Are Tattoo Artists the New Celebrity Chefs?

Metal Ink supports the tattoo community. Check out new designs our talented members are posting at This is our final interview in New York, and it couldn’t have ended on a better note. Read on for our first group interview.

Red Rocket Tattoo
46 W 36th St
New York, NY 10018
(212) 736-3001

Mike at Red Rocket Tattoo

Mike at Red Rocket Tattoo

Mike Bellamy
Tattoo Artist/Owner of Red Rocket

Vinny Romanelli
Tattoo Artist

Adam Hays
Tattoo Artist

James Kelly

MI:  Why are we listening to Tchaikovsky?

Mike:  Because it’s amazing, and why shouldn’t you? It’s inspiring, it’s thrilling, it’s romantic.

MI:  I couldn’t agree more!

Vinny:  And it’s better than Slayer.

MI:  Your ipod’s on shuffle?  It’s very eclectic. I’ve visited a bunch of shops in the East Village and Lower East Side and this is the first time I’m listening to classical music.

Mike:  You spent the day where? Go to the doctor afterwards.

MI:  *Laughs.* It’s my old neighborhood. I used to live there for 3 years; I think I’m immune. So why did you set up shop here?

Mike:  We set up 11 years ago because it was away from everybody else. It was away from St Marks and West 4th and all of that stuff. 6th Avenue. Just wanted to get away from all the flash shops and do more custom work. There was nothing here, nothing in the area, so it just seemed perfect. And it just worked out. Everyone comes after work. We get all the secretaries, all the day workers, on their way home after work. It’s been a destination place since it’s close to the subways, there’s Macy’s, there’s hotels, everywhere there’s tourists. It’s a good location. We’re the only ones up here.

MI:  Yeah, that’s different. You don’t have the tattoo iconography on the walls.

Mike:  We have it, but it’s in books. You look around and there are pictures everywhere. We prefer to have artwork. You get inspired by that. We do mostly custom work.

MI:  And everyone has their own style, their own specialty?

Mike:  Everybody has their own style, for sure. Everybody has their own thing they like to do the most.

MI:  It seems that artists have tattoos on themselves of whatever their specialty is.

Vinny:  I don’t have any portraits. I like to do portraits and I don’t have any of them on me. But that’s because I haven’t found a really good local artist to do it.

MI:  Well couldn’t you just do it on yourself, like on your leg?

Vinny:  No. Because it’s not easy to do it and it hurts.

MI:  Seems like a lot of people do it. Or is that a generalization?

Vinny:  It’s not a good idea because you’re dividing your attention between two things. One is being tattooed and handling the experience of it, the pain of it, and the other is being the tattooer and trying to do a good job of it.

MI:  You’ve been here for 11 years. Would you say that tattooing is growing in popularity or have there been fads that come and go, wax and wane?

Mike:  There’s always fads that come and go. Overall it’s grown in popularity. There were a couple TV shows that added to it.

MI:  Why isn’t there a “NY Ink”?

Mike:  It’s a good question, actually. Maybe the formula won’t work here, maybe people turned it down. Maybe artists don’t find it so worthwhile.

Vinny:  I just read something about Kim saying she feels lucky to get out. She and Hannah got out or their contract got terminated because there wasn’t that much in it. There wasn’t enough drama in their lives. They’re actually normal people and good artists.

Mike:  Actually, we got approached to do a show before Miami Ink got out. I’m pretty happy though that we didn’t do it because the idea was to follow us around and what are we going to do? We come here and work, go home, have a beer and walk the dog. Half the time we’re just sitting here doing nothing or watching TV. It’s not super glamorous or dramatic or whatever.

MI:  Did you watch any of those shows?

Vinny:  Those shows are a complete unrealistic portrayal of how everyday tattoo shops work. Most of the people who really work there aren’t on the show.

Mike: I went into the Miami Ink shop once. Not one person looked up at me.

MI:  Kat von D—what do you think about her?

Mike:  It’s like, every reality show is the same. They film for hours and they cut out the moments that are boring.

Adam:  And I don’t want to know what the meaning of the tattoo is, just as long as it’s meaningful to you.

MI:  Okay, reality TV sucks. I love all the masks on your wall. Did you travel around the world and collect them?

Mike:  Yes. Some are gifts, some are collections from travels same with everything in here. I wanted this place to feel like our living room, our collective house. All from our experience living in the world. And it’ carries over; it’s not like a doctor’s office. People come in here and feel comfortable. It feels lived in, it’s cozy, it’s livable and comfortable. It’s not like people waiting outside are tapping their foot because they can relax and watch the fish in the fish tank and listen to the music.

MI:  What about all the crosses on the wall? Same as the masks?

Mike:  With the crosses it’s all about the image. There’s a lot of Catholic imagery in American tattooing so that kind of plays off of it.

MI:  What’s your specialty?

Mike:  I do a lot of Japanese inspired work. A lot of color, a lot of realism. Coy fish, dragons, cherry blossoms, masks…

Adam:  Water, waves, wind.

Mike:  A lot of those turn into bigger pieces, backs, arms, legs, whole bodies.

Vinny:  Do you have a tattoo?

MI:  Another first! None of the artists I interviewed asked me that! Does the henna tattoo I got a couple months ago count?

Mike:  No. No skin got punctured, so that’s not a tattoo.

MI:  So what do you call that?

Mike:  It’s a henna drawing.

MI:  Changing topics. It seems tattoo artists are the new celebrities. More recently it was all about celebrity chefs, now it’s celebrity tattoo artists.

Mike:  We don’t want to be celebrities. All chefs want to be on shows. They want to be celebrities.

Adam:  Those guys are douche bags.

Mike:  The idea that the world is looking at us as the new rock stars or the new chefs or whatever is just not interesting. It’s not interesting to us because we’re just trying to be the best artists we can. We’re not looking to be celebrities.

The crew at Red Rocket Tattoo

The crew at Red Rocket Tattoo

MI:  Where do you see tattooing going?

Mike:  Personally I see it not so far in the future taking a huge popularity crash. Because everybody and their mother has one little one they got somewhere because they thought it was cute and they thought it was trendy. And all of those people are going to regret it. The people who are still seriously interested are still going to be doing it. The people who are doing the research, the people who are still serious about it will still be doing it. I see a lot of places of closing, a lot of places crashing. Everybody who can pick up a crayon thinks they can be a tattoo artist and their shops and clients are regretting it. I started before it was actually legal. So you kind of have to really want to do it. I think it’s going to go back to that. The people who are really interested in it and not for the fame or the glamour, the solid ones—the other ones get the fuck out.

MI:  It’s interesting that there isn’t a school for learning how to tattoo. Most people seem to have started by picking it up and practicing on themselves and their friends.

Mike:  I think somewhere there is a school and it’s probably a joke. When I started out they were selling tattoo kits on the backs of magazines and for 400 bucks you could get all your equipment and a certificate, like getting your diploma through the internet.

All:  *Laugh.*

Mike:  You know the real tried and true way is the old fashioned apprentice way. You find a shop and you try and get in. You have to prove your interest and you have to do all the crap work before you can even start tattooing. This is a craft that will last you a lifetime. This should be your income for the rest of your life. It should be a lifelong commitment. If you think you can pick it up and tattoo someone in 6 months, you will be doing a bad job. You will be doing a disservice. If you think of it as a lifelong goal, you’ll be learning something. When you learn something, you have to protect it, you have to use it well.

MI:  What advice can you offer to young kids out there who want to become a tattoo artist?

Mike:  I was standing next to Jack Rudy, a long time old school tattooer. A young kid comes up to him and asks him, “How do I go about tattooing?” He said, “You don’t. You just quit.” He told him to just quit. That’s the old school way. He was testing him. He was testing his tenacity. If the kid goes yeah okay and quits, then he wasn’t cut out for it anyway. But if he’s like, “Oh, but I will!” then maybe he’s got a shot.

One Response to “Are Tattoo Artists the New Celebrity Chefs?”

  1. Entertaining, thanks 🙂

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