist, from the age of 10; by 19 years of age, Mehai was working full-time in his shop. This dynamic father and son duo worked together in the same studio, side by side, for 25 years generating work that brought fans, workers and celebrities alike, from around the world . Mehai, fully capable and profoundly talented in his own right, will carry the Bakaty torch!

    Our dear friend, Mike Bakaty, an incredible person, will remain with us in memory and spirit. All those who knew him were all the better for it. Virtually, thousands were touched by his humanity and talent –and have the honor of wearing his art.

    E.J. Vaughn

    1 Feb 14 at 4:41 pm

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