Tattoos mean different things to different people. TLC explores the phenomena of tattooing in both the gay and straight world in “NY Ink.”
The reality-TV format of “NY Ink” peeks into the Wooster Street Social Club, the premier tattoo establishment of New York City.
Of course the club is a gallery of sorts and as such, heaped with canvases of heavily inked skin. Gay tattoo artist and floor manager, RoBear, is no exception.
RoBear, aka “RoBeast” on his bad days, took a couple of minutes on a cold, Manhattan afternoon to talk about “NY Ink” and the mixed messaging that face a gay man in the often testosterone poisoned world of tattoos.
It’s a fact that tattoos moved past drunken sailors and low-life expression decades ago. Now, full-on tattoo sleeves run the gamut, adorning celebrities and cons alike. Tattooing is mainstream. It’s official. But still, there’s an awkward subculture to the world of inked skin, a subculture that has perhaps not caught up.
“I’m a lot stronger than I act. I feel like I have to represent the gay community here,” RoBear said.
“I want to represent the strong gay man who has tattoos. I want straight men to stop being surprised. We’re strong and we can take pain too, just like everyone else. I don’t mind an hour of pain for something that symbolizes timelessness.
“Tattoos are simply art that’s adorning your body on skin, which is the canvas you’ve given to an artist. Mine tell the story of my life without speaking a word. They (the tattoos) are a milestone, a time in my life when I was going through something and I wanted to put it on my body as a memory. Good, bad, the ugly and the indifferent: everything, so I can look back and grow from that experience,” he said.
It’s that very aspect, the permanence of tattooing, that both draws and repels. Some hate the notion of ritualized scarification. Others are compelled to document their lives in this way, on the most personal and most beloved organ of the human body: the skin.
“I’m almost covered,” RoBear said. “I’m running out of prime real estate as they say in the industry. I’ve been getting tattooed for about 18 years. I think it’s a lifestyle, really. There’s a big difference between having tattoos and actually being tattooed. To really immerse yourself in the lifestyle, you ARE tattooed. Your body is given to the art of tattooing.
“I can actually close my eyes and take myself back after looking at one of my tattoos and the emotions and the feelings just come surfacing back. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s a story. It’s a story without having to say a word. If you look at me and if you look at my art, you are familiar with me without my having to explain my life, and I think that’s good,” he said.
RoBear epitomizes the need for a voice and the drive for that voice to be heard, and he’s a master of the oblique contradiction.
Standing well over 6 feet tall, powerfully built and looking every bit the Ro-Beast of his nickname, it was clear, shortly into the interview, that RoBear has an agenda. A few episodes of “NY Ink” explained.
In a recent episode, RoBear drops and breaks a bottle of ink. Because he chose to wipe off his shoes before cleaning the floor, the entire staff gets in on the clean-up and in the process, berate and tease RoBear. RoBear reacts, gets his back up and retreats to the bathroom. The straight boys block the door and lock him in while the girls titter in the background.
This is ground zero for most gay men. This is the bad memory that many gay men had at the hands of the “straight” boys when growing up. It was breathtaking and sad to see it again, to see adult men and women, in a place as allegedly progressive as New York, act like schoolyard bullies.
But there it was, and RoBear’s need for Ro-Beast suddenly made sense.
“Jess and Megan, the two girls in the shop, think I need a man. They think I’m a little cranky at times and they think a man will help me out of my bad mood, the mood which the boys here usually put me in.”
So that begs the question: Has tattooing really evolved from its tough guy/tough girl roots to evolve into the art form to which it lays claim?
Only time will tell, and “NY Ink” will help document the progress.
“NY Ink” airs at 10 pm Thursdays on TLC.
Kurt Niece is a freelance journalist from Tucson, Ariz., and author of "The Breath of Rapture." He writes about television for Echo Magazine in Phoenix and SDGLN. He is also an artist who sells his work on his website.