Get Wild and Weird: Tattoo Artists Urge Us To Loosen Up

Eric "Taboo" Roddy prepares to work on a piece for Frank Mongelluzzo. Dana Shaw photos

When Mike Maldonado landed in Sag Harbor over a year ago, he did more than open up a tattoo shop.

He shone a light on a stigmatized art form rarely associated with the Hamptons, breathing life into a region long considered an ink desert, which has forced most locals wanting tattoos up island, or into New York, to get them.

With his studio, Hamptons Ink, he is challenging the narrative of a buttoned-up East End by tapping its edgier, racier and sexier side — fanning the flames of a community defined by artistry and self-expression, not lineage, status and wealth.

And, in the process, he unwittingly unleashed a pent-up demand.

“We thought we would meet some resistance, because there’s a stigma when you hear ‘tattoo shop,’” Maldonado said. “But a few hundred people have come in already. A couple years ago, there really was no tattoo culture at all. It was really non-existent here. But judging by the people who come in to get their work done, there’s a big demand for it — and it’s more mainstream now, so it’s more accepted.”

With the new brick-and-mortar tattoo shop on Noyac Road, the East End is officially at the height of its own tattoo culture, a shift that Eric “Taboo” Roddy — owner of Natives With Ink in Southampton — has patiently awaited for the last seven years.

That said, business has never stopped booming since he took up residency inside Cloud 9 Vapes on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, he said. And while the location has not leant itself to strong curb appeal, he simply hasn’t needed it, especially as tattooing becomes a cultural norm.

“Before, it used to be a couple heavily tattooed people who would slip into the shop and you’d be like, ‘Bro, where are you at? Where do you hide at? Are you under a rock somewhere?’” he said. “And now, I’ll be out in public and I’ll see heavily tattooed people. I never used to see this — at all.”

A Quiet, Growing Demand

The way she looks at it, Michele Liot emerged from the 1990s unscathed — without a single tramp stamp, tribal tattoo, or a past lover’s name inked on her body.

It’s a point of pride, she said, noting the small pinwheel design that her now-husband drew, tattooed on her right hip, was her entry into what would become a lifelong passion.

“I was older than a lot of people — I was 22 — and my first piece of ink is a little tragic because the lines are super blown out,” she explained. “Once you get a little bit into ink, you start to understand nuance in technique. The lines are not great and I definitely didn’t get the best piece, but it’s very dear to my heart.”

For the Sag Harbor native — who married her high school sweetheart and fellow tattoo aficionado, Jason Dacuk — each of the 14 pieces on her body stand for a moment in her life, starting with her husband’s artwork and a matching, blue moon engagement tattoo that they both share, as well as a wedding tattoo.

A bird with three dogwood plants on her shoulder is for her grandmother. A trio of constellations are for her husband and children. The nurse pin-up on her ribs, sporting red high heels and a stream of blood squirting out her needle — the only color on her body — is her alter ego, the midwife explained with a laugh. A tattoo she got in Bali reminds her of her time volunteering at a clinic there, and an “Alice in Wonderland”-style girl blowing a dandelion is an homage to her time working in pediatric oncology.

An Egyptian-style Gemini tattoo reflects her horoscope, the suns and moons on her left arm a love of the cosmos, and on her right arm, a large, Art Deco-inspired goddess with flowing hair and a pregnant abdomen, surrounded with swirls of energy and sacred geometry, is a nod to the ethereal.

“Everything is a piece in time, a moment in time, a memory, an honoring, it’s a little story of my life,” she said. “It’s funny because it’s not super cohesive, they’re not all aligned with one another, per se, but they all have a lot of meaning for me and make me really happy. It’s self -expression.”

Since her most recent goddess tattoo in March 2020 — which took 12 hours over two sittings, and cost more than $1,000 — this is the longest that Ms. Liot has gone without new ink, excluding her two pregnancies, she said.

Dacuk, on the other hand, has already dropped into Hamptons Ink for a piece from Maldonado — which is, conveniently and dangerously, just a quarter mile from their home.

“We’re super suckers for ink. We love it,” Liot said. “I remember when I walked into Hamptons Ink, because Jason was getting his tattoo, and I was like, ‘This is so exciting, I cannot believe we finally have a shop here,’ and Mike expressed some ambivalence. He was like, ‘Yeah, I wasn’t really sure how we’d be received here in Sag Harbor.’”

Maldonado is the first to admit that he and his wife, Kat — who specializes in microblading eyebrows and permanent makeup — felt enormous trepidation before opening their studio. Maldonado turned to some of her friends that she had made while summering on the East End as a child, and asked them, “What would you think if there was a tattoo shop in Sag Harbor?”

“They were like, ‘Do it! We’ve been waiting for something like this. It’s a long time coming,’” Maldonado said. “That really put us at ease, that this was the right thing to do.”

He paused. “And then COVID hit.”

Just two weeks after opening Hamptons Ink, the tattoo studio shuttered its doors on March 14, 2020. And any worry the couple felt was immediately eased by the reservations that came pouring in.

“Once July hit, we were pretty much booked for almost the whole year, which was great,” Maldonado said. “I love the community aspect out here, where people know you and you know them. In Brooklyn, I never got that — even on my block that I grew up on.”

The Men Behind the Machines

When Maldonado got his first tattoo, he was not legal, the now 31-year-old recalled with a laugh. He was 17 — almost 18, he caveated — and went to “the neighborhood guy” with his father, who was also heavily tattooed.

It was both a rite of passage and a bonding experience, he recalled — and, with that Saint Michael tattoo on his back, the start of a journey he never saw coming.

“I actually fell into tattooing,” he said. “It wasn’t my go-to occupation.”

In 2014, two years out of school for music business, Maldonado found himself unemployed and desperate for a job when his older brother, who was apprenticing for a local tattoo artist in Brooklyn, offered to teach him.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that would be great. I’m not really doing much right now,’” he recalled. “We started a family business through that.”

The then 25-year-old threw himself into the craft, first practicing on rubber skins, then pig skins from the butcher, and finally human skin. The learning curve fascinated him, he said, and drew him in — as an artist and a client. He now has about 10 tattoos, including two full sleeves composed of five to 10 pieces each.

“I still get scared when I get tattooed, but it’s very therapeutic, too,” he said. “I feel like I have a better idea of how certain pieces will look on the body, so I spend a lot of time planning it, and that’s something I try to talk about with my clients, as well. Planning is important when you’re trying to put a two-dimensional thing on a three-dimensional object.”

For Taboo, there was zero planning involved when his friend thrust a homemade tattoo machine into his hands — rigged up with a remote-control car motor, a spoon, a pen and a couple other household items — and asked him to tattoo his daughter’s name on the back of his neck.

“I said, ‘Bro, you can’t see what I’m doing,’” Taboo recalled. “And he was like, ‘But I can feel it. It’s all about feeling.’”

And, with that, he got started, listening to his friend’s pointers — which stopped as soon as he got to the shading. When he was finished, a stamp of approval came in the form of, “Yeah, it’s dope!” followed by referring all of his friends to the burgeoning artist, who was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the time.

“From there on, my phone never stopped ringing for tattoos,” Taboo said. “I had a full-time job and I was doing it on the side, and it got to a point where I was making more money tattooing than I was at my job.”

About 20 years later, and back at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation where he grew up, the 38-year-old’s reputation precedes him, having tattooed thousands upon thousands of people from around the world. But starting out wasn’t easy, he said.

“I don’t like to play the race card at all, but to be a minority artist, I got a lot of problems,” he said. “I had to get over a lot of stuff because we weren’t looked at as artists. We were looked at as just people who wanted to make money and just do shitty artwork, so nobody takes me seriously until they see my artwork. They be like, ‘Oh, wow, you’re really into this.’”

While trying to break into the Milwaukee industry, professional tattoo artists denied him as an apprentice time and time again, he said. In response, he vowed to shut everyone down once he made it.

And, sure enough, he did.

“Slowly in Milwaukee, that’s what started to happen,” he said. “A couple of shops that turned me down ended up closing after I started doing them out of my house — illegally. Then, these people come looking for you at the house. I remember times when I had shop owners watch me tattooing, offer me a job, and I’d tell them, ‘Nope!’”

After getting his first piece at age 15, Taboo knew that tattooing is what he wanted to do, he said. And at age 38, with over 175 sittings under his belt for his own tattoos, having finally realized that dream “feels real good,” he said.

“My name is my legacy, so my artwork is my legacy,” he said. “When you die and you have a tattoo from me on you, you’ll die with that tattoo. So that means my legacy will still be around because I put that on you. I don’t have a boy to spread that name, so that’s like spreading my seed for me.

“That’s what tattooing means to me,” he continued. “It’s a way of life for me. I see tattoos in everything I see in life.”

Frank Mongelluzzo with one of the many pieces that Eric “Taboo” Roddy has done.

Uncovering the ‘Why’

For thousands of years, humans have marked their bodies with tattoos. They are sometimes simple, other times intricate and complex, but always personal. And whether it’s an amulet or adornment, a declaration of love, an homage to a passion or religious belief, they all have a “why.”

“Whatever your reasoning is behind it, it’s a super individualized choice and you’ve made this choice, so just go for it, and make peace with it,” Liot said. “Yes, it’s cool, and yes it hurts, but make peace with it.”

When Frank Mongelluzzo moved to East Quogue from Brooklyn in 2019, he didn’t have a single tattoo on his body. He was hesitant, he said. But when his 19-year-old brother died in a car accident a couple months later, that immediately changed.

“I went to Taboo and I got my first tattoo, which was a music clef for my brother, because he was really into music,” Mongelluzzo, now 33, said. “I got one and we just hit it off as friends. I went back for my second and I realized, from there, that I knew that wasn’t over — that I was gonna keep coming back.”

In less than two years, and now 60 pounds lighter, Mongelluzzo has nearly covered his body in tattoos from the waist up. “People didn’t know who I was for awhile,” he said with a laugh.

From fantastical creatures to Greek mythology, the overarching theme of his tattoo story is nature and evolution, he said. A piece on his shoulder shows the stages of ape to man against a DNA double helix, while a bear and wolf on a chest — with them fighting in the middle — represent constant friction and learning how to adapt.

“The more and more I got used to getting tattoos, I fell in love with the aesthetic,” he said. “I just think it looks beautiful. Great artwork on people, I think, looks amazing.”

For the centerpiece on Mongelluzzo’s torso, Taboo created a three-dimensional, celestial scene of a ripped Hercules fighting off Cerberus, a multi-headed hell hound. The level of detail has the tattoo community talking, he said, and when asked, he refers them all to Taboo, a man he now considers a brother.

“People will see my work, they actually come up to me and go, ‘Where did you get your tattoos?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, my brother does them, he has a shop right on the highway, it’s on the Rez,’” Mongelluzzo said. “And I feel like sometimes people get deterred from that, which I feel like is unfair because he’s such a talented guy. He’s one of the sweetest, nicest guys in the world.”

In order to focus on his true passion — large-scale, high-end tattoos — Taboo is planning to open a second shop in Riverhead that will employ several artists and free up his time, which is dominated by at least two or three appointments per day. Mr. Maldonado, on the other hand, specializes in black and grey, traditional and religious pieces, and prides himself on offering an intimate setting, allowing him to get to know his clients and their stories, he said.

“If it’s their first tattoo, I’m almost envious of that feeling,” he said. “I I remember getting my first tattoo, the anticipation, plus the smell of the shop and not knowing what to expect and hearing the buzz of the machine. It was terrifying, but it was cool at the same time. And then after getting it done, I felt accomplished, like I had gotten through something.”

Heavily tattooed himself, Maldonado has fine-tuned his own process to a science. It starts with a texting relationship, which will include the client sharing an inspiration photo, the body placement and roughly how large, allowing him to better understand the vision.

Next, he provides a ballpark estimate — or requests an in-person consultation if the design is too complicated — and schedules an appointment. A few days beforehand, he will send the final design for approval and make any necessary changes. Once he has the go-ahead, he makes a stencil and the tattooing begins.

And no matter what happens, he is there for them through it all, he said.

“I’ve seen people pass out, I’ve seen them turn white, I’ve seen people who I thought were not going to do well do very well, and people that I thought were going to do very well not do well at all,” he said. “Every day’s different.”

The general consensus is that a tattoo needle feels like a cross between a cat scratch and a bee sting — but not as startling because it doesn’t come as a surprise, said Liot, who added that it’s nowhere near as bad as unmedicated childbirth.

“I work in labor and delivery,” she said, “and I’ve always said that the only thing I can compare labor to is getting a tattoo, because you have to make peace with and make friends with the discomfort, because you know you’re getting something really beautiful on the other end of it.

“If you try not to resist the pain and you make peace with it and you embrace it and welcome it in as something ‘normal’ for the process, you’ll get through it just fine.”

Paul Johnson’s tattoo of his fiancé’s name.

Down with the Stigma

Once the tattoo recovery period has passed, what comes next can sometimes be worse. Liot, who was raised in a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian household, endured endless questions like, “Why are you defiling your body?’ from her family members.

“I was like, ‘Defiling? It’s art! I enjoy it!’” she said. “I think there’s an interesting association with getting tattoos where people see it as this love of pain, this ‘weird’ body modification, and all of this stuff, and there’s a lot of negative energy.”

Paul Johnson, who got his first tattoo on his shoulder on his 18th birthday, hid it from his parents for about two years by refusing to take off his shirt, suffering through hot summers.

Now, at 41 years old and working as the director of marketing at the Children’s Museum of the East End, he never feels the need to hide any of his 12 tattoos — including his most recent, a hummingbird with his fiancée’s name that he got at Hamptons Ink in November.

“By the time my parents said anything, the whole, ‘You’ll never be able to get a job’ thing had passed,” he said. “I think when I was younger, the people that I saw my age with tattoos were not people that I would usually associate with, or you had certain preconceived notions about them.

“But now, I think almost everyone in their mid-40s has a tattoo, at least one. And, yeah, I’m the director of marketing for a children’s museum,” he added with a laugh. “It’s not like it’s had an adverse impact on my career. All those stereotypes that existed 20 years ago, I don’t think they hold true anymore whatsoever.”

As Mongelluzzo continues to notice an influx of tattooed people on the East End, he is seeking to help change the identity of what tattoos mean — in part by, hopefully, becoming a tattoo model himself.

“People look at me, I’m a pretty big guy, but then once they get to know me, I’m a nice guy. I’m trying to change the perception of what tattoos are,” he said. “In certain parts of the world, they’re totally acceptable and mainstream, but over here, especially on Long Island, they’re looked upon as almost a little negative, if you have them. I hate saying that word, but you know, it’s true. And to me, it’s beautiful art.”

When Johnson heard that Hamptons Ink was moving in, he said he was “stoked,” knowing that he would graduate from getting tattoos in random kitchens on the East End, or having to drive an hour and a half away to have work done. To date, each of his pieces carry a certain weight, he said, from magnolias that remind him of his mother’s childhood home in East Hampton, to the hydrangeas of the East End, to a tattoo of his late dog, Max, who’s wearing a top hat and monocle.

“I had some of his ashes mixed in with the ink,” he said. “All my tattoos do have a significance, in addition to just, I like the way they look. They all pinpoint a moment or a time in my life that I look back on fondly.”

Anita Boyer worked with the tattoo artist, Zam, on the Mickey tattoo on her Disney-inspired arm sleeve of tattoos.

For Hampton Bays resident Anita Boyer, her tattoos all live in the present, revolving around the two biggest passions of her life — dance and Disney — that forge unexpected connections with the students in her company, Our Fabulous Variety Show.

“Even though I don’t always know exactly what I want, I know that if it’s Disney- or it’s dance-inspired, I’m going to appreciate it and love it forever, even when my arms are all saggy and I can’t tell what the tattoos are anymore,” the 34-year-old said. “The vision for my sleeve, I wanted it to look like an animator’s scratchpad, like something that they would doodle on or have ideas, or spill ink on.”

In it, all four Disney parks — Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom — are represented through their icons. “Star Wars” character BB-8 is there, wearing Mickey Mouse ears, as is Darth Vader, riding Dumbo. She included a Mickey ice cream bar — a favorite snack of her husband, Joe Pallister — the original Disneyland sign with splatter paint, a monorail, and even a themed trashcan.

But, perhaps, the crown jewel is the evolution of Mickey — which starts with Walt Disney’s original sketch drawing Steamboat Willy, who is painting Sorcerer Mickey, who is zapping the newest iteration of Mickey into life.

“I’m a dance teacher, so whenever I have a new group of kids — and it’s really any age — being able to show them, ‘You know who my best friend is? It’s this little mouse right here, Mickey. We’re tight,’ it’s instant trust and bond and common ground, and we can go from there,” she said. “The older kids, who maybe don’t care as much that it’s Mickey, see that I have this vibrant, rainbow, colorful ink, and they’re just like, ‘Ohhh, cool.’ It’s a fun little bond.”

Boyer worked with Adam Fronc from Fine Line Willy Tattoo in Sound Beach on the Polynesian-inspired tattoo on her leg and the tattoo artist, Zam, on the Mickey tattoo on her Disney-inspired arm sleeve of tattoos.

Boyer’s only concern when showing off her tattoos in class is whether they spark challenging conversations between children who want ink and parents who disapprove. “I always tell them, ‘Listen, I did not start doing this until I was older and you have to be careful because it doesn’t go away, this doesn’t wash off,’” she said.

The most precious moment of her tattoo journey came during an outdoor baby ballet class, where Boyer rolled up her sleeves to cool off and caught the eye of one of her 3-year-old students, who skipped over to her mom and asked to push up her sleeves, too.

Examining her bare arms, she looked distraught and asked, “Where’s my stickers?”

“The next class we had, I brought her a bunch of stickers that she could put on, so she could have a little Mickey arm like me,” Boyer said. “I was like, ‘That. That’s why I have tattoos.’ I’m still the same person that you’ve trusted with your kids for the past 10 years. Just because I have all kinds of tattoos on me doesn’t change that.

“So maybe think about that the next time you see someone with tattoos,” she continued. “They’re just a person expressing how they feel on the inside.”

For Liot, that will mean exploring new ink territory. Up next is her décolletage region — “My friends have talked me out of a full neck piece,” she said — which she is considering gifting to herself for her 40th birthday in June.

And, if all goes to plan, her party will be at none other than Hamptons Ink.

“Sag Harbor has been more ready for tattoo culture than people allowed for. It is changing, it’s evolving, it’s growing,” she said. “I love what Hamptons Ink is doing. I think it’s a beautiful thing that he’s brought to our community that I’m really energetically jazzed about, and I think that Sag Harbor can totally handle it. I don’t think that people should inhibit their anything. I’m tired of inhibition, let it all flow freely.

“Get wild, get weird, and let it all flow.”