Friday, December 23, 2011
Bridgeport Tattoo Company: a Traditional Neighborhood Shop
The Bridgeport Tattoo Company is a self-described traditional shop. Tattoo is a vigorous folk art -- it's proliferated in popularity, and in variety of styles. In recent years, it’s taken on Hollywood drama, thanks to tattooed celebrities and reality tv.
When David ‘Blackjack’ Fitzgerald opened Bridgeport Tattoo Company in 2007, he papered the walls with the history of the American sailor-era style of tattoo. “That’s what we’re known for,” he says. People from other cities, who know they’ll be visiting Chicago, book ahead to add a tattoo in the traditional American style to their personal canvas.
But Blackjack wanted to make his shop traditional in a broader sense.
He generally keeps his own tattoos under wraps. But the 2 that are always visible are the tiny ‘312’ and shamrock under his right eye that mark him as Chicago Irish. He grew up on the northwest side. “Everything south of North Avenue was no man’s land,” he says. But when he saw the storefront at 3527 S. Halsted advertised on Craig’s list, he kept an open mind.
He and his longtime girlfriend, Jeanette, had a beer in a couple Bridgeport taverns, ate dinner at the Ramova Grill. He read up on the neighborhood’s history. He read about the canal diggers who linked the great inland waterways, and tied Chicago to global commerce. And about Bridgeport mayors, and the gangs of precinct captains and patronage workers who all ‘looked out for their own.’
A neighborhood that ‘looks out for its own,’ has some negative connotations. Especially, Blackjack acknowledges, if you’re looking in from the outside. “But if you’re part of it, if you live here, if you have a business here, supporting your own is a good thing.”
He wanted to open a shop that would be part of it.
“If people come [to Bridgeport Tattoo] from Lincoln Park, that’s awesome,” he says. “But I didn’t come to Bridgeport to serve them. I knew Bridgeport was a blue collar, old school community, and that’s the people I wanted to serve.” And he is enthusiastic about how Bridgeport’s heritage is poised to evolve.
Tattoo has a long outsider tradition. It has associations with circus sideshows and prison gangs. In the U.S., it has a strong association with military service. Blackjack describes traditional American style as a badge a young soldier or sailor would get to remind him of what he valued most (his mother, a pretty girl, a patriot’s eagle) before he marched off to war.
In Japan, the other traditional source for tattoo, it was an underground art, associated with organized crime, and sometimes suppressed under law.
Blackjack, who traces his artistic lineage back to Sailor "Bill" Killingsworth, has lined the walls of Bridgeport Tattoo Company with the work of old masters like Don Ed Hardy and Sailor Jerry in Honolulu.
Sailor Jerry helped link the American and Japanese traditions. He learned tattoo while riding the rails as a teenager in the 1920s. He practiced up on hobos. He joined the navy in the 30s and sailed the Pacific, where he was exposed to the Japanese tradition first hand. Then he settled in Honolulu and tattooed generations of American sailors.
Sailor Jerry tapped his Japanese acquaintances to help his protégé, Don Ed Hardy, gain access to study the art in Japan. Hardy was the first Westerner to really do so. Blackjack can show you the early results, how Hardy combined Japanese themes in an American style, in the history that ornaments his walls.
For his part, Sailor Jerry was known for an abiding mistrust of squares, who live their lives conforming to social conventions. Tattooing has thrived on the margins, where conventions were weakest. In Chicago, that used to be on south State Street, where the tattoo arcades prospered alongside bars with boozy music and go-go girls. Teen-age sailors, fresh from the Great Lakes Naval Academy, would go there to get their courage up before they hit the high seas.
Blackjack was a military man himself, before he was a tattoo artist; he did combat in Operation Restore Hope in Mogadishu, Somalia. In the service, he and his buddies sought out the seedy corners of foreign towns, where they’d stay up late getting tattooed into the early hours of the morning.
Back in the States, he took up the trade. He’s been tattooing since 1992, and came back to Chicago in 1994. For the most part, he picked up his skills on the job. Now he wants to mentor younger talent in his shop. He employs 3 younger tattooists, and an apprentice, who he’s been drilling in her drawing skills. She draws pages of hearts that already look perfect to an untrained eye.
“It’s the simplest things that are most difficult.” In the case of hearts, the trick is drawing 2 curves in perfect symmetry, in reverse. In the case of lettering, it’s learning to draw your letters, consistently, as opposed to scribbling them, the way people do when they write.
“Things I learned in 10 years of practice, she’ll learn in 2,” Blackjack says.
In all those years he’s been practicing, the industry has changed. The portion of the population who are tattooed has grown. When the American Academy of Dermatology did a survey in 2004, they found that 36% of 18-29 year olds had tattoos, compared to 24% of people in their 30s, and 15% of people in their 40s.
The practice has become more mainstream, but not necessarily more professional. There’s been a proliferation of trade shows, where artists converge, making more styles more widely available.
The first one was held in Houston in 1976. Blackjack points out those were the days before e-mail, when a long distance telephone call was expensive. The show was an opportunity for the best of the best to meet, swap stories and techniques. “That’s really cool, how did you do that?”
By the time Blackjack joined the business, conventions were open to the public. The convergence of talent meant you could get a tattoo from artists from distant cities. But Blackjack says they’ve gradually devolved into vehicles for their promoters, many of whom have no other interest in tattoos.
The biggest change in the industry he’s noticed has been the explosion of shops since the genre was made a legitimate business in Chicago.
Tattoo shops weren’t illegal before, but they weren’t explicitly allowed in the Chicago zoning code, until the rewrite in 2004. Before that, if you wanted to open a tattoo shop, you had to get the alderman’s permission to open as a special use.
“What alderman is going to say ‘Open in my ward, because that’s what we need?’ Of course not, no political person is going to say ‘Yes, we love tattoo parlors in our community.’”
Since it’s become a permitted use in commercial zones, the population of tattoo parlors has exploded. Most of them are fly-by-night. Long time practitioners have no idea who they are.
Blackjack says pretty much all you need to open a tattoo parlor is $250 for a license and lids on your garbage cans. There’s certainly no accreditation to prove you’ve got skill. In that respect, the industry is still self regulating.
He says amid the hundreds of shops crowding Chicago today, there are about 6 shops “that matter” – he counts them off in his head. “We all know each other. We all know what each other is doing. Not just as business owners, but as tattoo-ers.”
Meanwhile, the zoning change allowed him to open up his own shop in Bridgeport. He’d already been thinking about what he wanted his own legacy to be. He chose the neighborhood for its tradition. So he was careful not to offend its sensibilities.
He did the build-out behind paper in the windows. When he first opened, he didn’t even post a sign for the first 6 weeks. “I wanted the business and the community to just have time to gradually get to know each other.”
Now it's the most respectable looking storefront south of 35th Street, with its green awning, and tasteful lettering. Even the art on the walls that is visible from the windows was hand-picked to make sure all the girls were clothed. “I didn’t want some longtime Bridgeport resident to walk by and be offended by the boobs of a pin-up girl.”
He figured customers who wanted to find the shop, would find it. And when they came in, he wanted them to feel welcome. Tattoo parlors can be intimidating. Some of them cultivate a ‘Who are you?’ ‘What do you want?’ kind of vibe. Blackjack wanted to create a customer friendly establishment.
“I turned into the person we used to make fun of,” he jokes. “We were the seedy crowd, the rough and tumble party guys. It’s a different time for me, as an adult.”
Now he’s a family man. In fact, his family is installed in the apartment upstairs. There are some drawbacks to that – he rarely leaves the building, for instance. But he’s home for supper every night, and to tuck the kids in to bed.
He says one of his first requirements for employees is that they be good family men themselves, whether they are married or not. “If you’ve made a commitment to me to be a good man outside work, I know your mind is clear, and you’re going to be a good employee.”
Second, is that they be fastidious about the shop. Hygiene is one area where tattooing is regulated. Blackjack doubles the requirements -- from what parts of the machine get disposed after each use, to how they bag the bottles used to swab the skin. And of course the shop itself is military clean, because “this place gets cleaned like Mother Theresa is coming every day.”
One of Blackjack’s ideas for making the shop more community friendly was a little controversial among his peers. He wanted to try making the price of a good tattoo more affordable. “It’s expensive, you might only do 1 or 2 a day, and you’re trying to make a paycheck from those 1 or 2 walk-ins.” Lowering the price might increase the customer flow, though some of his closest associates were skeptical of the strategy.
As it is, prices for tattoos vary widely. At Bridgeport Tattoo Company, they tell clients a tattoo the size of a deck of cards will typically cost $150 – that’s based on an hourly rate of $100. They say a shop that doesn’t matter might charge as little as $30 for the same card sized tattoo; a shop that does might charge $300. And that $100 an hour doesn’t include the time spent drafting the design, which can sometimes take longer than executing the tattoo.
At any rate, their business model appears to be working. The first day Bridgeport Tattoo Company opened for business, 6 weeks before there was a sign in the window, Blackjack says he did 20 tattoos – he was up into the early morning hours doing them -- and they were all for customers from Bridgeport.
On February 5, 2012, Blackjack will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his work as a tattooist. Over the years, he has accumulated a client list from further afield. Some of them are 2nd generation -- guys who were kids when he started tattooing their fathers. Some have had standing monthly appointments for years. But he says the majority of his clientele come from Bridgeport, which is how he wanted it to be.
Most tattoo shops “are just shops in a location.” That’s not what he wants for Bridgeport Tattoo Company. He’s sponsored every charity who’s asked him. He even sounds a little disappointed when he sees a sign in a neighbors’ window who is sponsoring an organization that never approached his shop to do it, like they might have been intimidated by tattooing’s outsider image.
But Bridgeport’s retail streetscape is something Blackjack is proud to be a part of. When he’s bragging about his neighborhood to friends, he tells them about the longevity of places like Schallers, and about all the new places that have opened just since he’s been here: Zaytune's Mediterranean Grill, Nana’s Michelen rated restaurant, Blue City Cycles and Maria’s Community Bar.
“Imagine Halsted full of new and innovative stores. When you think of Halsted at Maxwell Street – it looks awesome, but it’s all Subways and Quiznos.
“In Bridgeport, it’s places you’ve never heard about. They’re small batch, locally grown. What they do matters -- they do it intentionally,” Blackjack enthuses. “Their business is an extension of who they are.” It’s a business community where Bridgeport Tattoo Company fits right in.