Thom Devita’s “Odd Art” Returns to the Bowery
He inked up New Yorkers when tattooing was illegal. Now, Thom Devita is a walking tat legend.
Words by Adam Lehrer Photos by Gregston Hurdle
The day before “Odd Art,” the show by legendary New York tattooer and artist, Thom Devita, curator Chris Grosso expresses the dream come true that it is to present the work of one of his heroes to the world.
“Thom means everything to me,” says Grosso, who is known for his work on the VICE tattoo documentary series “Tattoo Age. “He’s been involved with tattooing as we know it since the beginning. When someone got tattooed by Thom they would be wearing an original piece of art for the price of a walk in tattoo.”
This past weekend, for the second year in a row, artists, tattooers, tattoo heads and others gathered at Kings Avenue Tattoo on the Bowery, to show their appreciation for Thom Devita. Devita, who was born in 1932 and raised in East Harlem, always thought of himself as an artist. According to Grosso, Devita would tell women at bars downtown that he was an artist even before he was successful. He was recognized as a true artist when he began tattooing out of his own studio on Avenue D during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s before giving up the craft he mastered due to Parkinson’s Disease.
Devita tattooed in the city when putting ink on someone’s skin was still illegal (tattooing wasn’t legalized in New York in 1997 because of a Hepatitis B outbreak in 1961) and did so in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Manhattan. It is often said that the four avenues of Alphabet City described the kind of individual that would venture to them; someone who went to Avenue A was audacious, someone who went to Avenue B was bold, someone who went to Avenue C was crazy and someone who went to Avenue D was, well, dead. Devita worked on Avenue Dead.
Working in dangerous surroundings, on dangerous clients and in an unlawful craft, Devita elevated tattooing in the most bad ass conditions imaginable; a true artist and at the risk of sounding corny, a mystical presence to be around. Sitting in the middle of the room at Kings Ave Tattoo, draped in his signature fedora and cloaked in a tweed blazer, the only tattoos of his impressive bodysuit exposed are those on his hands. While he is slim built and short statured Devita’s persona is massive, oozing an aura felt by everyone in the room. His appearance suggests he’d be just as well carrying a Tommy gun as he would a tattoo gun. Looking around the room at Kings Ave, viewing decades upon decades of Thom’s work, one can’t help but be humbled while standing in the presence of true greatness.
Devita mainly worked in the traditional style of tattooing, but as detailed in his “Tattoo Age” series, he often found ways to bend the style and make it his own. For example, when someone wanted a crawling panther on his or her forearm, Devita tattooed claw marks in such a way that would knock out the entire space.
“It’s a dynamic look,” says Robert Ryan, expert tattooer of Electric Tattoo in New Jersey during an episode of “Tattoo Age,” “It can’t be faked.”
Devita was one of the first tattooers to think outside of general tattoo imagery, all together embracing a more art-friendly aesthetic.
“He was like the original hipster,” says Grosso with a bemused tone, “He has a tattoo of a bull dog with a fedora. In 1972 he went to see Mike Malone in San Diego and wanted a marine tat bull dog, but Malone said, ‘You aren’t a marine you wear a fedora.’”
Devita is notoriously standoffish but not in a manner that is off-putting, on the contrary, it multiplies his mystique. Grosso’s “Tattoo Age” episode on Devita brought the artist to an entire new millennial-aged fan base of art and tattoo appreciators. When asked how it felt to be appreciated by an entire new audience, Devita simply shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” But even through that veil of indifference, you can catch glimpses of smiles on his face. These smiles suggest a deeper appreciation for having his work marveled at by so many people.
Luckily for Devita, Nick Bubash acts as Devita’s mouthpiece. Now a legendary tattooer in his own right, Bubash walked into Devita’s private tattoo studio in 1969. First an apprentice of Devita’s, he became on of his best friends. Bubash, who stands at about 6’3″ with massive shoulders, and wears an oversized South Pole short sleeve collared shirt covered in Asian symbols, radiates warmth towards the people admiring his friend’s work. He seems absolutely ecstatic to see Devita getting his long overdue acclaim.
“If it weren’t for Thom then a lot of these tattooers wouldn’t even be here right now,” says Bubash showing off impressive sleeves consisting of traditional images connected by tribal markings (Devita was the first to use tribal style in tattooing, originally coming up with the designs as ways to connect tattoos and not so much as standalone arm bands) that were done by Devita over 30 years ago, “He was doing stuff back then that nobody else was doing, that nobody thought to do.”