Three days had passed since Clara, a three-year-old English bulldog, was stolen outside a grocery store in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The NYPD followed a few leads but in a city with nearly 500 homicides a year, a missing dog was not exactly at the top of the local police blotter. Then a crew of intimidating-as-hell, tattoo-clad equalizers heard about the missing pooch from a neighborhood poster and hit the streets. Convinced that the theft wasn’t the work of some punk kids, the crew roamed the area, pounding on the doors of local dealers, thugs, and anyone desperate enough to steal a defenseless animal in broad daylight. After an afternoon spent scanning the area and asking questions, it became obvious that they weren’t fucking around. The crew sent out a clear message: all you scumbags are going to see plenty more of us until this dog is returned, and that won’t be a pleasant experience. Casting an awesome shadow over Hell’s Kitchen’s notorious underbelly, the dog was handed over in a few hours. It was the group’s third high-profile dog rescue that month. “Some people won’t talk to cops,” says Johnny O, a martial arts instructor with the group whose glasses also earned him the nickname Clark Kent. “They’ll talk to us.”
This is Rescue Ink, the toughest and most colorful animal rights advocates in history.After meeting at local tattoo and hot rod conventions, the nine members of Rescue Ink formed with the intention of helping animals. They knew their huge builds, numerous tattoos and imposing presence would immediately intimidate abusers. The threat of Rescue Ink may be implicit, but it works.
“When we approach someone’s house, they shit bricks,” admits George, a refrigerator-sized African-American Connecticut fireman and official member of Rescue Ink. “They see a group of big guys with tattoos on their face and they give us the [abused] dogs.”Every member of the squad has tattoos, many of them on their face. Today, the tattoos on George’s enormous arms, including fresh work courtesy of his Iraq War vet brother, are covered by long-sleeves. Batso, a 74-year old former body-shop worker, has visible tattoos everywhere, including eyes on his palms and bats on his head and ears. When a construction worker from a nearby site walks by and sees Batso’s inked head and Fu Manchu moustache, he doesn’t try to keep his thoughts to himself. “Jesus Christ” he mutters out loud. He’s just met Rescue Ink, and if he’s been abusing animals he just might have to meet them again sometime soon.
Still, there is more to Rescue Ink than scaring abusers straight and rescuing animals, although that does make up the bulk of their volunteer work. Some of the guys recently returned from “making some noise” in Yates County, NY, where they protested area puppy mills. They’ve also started tri-state area outreach programs and housing workshops designed to find homes for animals on local shelter death lists. But it’s the countless alerts of escaped, stolen or abused animals that bring out the real war stories from this Rescue Ink crew.
“We go everywhere. New York, New Jersey. We even rescued these pigs on Long Island,” says George, who starts sharing some of his other stories. “This one time, a slum lord wasn’t paying his water bill. So the city shut off the water. He came back to the building to turn it back on and ended up flooding the building. One woman had to go to a hotel and her dogs were abandoned, so he took them and was trying to sell them. We went to his house, which was this huge house in a gated community, and heard dogs. After negotiating with him for an hour and a half in the pouring rain, he threw out the dogs.”
Rescue Ink members have fascinating animal rescue stories. Some involve confrontation, some don’t. There’s the return of a missing Maltese or the time the gang put the squeeze on a known car stereo thief and recovered two show Corgis named Daddy Warbucks and Sammy, valued at $5,000 each. Then there’s the story about Biagi, the former boiler mechanic turned expert dog trainer, who crashed through the floor of an abandoned building, a rescued dog landing on his chest as his back hit the next floor down.
“It’s part of the rescue. I’ve been doing rescues for 30 years,” he says. “We all go back 15 years from hot rod and tattoo conventions. And we all love animals. We would talk about how we rescued this pitbull or how these guys came at us. We’ve had a severe case of pitbull fighting and someone selling dogs for drug money. So we got a group together to do this.”
Along with Biagi, that group started with Mike Tattoo. An actor best known for his recurring role on the HBO series Oz, his work with animals goes back almost as far as his passion for tattoos, which cover practically every visible inch of his skin. “I got my first tattoos at 14 from that ‘bad guy in the basement.’ I would knock on the door and have to say something like ‘Goldilocks sent me, I’m here to see the three bears,'” he remembers. “You had to know the code.”For now, the Rescue Ink crew gathers at Lone Wolf Tattoos in Bellmore, NY. It’s a 50s-themed parlor where tattoo artist and Rescue Ink favorite Craig Messina plies his trade. There’s a diner down the block and the location has become something of an unofficial headquarters for the guys. It’s also where some Rescue Ink members got the ink that represents their various personalities. Like the eastern imagery on Johnny O’s arms. Or Big Ant, the colossal 320-pound anchor of the group with brass knuckle tattoos. And Batso, who has a thing for bats and the scalp tats to prove it.
“Everyone here has a specific niche. Biagi is the handler, Johnny O is a martial arts instructor, Batso is very holistic and can calm down the dog, George is an ex-fireman, Ant is like a brick wall, Angel is an ex-detective, Del is a cat guy. I’m the first guy there,” says Mike. “This ain’t no joke. When we pull up, they’re in trouble and it can get very hairy. People come at us with weapons, threaten our lives. It’s the world we live in.”
Del did help launch Rescue Ink’s feral cat, trap, neuter, and return program. And Angel, a retired NYPD detective with a beloved tiny Bichon Fries (the canine equivalent of a powder puff), is the mastermind behind the investigations that play an important part in Rescue Ink’s efforts. In fact, after their downtown Manhattan photo shoot, the group is heading over to the office of famed New York private investigator Vinnie Parco to look at some new surveillance equipment. “We do surveillance and are very careful. We check everything. We’ve got to be careful when it comes to complaints,” says Mike, who estimates that about one quarter of the group’s abuse calls are false alarms. “A typical animal rescue is done by a lady or a smaller guy with a huge heart. But with some people abusing animals, if they don’t kill you, they’re going to abuse you. We do what we need to do. So when we approach abusers, we ask them if they want to work with us or if they want to be a tough guy.” Sure enough, they’ve confronted their fair share of tough guys. Prying those details out of the Rescue crew is tough as the team is careful to keep their crazier stories to themselves. When the subject of violence does come up, Johnny O, the martial arts expert and former bodyguard, helps to clarify, all without giving away too much. “It can get violent,” he says while walking Lucy, his rescued pitbull. “We make sure it doesn’t.
“That’s an old war story.”
George is joking about the impressive scar on the back of his shaved head while on hisway to the group’s Manhattan photo shoot. He never explains the scar or where it came from. When it comes to their pasts, these guys don’t share much and when they do, it’s typically obscure, often hilarious. “I had a pitchfork stuck in my leg,” says Batso. “A girl did it.”
Batso turns the discussion to his custom-built Batmobile and the giant metal bat in his front yard – he likes bats, hence the name – before mentioning how he first met his banker wife when she was 19; he was 47. “When I first went to the bank with her,” Batso says, “she said ‘behave yourself.'”
“They didn’t know if it was his wife or if he was holding her hostage,” George laughs.
Between jokes during their downtown photo shoot, the members of Rescue Ink interact with a pack of dogs from a Brooklyn Animal Care and Control shelter. It’s one of the few times you’ll see their hard exteriors soften a little. This is their mission.
“We have to do it,” Mike says as he watches his fellow Rescue Inkers mix with the dogs. “How can you not?”
As if on cue, Batso runs over. He of the giant bat on his front lawn and the Fu Manchu mustache and the ear tattoos and the pitchfork in his leg; that Batso. He comes over holding a tiny pitbull puppy under his chin. And just like that, you can actually see the old guy’s heart melting. “Mike,” he yells. “I’m taking this dog home.”