BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Michelle Myles is one of the original gangstas of tattooing in the Lower East Side.
Myles and her business partner, Brad Fink, opened Daredevil Tattoo in 1997 on Ludlow St. A year and a half ago, they moved the business to 141 Division St.
Myles’s story of how she got into tattooing starts back when the art was still illegal in New York City. From 1961 until 1997, tattooing was verboten and underground.
In 1989, Myles had moved from Ferguson, Missouri, to attend Parsons to study art. She had gotten her first tattoo during high school.
“I went into this shop. I really liked the black panthers on the wall but I only had $25, so I got a little black cat tattoo,” she told The Villager, during an interview at her shop in Chinatown. “I just kept getting tattooed whenever I had a chance and a few bucks.”
Her interest grew and she eventually started doing tattoos herself in 1991. Two years later, she moved to Ludlow St., which was then a very different neighborhood.
“The first place that I had was across from the old Daredevil, an apartment I rented as a studio,” she recalled. “But that was when tattooing was illegal, so there was no sign out front or anything. It was funny when I moved down there; everybody told me, ‘Don’t move to Ludlow. It’s the worst heroin block in the whole city.’ So I moved there and I tattooed all the drug dealers and never had problems.”
Back then, Myles explained, the tattooing scene was much more intimate.
“You at least knew of everybody else who was tattooing in town,” she said. “It was a much more closed sort of thing. It was more about a couple individual artists that didn’t have shops.”
Since tattooing was still underground then, it was difficult to learn how to do it, explained Clayton Patterson in a phone interview. In 1986, Patterson and Ari Roussimoff took over what was a tattoo-and-body art society and formed the Tattoo Society of New York.
The club provided a sense of protection and community, Patterson said. He explained that it was a Department of Health offense if anyone was caught doing ink, and the city could shut an artist’s operation down at any time.
Meetings — which Myles attended — were held at famed Downtown haunts like the Pyramid Club and CBGB.
“It was a very exciting time in New York,” Patterson said.
In 1997, the tattoo ban was finally lifted. Yet, many tattooers were not happy about legalization.
“A lot of them were really opposed to legalization because when tattooing was illegal and underground, it was a hidden economy,” Patterson said. “A lot of people like that sort of outlaw lifestyle.”
Myles said when she first heard tattooing would be legalized, she thought it was a calamity.
“Now, I love my shop and it all worked out,” she said. “But at the time, it was the worst thing possible because I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Myles had moved to the second floor above the music venue Pianos at 158 Ludlow St., and had just spent money to renovate the loft — she was living in the back and was tattooing in the front.
“And then I was walking down the street and I saw Clayton Patterson and he was like, ‘Did you hear, they’re going to legalize tattooing?’ And I was like, ‘Noooo,’ ” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t really the sort of place you would want a legal shop because it was old-school L.E.S., where you threw the keys out the window when somebody yelled up.
“Everyone was just afraid it would open the floodgates — everyone would open a shop in New York,” she said. “And that’s basically what happened.”
Myles and Fink had gone to high school together and when tattooing became legal, she called him up. About a week later, they signed the lease on Daredevil.
“But at the time we just had the very front of the shop,” she said. “It was teeny tiny space and we renovated it.”
Together, they eventually expanded the shop. About 10 years ago, they brought Fun City Tattoo on St. Mark’s Place. (Fink is a well-known tattoo artist in his own right and also owns a shop in St. Louis.)
“At first, at 174 Ludlow St., we had a 10-year lease, then a five-year lease, and then the landlords started giving us two years at a time,” Myles said.
The two-year leases were hard, she explained, because the shop would need repairs — for example, the floor would be falling apart — but she didn’t feel she could invest in making the fixes.
Then, as the development boom was starting, the landlords wanted to raise her rent. She couldn’t open her front door cause there were construction trucks outside her place every day.
“You couldn’t even drive down Ludlow for all the construction,” she recalled. “It was a mess — the whole block — and, really, 50 percent rent increase for that.”
Still, Myles doesn’t blame her former landlords for recognizing the value of the retail space and wanting to make the most they could.
“That just makes everything around it more expensive,” she said. “You know, we got priced out.”
She sold Fun City last year and put everything into the new space on Division St. in Chinatown. With help from her husband, a contractor, the new shop opened in July 2013. She picked the spot because there was an option to buy, a process she is in the midst of completing.
“I love this neighborhood down here now, it reminds me of Ludlow 10 years ago,” she said. “It still has character, there’s still weird storefronts. Chinatown is kind of awesome just ’cause it is so crazy down here. We’re really enjoying the neighborhood.
“I wish I had known when I moved to Ludlow that someday everything would be gone, ’cause I feel like I would have savored it more, and so I feel the same way this time around,” she said. “Wow, O.K., I really got to enjoy the quirkiness of the neighborhood ’cause eventually it always changes.”
Also, the way business is done now is harder, she said.
“It used to be you could come down to the Lower East Side and shake hands with your landlord and strike a deal on a place,” she said. “Give him a couple bucks deposit. Now, just to open a storefront you’re going to get raked over the coals — credit check, you have to give them your blood.”
Before moving into the Division St. space, the landlord asked for a six-month deposit, plus Myles had to pay to build out the shop.
“It’s insane,” she said. “It’s really hard for, I think, normal people to do business when you are trying to rent a space and you’re competing with Subway. That’s really unfortunate. It used to be you’d see all these weird mystery storefronts down here that were rented by complete derelicts. It’s a little harder to be a derelict these days and be in business.”
Similarities can be drawn between how the Lower East Side itself and the tattoo world have both changed, said Patterson. The L.E.S. today is more corporate, and tattooing, which is definitely mainstream now, could be headed in that direction, as well, he said.
Patterson, who has known Myles for a long time, said she is a major player in the city’s tattoo scene.
“She’s now front row,” he said.
Myles said that the Web has transformed everything about the ancient body art.
“I can’t believe how the Internet’s changed tattooing,” she said. “I can’t believe how it’s changed doing business. There’s just tons and tons of really great artists. It’s tough to stand out from the crowd.”
Myles described her style as versatile, but she enjoys traditional American tattooing, which has a limited color palette and features many designs that are iconic, simplified and very stylized.
Vintage circus art adorns the walls of Daredevil. Myles enthusiastically showed The Villager the contents of the shop’s huge glass cases, which house tattoo memorabilia that Fink has been collecting for 20 years. Myles has been researching early tattoo artists in New York City, such as Martin Hildebrandt, Samuel O’Reilly and Charlie Wagner.
“Modern tattooing was born a few blocks away from where we are right now,” she said. “We’re really excited to bring that to life and have a place in New York City that pays tribute to that history.”
Myles also mentioned Nora Hildebrandt, who some have identified as Martin Hildebrandt’s daughter. Nora Hildebrandt was extensively tattooed, a rarity in the late 1800s.
Myles said that when she first started out, the tattooing scene was predominantly male.
“I think, at first, people kind of don’t take you seriously,” she recalled. “I specifically remember somebody once saying, ‘Oh, you tattoo, too. That’s cute.’ But in the long run, it’s what set you apart. At first, it might be a drawback, but in the end, it’s what makes you stand out. Although, these days there are so many girls in tattooing, it’s not like it used to be.”
Linda Wulkan, a tattoo artist at Whatever Tattoo, at 17 St. Mark’s Place, called Myles “a female icon in New York City.”
After living in Brooklyn, Wulkan now resides in Chinatown, above Daredevil. She started tattooing 11 years ago, and said that today there seem to be more female artists and less of an issue with it.
She didn’t intend to become a tattoo artist, Wulkan told The Villager at the St. Mark’s shop, explaining it as a “happy accident.”
She was born in New York, and spent some time Upstate before her family uprooted and moved to Israel, where she has spent most of her life.
Wulkan has been steeped in art her whole life. She first studied sculpture and got her bachelor’s in fine arts and art history. She was doing conceptual installations back then, she said, which really didn’t pay the bills.
She then studied cinema and went back to school again for illustration and graphic design.
When she got laid off working as a graphic designer for an Israeli newspaper, she had a tattoo-artist friend who let her work at the shop doing what is called “flash,” or drawings.
“There was a lot of freedom to it,” she said of tattooing. “I didn’t give up on it. I was pretty much there every day I was off.”
She decided to move back to New York City about 13 years ago. She then began working at a tattoo shop, which no longer exists, in Brooklyn.
Wulkan did ink there for a couple of years, but felt she had outgrown the shop’s style — mostly a lot of names, praying hands and Jesus heads — and wanted something more challenging.
She found another job in the West Village and kept at her craft. It’s a trade in which experience goes a long way, she said.
She eventually got the gig at Whatever Tattoo on St. Mark’s and has stayed there for about seven years.
“I wasn’t really that excited about tattooing at first,” she admitted. “I thought it was just another medium.”
But then she went to her first tattoo convention and saw the work of James Kern and got excited, thinking that if people wanted that, she could do it.
She described her style as illustrative, which is not considered a conventional tattoo style. She is focused on color and detail, which is also exhibited in her drawings that line one wall of Whatever Tattoo.
“I always want to build up some contrast in the artwork,” she explained.
For a while, she was the only female tattoo artist at the St. Mark’s shop but another woman has recently joined the ranks.
“There’s definitely more female artists working — more and more,” she said.
Tattooing has changed for both good and bad, said Wulkan, who doodled while talking.
Its omnipresence in the media — starting with the reality show “Inked” and all its various spinoffs — has changed everything, she said. For example, it seemed like “sleeves” — fully tattooing one’s arm — was a trend, she explained. A sleeve “doesn’t happen overnight,” she said, but some clients don’t understand the time commitment involved.
Since she wants to do top work that will last for people, she tries to give advice to clients and persuade them to go the better route.
“There is a lot of customer service that goes into this and there’s a bit of psychology,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to give them the best tattoo you can and for them to be happy with it.”
In her own case, the first tattoo she was going to get was supposed to be an abstract sea snail. But when she spoke with the artist, he convinced her to go back to the drawing board for a more simple design.
One of Wulkan’s favorite stories is about an older French couple who came in with their son, who was in a wheelchair. The parents told Wulkan that their son really wanted to get a tattoo in New York City. They maneuvered the wheelchair into the shop and agreed on a traditional, Sailor Jerry-inspired tattoo — a heart with a dagger.
“Even though he was shaking,” Wulkan recalled, “we found a relatively simple design and it come out great and he was super-stoked. It’s a good feeling when you can do something like that for someone.”