Deep Six Laboratory
DEEP SIX LABORATORY
2483 Grant Ave.
What is it about horror that keeps us coming back for more? Nine out of 10 times the good guy loses, and the villain, beaten and seemingly defeated, opens a lone eyelid at the last second to the accompaniment of some dramatic orchestral flourish. Maybe it’s the honesty in the admission that the good guy doesn’t always win—or maybe, by the end of the book, or movie, or old-fashioned nightmare, we side with the monster, for no reason other than it’s far more interesting than the hero.
At Deep Six Laboratory in Philadelphia, owner and artist Paul Acker combines his love for this very genre with his love for the craft of tattooing. “The shop definitely has a darker tone, but that wasn’t the original plan. In the beginning I just wanted to raise the bar when it came to quality and cleanliness. I also wanted an art gallery, separate work areas for the artists. You didn’t really see anything like that in Philly at the time. Since then we’ve really embraced our reputation for having a dark side but still kept the things you would want to see in a tattoo shop if you were a customer.”
Starting out as a customer in a northwest Philly shop in 2001, Acker remembers how his penchant for the obscure opened doors for him along the way. “I was going in there to get tattooed, and I always brought in my own drawings because flash tattoos didn’t really appeal to me—I was into darker imagery. They liked my drawings and basically offered to teach me how to tattoo.” Within a few weeks he had earned himself a position at the shop, and a platform to globe-trot his lifelike renderings of everyone from Freddy Krueger to the Joker to a bloody, fanged Betty White.
After years of travel, Acker honed his craft, dug a sturdy niche in the convention circuit, and assembled plans for the kind of shop he would want to work at. A place to showcase not only his talent, but the works of friends and fellow artists from across the country—and in the past seven years Deep Six has evolved into a community fixture in a city already known for its ink. “Philly is a huge tattoo city,” says Tom Taylor, who’s been tattooing alongside Acker for three years. “There’s a lot of history, and tons of awesome tattooers I respect and look up to. I think we’ve found our niche in the tattoo scene around here, which is no easy task these days. Shops seem to be popping up left and right, and you really have to sift through the bullshit to get to the good ones. That being said, I think the cream always rises to the top.”
Maybe it’s the death metal blaring from the speakers or the gruesome decor that attracts the clientele to a shop like Deep Six, but it’s also the jaw-dropping work that keeps them coming back. The balance of shock and awe is something Acker and crew have developed over the years, mixing the aesthetic of horror with the refinement of photo-realism and the high-end draw of a gallery. By showcasing the beautiful side of something ugly, the shop has struck a chord with the community. “We have a good reputation in Philly and beyond, and most of the shop was born here,” says Deep Six artist Dan Henk. “It seems like we have friends in everything. From people who work at comic shops, to comic book artists, bartenders, record and art store employees, and even quite a few people on the Philly police force.”
There’s a sense of belonging attached to Deep Six. It seems that each artist has a different tie to the area. When Taylor isn’t tattooing, he’s playing drums in a local metal band whose members include artists from other shops in the area, an investment banker, and even one of the aforementioned Philly cops. “Yeah, it’s a weird mix,” admits Taylor.
The community spirit doesn’t end with a mutual love for metal. Deep Six is a shop for the artist’s artist. “We often collaborate on shows with and even tattoo local tattoo artists from other shops,” says Henk. “Tattooing is a very word-of-mouth business, and our customers tend to be very loyal. Their friends and coworkers often end up as our customers. There are a huge number of shops [in Philly] and we have great relations with some of them, like the guys at Black Vulture gallery. I’ve referred people to artists at other shops before, and they have done the same for me.”
As an art, tattooing has flourished in Philadelphia. And although its acceptance within the community has made tattoos less shocking, Acker and the Deep Six crew have found a way to keep tattooing scary: putting a gruesome expression on their clients’ skin, instead of their faces.