Hot! Tattoo and Scrimshaw Art of Duke Riley

By Matty Jankowski

Dear Matty:

I have been looking into nautical history and seafaring literature. It might sound a bit whacky but I have this idea of looking at my tattoo and feeling the power and majesty of the wind and waves. This heightened sense of adventure might be due to the fact that I just finished reading Kon-Tiki. I don’t have any pictures in mind but I am sure that I will know it when I see it.


Duke Riley

In researching and fact checking for my Q&A column I often get sidetracked or at times totally derailed onto resources that take me by surprise. Such was the case while doing my homework on Sailor Girl tattoos. In the process of tracking down artist, film maker, ukulele orchestra member and tattooist Terry Marks, I went from the Internet to gallery links, g-mails and phone numbers, which brought me to the voicemail of East River Tattoo. I felt a bit dizzy from chasing my tail but it all panned out. A little phone dancing with Kitty Joe and a speedy response put me in touch with Terry and a side trip introduction to artist, patriot and visionary tattooist Duke Riley.

I was immediately taken by his visceral connection to all things nautical. His distinctive seafaring style of tattooing was unique and unpretentious. His artistic statement of purpose further intensified his dedication to both art and tattooing.

The New England native with salt water in his veins cut his teeth on the fishing industry as a pre-teen, working alongside family on the fish pier in South Boston, weighing and tagging their catch. The unavoidable vistas of the most painted seascapes of neighboring Rockport, Massachusetts set the stage for a lifelong fascination with the sea. A visit from a distant uncle, upon his release from the joint, was Duke’s first sighting of a blurry, blue tattoo. Young Duke was intrigued from then on. He didn’t loose any interest in tattooing, even after his uncle’s forearm was later scarred, from a brutal attempt at tattoo removal.

Having spent many summers with his grandma, on the Cape, Duke often tagged along with family members and got a good taste of the old salts that frequented the dockside watering holes. The writing was also on the wall, when he pissed off his parents in the seventh grade, by carving his initials into his arm with an X-acto blade and rubbing ink into them. Moving right along, he progressed to hand-poking with a pin and ink and then on to homemade machines. With a ready supply of skateboard and punk rock pals in the neighborhood, Duke inked his first tattoo of a cockroach on a friends thigh.

Duke had always kept busy piddling with art, from a very early age. By the time he had begun slinging ink, his forte was graffiti, and he was regularly rendering pieces for other tattooists, in exchange for practical experience under their tutelage.

As a freshman in college his artwork was all over the map. His figurative works were executed using pigments made from a wide variety of readily available materials found in a pigeon coop, where he lived for an extended period of time. He released helium-filled “sex dolls” over the city and created an installation of jars filled with formaldehyde and his tattooed dead fish. He was coming full circle, once again, to tattoos and the sea.

Deciding on graduate school in New York was a financial juggling act and he gave up his apartment and was crashing at his tattoo shop that now served as his art studio. The tattooing was helping pay for school, and folks began to see another side of his artistic genius, in large-scale nautical drawings and mosaic works in progress. The artwork was uniquely reminiscent of nineteenth century whaling scenes and old colonial black-and-white woodcuts. It had the distinctive style of scrimshaw. He soon began to make faux whale teeth and walrus tusks out of similar colored plastics that would be distressed to look like the real deal, with his designs incised into them. On some, he actually used a tattoo machine and its needles to carve the artwork into the plastic, rubbing ink into the lines to bring the designs into view. They originally used soot-candle black or tobacco juice, to get the same effect. Soon the customers were choosing nautical details from his artwork for their tattoos. And it is not clear whether it was art imitating life or life imitating art?

For an insight into Duke’s motivation and inspiration, the following artist statement just scratches the surface (no scrimshaw pun intended). This blurb is from MagnanProjects (a gallery representing artists working in a broad range of mediums at and confirms his ingenuous straightforward artistic commitment.

My work addresses the prospect of residual but forgotten unclaimed frontiers on the edge and inside overdeveloped urban areas and their unsuspected autonomy. I am interested in the struggle of marginal peoples to sustain independent spaces within all-encompassing societies, the tension between individual and collective behavior, the conflict with institutional power. I pursue an alternative view of hidden borderlands and their inhabitants through drawing, printmaking, mosaic, sculpture, performative interventions and video structured as complex multimedia installations.

I work in the tradition of field naturalists, seeking and gathering data, artifacts and specimens outdoors, transporting them inside for closer observation and study, displaying them in museum-like diorama settings. I combine populist myths and reinvented historical obscurities with contemporary social dilemmas, connecting past and present, drawing attention to unsolved issues. Throughout my projects, I profile the space where water meets the land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility.

Duke founded East River Tattoo in the summer of 2000. Located in the historic Greenpoint Waterfront section of Brooklyn, New York. Duke and the resident artists of East River Tattoo all specialize in high-quality custom tattoo designs in a variety of styles. All tattoos are heavily influenced by maritime folk art and 19th century traditional tattooing, often evoking nautical charts, maps, woodcuts, engravings and, of course, scrimshaw. Greenpoint was home to legendary sea captains, designers and ship builders. One of the best known is John Ericsson, who designed first ironclad warship, the Monitor, built at The Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint. Launched January 30th, 1862, she Is best known for her engagement with CSS Virginia (a.k.a. “Merrimac”) in Hampton Roads, March 9th, 1862. This battle was the first ironclad-vs-ironclad encounter, and the start of the modern battleship era. The battle was a pivotal event in naval history. The Monitor proved to be the supreme naval ship and, in just one battle, changed all subsequent naval designs and tactics.

As for innovative naval designs which all are depicted in his artwork, Duke has had a few amazing adventures of note. He often traversed and explored the New York waterways and its seemingly insignificant islands. During the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, under the cover of darkness, just before dawn, he made his way to Belmont Island across from the United Nations building. Evading the coastguard, he made landfall, scaled a tower and unfurled a glow-in-the-dark flag, declaring the island a sovereign nation. The Coastguard intercepted them on their way back to Brooklyn and ferried them over. Duke’s comment on the mission was, “ Amazingly, they didn’t arrest me.”

As for how he became a scrimshander and the seamless connection to his tattooing here is how Duke explains it:

My uncle gave me a knife, when I was a kid. He told me it was special, because it was scrimshaw and it was worth a lot of money. I was so careful not to lose or damage it. Years later, I discovered that it wasn’t scrimshaw at all, just a knife with a plastic handle.

As an artist, I started looking at a lot of maritime folk art and thinking about that coastal New England experience and aesthetic might have influenced my own aesthetic. I thought a lot about the connection between scrimshaw and early tattooing. The history of both are born out of the same place. The word comes out of scrimshander, which means to “waste your time” or “kill time.” A lot of the early tattooing and scrimshaw was a thing people would do on ships. Being on a boat alternates between stressful and dangerous to tedious and boring. These two activities are things people would use to kill time. Scrape into a whale’s tooth or mark their body to tell a story of something, an event that occurred—they both document history. A lot of scrimshaw would have erotic content. Pictures of men’s girlfriends—the content was similar to things people would chose to tattoo on themselves—what you hold dear, what people would think about when they are away at sea. Also similar to tattooing, during the time of the heyday of the whaling industry, you had these ships traveling around the world, picking up people from different ports. The aesthetic is an early cross-cultural conversation, where it would combine different patterns on one image that could weave Polynesian with Celtic patterns. This dialogue was taking place at a working level in society as opposed to most cross-cultural conversations traditionally existing within the higher echelon of society.

I only started making scrimshaw six years ago. Of course, by then, scrimshaw was already basically a dead art form (except for a handful of people making pieces for souvenir shops). Making scrimshaw was something that made sense to me, as a lot of the work that I do addresses the changes in waterfront communities, port cities, and how these changes affect society as a whole.

Duke Riley’s artwork and custom tattoo designs are a meld of artifacts of a bygone era, real and imagined history and the masterful execution of contemporary artistic virtuosity on and off the human canvas. They both evoke the smell of salt air, billowing sails and maritime adventures.

Duke Riley
East River Tattoo
113 Franklin Street (corner of Greenpoint Ave)
Brooklyn, New York 11222

Matty Jankowski

Books and Links:
Halat, Eva: (2006). Contemporary Scrimshaw, History, Gallery, Practical Tips, Pub: Verlag Angelika Hörnig, ISBN 3-9808743-8-9.
Nantucket Historical Association Artifacts Online database at
Custom Scrimshaw Powder Horns at
Most of the original scrimshaw created by whalers is currently held by museums. A few Museums with significant collections include:
The Hull Maritime Museum in Kingston upon Hull, England.
The Kendall Whaling Museum .
A part of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England.
The Scrimshaw Museum in Horta on the island of Faial in the Azores.
The Nantucket Whaling Museum.
Other images of scrimshaw can be found at The Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, Tongarewa.
Privately held original pieces are very valuable, and a great many reproductions (commonly known as “fakeshaw”) exist in the marketplace.

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