Gotham Tattoo $$$30

photo courtesy of Trudy Chan
photo courtesy of Trudy Chan

The Bowery buzzed with the normal hurry-up-and-wait Sunday morning cadence of impatient honking and nervy blasts of traffic whistles. Unseasonably warm weather, already two weeks into January but the warm front carried a stinking fog into the streets and a sticky glaze of sweat under his wool coat. He removed his cap, exposing his ears to a density of noise just across Delancey at Spring Street. There he saw two drivers engaged in bumper-to-bumper combat for a parking spot, forming something of a gigantic steel V against the curb. Green light but nobody goes.

Thus to Nolita a new gridlock system was born.

He waited on the corner for a moment to enjoy the surrounding symphony of car horns, not that it helped his headache much, but fuck it, he was early and could afford to wait around. A Canon wielding Southern tourist attempted to charm the younger of the combatants into unconditional surrender, not without, of course, snapping a photo of the ensuing idiocy. For the good of the ‘hood the argument went: “Now c’mon, buddy, you got this whole place backed up.” Surrender rejected, nothing budged but the regular cycle of traffic signals ahead. So again, green light but nobody goes.

An electrician popped his head out of a company owned vehicle to offer his bit of wisdom. Amazing what a Brooklyn accented monosyllable can do at certain decibels. Suddenly up the curb Combatant the Younger charged, zip zip zoom, passing a cunt hair’s breadth from our flâneur’s aching legs. Maybe a little too much fun before lunch, he thought, but at least the punch of adrenaline would save him the three dollars overspent on shit coffee. He then checked his right pocket for the little red envelope he needed to deliver and turned to ascend the short flight of stairs to his destination, a second-floor loft space where he’d meet – maybe suffer was the better word – a half-century’s worth of brilliance in the history of folk art.

Peck, Harrison, Devita
Trudy Chan

Aside from the day’s help, he was the only person to arrive at the shop. After 5 minutes or so, his left pocked buzzed out a text message from BS Welt – “15 minutes late. Sorry.” Stupid, of course, but he was somewhat taken aback by the courtesy of this brief communiqué. Why should he, just a super-fan among superstars in the downtown New York tattoo scene, deserve to have his time respected as such? 15 minutes late? “Christ, man, I’d wait here all day for what this little red envelope affords.” Those inimitable wooden flash panels and stencil rubbings covering the shop walls were obviously transmitting some kind of bigger-than-thou insecurity into his bones. Devita’s Christheads were beaming down at him like neon signs in Chinatown.

“No rush,” he typed back.

Right off schedule, Scott Harrison (BS Welt, or just Welt, as he’d later learn) arrived at 12:15 with a friendly handshake, apologizing for the lateness, just the second time he’d botched punctuality on a job. Pleasantry this, pleasantry that, then they got right into it:

“Did you look at the book?”

“Sure, sure – but is there anything you’d like to do in particular?”

“I’ll know the answer to that when you tell me what you want.”

Oliver Peck giggled from somewhere across the room at that one. (Peck had flown in from Texas, presumably for nothing else but to enjoy the one-of-a-kind rapport between Thom Devita and his protégé-cum-adopted son, Scott.)

“Got it. I was thinking I’d get that devil mask with the long tongue. You know, right here” – pointing to his inner left bicep.

“Good one – that somehow fits a little too perfectly.”

A little too perfectly, indeed. Scott fumbled and refumbled the stencil around that inner bicep about five or six times, rubbing it nice, red and raw before the needle would do its work.

“Jesus Christ, is this alcohol or water? Oliver! Come here and put this stencil on for me.”

Tattoo dorks get boners over this sort of treatment.

Oliver: “I don’t know, man, I think you have to take this down a bit. Unless” – turning to Red Envelope – “you’re planning on getting swole, my man.”

Among Scott’s three and a half million good stories is the one where his wife describes Oliver as “a thousand times more charismatic than the most charismatic man you’ve ever met.” She could have said that in a room full of actors and not have been an iota less accurate.

After another few painful goes at the stencil while Devita explains that “Coltrane is jazz for people who don’t like jazz,” team Harrison-Peck decide to resize at 10%. The once “too perfect” fit is downgraded to “perfect.” Buzz buzz goes the machine, bringing with it the buzz of new visitors to the shop – a coterie of veritable badasses in the history (yes, history) of traditional American tattooing – all to pay respect to Thom himself, the biggest badass of them all.

What should have, in normal circumstances, been an hour-long tattoo became a three and a half hour long appointment, due to exceptional distractions by the likes of Nick Bubash, Robert Ryan and Devita himself. “I’m really sorry, man, I never take a break, not even to piss or shit. But I have to go talk to Daniel.” What was the Red Envelope to say? “Oh, no fucking way, man! You finish this goddam tattoo. I don’t give a shit if Daniel fucking Higgs himself walks through that door…” Needless to say, that little Red Envelope was worth much more than its weight in faux-trimmed gold.

Leaving the shop sore and inspired, he’d have Wire, not that earlier Sunday morning din, cadencing his walk home.  

I am the fly / I am the fly / I am the fly / I am the fly / fly in the / fly in the / ointment! 

Devita's work
Trudy Chan

Notable Reads: “The Artist and the Work of Art” by Joshua C. Taylor

Oath of the Horatii

A painter whose political outlook found subtle expression in his subject matter and style, Jacques Louis David (b. 1748) was several times a radical, one who may have found himself the artistic representative at d’Holbach’s table: “David seemed unwilling or incapable of escaping in his art to an ideal world of perfect order without carrying the world of weight and substance with him. As a result, he tried to impose on the forms of the material world itself the rational clarity and order that some might reserve for a utopian dream” (Taylor, 145).

Likewise, a friend of Revolutionaries; a genius that could add drama to the ailing Marat’s bath-side scribbling of last words:

The Death of Marat
“Aroused to bring the name of Marat forcefully to the public, David decided to show him under the circumstances in which he had seen him the day before his murder – in his bath, where he was writing out his thoughts for the good of the people” (Taylor, 146).

David’s known political tendency as a member of the revolutionary Committee on Public Education highlights the sort of biographical detail that Taylor explains “may contribute to a deeper and more sympathetic response to any one of his paintings” (148). Unless, of course, you’re the descendent (political or otherwise) of a King, Corday or Girondins…

David comes across as a painter who placed moral integrity and political principle ahead of his artistic vision. His own oath was to the revolutionary court, subordinating – or rather, elevating – his art to the service of popular education.

Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (