For Restless Pioneer of Modern Tattoo Art, a Life Beyond Ink
Visitors to the cluttered studio inside Thom DeVita’s Victorian house marvel at the artwork that covers the walls, his drawing table, even his hands. The images reflect not just his interests, but his skills, which he honed as a tattoo artist on the Lower East Side for some 30 years; a storied era to aficionados. The accomplishment was all the more remarkable because it was illegal in New York City at the time.
Nowadays, it seems everybody has a tattoo. If there is someone to thank for the art’s increased acceptance and visibility, it might be Mr. DeVita. Every month, Chris Grosso brings admirers up to visit the old master, in Newburgh, the upstate town where he has lived since leaving the Lower East Side in the early 1990s.
“He is one of the founders of modern tattooing,” said Mr. Grosso, who befriended Mr. DeVita two years ago while filming a documentary about him. “It’s not what you see on reality television, but something that only he and seven other people in the 1960s started, from purely a love for the art form. He wasn’t from a sailor or biker background, where tattooing comes with the territory. They appreciated the great Japanese masters, the people from Samoa. Thom was at the forefront of that.”
Growing up in East Harlem, the son of Italian immigrants, Mr. DeVita did not set out to be an artist. After high school, he worked at various jobs, from factory hand to messenger. He recalled how his parents used to refer to some people as “bohemians,” and how he warmed to the idea.
“It seemed like a nice life to live, being with artists,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they went to work. Then I realized when I got to the Lower East Side, I was 30 years too late to be a bohemian. But I caught the tail end of the beatnik era and the beginning of the hippie era.”
His own entree into the art world was improvised, when a potential girlfriend asked him what he did.
“I had to be something, so I told her I was an artist,” he said. “So I became an artist. I had to show her I was an artist, so I started doing some artwork.”
He decided to become a tattoo artist when the city banned tattooing in 1961 (the ban was lifted in 1997). He figured business would be good, since the law drove out his competitors, and the police on the Lower East Side had more pressing concerns than outlaw skin art.
Mr. Grosso said that Mr. DeVita created new designs incorporating nontraditional elements, such as Pueblo Indian iconography and even the rose from the Lord & Taylor shopping bag. He said he admires him for his restless creativity, even if — at 81 years of age, with hands trembling from Parkinson’s disease — he no longer does many tattoos.
Instead, Mr. DeVita resorts to rubbings, stencils and stamps, making montages of old tattoo designs on recycled wooden crates, paper, cutting boards and even ancient ledgers. He signs them with his surname, rendered in snakelike letters that would be the envy of any graffiti writer.
“He paints on everything,” Mr. Grosso said. “Maybe if he had seen graffiti he would have been a tagger. He just doesn’t stop. It has to be a compulsion.”
Mr. Grosso can understand. After making a documentary on Mr. DeVita, he set up a website to sell his work. Now he visits him monthly, to give him cash from the sales and pick up new work to ship. He is often accompanied by a friend or two who might want to learn about tattoo history firsthand, like Fernando Lions, a tattoo artist from Brooklyn who recently accompanied him on a trek.
The two young men peppered Mr. DeVita with questions, and asked to see some classic designs or snapshots from his time on the Lower East Side. Depending on his mood, he may or may not comply; pictures he had told Mr. Grasso never existed magically appeared during this visit. At one point, Mr. DeVita took out some panoramas he had painted in bold, black brush strokes.
“These are beautiful,” Mr. Lions said quietly.
“You know how they’re done?” Mr. DeVita asked. “The paper is scrap I cut off bigger pieces. I paint on them with whatever is left in the ink pot.”
Before they are sent off to customers, Mr. DeVita packs a slip that reads: “Any Imperfections Will Add to Its Beauty.” He first saw the phrase when he bought a china closet, and liked it so much he appropriated it.
“All my art is imperfection,” he said. “I dwell on imperfection. I’m constantly pulling things out of the fire.”