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A holy grail of American tattoo history sits in a glass display case at Iron Age. There are only a handful of these in existence, and Brad Fink owns one -- an original prototype of Thomas Edison's first American patent, an invention called a perforating pen. The pen's a rudimentary instrument designed both as an engraver and a fabric punch; Fink won it off eBay about five years ago for an astoundingly low $5,000. Identical artifacts have sold for $40,000.
Fifteen years after Edison invented the perforating pen, Samuel O'Reilly of Manhattan patented the first electronic tattoo machine, which borrowed heavily from Edison's creation but was designed specifically to inject ink into skin. O'Reilly's mechanical machine improved the quality of a tattoo, provided better control and a quicker turnaround. In the '30s and '40s, when tattooing was as much of a craze as it is today, the legendary Bert Grimm worked in a bustling downtown St. Louis and claimed to have tattooed Bonnie and Clyde and "Pretty Boy" Floyd. After World War II, the riverboat industry, still thriving in St. Louis, was rife with former sailors who naturally gravitated to the trade, along with soldiers stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Another established downtown parlor sat near what is now being dug up for the new Busch Stadium. The Cleveland brothers opened Trader Bob's in the 1920s, and it's considered one of the oldest continually running shops in the nation. Trader Bob's moved to its current South Jefferson location in the 1970s, when Michael "Mitch" Mitchell -- a badass, rough-living biker with a ZZ Top beard, a fleet of Harleys and a body full of tattoos -- ran it.
Tattooing is taught as a trade; artists work through a loose apprenticeship. After a year of hanging out and watching Mitchell work, Fink earned his own chair at the shop and served a mostly drop-in crowd. Soon he was running Trader Bob's.
After hours, the punks would roll in, and Fink's overpowering presence earned him fast friends among U. City outcasts. He'd tattoo his buddies at cut-rate prices. At house parties, Fink set up shop in kitchens and branded friends' triceps while Agnostic Front screamed in the background. His friends didn't have money but wanted big tattoos, so they offered their bodies as practice for the budding artist. "They were in the same mindset as me," recalls Fink. "They just wanted to get covered really fast and wanted to look like as much of a freak as possible."
After tiring of answering to Mitchell, who was an absentee owner, Fink decided to start his own shop with Washington University architecture grad and former Mississippi Nights manager Mark Andrews.
Iron Age was born in 1994 on the second floor of 6608 Delmar Boulevard, next door to Vintage Vinyl. It was a clean, utilitarian parlor paid for with credit cards, and it served its purpose: a dry-walled office space with four chairs, a bathroom and a back office. Iron Age quickly became the most bustling shop in town, with a solid crew of topnotch artists.
After three successful years, Fink and Andrews decided to relocate to a ground-level shop, convinced that they could double their income with more visibility. It took them two years. Zoning in the district prohibited ground-level service businesses, so Fink, with help from Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards, had to convince a skeptical city hall that Iron Age might benefit the area.
"There was concern about the kind of clientele that it would bring," sums up Edwards. "But times change."
Even after Iron Age's move was approved, landlords were wary. Finally, Fink and Andrews found a space in the former location of a Saint Louis Bread Co., where Iron Age resides to this day.
Immediately following the move, two of Fink's best tattoo artists, Nate Strautkalns and Alan Thompson, abruptly quit, took two other Iron Age employees with them and opened All Star Tattoo, a rival shop on Olive Boulevard.
Strautkalns and Thompson had hoped to learn from Fink, who by now was developing a strong reputation on the national tattoo scene. But they gradually became disenchanted. "He's not one to really share much information with you," says Strautkalns today. "He's really guarded."
Fink views the relationship differently: "I got tired of them riding on my coattails and biting my shit." He claims that the two were plotting to open All Star while still working at Iron Age and that they began snatching his customers. "Those people readily fucked us, there's no question."
"Ludicrous," counters Thompson, whose fingers Fink tattooed a few years back with the words "TRUE" and "GRIT." There was never a plan to steal customers. He says Fink was volatile, unpredictable and constantly made him and Strautkalns feel like their jobs were in jeopardy. "The personality got in the way," Thompson says. "His behavior was so erratic. Maybe this guy is going to be so giddy that he's literally tap-dancing around you, or he might be, 'What the fuck are you looking at?' I didn't want to deal with it."
In an ironic twist, the two former Iron Agers recently bought Trader Bob's, where Fink learned his trade. Fink doesn't begrudge them the business. "More power to them," he says. "I'm just glad I'm not stuck down there anymore."