It may well be the definitive brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood: so often synonymous with lazy brunches, tree-lined streets and the affectionately nicknamed ‘stroller wars.’ However, there’s another side to the Slope and its surrounds, with the past few years witnessing the emergence of not just bistros, small bars, and green markets—but also that of tattoo studios.
Owned by husband-and-wife team Valerie and Kenny Restrepo, Leathernecks’ Fifth Avenue location smells reassuringly of antiseptic and pulls in a mix of first-time locals and heavily inked return clients. Valerie Restrepo has noticed an uptick in the acceptance of tattoos amongst the general populace, with teachers and city workers making up a greater slice of their clientele than in previous years. “It’s nice to see that there’s more acceptance in the workplace,” she said. “It’s becoming respected as a form of fine art—it’s a really beautiful thing.”
Opening in 2009, Leathernecks is one of a handful of studios capitalizing on the growing commercial potential of the areas bordering Park Slope. Formerly unsung industrial sites like Gowanus and South Slope are leading the charge, with chic stomping grounds Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill following suit. “We just love the area,” said Restrepo, who moved from Bensonhurst to be closer to the studio. The team at Triple Diamond Tattoos—opened in 2012 on Third Avenue—is similarly effusive about the neighborhood. “We really loved the energy of Gowanus, and the neighborhood was still a mostly blank canvas, like a new frontier for Brooklyn—dicey, old-world, and authentic,” said co-owner Shannon Moran. “It kind of felt like the wild west of Brooklyn in the beginning. We saw a lot of other small business owners trying to pave their dreams here, and it seemed like a natural fit for us.” Smith Street staple Brooklyn Tattoo has called the area home since 2008, following stints in Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights. “There hadn’t really been a tattoo shop in any of these neighborhoods before us,” said co-owner Adam Suerte. “We were the first one to settle on Smith Street.”
Each of the studios places a heavy emphasis on custom work, allowing the artists and clients to play with ideas for a one-of-a-kind end result. At Leathernecks, the artist roster stands at nine strong (helmed by Kenny Restrepo), quickly growing from four when the dual-level studio first opened. Triple Diamond, a more boutique operation, has four resident artists—including co-owner Jon Jon Lane—and typically hosts up to four guest artists at a time. Suerte and co-owner Willie Paredes man the needles at Brooklyn Tattoo, along with three other permanent artists and a changing crop of guest artists. An essential part of the tattooing industry, the prevalence of guest artists allows for constant creative cross-pollination.
This evolving artistry goes hand in hand with changing trends. “In the ‘90s Chinese and Kanji characters were very popular, and still are to some degree,” said Suerte. These days you see a lot more finger tattoos, infinity symbols, tattoos behind the ears, feathers turning into birds.” At Triple Diamond, they’re witnessing a rise in watercolors and delicate lines. “Watercolor tattoos are very big at the moment,” said Moran. “Jon Jon is amazing at them and has been doing them ahead of the craze for quite some time. Very fine-line geometric tattoos are also quite popular lately.” The team at Leathernecks has noticed more portrait-style tattoos, as well as tweaks on classic Sailor Jerry styles. “We definitely have more people coming in for portraits lately,” said Restrepo. “But we do a broad range of styles, and always work with the customer so they don’t end up with someone else’s tattoo.”
Restrepo, Moran, and Suerte all credit the constant presence of tattoos in the media as a driving factor in their increasing popularity. Reality shows like Miami Ink and its ilk have contributed to greater exposure of the subculture, familiarizing viewers with the intricacies of the industry. “The proliferation of tattoo TV shows, as well as celebrities in high profile entertainment mediums getting tattoos has encouraged people of varying backgrounds to get tattooed more frequently,” said Suerte—a sentiment backed by others in the industry. “Majorly, tattooing has become way more acceptable,” said Moran, gauging the influence of reality TV. Restrepo agreed: “People are coming in with more elaborate ideas,” she said, referring to both the studio and various tattoo conventions, which Leathernecks presents at roughly once a month. Indeed, the local studios tend to have a firm working rapport, with Leathernecks regularly attending the Triple Diamond-run convention, the Visionary Tattoo Arts Festival (hosted annually in Asbury, New Jersey).
Armed with a passion for tattooing as a brand of fine art, Moran, Restrepo and Suerte all have backgrounds in other industries—Moran as an art director for Inked magazine, while Restrepo was a private investigator for the better part of a decade before turning her hand to running the studio. Suerte and his team are grounded in visual arts: “Everyone in the shop were artists long before they were tattooers,” he said. “It’s almost a prerequisite for working here.”
This holistic view shared by the studios infuses each with a distinct personality. Moran and Lane’s creative influences are immediately evident in the macabre allure of Triple Diamond’s space. “We have an extensive collection of antique human and animal specimens including skulls, bones, mummified, taxidermy, and wet specimens and other natural artifacts,” said Moran. “Jon Jon disarticulates human and animal skulls in his basement workshop here at the shop, and we also have a passion for wood carvings and Moroccan metal work.” Indeed, crossing the threshold into Triple Diamond is like stepping into a Wunderkammer—with the curios proving to be a near-perfect distraction from the persistent buzz of the tattoo machines.
A space to the back of Leathernecks is lined with an array of reference volumes for clients to seek inspiration and artists to hone their talents: everything from comic books to animal drawings, pin-ups to military history (the nominal nod to the armed forces comes courtesy of Kenny Restrepo’s time as a Marine), human anatomy, and traditional flash etches. The walls are playfully adorned with movie posters and figurines of Superman, Batman, and the Hulk—a contrast to the ornate mirror, exposed ceiling beams, and imposing stag bust. Over at Brooklyn Tattoo, their creative tastes and efforts spill into the gallery next door, the Urban Folk Art Studio (the exhibition space for Suerte’s art collective), showcasing contemporary paintings, photography, graffiti, and comic art.
Never content to be boxed and labeled, Park Slope and its surrounding South Brooklyn areas might not be the most obvious place for the body art industry. But the next time you’re picking up groceries or going for a jog, take a peek at the people around you: you might just glimpse great art in unexpected places.