Inked in Providence

“I like doing sick tats.” Artist Maxwell Blackmar’s grin radiates across a tattoo bed covered in portfolios of carefully preserved flash (pre-designed) tattoos that go back over 70 years.

Blackmar is the unofficial, accidental historian of Rhode Island’s tattoo history. In 2017, the 32-year-old self-described history nerd unexpectedly landed at the helm of Ronnie’s Tattoo Studio on Eddy Street, the oldest tattoo studio in Providence.

Artist Ronnie Daigle opened the shop in 1959 after an apprenticeship with Sailor West, the nom de plume for Rhode Island tattoo artist Anthony D’Ambra, a nearly forgotten legend in the business. The history is murky, but West reportedly learned the trade from Charlie Wagner, a famous artist who opened a tattoo shop in NYC In 1899, the Bowery neighborhood was rough and tumble. West was a tattoo artist who worked in traveling circuses and carnivals. He then opened stores in Providence and Los Angeles where he partnered up with Ernie Sutton.

A young Daigle became besotted by a piece of flash (of a pin-up girl) in the window of West’s Federal Hill storefront. After his curiosity was sparked, Daigle learned the trade from the West and then set out to do it on his own.

Back then, you couldn’t just open a shop because the mob owned the town. Daigle was left with two other competitors in the city because of this. But it was Ronnie’s  – with its chain-link fence-protected building and colorful cast of characters – that stood the test of time. It became an integral part of the tattoo culture and more than a Providence landmark. A crew of cameras was brought to South Providence by Mark Mahoney (celeb tattoo artist whose clients included Rihanna and Adele) to film a documentary.

Daigle opened at a time when tattoos weren’t commonplace. They were visible on the arms and arms of sailors, as well as outlaws. Only the South Providence neighborhood, which was rough and rowdy, added to its mystique. There was an artist who went by the moniker Dead Eye Pete; Ronnie’s crew nicknamed a regular client “Uncle Scary”  – “But not to his face,” Blackmar’s quick to add.

Indeed, Ronnie’s was a home for misfits, renegades, and rehabilitating hooligans. Daigle was a mentor to young talent and taught them how ink is applied to flesh canvas. One of those misfits was Victor Morales, Daigle’s last apprentice. Morales, who was about to be a teenage father, was looking for a steady career that would provide for his family. Daigle recognized the potential of the young artist and invited him to join the ranks.

In 2013, Daigle died and Morales assumed the helm at the famed tattoo shop. Blackmar, a licensed tattoo artist, was a frequent fixture at the shop, even though he worked elsewhere. Morales asked Blackmar to help run the shop and take a seat.

Blackmar was left alone to manage the ship after Morales died in 2017 in a motorcycle accident. Ronnie’s crew rallied around the young artist. Blackmar’s friend and fellow artist A.J. Williams sat in a chair just as Blackmar did with Morales four years prior.

Grief shades Blackmar’s face as he recalls explaining to Morales’ clients that he had passed. Because Blackmar knew his friend’s style so well — both were self-taught artists, and the pair worked on many collaborative projects — clients with tattoos in progress turned to Blackmar to finish the work, providing an unexpected source of comfort. “It was great,” says Blackmar. “Now I’m working with my buddy again.”

Ronnie’s made it through race riots, outlaw biker gangs, the mob, and COVID. But it couldn’t survive the building inspector. Last year, the city condemned the building, shutting down a tattoo institution and closing a long chapter in the industry’s storied history.

“Artists on the West Coast, in Chicago, they were doing different stuff in the early ‘90s, not as old school,” says Donald Lussier, who opened Art Freek Tattoo on Steeple Street, now on Wickenden, in 1994.

Lussier was a part of Providence’s then-flourishing musical scene. A Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) trial weakened the mob’s stranglehold on the city, which meant Lussier could hang out a shingle without a hitch.

“At first, there was no one to tattoo but the skinheads,” Lussier says with a chuckle. But once Art Freek became a Providence fixture, “we’d be open all night, tattooing anyone for $10.” He’d meet people at music venues like Club Babyhead and Lupo’s and invite them to get inked after the show. Bands began to come in for tattoos because of his presence in music. He reveals a bizarre-looking hotdog on his calf by rolling up his pants. This is the place he allows non-artists to try their hand at the tattoo gun-inked J.D. Pinkus, from the Butthole Surfers.

“Our tattoos were so much different from the other styles,” Lussier continues. The quality of tattoo inks improved, as manufacturers began to offer more than the primary colors. “Then the tattoo magazines hit, and they were focused on the artwork,” he says. When the ‘90s counterculture movement exploded, tattoos became part of that narrative.

Lussier and his crew captured the aesthetic on T-shirts with slogans like “your mom’s gonna kill us” and “creating tomorrow’s unemployed today.” Anyone coming of age in the ‘90s remembers the teeth gnashing around young adults – especially women – with visible tattoos entering the workforce.

That’s no longer the case. According to Ipsos’s recent poll, 30% of Americans now have a tattoo. That’s up from 21% in 2012. It’s not surprising that body art is very popular among the younger generation, with 76% of tattoos being on GenX and younger.

Tina Lugo, Hannah Medeiros, and Tina Lugo created Black Cherry Tattoo, an Olneyville-style private studio that is spa-like, in 2021. The exposed brick walls are lit by natural light and the green tendrils of the plants scurry down them. The calm space is a world away from the bustling storefront scene. Both are trained artists — native Rhode Islander Medeiros attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and New York City transplant Lugo has a degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

“I was always fascinated by tattoos,” says Medeiros, calling them the “forbidden fruit.” When they finished art school, the former oil painting major began a two-year apprenticeship at Brilliance Tattoo in Boston (Massachusetts legalized tattooing in 2000).

Lugo considers tattooing a happy accident. After graduating, they worked as streetwear artists and did some illustrations. “I knew a lot of tattooers, I had friends who were tattooers, I got tattooed a lot,” she says. Their tattoo artist recommended that they apprentice while they were still living in Portland, Oregon. “I lucked out that it was the right place at the right time,” they continued, explaining that apprenticeships can be scarce.

Lugo and Medeiros met in New York City when they both worked at Black Iris in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Medeiros went home to Rhody after COVID struck. Lugo joined the pair to open a private studio after he noticed a mass exodus of NYC artists to New England.

Private studios function more like speakeasies rather than storefronts. Black Cherry doesn’t have a website. Although they work mostly via referrals, both artists have a strong presence on Instagram where they can reach a wider audience. This includes clients who are willing to travel to PVD to get inked. Each artist must go through an intake process. Even then, it is not guaranteed that they will accept the job. If it’s not their aesthetic, they will refer interested clients to better-suited artists.

“There’s no signage. We are not on Google, we’re not on Yelp,” says Medeiros. “We don’t share our address unless you have an appointment.” This allows them to create a very catered experience for their clients, the bulk of whom are professional women and men.

“We wanted to create an environment that kind of felt like home,” Medeiros continues. “A lot of younger folks feel more comfortable in the studio setting. There’s less stuff going on, and fewer people coming in and out. It’s just a more private, intimate experience.”

“It’s nice to bring them into a pretty chill space. It eases them into the appointment, especially if it’s their first time,” says Lugo. “Even if we’re both here, it’s still manageable, and it’s not so overwhelming.”

For those who seek tattoos to cover scars (mastectomies or top surgery), it is important to share their private experiences. Lugo is one such artist that does scar work.

“It’s so personal, so intimate,” Lugo explains, noting that the act of covering over these scars can be trauma-inducing. “They can come to a gentle place. There’s not a bunch of people staring at them or asking them what they’re getting tattooed. It’s just a calm setting to have that one-on-one experience.”

The pair says tattoos often mark certain milestones or significant changes in their clients’ lives, making their private studio a space for reflection and healing. Medeiros mentions one client who was going through a very difficult divorce. “He came in every week for two months,” she says. “The emotional pain was so intense, the tattoos were an outlet. It’s cathartic.”

“I love traditional tattoos so much,” says Littany “Big Lit” Blais, the last apprentice to come out of Ronnie’s. Old-school tattoos, with their thick lines and a riot of primary colors, “hold well and look good,” she continues. “Plus, it comes with all that history.”

Blais is a self-taught artist and bought a stick-and-poke kit (a non-electronic method for tattooing) out of curiosity. Blais began tattooing herself and her friends and posted the results on Reddit. Her work quickly gained attention and she was able to start a small business in her own home. She met Blackmar on the internet, where a teasing back and forth between the two — stick and poke vs. machine — turned into an apprenticeship offer.

Blais relished her time at Ronnie’s, with its fun-loving, anarchic atmosphere. “I feel lucky I got to work there. To be part of that history is something so special,” she says. “But after Vic died, it was getting more difficult. It took its toll on the boys.”

Blais left Ronnie’s and opened the private studio Angels Collective, an inclusive tattoo studio featuring queer and non-binary artists, with Jessa Cabral. But her heart remained with the traditional style and it’s easier to reach the clientele through the shopfront shops. She decided to leave the collective and join Wild Card Tattoo at Gano Street. With its two levels, it’s a perfect blend of the two. “I like working in a space with more people,” she says, explaining that interacting with a multitude of artists sparks her creativity.

“Max and A.J. were like family,” she says of her time at Ronnie’s. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

The feeling is mutual, with pages of “Big Lit” art beside work from Daigle, Morales, and West on the flash wall at Classic Tattoo RI, Blackmar and Williams’ just-opened storefront on Plainfield Street in Cranston.

While firmly grounded in the 21st century, their new shop pays homage to the rebellious spirit of Ronnie’s. Blackmar loves to preserve the antique flash, which may seem primitive in comparison to the intricate work of modern tattoo artists. However, Blackmar shrewdly points out that old-school ink is an art form.

People like Sailor West and Ronnie Daigle, “laid a foundation for artists today,” he says. “They paved the way for us.”

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