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.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Variations on the Boom and Bust

Last March, I speculated that Bridgeport had been insulated against the housing bust. That the market here had been less inflated by speculation in the first place, and that when the bubble burst, there was less fallout. Foreclosures haven’t been as frequent, lending didn’t drop off as much. People are still buying houses and banks are still giving them loans to do it.

Then I went around talking to property owners, and some of them are less optimistic.

One acquaintance bought his home in 2002, a new construction single family house on Aberdeen, near where he grew up. By 2006, it had doubled in value; by 2011, it had lost what it gained. And a little bit more than it had gained, he said. Now he finds himself obsessively checking Zillow for comparable sales. He’s not looking to sell, he just wants to know.

I had informal conversations with some small landlords. Some of them fit my ideal description of the good steward, defending the stability of Bridgeport’s housing stock into the future, but not all of them did.

One of them rents to the high end of the rental market. He’s lost a few tenants as they’ve lost jobs, or their circumstances changed, and they’ve left for cheaper apartments. He had a few vacancies when I spoke to him last spring, but he planned to keep his units open until he found tenants who would pay his rents. He acquired his buildings gradually, renovated them down to the bricks, managed the work himself. He didn’t have to rent right away.

One on them targets the lower end of the market. He says it’s more complicated renting to yuppies, they are more demanding, and the building inspectors follow them in. “The money is in slum housing,” he says. It’s easier renting to “murderers and rapists,” if they’ve got a leak, he says “here’s a bucket.”

Or so he claimed anyway, I think he was exaggerating a little to impress. His porches were bright with fresh paint and beds of flowers, and he was sitting outside supervising workers making improvements. He bought his first building 40 years ago, he says he enjoyed doing the work himself. But he’s older now, he wishes he’d sold during the boom when he was getting crazy offers.

He’s still getting offers, he says they never stopped. But they’re crazy low offers. “They’re looking for someone who doesn’t know” (what their building is really worth). Or someone like his neighbor. The building inspectors recently came in and told her she has to make $40,000 in improvements.

“She has the money,” he says, but it rankles with her, because the repairs will cost more than she paid for the building, decades ago.

I met at least one investor on the lookout for owners who don’t know what their building is really worth, or who are getting restless to sell. He lives in the neighborhood, and works in the construction trades, he’s always kept his eye out for opportunities.

He’d just heard that an owner who rejected his offer for a storefront on Halsted a few years ago recently sold it to someone else for a third the price. He’d just made a successful bid for a 6-flat in Bridgeport, and he’d been venturing east into Bronzeville, looking at properties for a few tens of thousands of dollars.

Now he squabbles with the bank though. They want him to spend more of his own money on the purchase. They say “You have the money,” and he says “I know I have the money, but I don’t want to spend it, I want to borrow it.”

Reading Into the Loan Data:
At the end of September, new residential loan data came out for 2010. Theoretically, numbers are an objective check for the stories you hear people tell. There is an actual number for residential loans made in Bridgeport in 2010 for instance. You can compare it to the number of loans made in 2005, or to the number made in other neighborhoods.

But what do you make of that count, once you know what it is? The comparisons invite interpretation.

The portion of residential loans that were made for home purchases, as opposed to loans made to refinance existing loans, proves that property is actually changing hands, which must happen more in hot markets. But loans made to non-occupants in particular seem to measure more speculative investment.

Then again, so might a loan refinance. During the boom it wasn’t unusual for a home buyer to close on his home loan, then refinance it multiple times within a few years. Hopefully, he was trading in for better terms. But some of his friends were sucking equity out from their houses to fuel other kinds of spending – they were speculating on their own property in a sense.

The same loans took on different connotations when the context changed. In the bust, loan refinances suggest the correction of past excess. Or at least the persistence of opportunity to make corrections.

In 2005, at the height of the boom, residential loans in the Chicago metropolitan area were evenly split between single family home purchase loans, and loan refinances, with each representing 47% of residential loans. (The remainder was made up of multi-family and home improvement loans.)

In 2006, residential lending stumbled, and was still falling through 2010. The balance among loans also changed. Home purchase loans, and loans to non-occupants, fell furthest. Refinances dropped the least. By 2010, refinances accounted for 3 in 4 loans made across the MSA. Though in some neighborhoods, loan refinances evaporated too.

Then in 2009, the number of refinances lurched upwards. The lurch was strong enough to make up for the year’s drop in home purchase loans, and to lift the count of residential loans across the metro area by 22%.

Not incidentally, 2009 was the year the federal government’s Making Home Affordable programs went into effect. They were designed to help borrowers who were current on their mortgages refinance loans that were underwater at more favorable terms. Or to help those who’d fallen behind negotiate modifications of their existing loans to avoid foreclosure. The state of Illinois and Cook County both took measures to give borrowers more time and leverage to use those programs.

Many have been frustrated by what the government interventions actually accomplished. By year end 2009, foreclosure filings in the Chicago metro area actually rose to 70,000 from less than 60,000 the year before. The Woodstock Institute, a fair lending advocate, concluded that the government interventions only delayed foreclosures. They clearly hadn’t reduced them.

But the surge in refinances suggests foreclosure filings would have been worse if those programs were not in effect. In some neighborhoods, refinances did not seem to slow foreclosures from increasing, but in others, they may have done just that.

By 2010, loans were dropping again, in the Chicago metro area as a whole. But there was a modest surge in loans to non-occupants – investors were apparently venturing out to pick up bargains. No neighborhood needs more absentee investors. But non-occupants aren’t necessarily absentee owners. And if nothing else, they take up some of the slack in the housing market. Their perking interest might give the homeowner watching Zillow a reason to hope his situation is beginning to improve.

Variations in Lending:
Looking at loans, Bridgeport didn’t escape speculation during the boom and it hasn’t escaped the bust either. But it still looks pretty good in contrast with the metro area.

It also stands out among its neighbors. Communities whose housing stock is similar in age (pre-war) and composition (single family and small apartments), whose populations are similar in occupation (growing numbers of white collar professionals, but persistently high numbers of blue collar trades) and in origin (large numbers of the foreign born, small but growing numbers of blacks).

For all the things they have in common, the neighborhoods in the larger Bridgeport area looked very different from one another in the boom and bust. In general, you might expect the ones that saw high rates of speculative fervor would be the ones that saw a sharp decline in loans, and particularly high rates of foreclosure, in later years. Though the connections aren’t always consistent.

The South Loop seemed a case study in excess a few years ago, but it exhibits at least one measure of resilience now.

Almost half the neighborhood’s housing stock was constructed in the 2000s. In 2005, the neighborhood was boiling with loans. In the Near South Side, which includes the South Loop from Roosevelt to Cermak, there were 19 loans made for every 100 housing units that year alone.

Neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Logan Square saw 10 and 11 loans per 100 housing units in 2005.

Furthermore, 2 in 3 of the loans in the Near South Side represented property changing hands, which makes sense in a neighborhood so newly constructed, but which stands out in the metro area where home purchase loans were balanced with loan refinances. And a lot more of the Near South loans were made to non-occupants investors.

Considering the speculative fervor, it’s a little surprising to see that loan activity actually held up better in the South Loop than it did everywhere else. The weight of it shifted from home purchase, to refinance, as it did across the metro area. But across the metro area, loan refinances slowed down, they just didn’t slow as much as other kinds of loans. In the Near South Side, loan refinances increased 92%. Even home purchase loans dropped more slowly than they did other places. The South Loop's location advantage hasn't been overwhelmed.

Still, liquidity alone has not been enough to correct for prices the bubble brought, and foreclosure filings have been exceptionally high in the Near South Side. In 2009 there were filings per mortgageable property were almost 1 in 10. And by 2010, as filings have been dropping in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods, filings in the Near South Side were up another 50%.

By contrast, in the Bridgeport area, the neighborhoods where lenders and borrowers were busiest in 2005 saw the sharpest drop in loans in the 5 years to 2010.

New City and Brighton Park are two of those neighborhoods. In 2005, they were the 2 most active residential loan markets in the Bridgeport area, with 13 loans per 100 housing units. Bridgeport, by comparison had 7 loans for every 100 housing units.

They are geographically adjacent, but historically different – they began to resemble each other more over the course of the 2000s.

New City includes Canaryville and the Back of the Yards neighborhoods. It’s traditionally been working class, and dominated by renters. In 2000, Brighton Park had higher incomes, and more homeowners. It started out as an extension of Bridgeport and McKinley Park – families would move down the Archer corridor as they moved up in the world.

In 2005, loans associated with home sales in New City slightly outpaced loan refinances, and almost a quarter of all residential loans were made to non-occupant investors. Brighton Park saw fewer home sales and less speculation of the non-occupant variety, and more homeowners grappling for terms, or for cash.

Both neighborhoods saw some of the steepest drops in loan activity in subsequent years. And the highest rates of foreclosure. Foreclosure filings in New City peaked in 2008, and have been falling since. But there were still 461 of them in 2009, or 57 per 1,000 mortgageable property. And they have contributed to a growing stock of vacant buildings. In 2009, only 3 Chicago neighborhoods -- Austin, Roseland and Englewood -- had more.

Foreclosure filings in Brighton Park have lagged behind New City’s, but there were still more of them, proportionate to mortgageable properties, than in other neighborhoods in the area. And the cycle has corresponded with changing incomes, and home values, that have brought the neighborhood more in line with New City than its old Archer Avenue peers.

The Lower West Side also stands out for its steep drop in loan activity after 2005. But foreclosure filings have remained relatively modest there, maybe because loan activity before 2005 was less intense. Despite rumors of gentrification progressing through Pilsen, loans south of 18th Street remained modest in volume, and also in the portion that involved actual property sales. It is true the Lower West Side is dominated by rental apartments, but no more so than New City, where property sales, and foreclosures, spiked.

The other neighborhood that looked comparably quiet in 2005 was Armour Square. In 2005, both Armour Square and the Lower West Side saw just 5 loans for every 100 housing units. But in Armour Square, that loan activity didn’t disappear. Loans of all kinds were fewer in number by 2010, but they hadn’t dropped off at the same rates they did for the metro area, or for other neighborhoods in greater Bridgeport for that matter.

As in the South Loop, loan refinances in particular were resilient. They were down slightly in 2008 from 2005 (down 13%) but by 2009 there were more than there had been in 2005 (112 vs 107), and in 2010, they were still increasing (to 124). And unlike the South Loop, foreclosure filings have been all but non-existent in Armour Square. There were 4 filings per 1,000 mortgageable properties in 2009.

If there is a single neighborhood in the area that shows where moderation in the housing market helped guard against disaster later on, Armour Square is the one.

But Bridgeport looks a lot like it. Bridgeport wasn’t immune to speculation, at least it attracted a fairly large share of non-occupant investors in 2005. But it saw less lending overall than several of its neighbors, and more of those loans were to existing owners, adjusting their position, rather than property changing hands.

Lending dropped off more in Bridgeport than it did in Armour Square, but it didn’t drop off as much it did in the MSA, or as in most of its neighbors. Foreclosures have been on the rise, but they remain modest as a portion of mortgageable properties.

In a map that shows change in overall lending between 2005 and 2010, Bridgeport stands out, together with Armour Square and the South Loop. But a map of loans made in 2010 shows that actual optimism may be more diffuse.

The South Loop remains particularly rich in loans – of course it also particularly rich in foreclosure filings. Meanwhile, lending activity continues down the Archer Corridor, and into Canaryville, and parts of Back of the Yards. New loans suffuse neighborhoods where other measures have not looked so good. There are lots of loans made in Bridgeport west of Halsted Street, and there’s a cluster of lending between 35th Street and Pershing Road that extends from Normal Avenue to Western.

That cluster shows up again in a map showing where non-occupant loans stepped up between 2009 and 2010. The spurt of non-occupant investment penetrates pockets of New City and Brighton Park.

In fact, Brighton Park, the neighborhood that may have lost the most in the decade of the boom and bust, saw the best news by another measure: in 2010, it is the only community in the area that saw a spurt of new home purchase loans. Some of them may have been loans to non-occupant investors. But since the former outnumber the latter, most of them were not.