Sitting on a tufted bench and stretching his shoulders, a man named John says, "My wife thinks I'm getting something small. She's totally going to yell at me. Oops."
He stands and bends his leg to display a not-so-small, intricate artwork: a still from Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are where Max and Carol swing from the trees, roaring, well, wildly. It's a beautiful homage to the timeless illustrator: the linework is expertly crafted in dedication to John's beloved childhood tale. (You can check out the finished piece here.)
When we ask if this is his first tattoo, John laughs. "It's my first good tattoo." (He later showed us a murky Batman symbol on his upper arm.) The tattoo artist, Dmitry, stands quietly with folded arms and smiles, regarding his first client of the day. Others walk by, giving the thumbs up and nodding in approval.
We're gathered at First Class Tattoo, a small yet elegant shop tucked into an airy Canal Street storefront. Trust us when we say that this isn't your grandfather's tattoo parlor: gold chandeliers encased in geometric cubes dangle from the ceiling, and the matte black walls exude a sense of calm. A mix of seemingly discordant tunes pulses through the shop. (We heard everything from Drake to Neil Young during our visit, though apparently we had just missed the Iron Maiden.)
(Photo by Maggie Shannon/Gothamist)
A statue of a Grecian goddess clasping her harp adorns the shop's front ledge, and apprentices gather in the back, sketching practice illustrations of classic skulls and abstract figures. Near the door is a constant flurry of passersby, drawn inside with bold ideas for their next work of art: a family member's portrait adorned with a lion's pelt, an elegant twist of flowers, a shark. The artists huddle with them, shoulder to shoulder, sketching as they chat, collaborating, and creating soon-to-be indelible masterpieces.
And in the middle, of course, artists arc over their stations and perform their inky wizardry: everything from mind-boggling realism and slick black linework to pointillist interpretations and explosively vibrant watercolors.
We're here to learn a bit about the art of tattooing—so we were invited to spend the day with a few experts of the craft. The shop's only been open since the summer—but with the steady influx of clients and the mastery of those working inside, you get the impression that this place has been earning its keep as a neighborhood mainstay for years.
Skylar, the self described "Shop Mom," presides over the desk in a flowing black shawl, consulting clients on everything from tattoo style to where to pop in for an after-tattoo drink. (Later, she would happily buy everybody ice cream, an effortlessly kind yet crucial move for such a hot afternoon.)
"Tattooing is not a scary and unapproachable thing," she tells us. "It shouldn't be intimidating. You should feel warm and welcome and happy. I talk to everyone that comes in here, no matter what kind of tattoo you're getting. Everyone is important."
The warmth and welcome are undeniable. First Class feels less like a "traditional" tattoo shop and more like a modern living room enthusiastically inhabited by a working art collective. And every artist has at least 7-10 years of working experience in the world of ink, so don't worry, you're in good hands here.
(Photo by Maggie Shannon/Gothamist)
"We're going beyond 'tattoos as tattoos,'" explains Ishraki, one of the shop's resident artists. He's just finished showing us a few abstract film still and musical compositions that had informed his recent work.
"That was the generation that came before—and now we can take tattooing to new dimensions. You know, in other cultures, it's not about a mark. It's a prayer, it's a protection. It's spiritual. And I hope my clients leave awestruck, because literally, when you get a tattoo, you're changed for life."
The shop's owner, Mikhail, agrees. "What we're doing here is unique," he tells us. "Anybody can walk in here and feel like it's theirs—young people, businessmen, everybody. And we have experienced artists from all over the world here, bringing their own knowledge and culture. Most importantly, it's a place where the art comes first."
Full disclosure: this writer decided to get inked on the fly during her time at the shop. It's a small letter N—a family initial. "It's like going into a bar and you don't drink," joked Hunter, a newbie just one month into his apprenticeship. "At some point, you're going to want to join in."
First Class Tattoo is located at 52 Canal Street, right around the corner from the East Broadway F. For more information, check out their website here.
This post is a sponsored collaboration between First Class Tattoo and Gothamist staff.