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From Skin to Copper: The Smith Street Tattoo Crew Transition Forms Flawlessly

Words by Adam Lehrer Photos by Gregston Hurdle

The Smith Street Tattoo Parlour’s copper etching show at the Art Now NY gallery in Chelsea provides an excellent example of the limitless visual possibilities that can be found within the confining limits of tattoo imagery.

The show, sponsored by Raking Lights, held its opening reception Thursday night. The space was complete with gallery opening requirements like free booze and beautiful women, not to mention beautiful black and grey pamphlets and free t-shirts provided by show sponsor RVCA. The work displayed was the culmination of the Smith Street Tattoo boys — Bert Krak, Eli Quinters, Dan Santoro and Steve Boltz — having gone to San Francisco in April of 2012 for the opportunity to work with Paul Mullowney. San Fran’s master printer had been doing projects merging together the fine art and tattoo worlds since 1995, when he did a project with the master himself Don Ed Hardy.

The show displayed the prints in all their forms; first the copper etchings themselves, then the trial and error prints, and lastly the final products.

“It’s so cool to be able to see the entire process of how they came up with this stuff,” says Mark Cross, traditional tattooer at Greenpoint Tattoo Co. and owner of the Mudd Guts gallery in Wiliamsburg. He was admiring the final images consisting of skeltons, webs, spiders, dragons and a host of other perfectly rendered tattoo imagery.

crowd looking

It is a testament to the artistic talent of the Smith Street crew that they had no prior experience with the medium but on that trip and a few others, they learned the delicate processes of copper etching and mastered it so quickly that they were able to come up with a show like this.

“It was almost like learning to tattoo again,” says Quinters speaking in his laid back Utah drawl. “It was really fun though, learning all these techniques and styles, and Paul is such an amazing printer.”

The project came to fruition when Krak and the owners of Raking Lights Project, Eddu Deutsche and Andrew Fingerhut, decided to have the Smith Street crew doing something together. Raking Lights Project publishes art prints created by tattooing’s most skilled artists. The show last night was always the end game for the Smith Street crew’s San Francisco residency.

“This big show was always roughly the idea,” says Quinters, “This thing came together by Eddy and Bert hustling, a lot of this is Bert’s vision.”

All four Smith Street boys leapt at the chance to work with Paul Mullowney, who as part of the project was tasked with teaching the guys how to work in the medium of copper etching.

“It was probably easier for us to learn than people would think because we had a master printer telling us exactly what we needed to do,” says Krak.

Mullowney, looking trim and healthy and happy to be a part of the show, discusses that the teaching process was actually not as fraught with difficulty as one might think.

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“The learning process went rather quickly because these guys are very good artists,” says Mullowney, “It’s a little bit of trial and error of course but these guys can approach new media very well.”

That is not to say that there weren’t growing pains throughout the process.

Santoro, described by Raking Lights’s Fingerhut as, “The wildcard of the crew,” expresses what can only be construed as anxiety when describing what he felt when being told that he’d be going to San Francisco to learn copper etching.

“I was nervous in the sense of the technical ability because I’ve come to this point in tattooing through so many good decisions and bad decisions so to be asked to study an art form that people have studied through years and years, yeah that’s the part I was nervous about,” says Santoro, mustachioed and rocking a camo jacket. “I don’t like when people dabble in my industry so I worried about dabbling in someone else’s. I was more worried aesthetically, I didn’t want to come in and do something wrong.”

But they learned quickly, and during the course of the prints they were able to grasp the new medium, and even found it freeing to be able to work within a process where there was no customer dictating what the final product would look like.

“When I say I’m a traditionalist, I really mean that,” says Santoro, “That means giving a customer what they want. Nine times out of 10 when I’m doing a tattoo it’s about the customer and not me, even when they want my style, if they move away they have to respect and like their tattoo forever. It’s always liberating for me to not have to worry about that and do what I want.”

Given that Mullowney has worked with Ed Hardy, often considered the godfather of weaving together the separate worlds of tattoo imagery and fine art, the guys felt like Smith Street was being recognized on a new level that previously had eluded the still only six years young shop.

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“You know Paul had worked with Ed so we were all really excited, it felt like graduating to a new level,” says an ecstatic looking Boltz with a mild-wide grin.

The tattoo heads showed up in masses to last night’s opening reception, but even more surprising were the older fine art people that showed up completely not covered in any visible tattoos. These two worlds have often merged but still remain slightly resistant towards one another, but this show is just one more weapon in closing that gap.

“I think the crossover is a little challenging at first but I think the fine art people are starting to get it and a lot of it has to do with Ed Hardy pushing those boundaries from a long time ago,” says Mullowney. “But it’s also hard in the tattoo world because the tattoo people don’t necessarily understand the technique and skill behind this work. So melding the fine art world and tattoo world always proves challenging but I think the boundaries are starting to break down.”

In that crowd were tattooers, fine artists, and even a bonafide celebrity in Bob Harper of “The Biggest Loser” whose exceptional tattoo work has mainly been done at the Smith Street Tattoo Parlour. Harper admires the Smith Street aesthetic so much that he declared himself a fan boy on “The Rachel Ray Show” last October.

bob harper

One of the most special things about Smith Street is that they are a unit; some might even say a family. On “Tattoo Age,” Boltz said that he wants their tattoos all to be known as, “Smith Street tattoos” and not as tattoos by the individual artists. And the four guys do come off as the very best of friends. They are four big, burly tattooed guys with similar dispositions and beliefs, they even all have at least one gold tooth. Krak and Santoro have had art shows before, but it was evident that being a part of a project with all four of them together was very special for all of them.

“This couldn’t have been more of an embodiment of how we work together every day and all look to each other for inspiration and advice,” says Santoro, “And we are all really proud of each other.”

This show instills the notion that tattoos do not need to be crazy Paul Booth-looking things in order to be art and that instead amazing art can be created within the parameters of tattoo imagery. The show can be seen at the Art Now NY gallery until March 1, and in the meantime the guys will still be down at the Smith Street Tattoo Parlour in Gowanus doing the city’s best traditional tattoos.

“Hopefully some people will buy some prints and more people will come get tattooed” says Quinters with a chuckle.

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