When it comes to tattooing in NYC, it’s no secret that St. Mark's Place is the birthplace of the punk practice on the island of Manhattan. The Lower East Side neighborhood has forever been home for Fun City Tattoo, one of the first-ever storefront tattoo parlors still in existence from the days of secret, underground tattooing of the most unsavory of characters—think gang members, con men, and bikers—during the tattoo prohibition in the 60s. While trendy tattoo spots may come and go, Fun City Tattoo is an establishment that has always been at the epicenter of it all, in the eye of the needle.
Its history is as wild as you can imagine. The shop was first (illegally) opened in 1976 by the infamous Jonathan Shaw, an artist whose Rolodex of clients include the likes of Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, and Naomi Campbell. However, the team at Fun City Tattoo is now led by his mentee, Steve “Big Steve” Pedone. A Queens native through and through, the inked up artist has made a name for himself thanks to his unique take on Americana-style tattoos, harkening back to the old school, classic style of the art form. You’d be hard-pressed to hear him talk openly about his celebrity clients, but trust us, they’re there: from Miley Cyrus to Demi Lovato to Young Thug, Pedone has secured a covetable place as far as Hollywood goes.
L’Officiel had the opportunity to visit Big Steve in his tattooing studio, just past the Fun City unmistakable red door front. Read on to get a glimpse into how the artist got his start, how he got his first tattoo, and how he views the legacy and future of his shop, Fun City Tattoo.
In the realm of all things art, why did you choose to tattoo?
I chose tattooing because it was an easy way for me to get out of my mom's house, and not have to go to school. I was a punk, I was hanging out on the street doing all this shit with my friends. My friends all had tattoos, so it was an easy thing for me to get into and make money.
Were you a big doodler before?
Yeah, I started drawing when I was a kid, I did mostly drawing in school, not a lot of schoolwork.
When did you get your first tattoo?
I was 16, about to be 17. I got it from some guy in Long Island, my friend lived above the shop. He didn't tell him I was underage, but I was a big kid. He didn't know I wasn't 18.
What'd you get?
I got this fucked up looking skull on my arm. It's been covered up since [laughs].
What influences your style of tattooing?
A lot of it is nature oriented. I do a lot of animals, a lot of flowers. I draw references a lot from the natural.
One thing I've always curious about is when people come into a shop with a really specific idea or design. How do you bridge your creative insights with that of the client's?
Usually, people come to me for specific things. Even if they have an outlandish idea, I'll try my best to do a rendition of what they want in my style. Most of the time, they come to me for specific stuff.
Do you have any crazy stories about your own tattoos?
Not really. Most of my tattoos were done by my friends, so I haven't really had any crazy experiences in that sense. The wildest would be that I got a bunch of tattoos from my one friend, and the ink was bad, and it completely disappeared. The company that made the ink, it was Pelican, they started making their ink differently so people wouldn't be able to tattoo with it.
Do you ever tattoo yourself?
Because it hurts [laughs]. It's kind of like holding your hand over a candle, you know?
That makes sense. So how long did you work with your mentor and the former owner of the shop, Jonathan Shaw?
I started here in 2001, and I worked with him until 2004. So about 4 years.
How would you say that you guys work together as creatives?
For the most part, when I was working with Jonathan, he was very much separating himself from the world of tattooing. He was living in Brazil for half the year. He taught me how to hustle and make money out of anything. What it was is, the art stuff, you can always learn that. But if you can't be good to your customers and treat them a certain way, you're going to be broke.
Like how Jonathan was a mentor to you, do you feel like you now serve as a mentor for the artists on your team now?
I try and help these guys out a lot, I've had a couple of apprentices that have gone on to do really good stuff. I try and help as much as I can to everyone that works here.
How do you go about assembling a team of artists? Do you specifically curate to suit the aesthetics of the shop?
Really, to be honest, I would rather have somebody in the shop that has a good personality and that is nice to people because the technical aspect of tattooing you can teach. But if they're a shitty person, they'll always be a shitty person. Most of the time, the people that work here have all been a referral from a friend, or a friend. I'd rather keep it that vibe, than just hiring somebody then having them fuck the vibe up. It's a very small space, so if you have one person in here that's like negative, it fucks up everybody else's ideas.
As you were saying, it's a smaller space. But it's such a legendary and iconic tenet to St. Mark's. Have you ever thought about expanding or moving to a new location?
I've thought about expanding the shop, but as long as I can keep renting this place, I'll never give it up. But we were talking about doing something in LA, talking about getting another studio in the city as well. But I would always keep this storefront as long as I can, just because of all the history.
And with all of that history and legacy, do you feel a certain pressure now that you're the owner to maintain a certain level of prestige?
I think if you provide people with a good experience, then the prestige and all that stuff is easy. It's hard to juggle tattooing full time and paying bills, that stuff gets old. For the most part, if the customers leave happy, then you don't have to worry about anything.
What are some of the most memorable tattoos you've given?
Every day is memorable. As long as I can do my best to make sure people are happy, they're all memorable. People come in here 10 years later—that I've tattooed—and I remember everything about the experience, even [the] ideas we were discussing beforehand, just from seeing the tattoo. Not even their face.
Can you give me an estimate of how many people you think you've tattooed?
I did the math recently, and it was probably somewhere up to 25,000. I mean, the first five to ten years, I was tattooing between 8 and 15 people a day, six or seven days a week. Then there were days where I would do 25 tattoos in a day.
What do you love most about tattooing?
I love the freedom. I'm not going to an office every day, while I'm stuck in here like 10 hours a day, but at the end of the day, I'm doing something I love. I've put myself around people that I enjoy being with, and I don't have to answer to anybody. I do my own thing, and if people don't like it, then fuck 'em.
It's good to be your own boss, right?
Definitely. And I guess tattooing is that kind of industry, where you're always your own boss. You might work for someone and give them a percentage of your money, but like I said earlier, if you're a fuckup, you're a fuckup. It really reflects on you, more than the shop.
Last question, do you ever turn a client's tattoo ideas down?
You know what, when I first started, I didn't turn anything down. I was in a bad situation, and I had to get out of it. For the most part, I didn't. But yeah, if someone comes in and wants something that's blatantly offensive, I won't do it.
Or perhaps if they're too drunk?
Well... drunks we tattoo [Laughs]. I don't mind helping somebody make a bad decision.
Be sure to check out some of Big Steve's work below.