By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In some ways it was inevitable. No matter where you turn you can’t help but notice walking canvasses of flesh. Ink on skin; painted men and women of all shapes and sizes. An unspoken shift occurred towards an acceptance of individuals with tattoos (well, for the most part).
The twenty-something girl at the checkout counter who bags your groceries–both thin arms adorned with the shadows of bat wings. The middle-aged cello player at the concert hall with a treble clef marked behind his ear.
In today’s environment, many of us forget that the art of tattooing used to be illegal.
While there are an estimated 35 million individuals tattooed today, there were barely five million in the ‘70s. From 1961 to 1997 there were no “legal” tattoo shops in New York City.
The restriction didn’t stop Mike Bakaty from trying his hand at it. He took to giving people tattoos out of the back of his loft on the Bowery when the area was a run-down locust of the seedy underground.
Bakaty posted subtle ads in the back of the Village Voice. He almost jumped out of his skin every time the phone rang, paranoid that it was the cops.
He continued nonetheless.
After nearly 36 years of tattooing in secret rooms and loft apartments, his vision and art coalesced into Fineline Tattoo, the longest running-tattoo shop in NYC.
In a time where high-end boutiques and attitude-heavy tattoo parlors dominate the industry, Fineline is a warm harkening back to the laid-back, no-bullshit early days of tattooing. It’s a place that feels like a step into the past–because it is.
Sadly, tragedy struck the Fineline family earlier this year, when Bakaty passed away in January, at age 77. He is survived by his son Mehai, who has taken over the family legacy.
BTR talks with Mehai about what first inspired him to take up the craft, how the industry has changed, and what it was like learning under the legend that was his father.
What first got you interested in tattooing?
My father did. Ever since I was four years old, I’ve grown up around it. He would tattoo right out of the back of our loft.
Did you get your first tattoo there?
Yeah, it was a small flower. I was 15 years old at the time, so technically I was underage. But back then it was illegal anyways, so I guess it didn’t really matter.
My father began instructing me at the age of 10, and by the time I was 15 I was asking more and more questions. Soon after that I started an apprenticeship under his guidance.
Where did he [your father] learn it from? How did his journey begin?
He acquired an MA in Fine Arts and set about pursuing a career in this city creating and selling his art. It didn’t take long though for him to become disenchanted with everything in that world.
Around that period he went about covering up some of his tattoos that he’d received during childhood. It was some rough stuff that he decided to ink over with more dynamic art. He had this realization that the art of tattooing was a far more powerful form of expression than anything he’d encountered in school or while trying to start his career. It was so much more personal and visceral.
This was before it was really recognized as a legitimate art form.
I’d say that’s putting it lightly: it was a dead art form. This was the ‘60s and ‘70s–it was an entirely different world. You could call it a subculture within a subculture. Then there were the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the renaissance ushered everything into what it has become today.
How has Fineline changed in the time that you’ve been here?
My dad and I opened the place in ’97 right after the ban was lifted on tattooing. In some ways the place has changed a lot, in other ways it hasn’t changed a bit. We just got new paint and tiles (laughs). It’s a constant state of coming into its own. What it boils down to is we’re still catering to the same community.
The industry, however, has changed 1,000 percent from when I started… It’s become so accepted by communities it never held a flame in before: academia, fashion, pop culture–there’s been this commercial embrace that has propelled it to new heights.
Did you always know that one day you would want to run the place?
Not really. I feel like considering who I was working with it was inevitable. There’s always been this kind of nagging thought in the back of my mind, prodding me in this direction whether I could control it or not. It’s been an honor to carry on the legacy of this place.
We’ve been around for 38 years. We still have all of dad’s original drawings on the walls. I see nothing but a great future.
What are some of the reasons why you think Fineline continues to be Manhattan’s longest running tattoo shop?
I guess because we’re too damned stubborn to give it up (laughs). A job like this is all about longevity… At the same time you have to be resilient. The neighborhood keeps climbing, and every time the lease comes up we’re holding on for dear life. But we don’t stop to let go.
What’s your favorite part about it all?
I enjoy the people most of all. It’s the gift of expression, and what’s more is that it goes beyond just the personal. It’s the ability to do something that not only helps me, but also fulfills another too.
It’s like my dad used to say, “I’m lucky to be able to do something for a living that children do for fun.”
Tune in tomorrow for the second installment to hear more from the artists of Fineline.