On quiet 29th Street, close to the corner of 24th Avenue in the heart of Astoria, a warmcopper glow emanates from a shop window, spilling softly onto the surrounding sidewalk. It’salmost impossible not to be drawn toward the amber haze and shadowy figures moving about inside. Aclose look will show that the small space is a tattoo parlor, though one step in reveals a world of its own,where a distinct brand of art and its impassioned creators have secured a permanent residence.
The Queens Ink is Astoria’s newest tattoo parlor, but its oldfashioned décor and bohemian aesthetic places it in a category of its own. The vintage-clad shop shows more resemblance to an antique store or museum of ancestral relics than to a typical tattoo parlor. Oddities from a bygone era line the walls and ornament the crowded yet ample space. Sepia pictures that could have been discovered in a Civil-War era photo album depict men with the sort of horseshoe mustaches and Lincolnesque beards that are making a steady comeback. Skulls gaze off into the distance, wooden ships remain docked on shelves, and a large deer head oversees operations from above.
The eccentric shop is the latest work of art to escape the mind of Evangelos Roumeliotis, an 18-year Astoria resident and designer, who alongside business partner Nick Kapetanios, has played a steady role in the neighborhood’s perpetual transformation throughout the years. Only a few steps from The Queens Ink, in the direction of 24th avenue, you can find another one of his community creations, The Sparrow Tavern.
An equally inviting and esoteric dive bar, it adds to Astoria’s already reputable food scene and has been featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network series, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”(Keep an eye out for the opening of Roumeliotis’ forthcoming food start-up, Mar’s, an oyster bar on the corner of 34th Avenue and 35th Street.) Interestingly enough, the mind behind The Queens Ink is not a tattoo artist himself. However, with Roumeliotis’s creative design and the building efforts of Tom Fade (who gives all of Roumeliotis’s ideas physical life), the recent venture into the body art business has come together at the right time, as tattoo culture is experiencing a conspicuous rise in popularity. According to a Harris poll conducted last year, 21 percent (one in five) of American adults have at least one tattoo. “Tattoo art is not a sub-culture anymore,” Roumeliotis says. “More people are finally getting tattoos because they love the art that goes into it.”
Permanent ink is certainly not a new trend. Tattooing has existed for centuries among varying cultures around the globe. From tribal groups in Africa to Pre-Christian Germanic cultures and the Picts (an Iron Age people known for particularly elaborate tattoo art), body modification for the sake of sporting perennial symbols and designs is far from a contemporary craze. Even Otzi the Iceman — whose well-preserved, mummified body was discovered in the Otzal Alps in 1991 and dates back to about 3,300 BCE — had a collection of 57 carbon tattoos. In the Western world, tattoos appeared during 16th-century maritime explorations. The stereotype that tattoos are for sailors was not far off at one point in time. Indeed, the word tattoo comes from the Tahitian “tatau,” introduced to Europe by exploring Capt. James Cook in the 1770s.
As tattooing became more common and visible in Western culture, so did the stigma that body art was reserved for criminals and delinquents. For years, misconceptions have crippled aspects of the tattoo culture and the job of the steadyhanded tattooist. But as contemporary tattoo culture in America undergoes a healthy revitalization and regression of sorts back toward more traditional, artistic roots of body art, more and more shops have appeared, and more and more individuals have shown interest in expressing themselves through permanent design.
Unfortunately, like any trend or industry that experiences an increase in popularity, oversaturation follows suit. The Queens Ink, a small establishment with only three artists and two chairs, has made it a point to distance itself from the commercialism and mainstream marketing that is beginning to surround the artistic practice. “Tattoo culture is changing a lot, and not always in a good way, thanks to the TV shows and magazines,” says Christian Zink, one of the shop’s artists and a specialist in black and gray design.
One of the most noticeable differences between The Queens Ink and other tattoo parlors is the omission of tattoo art depicted on the walls. Many shops, especially the busier, well-known locations, will cover the walls with their most popular moneymakers. These designs are often generic and simple, from butterflies to rudimentary stars, and their tireless advertisement can make the entire tattooing process comparable to picking out an ice cream flavor or shopping for shoes. “Tattooists are actually artists and not just people that stick pictures on you from a wall,” explains Tony Caporusso, a resident artist specializing in traditional tattoos. “At The QueensInk, it’s all about education and giving each customer the best product we can deliver.”
The Queens Ink’s desire to preserve creative integrity and artistic value is evident in every inch of the strategically designed space, which has the allure of an art studio or early 1900s barbershop. It may be safe to say that the tattoo machines and ink, barely visible among the organized clutter of antiquated gems and well-preserved books, is the only commonality the shop shares with its very distant relatives. If The Queens Ink is the black sheep of the tattoo parlor family, it dons its title proudly:
“The main idea was to not create another tattoo shop that has neon lights or looks like a dentists’ office,” Zink says. “We do custom work and work with each client to design something original.” John O’Hara is the third artist of the shop, whose unique style would be best described as geometrical and linear, influenced by the tight line design of old etchings. He believes that the oversaturation occurring within the industry can be viewed as both a positive and negative. “The positive is that tattooing is coming into a new recognition, where tattoos themselves are considered collectables and are valued for their artistic side,” he says. “The negatives are the superficial misconceptions that still exist, and the idea that anyone can be a tattooist.”
The intricate work and custom designs sketched out with precision by each of the three artists that call The Queens Ink home, prove just how false the idea that anyone can be a tattooist is. It is easy to forget that tattoo artists, above all else, are artists, driven by the creative process and detailed intricacies that make each image a personal and unique accomplishment. In this case, the body is the canvas; the final product doesn’t collect dust on a wall.
Despite the small space and two chairs, The Queens Ink has been, quite literally, making its mark on Astoria. During the shop’s hours — 2 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday — locals and ink-seekers alike have been offering up limbs and barren skin to experience the dedication and personalization that comes along with a trip to the easy-going, independent shop. Not to mention, the inventive adornment that is enthralling enough to draw just about anyone passing by into one of the tattoo chairs.
It’s more than fitting that an establishment dedicated to paving its own way amidst the oversaturation and overpopulation of an industry found a home in Astoria, a neighborhood experiencing its own unique metamorphosis in a city that at times feels too congested for its own good. With its seemingly ever-growing assemblage of restaurants, shops, bars, and attractions, Astoria has been able to expand its citywide appeal while refusing to forfeit the congenial likeness and residential tranquility that make the neighborhood so desirable yet easy to inhabit. Roumeliotis is no stranger to laying down roots across Astoria, especially the physical, local-business kind. However, such ventures are more than simple professional opportunities for the long-time Astoria resident; he admits that something about the neighborhood was so captivating that once it took hold, it never let go. When he moved in 18 years ago, Roumeliotis did not plan on staying; but now, with several of his creative concepts established around town, he can often be seen walking between locations, sometimes socializing and other times simply looking on with reverence, as if an unofficial mayor, satisfied with the way things are.
Just beyond The Queens Ink is a park, and just beyond the park is the Astoria Boulevard subway stop, where N and Q trains race tirelessly, cutting across boroughs, but always returning to Queens’ northwest corner. The tracks rumble, basketballs bounce in the park, forks scrape plates in a nearby restaurant, and inside a small shop that lights the sidewalk with a slight copper hue, a familiar buzzing sound changes pitch each time needle meets skin, leaving traces of ink as permanent as the commitment and vision of the artists controlling the machines.