Erie's Tattoo Revolution
Outlining the vibrant arts industry success story.
You'll often hear about Erie's burgeoning music or fine arts scenes. But there's another scene that's burning just as brightly, and possibly more so. The tattoo industry here in Erie is world class, and has been growing and evolving for years.
There are over a dozen tattoo shops in Erie. Volumes could be written on each artist, as a majority of them are incredibly hardworking men and women. Tattooing is, essentially, competitive artistry. It's a meritocracy, where talent reigns. The happier and more numerous your clients are, the better you'll do.
Tattooing is also like punk rock. Both are birthed out of rebellion and individual expression; and both have their legacies, splinter groups, and subgenres.
It's no coincidence, then, that one of the best shops in town started out as a music store.
In 2000, on the corner of 26th and Peach Streets, Surprise Attack Records opened its doors, as well as a new shop called Ink Assassins. Eric Michael Schauffele (known to his friends as "EMS") told me about the shop's genesis with tattoo artist David Steele. "We had the idea of opening up a tattoo shop/record store, something that appealed more to our punk rock do-It-yourself generation of the time, as Erie didn't have a ton to offer those demographics," Schauffele explains. "We looked at well over 20 different rental spaces and as soon as they either saw us or heard what we were looking to open, the doors were slamming shut on us. Finally, we lucked out with a generous landlord on the corner of 26th and Peach streets who didn't care what moved in as long as we paid our rent! I still drive by a lot of those buildings that didn't give us a chance 16 years ago, and there are still 'For Rent' signs in their windows. Joke's on them: They could have had 16 years of well-paying tenants!"
Within a few years, music sales phased out, and they became a tattoo shop exclusively. Fast forward to present day, and you find co-founder David Steele nearing his 20th year as a professional tattoo artist. Steele is a consummate artisan, a master the "old school" or "traditional" style which he blends with contemporary wisdom. After helping to establish Ink Assassins, Steele relocated, becoming the owner of Philadelphia Eddie's Chinatown Tattoo. He's since returned to Erie, and works alongside EMS. Supervising the business end of the shop, Schauffele began tattooing around six years ago. Like Steele, he shares an affinity for concise imagery. He holds respect for the simple designs originating in the 1900s that were mostly done on servicemen.
Currently, Ink Assassins employs five tattoo artists. Tony Orlando (also known as "Thorns") is an accomplished artist in a myriad of styles, with a flair for detailed script. Jacob Miller is a master of organic, steady linework in the esteemed traditional style (both Orlando and Miller have seen a significant tenure at the shop). Teddy Rex's designs show an expert evenness, often successfully blending visual symmetry into his work. Co-owner and entrepreneur Ryan Azert began tattooing around the same time as EMS. He's a disciple of the old school style as well, interjecting his sense of humor into many designs.
Located at the intersection of two of Erie's main thoroughfares, it's no surprise that Ink Assassins sees a fair amount of walk-in traffic. Schauffele elaborates, "I'm proud of our shop and the way we run it. We're a walk-in friendly place where we try to do as much in a day as time allows."
Some artists have chosen to forgo the capriciousness of a walk-in clientele, altogether. This reasoning shaped artist Joshua Makowski's destiny. "Gentle Josh" founded Karma Tattoo in 2006. Beginning his journey alongside David Steele, Makowski spent time managing Ink Assassins before opening up his own shop. Regarding his reasoning, he says, "I felt that the whole thing should be designed around the comfort of the client. I also wanted to emphasize collaboration with the customer in order to create a special and unique tattoo for each one and foster communication based on mutual respect. Ten years later and I still hold these core values as my business model. And I feel like it's really been validated by our clients."
Makowski's style is self-described as "Japanese-American fusion." He blends subtle precision with vivid colors to create a signature all his own. A skilled portrait artist as well, he remains one of most respected artists in the region.
Karma now thrives as an upscale, intimate shop. Joined solely by artist Jen Minor, the atmosphere is relaxed and personal. Minor explains the transition: "This past year, the decision was made to relocate and downsize into a private studio for custom work only, and it's really been an amazing experience. I feel extremely grateful to be a part of its evolution."
Stylistically, Minor's work is remarkably unique. Her painterly technique relies less on outlined shapes and more on richly blended tonal values. A skilled fine artist as well, she shows a proclivity for forms both skeletal and organic.
Minor has worked in several shops around the Erie area. She notes the respect she has for fellow artists, stating, "I feel like every shop here is pretty essential to the Erie palate, as all the reputable artists I can think of here have such diverse and unique styles, it's really amazing. Just about every tattoo I see, I can look at and identify whose work it is based alone on style and application, and with so many artists in one area, it's really pretty awesome and uncanny to be able to do that."
Many people have been guided by Makowski's "Gentle" hand. In fact, his apprentices have gone on to open shops and have their own progeny. In the studio, Minor laughs, joking that Makowski's nickname ought to be "Grandpa."
One of those apprentices was Corey Thompson. Together with fellow artist Johnny Matters, Thompson founded Wayward Tattoo in 2013. Matters recounts their impetus for starting the storefront on West 12th Street, saying "Corey and I have been working together in various shops for a good part of our career and we're also close friends. That made it easy to make Wayward happen together. We've both worked in several other shops in the Erie area. Including Karma Tattoo, Mid-town, and Bay City." The shop's impressive stable of artists also includes Mark Piper, Will Petroff and "Eerie" Eric Fargiorgio.
Thompson quickly garnered attention as a virtuoso artist, capable of intricate, form-busting custom designs. Matters' designs are equally impressive, mixing tightly controlled linework with impressive tonal blending.
Both Matters and Thompson regularly pursue fine arts, focusing on watercolors and oil painting. In fact, many of Wayward's artists share the similar propensity for printmaking, drawing, or sculpture. It's common to find their work showcased in local galleries and exhibits.. When Karma decided to relocate, Thompson and Matters decided it was time for a second location. Managing the new albeit familiar location at 4428 Peach Street, is Andrew Sontheimer, a gifted printmaker and fellow Karma alum. Rounding out their stable of highly skilled artists are Luke Powers and Leslie Fiolek-Hess.
Describing their part of the region's scene, Matters explained that "the Erie tattoo community as a whole and the local art community is strong. Erie is a small enough city where we can all work together to become stronger and encourage others. Wayward Tattoo tries to play a big part in the Erie tattoo culture and in the local community in general. We try to support local businesses like we are as much as possible. Our artists frequently participate in local art events, shows, and gallery exhibits alongside other local tattoo artists. The city does have a lot of questionable 'tattoo parlors.' But there are also some really good shops with a lot of talented artists."
Speaking of more good shops with talented artists, Mid-Town Tattoo continues to flourish, sparking new inspiration daily. The shop opened in 2008, founded by police officer Donny Sornberger. Artist Erik Mueller describes the atmosphere: "We are a largely walk-in friendly shop, but also offer custom work for all tastes, in all styles. I would say this puts us in the realm of being one of the top contenders for popularity and flow of business. Ultimately we're a larger shop with a solid crew of very talented artists, some of the best in the city."
Mid-Town currently hosts artists Rich Velez, Christoff Wilson, Bill Anysz, Erik Mueller, Kevin Burfield, Brandy Artz, and the two apprentices – Troy Koch and Charles "Mooch" Tangle. The prevalence of photorealistic talent at Mid-Town is staggering, not to mention innovative custom designs. Portraiture and likenesses are certainly difficult tasks, but many of the shops artists are up for the job.
Reflecting on the evolution of the region's tattoo scene, Mueller feels that "the tattoo community in general is stronger and less divided than it may have been in past years, as there are more tattoo shops and artists in this area than ever before. Like in any large group of people, there are bound to be personal differences, small squabbles and the like. But for the most part, I feel that a large amount of the animosity that had been generally associated with tattoo culture and rival shops has diminished as of late, and I personally hope this trend continues."
For the final word on Erie's tattoo culture, I talked to Rob Ferguson, the artist and CEO of Buddha's Body Art. Substantially predating every other shop mentioned, Buddha's is one of the oldest tattoo studios in the country, not only in Erie. Another spoke on the dharma wheel, the shop is no stranger to positive press and technical innovation. Ferguson confirmed that both current owners, he and his mother Joan Ferguson, "are licensed and certified medical staff, and are credited with writing the current regulations for body art establishments. [We] are also credited with teaching a team of doctors the art of tattooing at Cleveland Clinic which is part of the current cosmetic tattooing industry. Both Joan and I have owned a business in Sturgis, South Dakota during the Sturgis Bike rally for 20 years. We've inspired and encouraged other artists in the art of tattooing."
Dozens of gifted artists create unique art in Erie every day, and use their creativity to make a living. Erie's tattoo industry is one of the best showcases of entrepreneurial spirit. Summing up his report of the scene, Schauffele celebrates, saying "Erie loves tattoos and piercings! Which is awesome for all of us involved in the industry. There's plenty of work to go around."
Nick Warren can be contacted at nWarren@ErieReader.com.