Authenticity is a much sought after attribute these days. In an era of instant gratification and transient trends there’s an emerging cultural desire to engage with things that carry a tradition and a traceable origin. In this respect, it’s hard to find anything that embodies the concept of authenticity more so than traditional tattoo practice. It’s an artform that’s been handed down through generations, etched permanently on the skins of its founders and innovators. For Bert Krak, Eli Quinters, Daniel Santoro, and Steve Boltz, preserving and celebrating that culture is a fulltime passion at one of the world’s foremost locations of the traditional American form of tattooing – Smith Street Tattoo Parlour, Brooklyn.
Bert, it was yourself and Steve Boltz who started the shop right?
Bert Krak: [It was] me, Boltz and Eli – in the summertime of 2008. Eli was working out of a private studio in Bushwick, Steve was working out of a private studio in this neighbourhood – and I think they were pretty bored of working by themselves. Then Steve called me one day and said “Hey I saw this ad in a bodega for a little art space. I went and looked at it and it’s actually really nice and ready to go.” That was it, the idea was formed and we just did it.
How did the four of you come together?
BK: Well we’re skipping a bit here, we’re skipping the part of Dan. Basically, we’d opened the shop and we knew we’d need one more person. We’d built a fourth station, and from the beginning we wanted it to be Dan. Basically right when we opened the shop we wanted him to work with us. But Dan said “Well, I’m getting married and I’ve got all this stuff going on.” He wasn’t in a position to rush into anything, so we waited one year and Dan gave notice.
You were at another tattoo shop, Dan?
Daniel Santoro: Yeah, when I quit I was really nervous and they told me they thought it made total sense, and they were half expecting it anyway. I took a month off to get married and go on a honeymoon and when I came home from that was a fresh start here.
The shop is located in a very specific area of Brooklyn, it really seems to suit you guys. Was that a conscious decision?
BK: It was really because of Boltz living in the neighbourhood. He was the first one over here. I didn’t know anybody that lived in this area except for Steve. My first time visiting his place was my first time driving through here. If he didn’t stumble into that deli and see that ad on the wall he would have never found the place.
Eli Quinters: It was destiny, it really was. Even though it came at an awkward time in a lot of ways.
BK: It came at a very awkward time. I remember the day that I got the phone call from Steve I was in the Hamptons with my family on a two day vacation, and Steve sounded so excited about it. He was like “You’ve got to come see this when you get back, let’s just meet up and go look at it,” and that was it.
What’s the dynamic here like?
DS: I think we’re all really different, personality wise, but we’ve got a similar idea of what tattooing should be. When we’re here we’re definitely working in uniform.
BK: We try and make tattoos look the same as far as a particular style and how we want them to age. We’re all after the same goal – a tattoo that’s going to read well 20 years from now.
All the colour palettes are strong. Was it a conscious decision to stick to classic colour schemes?
EQ: For sure, it’s what has been discovered to hold up the best. It’s what looks the most like a classic tattoo.
DS: I think what differentiates us from a lot of other artists is that even when we’re using colours that might not be considered traditional, our goal is to work them into the tattoo in a way that is very tested and true. All of us would put purple in a tattoo, but because we’re using a formula it will still look classic.
Obviously flash is everywhere here, how important is that tradition to Smith Street?
Steve Boltz: It’s the number one commodity as far as running a traditional style tattoo shop. That’s the product.
BK: Really the flash is there to help [customers] get an idea of what they want. They don’t necessarily have to pick the flash but sometimes just staring at the wall will help them be like “Well okay, I think I want a grim reaper,” or “I like this one,” and maybe it’s not going to fit the spot that they have, but at least now we know what they want to see. So we can manipulate the flash, or draw something new, but at least we have an idea of what sort of image they actually want.
DS: I also think that flash offers ideas that maybe weren’t in their head, because they’re not surrounded by the imagery. If I didn’t know a tonne about tattooing but I knew I liked traditional tattoos – then in my head I already have daggers, anchors, skulls, mermaids, pinups, whatever. But if I come in I might go “Oh I never thought of a buzzard, but there it is and it looks cool.” The next thing you know the guy has a buzzard.
SB: There are certain options that don’t come straight to the mind for someone who isn’t around all this stuff everyday like we are. So that’s what we’re doing, we’re saying “Here’s a plethora of options of things that you can pick from to form your own ideas.”
When I think of flash, each image stands for something or signifies something. Is that something that you’re conscious of?
EQ: Some of it has symbols or significance and some of it was stronger in the ’50s or ’60s. I feel like a lot has been diluted now, until it’s just a tattoo image.
DS: I think as far as the tattoos that we do here [are concerned] there are two main channels. One of them is something in the realm of an icon, like a ‘mom’ heart. You want something for your mother, so you get a heart. Nothing could be more clear and direct than that. Then there’s the other channel that is a tattoo for the sake of a tattoo. Most people getting an Indian head off a Tony Polito [acclaimed ‘60s tattoo artist] sheet don’t have any connection to that Indian head outside of the fact that it’s a reoccurring image in American tattoo history that they want on their body. I mean Tony Politio probably doesn’t even know why he put that there either; he had no connection to that image when he put that there in 1969. Here we are 50 years later and I’m still doing that same Indian head, and that’s the other side of the coin to the ‘mom’ heart.
Does that significance of the iconography get lost the more it’s repeated? Or does it simply get stronger?
SB: I think both can happen. I think the image gets stronger, but some of the symbolism and meaning can get lost and shuffled around for the sake of the visual aesthetic. Which is fine, it’s always happened like that. People have always coopted tattoos. You have to remember that we’re also in a different time where there’s access to all this old imagery, and the interest in retro and vintage shit is at an all time high – partly because of that access. But it’s also partly because people always come back around and realise that the purest form of something is the best and most timeless. That happens in cycles, and I think we’re in that part of the cycle. People are coming around to that not only because it’s cool or something but because it actually reads the best as a tattoo.
Everything comes in cycles – music, art, fashion. I guess the truest forms stick out.
SB: We’re also in an age where there’s not a whole lot of new shit that can be brought to the table anymore. So working with older imagery is at an all time high as far as appeal goes. It’s already perfect, and people are starting to realise that.
What makes a good tattoo then?
BK: Clean outline, proper amount of black, proper amount of skin highlights. Something that you can tell what it looks like from five feet away, so you don’t have to get right on top of it to see what it is.
DS: Recognisable imagery, not something too specific.
SB: Simple, iconic imagery.
How do you feel about the explosion in popularity in tattooing, when previously it was a fringe subculture?
SB: Good and bad. A bit of both.
Good for business, but bad for the culture?
DS: Yeah, there’s a false sense of education too. People think that because they watch tattoo television they think they understand tattooing. When in fact they put themselves at a disadvantage because they come in with preconceived ideas that are maybe inferior. Whereas in the ‘80s, the tattoo was done the way that the tattooist wanted to do it and that was best.
Who do you think that this American style of iconography speaks to? It was for a smaller group of people originally, but it seems to be open to anyone now. Is that something you’re comfortable with?
SB: It’s a business you know and that’s the thing with popularity. You’d be an asshole to sit here and say it’s a problem when it’s making us busier you know? That’s the upside to it. We want people to get good stuff, and we don’t really mind who it’s on.
You guys are a team. Do you think the success of the shop is due to your combined roles as individuals?
BK: I don’t think that’s what we were trying to do, but of course there’s four of us in the room together. We’re all best friends, have been for years, so I really don’t think we have a choice. We’re a team no matter what, just because of the space that we have to share. Lucky for us we all get along really well, and we all care about each other’s opinions, so we’re showing each other things and criticising each other and helping each other. I think the team is the most important element of shop, and that’s something not many other shops have. We all have the same ideas in mind when we approach each tattoo.
SB: I don’t think it was a conscious decision in our minds to be looked at as a team or anything, but the way that we’ve become it’s certainly been a crucial factor in our success and our development as tattooists. As well as the style of the shop, and the message that it puts across – that you can come and get the same quality of piece and the same style of piece and they’ll all compliment each other. The shop has its own look in a way; maybe not 100 percent by design but it’s there. The idea of a team was a natural thing that almost had to happen and it shows itself all the time. We’ve grown to really love that aspect of the shop and we really work that way now. We’re not doing anything without considering each other.
Photography and words by Will Robson-Scott
This story is from the page of ACCLAIM 32 – the Team Player issue – available here.