Fineline Tattoo, the Oldest Tattoo Shop in NYC, Celebrates 40 Years in Ink
Fineline Tattoo just reached the significant milestone of forty years in business. Quite the achievement in a city that hasn’t always welcomed tattooing.
From 1961 up until 1997, there were no “legal” tattoo shops in New York City because the City Health Department banned tattooing due to an alleged series of blood-borne Hepatitis-B cases linked to Coney Island tattoo parlors in the late 1950s (alleged). It was during this time – the height of the ban in 1976 – that one Bowery resident started Fineline Tattoo, considered by many to be the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan. Its founder, Mike Bakaty, began inking customers out of his Bowery loft at McGurk’s Suicide Hall, where he lived with his sons. The elder Bakaty operated on the underground circuit for 21 years – in secret back rooms and loft apartments – until the prohibition on ink concluded. That was the year Fineline went legit with a store at 21 First Avenue.
His son Mehai Bakaty eventually took over the family business in 2014 after the death of his father at age 77 from cancer. In honor of the fortieth, we asked Mehai several questions about the business and operating on the new Lower East Side…Bowery Boogie: 40 years on, what do you want people to recognize and appreciate about Fineline?
Mehai Bakaty: Well, that we’re still here, first of all … That seems to be saying a lot in this new New York of ours. My father approached tattooing with a sense of professionalism and attention to the art from the start. By doing so, back in the time of prohobition of tattooing in New York, he sort of helped in some way to influence the culture of the time. This helped the city officials in the ’90s to re-examine the relevance of a ban on tattooing.
A few years back dad was given an award for his contribution to tattooing by the original New York City Tattoo Convention which was held at the Roseland ballroom annually for 17 years.
BB: Your dad was a heavy-hitter in the game (to say the least) and still missed. How is the studio different in the years since he passed?
MB: Needless to say he is missed everyday by myself the guys and the neighborhood in general, but his presence is still here, and I want to keep it that way. (The anniversary party this month is on Mike’s birthday, August 19.)
We’ve done some cosmetic tune-ups to the store, and we now have a full staff of five creative and talented young tattooers. For many years it was just dad and myself, but for the most part we try to stay true to the traditions of the classic tattoo shop— the professionalism and focus on the art we have always maintained. Now and again people come in and say “YEAH THIS IS WHAT A TATTOO SHOP IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE,” and I like that. Authenticity is a big deal for me.BB: What are the most requested tattoo designs?
MB: These days lettering is big, quotes and things of that nature. But we are also seeing a big time resurgence of the classic Americana tattoo style.
BB: Has the East Houston reconstruction project hurt business? If so, how?
MB: Hard to say that it has hurt business. But, it has been a major nuisance. Luckily, we have the subway close by and it hasn’t messed up sidewalk access too much, but the noise level is off the charts. After at least 6 years of it, I think the whole community is ready for them to be done with it. I read recently they are 5 years behind schedule, so I guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon [Ed: at last count, it’s 3 years behind].
BB: For the history books, what do you want people to remember most about Fineline?
MB: That we are a classic neighborhood tattoo shop that attracts and is welcome to a diverse cross-section of clients and ideas.
BB: What do you think are some of the more dramatic changes you’ve seen in the area in the last ten to fifteen years?
MB: Well, for one, the unprecedented amount of construction, and two, the unbelievable amount of people in the neighborhood these days. Growing up I remember the trains were more often empty, and the 2nd Avenue station felt abandoned except for the people living in it. These days when the train lets out I find myself waiting at the top of the stairs 3 or 4 minutes while the droves of commuters exit from the platform. It’s really crazy, and that’s not just at rush hour — it’s at midnight or in the afternoon and so on. In so many ways this is not the city I grew up in, but we’re still here making it happen.
The 40th anniversary party will be held at Lucky on B this Friday, 7pm to 10pm.