East River Tattoo
1047 Manhattan Ave.
Complex staffers take urban exploration very seriously. My Spot takes you inside some of our favorite destinations, both in the 'hood and around the globe.
This week Complex Deputy Editor Nick Schonberger takes us to East River Tattoo in Brooklyn.
All photos by Liz Barclay (@.)
THE RUNDOWN: Since 1997, when a 36-year ban on tattooing was thrown out, the Big Apple has been friendly to needle wielding artists. The city’s tattoo heritage runs deep. The electric machine was patented here in the late 19th-century, and many of the nation’s best-loved circus attractions were decorated along the Bowery and in the parlors of Chatham Square. Today, NYC is home to numerous world-class tattoo shops (including Adorned, Invisible, King’s Ave, Saved, and Smith Street). Among the heaving number of quality establishments, there is one that stands out: East River Tattoo.
Allow me some self-indulgence. In 2003, I began graduate study at the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware. I chose for my master’s study the origins of the American tattoo industry. Faculty, to put it bluntly, wasn’t enthused. “Great topic for a web exhibition,” I was told. Not, apparently, for tackling the big issues of material culture. Being young and foolish, I carried on. And, eventually, my thesis turned into a book, played a large role in a proper traveling exhibition, and led me to get tattooed in a little shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
East River Tattoo encapsulates my love of tattooing. Artist Duke Riley founded the shop in 2000. Like me, Riley spent time in the former Whaling capital of the world, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and adores this nation’s maritime history and folkways. East River projects those loves, while also expressing keen reverence for the traditions of tattooing. The marriage, between history and tattooing, too often ends with a costume-y approach. Yet, at East River, there a symbiosis that allows for the shop’s irreverent character and some of the city’s most contemporary articulations of skin art.
The vibe attracts an intriguing array of guest artists. From Europe, Maxime Buchi and Liam Sparkes have helped amplify East River’s notoriety. Both are terrific. And, Buchi, in particular, has played an enormous role in my own continued tattoo research (he graciously allowed me to guest edit issue 6 of his influential Sang Bleu magazine, and positioned my contribution to the book Forever: The New Tattoo, for which I wrote all the profiles). Though not consistently on the floor, Buchi and Sparkes are regular fixtures at East River.
Their presence gives the shop a wonderful ebb and flow of energy, as well as a seductive dynamism that stems from mild unpredictability. Tattooing has become rather sterile. It’s ubiquitous, and some of tattooing’s oddball allure has faded. This is not so at East River. On Manhattan Ave., the quirky nature of the profession lives. You might feel it, you might not, at the very least you’ll meet whip-smart, hilarious folks bound by one of the world’s oldest activities, marking the body. For me, East River is a reminder that NYC isn’t just a playground of pseudo-cool. There remain, against all odds, a few things in this town that actually lead the vanguard.
PERFECT FOR: Tattoos, of course. More specifically, East River indulges interests in American history, the maritime world, the occult (as it relates to historic printed matter), and, well, basically anything that tickles intellectual fancy. Not perfect for colorful stuff and Japanese sleeves and, in basic terms, the types of tattoos that are super duper popular among frat bros.
WHAT TO BRING: Cash. East River doesn’t accept any other payment. Also, bring a sense of humor. Tattoo shops offer some of the best banter of any place on earth.
ONLY REGULARS KNOW: Sue Jeivan, East River’s spirit, isn’t just an inventive tattooer; Sue’s also responsible for the distinct interior decoration of the shop. Now in its third location (all of which have been in Greenpoint), East River is a living, breathing spot. Sue is consistently adding to the décor, which includes historic tattoo ephemera, taxidermy (also prepared by Sue), drawings from visiting artists, and some rad steel lockers. The look matches the vibe. Without it, East River wouldn’t have its throwback appeal. Sue was also instrumental in passing legalization of tattooing in Massachusetts. Basically, regulars know Sue is awesome. Everyone else in New York City should too.
THE UNSPOKEN RULES: Don’t be an asshole.