SAD NEWS FOR ALL OF US
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’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:
A TATTOO’S A TATTOO’S A…?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Catch you on the rebound.
―Mike Bakaty, Fineline Tattoo, New York City
Mike Bakaty (Buh-kay-tee) opened New York City’s Fineline Tattoo (www.finelinetattoo.com), 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.