Lions and tigers and elephant-headed gods, oh my

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Columbia University on October 1, 2000.

Alex Gonzalez pulled the sweatshirt over his head and turned around, displaying a bare back decorated in a mosaic of primary colors.

Brilliant reds and somber greens stood out in stark relief from his dark skin, with deeper notes of blues and blacks providing highlights. The centerpiece was a depiction of the Virgin Mary, her head bowed and her hands clasped in prayer.

"It's something special for me," said Gonzalez, who manages a tattoo parlor in Queens. "That's why I got it on my back. This is something special for me, for my country."

Catering to a largely Hispanic clientele, Gonzalez's shop, known as Lupica's Tattoos, does "a lot of Marys on people," he said. "This is what we believe in.

"We've got half-price on Virgins," he said. "I do something special for Jesus, too."

Having such a specialty may be the tattoo artist's key to success in ethnically diverse Queens.

Tattooing is a blend of art and technology, with the best artists mastering the technical demands and then going on to create wearable masterpieces. But to be truly successful, several shop owners said, a tattoo artist must also be a scholar, understanding the meanings and motifs of a range of symbols, catering to the different desires of any ethnic groups that wanders into their shops.

"Most of our customers are Spanish," Gonzalez said, paging through books of Aztec symbols and illustrations of the Mexican eagle. "I need to find them something they believe in."

This search for a meaning behind the art also motivates "Thailand Mike," the owner of Scratch Tattoo. "I do research," he said, "not just in the magazines, but in books and online. A lot of times, people come in here with an idea. I pull a picture out of it."

Lounging outside his shop with a Camel and a can of Grass Syrup, Thailand reeled off lists of styles and formats, some more popular with certain ethnic groups and some appealing to different mindsets.

Hispanic customers have opened the artist's eyes to an whole new hagiography, for example, with St. Lazarus and the Lady of Guadeloupe being perennial favorites in his store. Asians often go for pictures tied to their culture, opting for dragons, tigers and koi fish, while black customers chose names, portraits and geometric "tribal" designs.

The Hindu god Ganesh has gotten "huge among the art people" over the past few years, Thailand said, with students from the Fashion Institute of Technology often asking for the elephant-headed deity.

The differences in style are geographic as well as ethnic. West Coast tattoos tend to be more colorful, reminiscent of the bolder style seen in Europe. New Yorkers often prefer either black and white art or more subtle colored pieces. Asians designs, like dragons, are popular among Hispanics in California, Thailand said, but not in New York.

Some ethnic preferences are simply based on what looks better, the artists said. Darker skinned people nee need bolder designs with less detail for the tattoo to show up well, Thailand Mike said, leading darker-skinned Hispanics and black people to chose Aztec and Mayan designs formed of strong geometrical shapes.

Gonzalez, whose customers come mainly from Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, agreed.=20

"The Spanish peoples like black and gray," he said. "White people like colors. Some people with blacker skin want color, but that doesn't work well."

New Yorkers who do want a touch of Chinese mythology often show up at Sam's Tattoos, a shop ran by Sam Siswath.

Sam's specializes in Asian-themed tattoos, inking people's bodies with the koi fish and dragons Siswath saw around the house growing up. Such creatures are popular with other Asians, he said, but his reputation for doing them well has brought in a growing number of other ethnic groups wanting such designs.

"I like to do dragon," he said. "They might take three hours, but they are beautiful."

But being able to work on other ethnic groups is one of the reasons Siswath said he opened his store in Queens. "I like to do white, Hispanics, blacks," he said "That's why I'm in this location. Everyone comes here."

Still, about 40 percent of his clientele is of Asian decent. "They don't want to trust most American artists," he said. "You don't see a lot of shops that do a lot of Asians, like my shop."

Looking for such a comfort level is often the main motivation in choosing a particular tattoo shop, other artists agreed. With tattoos being all but permanent, customers want to make sure the artist understands the symbols deeper meaning before putting needle to skin.

That understanding is what Gonzalez tries to convey with his half-price offer on the Virgin Mary. "These are the things I care about," he said, gesturing around his shop, decorated with votive candles and a print of Da Vinci's Last Supper.

"I want a lot of people to have the Virgin, but they don't all have the money," he said. "I give it to them cheap.

"I make money, so I can have the specials to do something good, to do something spiritual. There's a lot of meaning in this for me."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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