Read Between the Ink


By Zach Schepis

The throbbing pulse of red light draws you off the 1st Avenue sidewalk like a hungry moth.

Already inside the doorway of Fineline Tattoo you can feel the immediacy of intimacy. The place is “long and narrow like a subway car,” as one of the artists describes it, and the walls are adorned from floor to ceiling with the original drawings of Mike Bakaty, the previous owner.

A row of workstations lines the right wall, each replete with its own light box and running water. Knickknacks like pinup girls, a photo with the late James Gandolfini, and the Grateful Dead’s “Steal Your Face Logo” all hang.

Fineline Tattoo is a home for its artists who can’t help but appreciate the acceptance and genuine nature that comes with working there. BTR took the time to talk with a couple of these talents.

Angelo Saracina. Photo courtesy of Fineline Tattoo on Facebook.

This coming February will mark Angelo Saracina’s fifth year at Fineline Tattoo, and over 11 years spent in the industry. No other place he’s worked compares. In his eyes, it’s the best: there’s not a trace of ego-drama or bullshit, but rather, a close-knit collective of artists where everyone wants to work together.

What got you first interested in tattooing?

It all goes back to a trip to San Francisco I took back in ’85. My mom brought me, and she actually ended up getting a tat while we were there from this guy Lyle. There was this free tattoo museum, and above the museum was the apartment where he did his work. I was about 9 years old at the time.

What are some of the most memorable tattoos you’ve done?

I’d have to say that my girlfriend’s leg was definitely one of the most epic. It was a huge five piece design of a bunch of flowers that took up most of the skin.

Other than that I did a question mark the other day for a walk-in that was pretty cool. It was fashioned out of a camera, a screw, and a floating eyeball.

What was the first tattoo you’ve ever given anyone?

I had just gotten approved for a loan to buy a motorcycle, and my best friend Vic Smith somehow convinced me to spend the 4,000 bucks in New York City on tattoo equipment. So I took the weekend off and made the journey down to pick up the tools.

I honestly didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was more like a butcher. We passed around some 40s and blunts, and before I knew it I had the Chinese symbol for “tiger.”

Photo courtesy of Fineline Tattoo on Facebook.

How about one of the craziest tattoos you’ve seen?

There was this one guy who designed S&M gear that came into Fineline one day. He wanted a devil’s tail. No problem, except this tail curled all the way down along both legs–tracing his inner thighs–all the way on down to his toes.

I’ve never heard a guy cry and scream so much in my fucking life.

How has the industry changed in the years that you have been a part of it?

To start it’s gotten completely oversaturated. There’s this sense of elitism everywhere, and I hate seeing it. You come across these people that are like, “I would only go here,” or judge the hell out of you for your work…

There’s the hipsters too that have infiltrated this world like it’s their job. And a lot of the people with finger tats… look like the people who used to pick on other kids for having tattoos back in school.

Has Fineline ever come close to closing?

Not to my knowledge, although that’s not to say that it’s been easy either. But even through the recession the place still pushed on. There’s just a lot more business for us now. It’s no longer that shady shop in the alleyway. Hell, tattoos are on the front of GQ Magazine–they’re everywhere.

Maybe they’ll die down for a bit, we’ll all be older and our grandkids will go “whoa grandpa, what’s that on your arm? That’s so cool!” But then their kids will probably go twice as hard.

They’ve been around forever, and won’t stop anytime soon. It’s a cycle.

Chris Lockhart. Photo courtesy of Anna Silman.

Chris Lockhart has worked in just about every kind of tattoo shop you can imagine in his budding career, from the down-and-out street shop all the way across the spectrum to high-end boutiques. But Fineline still takes the cake. It’s the most comfortable, and there’s a constant soundtrack playing that seems to capture the current mood. And he loves the characters that come in too. In his words, “the amount of spice in this stew is real nice.”

What was the first tattoo you ever did at Fineline?

The first couple of days I was working here this beautiful French woman comes in. In a discreet place, she ended up with her pants down. She was completely naked, even though the tattoo only took up a smaller portion of her body. Around that time I took to thinking “Man, I might really end up liking it around here (laughs).”

It was a good omen, for sure.

How about your first tattoo story?

When I was real young I would wander all around town going from shop to shop trying to get the guys there to work on me. But I was underage, so they weren’t having it.

So one day I ended up at a place on the other side of the tracks. No questions were asked, illegal substances were traded… (laughs). It’s a scratchy thing that I’m still proud of today.

So how did you get into the practice?

I was 19 or 20 years old, and I had this real shitty tattoo gun. These kids who were much younger than me–I think they were 15 or so–knew and wanted me to tat them… I met them out in the countryside, sharpened a safety clip and got to work. I’ve always wondered if those tats lasted.

In all I’ve been in the industry for seven years now. I’ve been in a variety of locations: Hawaii, Texas, the grimy backstreets of New Orleans. I was doing some work in Paris for a while too. It’s been an interesting journey…

How about one of the craziest or most memorable tattoos you’ve ever seen somebody get?

Probably when my buddy got his head tatted. It was an old school eagle and roses emblem that took up most of his head. They used a really heavy needle, and he bled a ton.

In your experiences how has the industry changed?

It’s different for a guy like me to say–I’ve obviously had a lot less experience than an artist like Mehai [Bakaty, the current owner of Fineline]… There are definitely a lot more players in the game now, a huge increase of investment in time and talent. It’s raised the bar a lot higher for everyone, but to tell you the truth I’m not opposed to that.

What’s your favorite part about doing it?

Mehai and I were actually just talking about that earlier. It’s really the people… and the stories involved that make the whole thing so interesting. All of these little images and ideas connect together to form a human art that reveals some of the most personal sides of people. It helps you to understand what drives people to do the things that they do.

Ultimately it’s a direct window into another person’s life and desires. For instance, I look at you and see a treble clef tatted into the skin on your right hand–I instantly read it and know that you have music within you, [that] perhaps you are one of its practitioners.

It’s a language, and once you learn how to read it you want to proclaim it.

For more on Fineline Tattoo and how it got started, check out “Read Between the Ink, Part I“.