NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Tattoos have become so popular, it’s hard to image a time when the industry was banned in New York City.
For nearly four decades, tattooing was illegal because of health concerns. Now, one in three adults in America have a tattoo, according to a Harris poll.
Mehai Bakaty told CBSN New York’s John Dias he was raised with the sound of tattoo guns blaring in the background and he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“My father started tattooing in this neighborhood in 1976. He operated out of a loft space we lived in at the Bowery House,” he said.
During that time, his late father was one of the few underground tattoo artists in the city, advertising through word of mouth.
“The first maybe four or five years, every time the phone rang, he jumped,” Bakaty said. “He didn’t realize at the time it was a health code violation probably punishable by a ticket.”
In 1961, the city banned tattooing after there was a hepatitis outbreak. Most tattoo shops moved to the suburbs, but some brave artists stayed and did them discreetly.
“Basically, it was in storefronts that were painted over, somebody’s apartment, an old garage space,” said photographer Efrain John Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was in his 20s when the ban was in place and he decided to photograph as much as he could.
“Of course, the story was – all the firemen and police officers knew where the tattoos were, (but) they would just keep their mouths shut and get tattoos,” he said.
The now-66-year-old has crates of negatives inside his Park Slope apartment. He used the best images to create a book showing the crowds of people who attended underground tattoo parties – some getting extensive work, from skulls and snakes to portraits on their chests, hands and backs.
“They’re not dealing in drugs, there’s no fire, there’s no explosions, I mean they’re just doing tattooing. They were basically just left alone,” Gonzalez said. “There was no like real attempt by the city to crack down on illegal tattooing.”
Nearly 40 years later, the tides would turn. Bakaty said the city realized things were getting cleaner.
“When we heard that they were talking about lifting the ban, we were very surprised and kind of started looking for stores,” he said.
He and his father decided to open their shop, Fineline Tattoo, in the East Village, signing the lease right before it was legal again. Once the ban was finally lifted, the first thing they did was buy a neon sign so they could advertise outside their shop.
Publicizing they were there was something they never dreamed would happen. They worked hand-in-hand with the health department to ensure that everything was clean.
“My dad would say they forced us into legitimacy,” said Bakaty.
His parlor is now the largest operating tattoo shop in the city, with thousands of designs hanging all over the walls. It’s open every day.
“You never know who is going to walk through the door. It’s always a surprise every day,” tattoo artist Angelo Saracina said.
“It gained commercial acceptance to a point that none of us ever saw possible,” said Bakaty.
Acceptance they don’t ever plan to lose again.