King Ink

Meet Brad Fink, a man of color whose body is the perfect canvas for his work

On this early December night in lower Manhattan, Fink and partner Michelle Myles Steckert are showing off their new baby, Fun City Tattoo, in all its glistening glory. The opening-night crowd is clothed, but tattoos peek out of necklines and roll out from behind cuffs. A go-go dancer roams, waiting for her cue to jump atop a table out back. An aging beatnik surveys the scene, nibbling salami and crackers. Fuse TV aims its cameras at tattooist Steve Sorrenio, who's commemorating the event by needling "Love Will Tear Us Apart" into the wrist of a young Goth girl.

Located next door to the St. Mark's Place brownstones that were featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and just down the street from where the Rolling Stones shot the video for "Waiting on a Friend," the shop is about the size and shape of a three-lane bowling alley (if there were such a thing). Granite countertops and stainless-steel fixtures gleam, as do granite floors and a star-patterned tin ceiling. Vintage circus posters adorn the walls, and the Art Deco lights seem more suited to Architectural Digest than Tattoo Monthly.

Former Fun City owner Jonathan Shaw (left) attends 
the grand reopening with lauded underground artist 
Joe Coleman (right).
Kate Lacey
Former Fun City owner Jonathan Shaw (left) attends the grand reopening with lauded underground artist Joe Coleman (right).
Fink and Michelle Myles Steckert at the opening of their 
second Manhattan parlor, Fun City
Kate Lacey
Fink and Michelle Myles Steckert at the opening of their second Manhattan parlor, Fun City
Fink at the Fun City opening with wife Deborah and 
son Janson
Kate Lacey
Fink at the Fun City opening with wife Deborah and son Janson

"We wanted to make it look sort of like an old-style tattoo shop," Fink says of the space, which he and Steckert bought for $20,000 from Jonathan Shaw, the son of the late band leader Artie Shaw. He's cradling his ten-month-old son, Janson, who's clad in a tiny racing jacket and kiddie Pumas. In flowing script, "Janson" is tattooed into Fink's left hand; on the right hand, in honor of his recent marriage, he has tattooed his wife's name: "Deborah." When Fink pushes his fists together, the two tattoos mirror each other.

Co-owner Steckert passes and squeezes Fink on the arm. She moved to New York to attend the Parsons School of Design after graduating from McCluer North High School in the late 1980s. While at Parsons, Steckert got the tattoo bug and stumbled across some of Fink's work in a magazine. The next time she visited St. Louis, he tattooed her and she tattooed him, and they became friends. He'd visit her in New York and crash at her loft, where she was discreetly operating a shop. When the city rescinded its tattoo ban in 1997, the two opened Daredevil on Ludlow Street, in the storefront of an old refrigerator-repair shop formerly run by a guy named Chilly Willy.

Tattoo parlors sprang up all over Manhattan. Jimmy G of Murphy's Law and Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front, two legends of the New York City mid-'80s hardcore punk scene, opened NYC Hardcore Tattoos. Artists, entrepreneurs and scab merchants from all over the world made a beeline to New York, eager to make it in the community's newest, and potentially biggest, tattoo market.

In buying Fun City, Fink and Steckert have purchased a piece of history. Former owner Jonathan Shaw has inked the infamous and the famous, including Johnny Depp. He's dated Naomi Campbell. When tattooing was peaking in the mid-'90s, Shaw was editing the movement's bible, International Tattoo Art, and stuffing the magazine with photos of his own work.

Fink says Shaw has sold his life story to Depp, who will be directing and starring in the movie. "He's a real narcissist," says Fink, never one to mince words. "A snake-in-the-grass kind of guy. But he's a name, and the phone rings off the hook."

"Tattooing just doesn't interest me as much anymore," shrugs Shaw, standing on the stoop of his former shop. He's flanked by artist Joe Coleman, whose own macabre portraits of serial killers Shaw has transformed into body art. "I've moved on with my life. I'm involved with books now and have a movie deal. Anything else?" He turns away.

Fink and Steckert's Fun City investment quickly paid off when, in early November, a Late Show with David Letterman producer called looking for an artist to plant a tattoo of Letterman staffer Biff Henderson on an obsessed fan. Throughout the show, Letterman charted Fink's progress.

Now, as well-wishers walk up to shake Fink's hand and congratulate him on the shop's transformation, Fink seems preoccupied.

For a newlywed, first-time father who's now opening his third tattoo parlor -- and potentially his most lucrative -- it's a big time of change. The tattoo industry has expanded wildly in the past fifteen years, but Fink says he's seeing signs of a slow-down.

"It's always kind of scary," he admits. "It's not like being in the tire business. People are always going to need tires. Having a tattoo is not a necessity. In bad times, it's going to be the first thing to go.

"On the other hand, it could be good for us. In wartime, people drink more; they're more destructive. I've put myself in a career that's not of the norm, so I don't know. So I tried to make hay when the sun shined, and I always thought, 'If this is here, take advantage of it.'"

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