ARTIST AT A GLANCE
Magic Touch is an artistic expression that celebrates the creative follies of Canarsie homeowners from the late 20th century — a sort of shade-tree tattoo parlor that might exist on your cousin Carmine’s back porch from a time when Cadillac was king and you picked your tattoo design off the wall. In this installation, celebrated New York tattoo artist Bert Krak has reproduced sheets of flash inspired by his late friend and mentor Tony Polito, while Alexis Ross has continued to secure his footing as the consummate shill, who is neither tattoo man nor street art man.
The Imprint of Bert Krak’s Tattoo Art
Before graffiti became the scourge of New York City in the late ’60s/early ’70s, another art form occupied outlaw status across the five boroughs — TATTOOING. Beginning in 1961 it was illegal in the city to permanently ink another human being, a prohibition that would remain on the books for 36 years.
Much in the same way that graffiti writers only viewed the illegality as a challenge rather than a deterrent, the tattoo masters of the 1960s — guys like Tony Polito and Thom DeVita — continued to push the boundaries of what was possible with an electric tattooing machine while the ban was still in place.
Bert Krak may be called a contemporary tattoo artist, but his classic designs, knowledge of history and vision for his Smith Street Tattoo Parlour (“Brooklyn’s Finest”) suggest he’s a spiritual descendant of those past masters.
He began his tattoo career in Florida at Rocka- billy Tattoo, under the tutelage of three important local figures: Dave Poole, Danny Knight and “Uncle Johnny” Colamarino. The trio instilled in him the tenets of tattooing and also provided a positive example of what a tireless work ethic entails.
“When it comes to work, I just like to work,” says the 41-year-old father of four. “I’ve always been that way — whether it’s the job I have now or any job I’ve ever had. I’ve always liked busy days better than slow ones. I paint, I do ink drawings and watercolor and acrylic paintings. Lately I haven’t had a lot of time to produce art on paper because tattooing is keeping me so busy.”
This combination of hard work and honoring the past has proven to be a successful recipe for Bert Krak. Since opening Smith Street Tattoo Parlour in 2008 in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn — along with artists Steve Boltz (co-owner) and Eli Quinters — he has become one of the most well- known and well-respected practitioners of the American traditional style in the United States.
Storied publications like The New York Times have said of Smith Street, “[it] is perhaps the most renowned parlor doing American traditional work.”
But what exactly defines the style?
“I think the best way to describe American traditional tattoos is that they’re tattoos that look like tattoos,” Krak says. “Let’s just say it’s 1950 and you walk into a tattoo shop. There would be designs on the wall called ‘flash.’ People would pick these designs and say ‘I want an eagle,’ or a heart, a dagger, a snake, a skull. But at a certain point — I’m going to say in the ’70s — that all changed, when people realized that tattooing is an art that you can do a bunch of different ways. It no longer has to be traditional and there’s this whole custom thing in there. What’s traditional to me are those images from the very beginning.”
Bert Krak “SENT” to the King
Speed isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a tattoo artist. But like with anyone who has ever put in thousands of hours in their trade, Krak has earned a reputation in the industry for taking customers from ideation to completed tattoo at a rapid rate — and saving them from any bad ideas they might live to regret. “I don’t have any wasted moves,” he says.
While Bert Krak himself never wrote graffiti, he’s been intertwined with the culture ever since he moved to New York City. One of his early business part- ners in the tattoo industry was an influential writer from the 1980s named SENT, from the crew TMR. Through this relationship, Krak got a crash course in New York graffiti history. “I was educated in graffiti by someone who is a king,” Krak recalls.
Bert Krak would later learn that the facade of Smith Street Tattoo Parlour itself — in the form of several scrawls reading “PRAY” — also strength- ened his connection to graffiti culture.
As the legend goes, a woman — possibly home- less, possibly a psychiatric nurse at Bellevue Hospital who had found religion — began scratch- ing the word “PRAY” into telephone booths and subway station pillars all across New York City in the late 1960s, during a time when people were already trying to unlock the motivations behind the Magic Marker tags of graffiti pioneers like JULIO 204 and TAKI 183. This became her de facto moniker, although she was also known to leave behind other religious-themed words/phrases like “OBEYGOD,” “WORSHIPGOD” and “GOTOCHURCH.”
One can’t help but notice the irony that PRAY’s words outlasted Mayor Ed Koch’s war on graffiti in the 1980s and now lives outside a tattoo shop that honors the vintage flash of artists who survived the tattoo ban.
Bert Krak certainly recognizes the kinship between those who have made their livings from each respective medium. “Tattooing and graffiti are both art that some people love and other people hate,” he says. “It’s definitely a body of work that is created by interesting people on both sides.”
For his part, Bert Krak just does his level best to bring a sense of integrity to his work on a daily basis. “All I can do is really just follow the rules, be respect- ful, be honest and understand that what I do for a living is a huge responsibility,” he says. “There’s also a huge balance. I need to make sure I give people what they want, but at the same time I’ve got to make sure I don’t give them some- thing that they think they want but aren’t going to want forever. I don’t want people who don’t deserve to tattoo to do it. Some people come into tattooing because they don’t want to do anything else. I say to people, ‘What are you going to bring into tattooing that we don’t already have?’ Do we really need one more guy who doesn’t work super hard at it, that just gets by doing mediocre things that last forever on people and never goes away?”