From left: John Fitzgerald, Josh Schwegel, Alex Schultz, Andrea Ottlewski, Josh Wright, Aaron Bell, Melissa Bell, Honest Jon, Jonathan Gilbert, Kiwi Matt, Clark Kent.
Slave to the Needle Tattoo and Body PiercingBallard
508 NW 65th Street, Seattle, WA
403 NE 45th Street, Seattle, WA
When Jon “Honest Jon” Boetes picks up his coffee before going to tattoo at Slave to the Needle in Seattle’s bohemian Ballard neighborhood, he sees his tattoos on the staff at Cafe? Bambino. And when he is done for the day, he unwinds next door at the Tin Hat Bar & Grill, where more of his artistry is on display behind the bar. “In Seattle it is sort of weird to not have tattoos,” Boetes says.
Slave to the Needle is one of the Emerald City’s premier tattoo shops, and its original Ballard location has grown with the neighborhood. Now a legend in ink, owner Aaron Bell made his way from southern California to Seattle after he wasn’t able to work out an apprenticeship with Mark Mahoney at Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland. He also wanted to get away from a bad situation. “I was in and out of jail, trying to get clean, but the bad influences would knock on my window at 3 a.m.,” Bell says. “I love the West Coast but wanted to get far away from the evils, so Seattle was the furthest city away.” In the early ’90s, Bell moved north, started tattooing, and got the keys to the shop for $2,000 in 1995.
“The area around the Ballard location has changed since I was doing my apprenticeship,” Bell says. “It used to be all gun shops, bars, and drive-bys; now the neighborhood is full of microbreweries, yuppies, and bohemians.” And the tattoo art has evolved with the scene. “The early- to mid-’90s was a revolutionary time when we were tattooing all crazy stuff,” Bell says. “I look back on it now and it didn’t work. I stayed in same spot, so when I see those tattoos walking around the neighborhood I tell them to get in the chair and to fix that.”
But Bell and his merry band of artists needn’t pull people off the streets to fill the shop, as Slave to the Needle has become a destination spot not only for Seattleites looking to get tattooed, but also for artists. “It’s a mecca for tattooing as far as I am concerned,” says Kiwi Matt, an artist who is finishing up his first year in residence at the shop. As his nickname indicates, Matt is from New Zealand but has tattooed in Europe and on the East Coast. “I moved to Seattle specifically to work for Aaron Bell, a hero of mine, at Slave to the Needle. I think on my first day I did seven or eight tattoos,” he says. And that was a normal day at the shop, which goes to show how talented and committed to customer service the artists are, like John Fitzgerald, who does his own version of Japanese tattoos he calls “Johnanese.”
Bell, who is booked further in advance than the city’s famous Canlis restaurant, has ingrained into his staff that tattooing is a service industry. “We have a kicked-back atmosphere but really try to have great customer service,” Boetes says.
“When I took over the shop it was compartmentalized with private pony walls, but I knocked them down so we have an open space,” Bell says.
“That way we can all banter and even include the customers. If you are clowning on one another, include the customer. If the counter is going to bullshit about movies or bands, as long as they bring the customers into the conversation, that’s fine.”
And the conversation often turns to bands, as the shop’s soundtrack is the buzz of the tattoo machines accompanied by a rotating selection of Pandora stations chosen by tattooers with different tastes. “If you were in a nightclub and the DJ was playing the playlists we have, you’d look at him funny,” says Kiwi Matt.
The eclectic group of tattooists is indicative of the type of shop Bell wants to run. He expects every one of his artists to be able to do any tattoo that’s asked for. It’s a high-end street shop mentality. “We give clients port- folios and don’t allow the counter to give suggestions,” he says. “I’ve seen other shops where guys bribe the shop girl with lunch to get referred, but we want the customer to make his or her own decision.” In the name of customer service, Bell has even gone so far as to send people to another shop in the area when his artists were booked or he thought they would have trouble pulling off the type of tattoo the client wanted. But that changed when Revolution in Wallingford went on the market. “When I heard the owner was selling, I thought that if I bought it I could be referring people to my own shop,” Bell says of his decision to purchase the place and turn it into Slave to the Needle’s second location. Again, Bell knocked down walls to have an open floor, again he filled the stools with talented artists, and again he is starting out in a gritty area with potential.
“There’s more riffraff in Wallingford, and occasionally somebody needs to get punched,” Bell says. “The other night a drunk and belligerent guy came in and tried to order a hot dog. He was an asshole and wouldn’t back down. He came back with a rock, so one of our guys had to punch him. The tattoo artist felt really bad about it after, but we still taped up Bumfights posters around the shop.” Once again, it seems Bell has brought a playful and relaxed atmosphere to his shop.