By David Gonzalez
Visitors to the cluttered studio inside Thom DeVita’s Victorian house marvel at the artwork that covers the walls, his drawing table, even his hands. The images reflect not just his interests, but his skills, which he honed as a tattoo artist on the Lower East Side for some 30 years; a storied era to aficionados. The accomplishment was all the more remarkable because it was illegal in New York City at the time.
Nowadays, it seems everybody has a tattoo. If there is someone to thank for the art’s increased acceptance and visibility, it might be Mr. DeVita. Every month, Chris Grosso brings admirers up to visit the old master, in Newburgh, the upstate town where he has lived since leaving the Lower East Side in the early 1990s.
“He is one of the founders of modern tattooing,” said Mr. Grosso, who befriended Mr. DeVita two years ago while filming a documentary about him. “It’s not what you see on reality television, but something that only he and seven other people in the 1960s started, from purely a love for the art form. He wasn’t from a sailor or biker background, where tattooing comes with the territory. They appreciated the great Japanese masters, the people from Samoa. Thom was at the forefront of that.”
Growing up in East Harlem, the son of Italian immigrants, Mr. DeVita did not set out to be an artist. After high school, he worked at various jobs, from factory hand to messenger. He recalled how his parents used to refer to some people as “bohemians,” and how he warmed to the idea.
“It seemed like a nice life to live, being with artists,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they went to work. Then I realized when I got to the Lower East Side, I was 30 years too late to be a bohemian. But I caught the tail end of the beatnik era and the beginning of the hippie era.”
His own entree into the art world was improvised, when a potential girlfriend asked him what he did.
“I had to be something, so I told her I was an artist,” he said. “So I became an artist. I had to show her I was an artist, so I started doing some artwork.”
He decided to become a tattoo artist when the city banned tattooing in 1961 (the ban was lifted in 1997). He figured business would be good, since the law drove out his competitors, and the police on the Lower East Side had more pressing concerns than outlaw skin art.
Mr. Grosso said that Mr. DeVita created new designs incorporating nontraditional elements, such as Pueblo Indian iconography and even the rose from the Lord & Taylor shopping bag. He said he admires him for his restless creativity, even if — at 81 years of age, with hands trembling from Parkinson’s disease — he no longer does many tattoos.
Instead, Mr. DeVita resorts to rubbings, stencils and stamps, making montages of old tattoo designs on recycled wooden crates, paper, cutting boards and even ancient ledgers. He signs them with his surname, rendered in snakelike letters that would be the envy of any graffiti writer.
“He paints on everything,” Mr. Grosso said. “Maybe if he had seen graffiti he would have been a tagger. He just doesn’t stop. It has to be a compulsion.”
Mr. Grosso can understand. After making a documentary on Mr. DeVita, he set up a website to sell his work. Now he visits him monthly, to give him cash from the sales and pick up new work to ship. He is often accompanied by a friend or two who might want to learn about tattoo history firsthand, like Fernando Lions, a tattoo artist from Brooklyn who recently accompanied him on a trek.
The two young men peppered Mr. DeVita with questions, and asked to see some classic designs or snapshots from his time on the Lower East Side. Depending on his mood, he may or may not comply; pictures he had told Mr. Grasso never existed magically appeared during this visit. At one point, Mr. DeVita took out some panoramas he had painted in bold, black brush strokes.
“These are beautiful,” Mr. Lions said quietly.
“You know how they’re done?” Mr. DeVita asked. “The paper is scrap I cut off bigger pieces. I paint on them with whatever is left in the ink pot.”
Before they are sent off to customers, Mr. DeVita packs a slip that reads: “Any Imperfections Will Add to Its Beauty.” He first saw the phrase when he bought a china closet, and liked it so much he appropriated it.
“All my art is imperfection,” he said. “I dwell on imperfection. I’m constantly pulling things out of the fire.”
By Adam Lauricella
The “pop-up gallery” is a phenomenon that is refreshing yet pragmatic. It’s something doable for artists who may not have the resources to establish a long-standing art gallery yet, still show their work or the work of others. Often times these galleries take shape in empty spaces or open in unsuspecting locations that aren’t in use. The term pop-up gallery is loosely used to describe the event that went down the weekend of January 11-13, 2012 at Kings Avenue Tattoo… (more…)
In honor of Tattoo Age’s Thom deVita episode, VICE is holding an art show and sale at Mike Rubendall’s Kings Ave Tattoo shop in NYC from January 11th-13th. Thom’s one of a kind creative rubbings from tattoo stencils, art boxes, signed books, and more will be available for purchase. The legendary artist himself will also be present to talk about his art and Scott Harrison will be tattooing Saturday and Sunday… (more…)
In the final part of Thom deVita’s Tattoo Age series we have to cover a lot of ground. So please sit back and prepare to go from the days before tattoo artists wore gloves while working to Thom’s current life as an artist. Enjoy. [More info on expanded page]
In the new episode of the Thom deVita Tattoo Age series we explore the neighborhood in which Thom live and worked, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We also go into the types of tattoos Thom did, and what it took to talk someone into getting tattoos that were a little out of the norm. [More info on expanded page] (more…)
In part three of Thom deVIta’s epic Tattoo Age series, we take look at his personal history and how he came into tattooing. We also hear from tattoo legend Angelo Scotto on the history of tattooing in New York City… [More info on expanded page] (more…)
In the second part of the Thom deVita Tattoo Age series we focus on the touching and often hilarious relationship he has with Nick Bubash. Thom and Nick met in the early 1970s and soon after Thom started to tattoo Nick, he also started to teach him how to tattoo. Over the past 40 years their relationship has gone way beyond tattooing, or even art for that matter, but they still continue to create together… [More info on expanded page] (more…)
Thom deVita began tattooing in the late 60s in New York’s Lower East Side, when the practice was illegal. He quickly began to forge his own styles, drawing influence from Puebla Indian designs to Lord and Taylor shopping bags. In this episode, we hear from Ed Hardy, photographer Clayton Patterson, Nick Bubash, Scott Harrison, John Wyatt, Angelo Scotto, Bubba Reeves, Robert Ryan, and more, as we unfold Thom deVita’s epic story…. [More info on expanded page] (more…)
By Molly and Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura
This year’s convention went by so quickly, so I will try to break it down for you short and sweet… (more…)
While we’re waiting for the premiere of Tattoo Age’s Thom DeVita killer episode, we just released some Valerie Vargas Bonus Footage. Vargas takes us to meet the legendary English tattooer Lal Hardy who has been tattooing since 1975 and is generally considered to be one of the people who elevated tattooing in the UK in the 1980s.
[More info on expanded page]
The next Tattoo Age series is about Thom deVita. Thom is an artist on many levels, and tattooing is just one of the ways he expresses himself. He began tattooing in New York City in the late 60s, when the practice was illegal. In this episode, which starts on November 21, we will hear from Don Ed Hardy, Nick Bubash, Scott Harrison, John Wyatt, Angelo Scotto, Bubba Reeves, and Robert Ryan, as we try to tell the epic story of Thom deVita, the artist. (more…)
By Adam Lauricella
I woke up Saturday and prepared for work. Grabbed my coffee and went through my other daily rituals then settled in at the tattoo parlor; I realized I wasn’t scheduled to work. I thought I should stay and most likely I’d pick up a few walk ins. Like millions of other people, I looked at my Instagram feed. There was a post from Chris Grosso of Tattoo Age and Vice.com. It simply said, “Come up to Newburgh for Thom deVita’s open studio 11-5.” For those that don’t know; Newburgh is just about 20 minutes from me. I guess I would scrap the walk ins and head over to the open studio. Although Mr. deVita lives in Newburgh I have never reached out to meet with him… (more…)
In Part 3, Mutsuo reflects on the blurry line of legality of tattooing in Japan, along with the prejudice against tattooed individuals that still lingers within society today, where people with tattoos are not welcome in public baths, beaches, pools, etc. He muses on why tattooing makes him happy and provides personal thoughts on spirituality, while bringing us to local temples of his hometown and introducing us to his lovely family. (more…)
In this episode of Tattoo Age we delve into the history of Three Tides Tattoo. We hear from Mutsuo, Chris Garver, and Masa Sakamoto, as they give us insight into how western-style tattooing gained ground in Japan after the 1999 Tokyo Convention. We also hear about all the guest artists who have contributed to making Mutsuo the artist he is today.
NEW *Digital TAM Issues* Added! #22-#24 Featuring Thomas Hooper, Robert Ryan, Thom deVita, Dan Dringenberg and more!
Video Download for TAM issue #23: Thomas Hooper.