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.”
The show itself was a revelation, displaying decades of Devita’s work and soundtracked by big band jazz and swing, Devita’s preferred music. As famously noted in “Tattoo Age,” he doesn’t seem to appreciate any art made after the 1940s preferring film noir movies and the aforementioned types of music.
“You know what kind of people like John Coltrane,” asks Devita in his “Tattoo Age” series, “People that don’t like Jazz music.”
Devita bleeds art; his house in upstate New York shown on “Tattoo Age” shows a home in which every article was a stand alone art piece, “It’s just as crazy as you think, probably crazier,” says Grosso. “If you went into his bathroom you’d see Gotham tattoo stamps all over, it’s like a little art installation.”
Devita’s “flash,” the drawings that hang on the walls at tattoo shops, are unique and featured heavily in the show. Unlike most flash, Devita used wood blocks instead of paper to show off his tattoo designs. When his Parkinson’s rendered him incapable of tattooing, Devita started making art out of “creative rubbings,” or acetate tattoo stencils placed under thick paper and rubbed over a dry medium that were influenced by mid-century painters, Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline, according to the Kings Ave blog. The show also had collages made of tattoo imagery and photographs of Devita and his clients back in the day. Some of the more special pieces were homages to Devita’s friends; one dedicated to Tux Farrar who Bubash and Devita taught to tattoo, as well as ones for Ed Hardy and Mike Malone. Devita’s ability to dabble in so many forms of art inspires awe among some of the best tattooers in the world.
“As a tattooer it’s really scary to think what you are going to be able to do when you can’t tattoo anymore,” says Oliver Peck, famous tattooer, judge of Spike TV’s “Ink Master”, owner of True Tattoo in Hollywood and co-owner of Elm Street Tattoo in Dallas who traveled all the way to New York just for the show. “Guys like Thom back in the day did all sorts of art, and that’s lost on a lot of the younger tattooers. The longer I have known Thom the more my appreciation for him has grown.”
Of the three days Devita’s work was mounted over the spacious venue located on Bowery and Delancey, Saturday proved itself the most star-studded, its attendance reading like a who’s who of the best tattooers in the country. As per usual, the artists of Kings Ave tattoo themselves, one of the most prestigious lineups of tattoo artists in the country, were all doing their thing. Owner Mike Rubendall as well as Chris O’Donnell, Grez, Brian Paul, Justin Weatherholtz and Frankie Caraccioli were all at their stations tattooing away.
But aside from the Kings Ave regulars, many others tattooers came out to either tattoo or get tattooed in the presence of the legendary Devita. The aforementioned Peck came just to see the work and hang out with Devita. Scott Harrison, a legendary tattooer and Devita fanatic and friend who has helped expand Devita’s notoriety through last year’s art show and other ventures came out special to do five tattoos at Kings Ave. “in the style of Devita,” according to his Instagram.
One of Harrison’s clients was upcoming tattoo talent Will Sheldon, who after only three years of tattooing has secured himself a spot on the esteemed roster of Saved Tattoo, Scott Campbell’s shop in Williamsburg. He was ecstatic to be receiving a Devita-style tattoo from Harrison. He’s been a fan of Devita since he first saw his work in Ed Hardy’s Tattoo Times magazine in the “Art of the Heart” issue and has been hooked since.
“His work, even though traditional, is so out of the box,” says Sheldon, “It’s so primitive and raw. He taught the understanding that you can get imagery from everything.”
Bubba Reeves of Pair O’ Dice Tattoo in Tulsa was also tattooing as a guest at Kings Ave. While tattooing one very lucky client, Reeves asked if Thom would like to lay some lines down on the outline of an eagle on the left side of the client’s chest. The client did not care that Devita’s hand was shaking, because he knew he was about to have one of the best tattooers of all time do work on him, a testament to the legacy of art that Devita has left behind.