I spent my entire childhood drawing on every blank piece of paper I could come across. The best part of every school year was getting new books and wrapping them in fresh new Shopping bags. New canvas!! I then would decorate other kid’s books. Art was always where I excelled. Whatever I wanted and could not have, got drawn on something. I was always kind of turned off about Tattoos.
The work you would see at that time was limited to “Sailor Jerry” type designs. Which were and still are cool, but having an Artists eye, I thought the subject matter was usually lacking. Growing up in Delaware County Pennsylvania in the 60’s and 70’s there were only a handful of Tattoo artists working. The Legendary “Sailor Eddie” Evans and his wife as well as “Paul Rogers”(Another Tattoo Giant) were working in Camden N.J…
Then you had Philadelphia’s “Crazy Eddie” Funk. His arch Rival “Tattoo Harry” Von Groff worked a couple blocks away from him. I grew up hearing about on the schoolyard or at Gas station shoptalk these names. They were Mysterious Men who permanently marked these “Tough looking” older people. I always hung around the Hot Rodders and Bikers as a kid. Then I met a guy when I was about 17 who had the coolest ink I ever saw. Bright Color and original looking art work. I had to get one. I drew up a design and went down to Camden N.J. where “Coney Island Joe” Dematteo had a studio. I gave him the design and ten bucks and made an appointment for the following week. I could hardly sleep waiting for that day to come. I can still remember him grabbing my arm and sticking that needle in.
“What the hell was I thinking” was my first thought. This Hurt! After a few minutes, I got used to it and settled in. This was it. My Fate was sealed. I had to become a Tattoo Artist or Die! I went back down and got some more Tattoos from Joe, but really felt he was unapproachable about even asking about how to get in the Business. Therefore, a Friend of Mine known around these parts as “The Wizard” and I decided to buy equipment and do it ourselves. He did his first Tattoo on my leg. Things did not work out between us and we parted company. I did my first Tattoo on a friend of Mine in Glassboro N.J. at a place called “Doberman Tattoo.” I then started to accumulate equipment of my own and Travel around like a gypsy for a couple years tattooing everywhere I went.
Then in 1984, a new guy came to town. Dominic Chance and his son John opened up at Broad and Tasker streets in South Philly. Dominic had been tattooing since the late 30’s, and John was an awesome custom artist who was only a couple years older than I was. I went down and got a Tattoo by John, a.k.a. “Dr. Skinz” and he really started to teach me about the craft. History and technique that was unavailable at that time. There were no Tattoo magazines and there was only one convention in the entire world every year! I was traveling quite a bit at this time, but always ended up back in Philly. John Chance had moved the Studio to 624 S. 3rd St. in the Alternative shopping and Night Club district known as “South Street.” We were there before the onslaught of Shops that area there today. At last count, I believe there are 9 or 10 shops operating on and around South Street.
The neighborhood business association did not want a Tattoo studio and they leaned on the landlord to get John out. It was at this time that I came along and we partnered up on the Studio. We fought the Bastards and stayed the full length of the Lease. A lot of Fun times were held at that Studio. Compared to how things are today, it was completely against the grain of how to do things. However, for the mid 80’s, we were right on time. When the lease did run out, I headed down to Jacksonville, North Carolina. I worked at “Dom’s Ace Tattoo.” Dominic Chance had run this studio for years. Our main bread and butter were the United States Marine Corps. As Camp Lejeune, Camp Geiger and several other Marine Corps camps provided home base to over 50,000 Marines! Back then, there were 7 Tattoo studios.
The Best Tattoo Artist in town “Zeke Owens”, worked out of a tiny little spot about 50 feet from our store front. Zeke did the most solid, crisp and bright Tattoos in record time. He was and still is a legend in my eyes as well as many others. The problem with working down there is that the Marines only get paid once every 2 weeks. I tired of the area after 3 months and Moved down to Florida for a year. I made the best of my time down there and contacted Paul Rogers in Jacksonville Beach. I had met Paul at several Tattoo conventions in the mid 80’s. He was 75 miles north of where I was staying, but it made for a great ride on My Rigid frame Shovelhead. Paul was a great individual who had lived thru the depression working in Carnivals and Circus acts. He also was a Tattoo legend that I had to know. After getting to know me thru several trips up there, he agreed to make me a couple of Tattoo machines. He did everything, from winding the coils himself, to final tune. He worked out of a Sears aluminum shed behind his trailer. I was quite fortunate to have known him and treasure the memories and knowledge I gained from him. Tattooing was slow for me in Florida and I ended up working on a commercial fishing boat long lining for Shark out of Port Orange.
After awhile the Sea life got old and I went down to the keys for a brief stay before heading back to Philly. I got back To South Philly where John had got a small studio going in a walk down storefront at 1518 Snyder Avenue. It was located next to a Music store and across the street from the World Famous “Melrose Diner.” The only problem was if a Van parked in front of the place, no one could see it. There was an empty walk up Corner store right next-door that used to be a hair salon. I found out who owned it and approached him. Lou Carbo had owned it since the 50’s and used to have a print shop in there. He told me some girls where getting out of Hair school and where supposed to rent from him for $325.00 dollars a month.
I told him if he would reconsider, I would give him $400.00 a month. He called me the next day and said;” women should not run their own businesses”! We fixed the place up and things were great. Then John and I had some differences and the partnership; broke down. John went up to New Hope and started “Living Arts tattoo Studio.” I stayed in South Philly for 10 years. We were open 7 days a week and sometimes 14 hours a day.
The Navy was still in town, but things were starting to change. Billy Funk had a falling out with his father, “Philadelphia Eddie” and went to his Aunt “Flo Makofske.” (Owner of National Tattoo supply and National Tattoo club) She despised Eddie and would do anything she could to screw him over. So she Backed Billy in his first venture, “Body Graphics,” which he opened in my old stomping grounds of “South Street.” Not to be out done, Eddie immediately rented a building on the same block. The official “Tattoo war” had begun. I arranged three different meetings with all factions involved.
Nothing good really ever came of it. I got pissed off at Flo since she is “National Tattoo Club,” an organization that I belonged to, coming to my town and opening up shops with no regard for me. She never even visited my studio to see if I was worthy of membership. I resigned my exclusive membership in that Organization over that. In addition, I am sure that given the same circumstances, any other member would have felt the same way. I still have zero respect for her. I knew this was the beginning of the end for Tattooing in the city. So I looked out to the Suburbs from whence I came and Bought a building in Folsom, Pa.
Much to the Chagrin of the local town’s people, and after a lengthy legal battle, we opened in October 1996! After 10 months of running both studios, I sold my Location to the man who did my first Tattoos, “Coney Island” Joe Dematteo. Things had come full circle in a sense. My location is larger and better suited to handle the large full body custom work that gets done more frequently here. I still run things as a walk in Studio. That is how I came into this Business and old Habits are hard to break.
However, Appointments and Deposits are required for the big work nowadays. I am from the Era of Biker Tattoo Artists, and proud of it. Of course, Bikers are still getting Tattoos, but back in the Day, we were also involved in where you got your Tattoos. This is not to be confused with the Yuppie art Tattoo guy who buys a Harley to look cool. I am talking about Gil Montie and Randy Adams, Tattoo Harry, Crazy ace, and Zeke Owens. In addition, of course, ME! Think Fuckin Ink !!
~ “R.C.” 9.03.02