Frith Street Tatttoo
18 Frith Street
London, England, UK W1D 4RQ
Artists: Xam, Stewart Robson, Valerie Vargas, Aaron Hewitt, Ian Flower
Long gone are the sex shops and beatniks of London's Soho neighborhood. Over the years, the notorious district has undergone a serious image overhaul, and between the office buildings and trendy restaurants sits Frith Street Tattoo and Piercing, the tattoo shop of owner Dante Di Massa's dreams. "When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was hang out in a really cool tattoo shop all day," Di Massa says with the noise from his busy shop in the background. "And that's what I do now."
Even though he's covered in tattoos and owns a shop, the 40-year-old Di Massa has never felt the urge to pick up a needle himself. "I'm not an artist," he explains. "I could go out there and be just another scratcher, but that's the last thing the world needs." Instead, Di Massa filled his shop with some of London's most talented artists, like Xam, Stewart Robson, Valerie Vargas, Aaron Hewitt, and guest artist Ian Flower and Claudia De Rossi (who recently moved on to open their own shop, New Skool Tattoo).
Stocking Frith Street with a crew of talented artists didn't equal immediate financial success. "When we opened, we weren't very busy," Dante says, of Frith Street's 2003 opening. "But everyone we started with was willing to put in a ton of hours to make it a success." The hard work paid off as Frith Street Tattoo is now one of the most credible shops on the London scene.
While the abundance of artistic firepower has kept the shop busy since those early days, England's accepting attitude toward tattooing also keeps the chairs full and the needles buzzing. "It's extremely acceptable to have visible tattoos here. It's not uncommon for a kid to turn 18 [the required legal age] and come in wanting a sleeve, but that's good and bad. What do you know when you're 18? You know jack shit, don't you?" Di Massa laughs.
With that in mind, Frith Street has rules to help dissuade people from doing too much too fast. Like many shops, they won't do anything on the hands or neck unless the customer already has lots of easily visible work. "A lot of kids come in and want their first tattoo on their neck because a lot of hiphop stars have them," Di Massa says. "But it's a lot different when you're a multimillionaire."
Dante and company also make a concerted effort to uphold the ideals and traditions that drew them to tattooing in the first place. But keeping that grittiness and edge is getting tough as tattoos invade pop culture. "TV kind of ruined it. Some people come in expecting a tattoo shop to be full of bikers and Harley-Davidsons," Di Massa says, "but tattoo shops just aren't like that anymore. There are a lot of good shops that are more like tattoo boutiques."
Di Massa also worries that some people are just getting the wrong impression from their televisions. "There are many people in the industry right now just to make money, but once they've made their money, they'll move on," he says. "The good shops and the good people will still be around. All we can do is put our heads down and try to give the best tattoos possible."