At the age of twelve, Brad Fink was struck with a rare genetic malfunction that attacks the autoimmune system. Within two weeks, all his hair was gone, from head to toe. Not even an eyelash or nose hair was spared, the consequence of a disease called alopecia areata. One day, an average brown-haired boy -- "a real hairy kid," Fink recalls -- the next, a circus freak by schoolyard standards.
"I hated it. I hated it before I lost my hair, but then after I lost my hair, my two years at DeSmet were just miserable," says Fink. "If I were born bald, that'd be fine. If I lost my hair in my thirties, I'd be fine. But when you're in eighth grade -- it was the biggest thing in my life."
Today the 34-year-old Fink remains hairless, skin as smooth as a summer pond. An ink artist would kill to tattoo Fink; his body's a perfect canvas. Time has helped heal the sting of preadolescent humiliation. As it turns out, in fact, it's worked to his advantage. Listen to him: "Every girl I've ever dated loved it. My wife loves it. And now, even if I did grow hair, I'd shave it off. In the tattoo community, people know me as 'that bald guy.' It has helped set myself apart from the rest."
At twelve, of course, no one is looking to be different. "You're going through puberty. You're starting to become interested in girls," Fink says over a burger at Blueberry Hill, a number of whose employees have surrendered their skin to him. "All of a sudden, my hair was gone."
Fink retreated to his bedroom at his childhood home in St. Charles. He started drawing and listening to punk rock. It was the mid-'80s, and like the Hell's Angels and sailors of bygone days, he grew to appreciate the rebellion and beauty inherent in skin art. His mother, eager to placate an angry son, took him to get his first tattoo when he was fifteen. Fink chose a comedy mask and a tragedy mask.
He began studying the history of tattoos in America. He learned about the Japanese yazuka, gangs of miscreants whose honor and rebellion mirrored the samurai. He started mimicking their style and now draws waves that roll chaotically, as strong and fluid as those in a Japanese watercolor; he carves dragons with lithe bodies that glisten as though woven from silk.
As St. Louis' pre-eminent tattoo artist, Fink has garnered national acclaim for his parlor magic. He's been on Late Night with David Letterman, featured in the top tattoo magazines and co-owns two of the hottest tattoo parlors in New York City.
"He's good. He's a good technician," says Lyle Tuttle, the storied 74-year-old San Francisco tattooist. "His lines are good and true and straight. His fields of color are good, and it's got an artistic flair to it." Tuttle cites a classic tattoo -- an eagle -- that Fink has put in his online portfolio (www.ironagetattoo.com) as an example.
"Look at that line, the quality," Tuttle says. "You can do an eagle head various ways, but his has flair to it."
Fink and his business partner, Mark Andrews, own Iron Age Studio on Delmar Boulevard in University City, one of the most distinctive shops in the nation. Fink's Manhattan studio, Daredevil Tattoo, was cited by the Village Voice as one of the city's best. The shop, buried in the heart of the Lower East Side, is co-owned by St. Louis transplant Michelle Myles Steckert. In its cozy confines, Steckert and crew have branded the likes of Vincent Gallo, David Lee Roth, Janeane Garofalo and Joan Jett. Fink and Steckert's second shop, the recently purchased Fun City, is legendary for inking such tattooed luminaries as Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson.
Notoriety and tattooing go hand in hand, and the business draws its share of larger-than-life characters. Early tattooists traveled with freak shows. Bert Grimm, a St. Louis tattoo legend who worked during the 1930s and '40s, photographed everything he scratched. The late south St. Louis tattoo artist Mike "Mitch" Mitchell is honored on a memorial Web site (www.legionofmitch.com). And Mitchell's protégé, Brad Fink, is a singularly striking St. Louis presence with a huge, dramatic -- and sometimes overbearing -- personality that has earned him his share of animosity, especially from former employees.
As one former Iron Age tattoo artist puts it, "When you walk in [to Fink's studio], it's like jumping out of an airplane."
Walk into Iron Age's waiting room and you'll find fidgety clients staring at the walls or perusing magazines as AC/DC's "Hells Bells" wails in the background. A receptionist greets visitors, checks their name in a reservation book and tells them to have a seat. Deeper in, men and women wearing rubber gloves attend to people reclined in dentist's chairs.
Just past the receptionist, a blood-red mosaic explodes across the floor; written on it is the word "Mother." A glassed-in Art Deco cabinet houses vintage tattoo guns and fading tattoo designs.
Tucked away in the back is Fink's workspace. He's reupholstered his vintage dentist's chair with sparkly red, white and blue stars and stripes. Fink's wearing six-inch cuffs on his deep-blue Levi's, and he's got on a pair of black throwback Adidas. He's an imposing, handsome figure, sturdy and angular, weighing maybe 200 pounds. Gregarious and theatrical, Fink wears black plastic-framed glasses that cover the middle third of his face. When he smiles, a skull-shape silver cap sparkles under the bright spotlight.
Fink's arms and legs are strewn with tattoos, as are his neck, hands and feet. Two years ago he began the painstaking process of having the tattoos on his right arm removed -- so he could start over again. "I got so many bad tattoos when I was young," he says. "Tattooing is a real commitment and, having gotten so many, I'm very cautious about what tattoos I get."
By now, Fink has wet my right triceps, shaved the tiny hairs clean with a disposable razor and washed the area with antiseptic soap. He activates the machine with a foot pedal, and the needle screams like a cicada. On the counter behind him sits a spectrum of inks in clear-plastic ketchup bottles. For my tattoo he's using only one color, a Japanese black that he's poured into a tiny plastic cup. He pulls a needle from a box, takes it out of its wrapper and slides it into the machine, and the drilling begins.
Working along lines he'd sketched with a soft-tipped red marker and refined with a black one, the tattoo artist gracefully maneuvers the needle with his right hand, following his rough draft. He's creating a vista in the style of genius comic artist George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat comic ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1944. Fink laid Krazy Kat getting hit with a brick on my arm nearly a decade ago, and I've decided to augment it with a landscape.
Fink works with the pure confidence of someone intimately familiar with his craft, which, in essence, boils downs to creating wounds and filling them with ink. These thousands -- sometimes millions -- of individual punctures scar over, locking the ink into place forever.
His two portfolios are crammed with photos of his ink work. On one, which consumes an entire chest and stomach, a Japanese geisha rides the back of a swan. Behind her is a jagged branch of a flowering tree, which bids her farewell as she's taken into rough ocean waters toward a writhing dragon. Another is a spitting-image rendering of Hank Williams carved into an inner forearm. A vibrant red-and-orange dagger cuts through a blue rose. A 1950s-era robot races through space. A jagged skull with diamond eyes chomps on a bone below the word "REVENGE."
"Tattoo artists used to be more craftsmen than they were artists, because they worked off of stencils," explains San Francisco legend Lyle Tuttle. "There wasn't a call for custom work like there is today, so a better grade of artist was brought into the industry."
Wall Street hasn't assigned anyone to keep close tabs on the industry, but in 1997 U.S. News & World Report stated that there were nearly 3,000 tattoo studios nationwide and that the studios were the nation's sixth-fastest-growing retail business (after Internet and pager service centers, bagel shops, and computer and cell-phone stores).
When he had a shop in San Francisco, Tuttle tattooed Cher, Peter Fonda, Joan Baez and, perhaps most notably, Janis Joplin. "I did a bracelet on her wrist and a heart on her titty," he recalls. "The bracelet was for everybody, and the heart on her breast was for her friends."
Tuttle will be in town this week, scouting downtown locations for an upcoming national tattoo convention to be held in St. Louis.
"Tattooing to me is a forgotten folk art," says Fink. He's carving sunbeams into my skin. "It's like being a blacksmith or something."
Fink has no idea how many tattoos he's done in his seventeen years. He used to do about fifteen a day but has scaled back to tackling maybe one or two bigger pieces. The most popular tattoo request, Fink notes, is a rose, followed by hearts and names of loved ones. "On the south side I used to do a ton of unicorns," he says. The cost: $100 an hour in St. Louis, $150 an hour in New York. It's been a lucrative practice, enabling him to buy three houses in the area (including one for his mother, whose rheumatoid arthritis keeps her confined to a wheelchair), four cars (including a vintage 1961 Cadillac convertible) and one of the best collections of tattoo memorabilia in the world.
Fink runs the needle through my skin like a seasoned surgeon, and each line, each curve, moves with grace. A decorative filigree rolls around my triceps muscle with perfect, fluid symmetry. Two rocket ships fly through the nighttime sky. Birds on a wire stare calmly into the daylight.
He finishes the sun and turns to the jutting rock formations that characterize much of Herriman's work. Fink then moves to a few puffy clouds, each needle movement firm and confident. When he's done, he rubs the area with antiseptic ointment and covers it with gauze. After two weeks of TLC and lotion, the wound is healed, but the ink remains.
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."
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.
"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.'"