Artists: Bert Krak, Steve Boltz, Eli Quinters
Fifty years ago, the tattoo game in Brooklyn was a strictly blue-collar business dominated by hard men with names like one-eyed Max Pelz, Tony the Pirate, Jack Red Cloud, and Brooklyn Blackie. They were tattooers, not tattoo artists. They worked out of parlors, not art studios. They needled strong black lines and bold colors. They had a code of conduct and brawled to keep it.
Paying homage to these tattoo forefathers is Smith Street Tattoo Parlour’s traditional tattoo trifecta: Steve Boltz, Bert Krak, and Eli Quinters. They’re known for distinct old-school styling but excel in all genres. It is, after all, a quintessential street shop.
Smith Street opened last October in historic Carroll Gardens, not too far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where sailors once lined up for the anchors, pinups, and panthers they picked off of flash sheets. It’s exactly what clients can do today, choosing from the sheets created by legends like Bert Grimm, Phil Sims, and Brooklyn Blackie that line the strawberry-vanilla-chocolate–colored walls.
While the three have a large clientele for custom work, they schedule their appointments so that every day, someone who comes in off the street can get tattooed. In fact, the open parlor feel and laid-back vibe is specifically designed to welcome walk-ins. "We love the street shop," says Boltz. "That’s what we all came up doing. I was doing that for 10 years before someone said they wanted something ‘special’ from me."
It’s a change from the custom-only studio trend throughout New York that has led to some snobbery over personalized work. In response, Quinters says, "Some customers will come in and say they don’t know what they want, and we’ll tell them to pick something off the wall. Then they’ll say, ‘I don’t want something off the wall!’ But how do you not want that? Are you too good for old Bill Jones flash?"
Beyond the old-school flash, the three internationally renowned artists will also tattoo kanji, tribals, portraits, and anything else that people bring in. "We’ll do anything," says Krak, who also owns Top Shelf Tattooing in Bayside, Queens, and splits his time between the two shops. "We love tattooing. This is all we want to do and make good business—no monkey business."
"Making that stuff look good and look cool, that’s the real test," says Quinters.
"That’s being a tattooer," adds Boltz, "and those are the most difficult tattoos because you’re not in your comfort zone."
That comfort zone is the traditional-style tattooing that they are known for. Krak breaks down the differences in their approach: "It’s pretty simple: Eli does the fanciest, the prettiest, tattooing of all three of us. His style is more delicate, and even though his tattoos still look tough, they have a feminine quality to them. Mine is the simplest, probably the toughest and crudest of us three, and Boltz is somewhere in the middle."
Boltz breaks in, "People tend to come to me for the most random stuff. In the same day, I’ll get a really black, gnarly skull, and then a really pretty girl head with a fancy butterfly. Meanwhile, Bert will do three gnarly skulls in a row or wolf heads."
"All my tattoos are, like, head-related: animal heads, skeleton heads. …" says Krak.
"And I’ll do three butterflies in a row," Quinters breaks in, smiling. "I like what I do. I don’t want that to change too much."
The guys chime in and out, adding to and even finishing each other’s sentences—a by-product of a long friendship that was the impetus behind "Smith Street Tattoo Parlour in the first place. "When you open up your own place, you want it to be you and your best friends," says Boltz. "How lucky are we that our best friends are also our favorite tattooers who we look up to?