Welcome to NY Ink

it’s a warm April afternoon in SoHo and some gnarly guys are huffing cigarettes on the steps of the not-yet-open-to-the-public Wooster Street Social Club, while the fashionable types—from the tony to the post-hipstery—shuffle between art galleries and flagship stores. One woman who looks like she could be dressed for the royal wedding pauses to ask warmly, “When are you guys opening?” It’s one of those perfect New York art-world moments Ami James has banked on. Looks like the risk he took opening up a shop in New York’s SoHo, and filming the process for NY Ink, might pay off; there’s the right kind of buzz before the tattoo gun has even been hooked up to a power source.

Not too many neighborhoods in the world are more hallowed than SoHo, where James has hung his shingle. “I wanted to be around gallery people who love art but wouldn’t necessarily think of tattoos,” he says. “I’m trying to get everybody into tattooing. I’m going for the high end, and hope that it will trickle down.”
James and partner in this endeavor, Charlie Corwin, have erected a place fitting for both the well heeled and the well inked. For Miami Ink, James made a deal with Corwin, the show’s producer, but he ended up feeling that the money he would have earned tattooing was compromised because the filming schedule took so much time away from the actual work. They didn’t talk for a few years, but now they are on the same financial page, splitting TV and tattoo-shop profits, so they both lose money if production cuts into productivity.

Wooster Street Social Club is in a space formerly inhabited by a Christian organization that has been transformed into a cathedral of aesthetics. It’s 6,200 square feet of stunning. You walk in the door and there are priceless works of art to your right, the main tattooing area is behind a wall on your left, and there are creatively placed copper-ringed window frames salvaged from New York’s old Flatiron Building that allow you to look in on the tattooing without being invasive to the artist or his subject. “They frame the artwork,” James explains. Past the reception area, there’s a Shepard Fairey print above a light table where the artists sketch—a confluence of refined street artists. In the waiting area, you have the choice of a pew or an old leather couch, which sits around a Mac that has been steampunk’d with a clockmaker’s lathe. Inside the main tattooing area is a textured wall that holds up lettering from the 1960s spelling the shop’s name, as well as a bar and one of James’s custom motorcycles. The tattooing is done on old-school barber chairs in funky colors; stools and rolling stations are situated on tufts of tile from turn-of-last-century France. Everything’s portable so the whole floor can be cleared at night for events or parties. “I called it Wooster Street Social Club because it’s not just a tattoo shop; we don’t even have tattoo art on the wall like you’d expect,” James says. “This is a hangout for anyone who wants to be a part of this lifestyle.” Downstairs, James has even put in a spot to get a coffee and, since he practices mixed martial arts, a fight gym.
But the most important things James put into Wooster Street Social Club are the tattoo artists. His first call was to Tim Hendricks (“Tim does photo realism to a T,” James says); his next was to Tommy Montoya (“He does the baddest black and gray”). Yes, for NY Ink his first choices were West Coast masters. “Their styles don’t compete with anyone on the East Coast,” James says.

Hendricks claims that New York is the place, and now is the time. “Like how birds fly south for the winter, tattoo artists move around between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York,” he says. “Right now New York is the mecca, New York is the shit. When I walk into shops like New York Adorned, Invisible NYC, Flyrite, Kings Avenue, Saved, or Da Vinci and see their tattoo artists push the boundaries and then say they want to get tattooed by me, I say ‘Are you kidding me? I want to get tattooed by you!’ They make me want to tattoo better.”

Hendricks’s favorite part of being at Wooster Street Social Club is working with Montoya again. “Besides the fact that we make each other laugh every day, we push each other for personal growth,” he says. “In many shops ego comes into play, but Tommy and I are honest with each other, and you can only grow if you are humble.”

Montoya, who is miles away from his family, including his brother, Mikey, another sick tattooer, says his mission is to change the New York landscape. “Art is way different out here. Everybody is into American traditional and Japanese traditional, where out in Cali we are heavily into black-and-gray portraits, gangster style, and religious style,” says the artist, who has the state of California inked on his jaw line. “I’m going to fill that void in New York. All it’s going to take is for me to do a couple of tattoos on people, put them in the public limelight, and it will change the game out here.” That’s a bold, black-and-white (and gray) statement.

“There is no modesty here, but with these artists none is needed,” says Megan Massacre, another of the shop’s artists. She’s the greenest, though she has great green eyes for tattooing. “Megan is this little girl who has only been tattooing for six years, but she is doing amazing work,” James says. For the show, Massacre, who has been featured in INKED both as a model and artist, provides eye candy on skin and as the babe in boy land. When asked if she sees a tattoo artist or a model when she looks in the mirror, the Pennsylvanian replies: “A tattoo artist, and then an artist in any form. When I model I consider myself creating art, and when I customize my clothes I see that as another form of art.”
Then there are the non-artists in the shop. James’s apprentice is Billy DeCola. They were friends in Miami, and when the recession hit and DeCola’s import business suffered James offered him a job at Miami Ink. He later followed James to New York to be his right-hand man, consigliere, and, sometimes, verbal punching bag or sparring partner in the fight gym. “People would kill for this opportunity,” he says. Jessica Gahring is the strongwoman who keeps the boys in check, and Robear is the shop manager, whose grandiosity surpasses anything television can fabricate.

No bullshit, though: The Iago character at Wooster Street Social Club is Brooklynite Chris Torres, a lettering wiz. He’s the only native New Yorker, and brings his New York attitude to the drawing table. “Wooster Street is more focused on being an art gallery than a tattoo shop,” he says. Though it should be noted that a few artists complain about the lack of reference material on hand. “I’m not here to make friends,” says Torres, the former owner of Alphabet City Studios. “I’m a New Yorker; I have an opinion.” In his purview, all the artists at Wooster Street Social Club deserve a chair, but he questions whether the show should carry the banner of NY Ink. “There are better people to represent New York. I would have no business representing Houston in Houston Ink. Why the fuck would I want to represent anything [other] than where I’m from?”
It’s a question many may ask when they see the show, but New York has always been a city the hungry descend upon to prove to themselves, and the world, that they are the best. “People might think of me as a Miami guy, but I’ve been traveling between Miami and New York for 17 years,” James says. “New York is the place where people from different places are welcome to take a shot. It’s the capital of immigration and art. I wouldn’t open a shop anywhere else in the world.”

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