John Reardon is getting ready to tattoo a woman in her mid-twenties when I arrive early at the Greenpoint Tattoo Company for our interview. It is a Saturday afternoon, and a cheery song by Of Montreal is playing over the speakers. The walls are covered in framed prints of tattoos, and a book by Reardon on the subject rests near a stack of Vice magazines. The woman has brought along a guy friend for moral support, but the process goes so quickly that she doesn’t even have time to grimace.
After a few moments, the woman gets up to check her arm in the mirror, proclaims the tattoo to be “awesome,” and leaves to meet friends for brunch at Slick Willie a few blocks away. Since John’s schedule is packed today, with another appointment in fifteen minutes, I turn on my recorder and we dive right into the questions.
Reardon hails from Massachusetts, and came to New York to attend Pratt Institute in the mid-90s. His major was animation, but in his free time, he was tattooing friends out of his dorm room. “I was afraid I was going to get kicked out,” he says. “But all the RAs wanted to get tattooed, and the security guards wanted to get tattooed. So then it didn’t matter. Nobody cared.” The first tattoo that he did was a small spider on a friend’s knee in “a gross barn.” Reardon adds, “It’s still there. I don’t think he got it covered.”
At the time, tattooing was still illegal in New York (re-legalized in 1997), as well as in most other US states (the last state to re-legalize tattooing was Oklahoma in 2006). “It used to be kind of—I hate to use the term—’underground,’ or just a little bit off, but now everybody gets tattooed. It’s no big deal. There’s so many tattooers these days. Before it was few and far in between. And before me, there was obviously less. Now if you throw a rock, you’ll hit twenty different tattoo artists.”
GP: For people picking a tattoo artist, what should they look out for?
JR: Style, portfolio. Make sure they’re experienced. Make sure they’ve been tattooing for awhile. It helps to like them as well, but definitely look at their work. Make sure their lines are straight and that the tattoos are solid. A lot of people don’t know what a good tattoo looks like. They’ll bring in references of just like the worst tattoos I’ve ever seen, and will be like, “I really like this.” And I’ll be like, “It’s horrible. How do you like that? I don’t get it.”
GP: What makes a tattoo bad?
JR: Just not solid. Crooked lines. The design is just…poorly drawn, not even in any style that should be tattooed. A lot of times, people won’t use enough black or use outlines. If you don’t use an outline—outlines last the longest—in ten, fifteen years, it just looks like a skin disease. If you don’t have a solid black base, all the color just fades and it looks like bleh.
GP: I’ve seen tattoos that are in that stage.
JR: Yeah, there’s some people that do that, and I don’t get it.
GP: Have you ever discouraged someone from getting a tattoo?
JR: I used to. Back in the ‘90s, people would come in and want to get stuff on their fingers or visible tattoos. And then I’d be like, “Oh, well what are you going to do for the rest of your life?” People would be like, “Oh, I never thought about that.” But now, no one cares. Everyone is getting their fingers done.
GP: People’s perception of tattoos has changed a lot in the past ten years.
JR: It’s definitely more accepted. Before when I used to go to the Met to walk around and look at paintings, people would kind of give me dirty looks. But by the turn of the century, 2000-2001, I would go walk around, and the old people would look at me and not give dirty looks and start talking to me in interest. It’s a complete flip. People are far more accepting. Now, it’s on TV.
Definitely as more and more people know people that are tattooed, they realize that it doesn’t really affect their personality. It’s not like it turns them into Satan. You know, they’re not automatically some bad ass, gun-slinging, crazy person. [laughs] Luckily, now that there’s more people getting tattooed, I don’t have to answer those stupid questions anymore.
GP: What’s a stupid question people used to ask you?
JR: Did it hurt? How many tattoos do you have? You do all those yourself? How much did that cost? Stuff like that.
GP: Is there a tattoo trend that you’ve been noticing?
JR: Yeah, definitely. Traditional tattoos are popular, and there’s sort of dot-work tattoos that are popular. Like mandalas, dot shading. Thomas Hooper, Jon Dix type of work seems to be popular these days. Lots of just little tattoos, like the one I did now. Oh, and computer fonts. People like to get that now.
GP: Helvetica, haha.
JR: If we’re lucky, we get Helvetica. Normally, they want like tiny, tiny stuff that isn’t really possible. Helvetica is easy.
GP: What’s a tattoo that’s impossible that you get requests for?
JR: Just lettering that is too small. In any little opening, like an ‘e,’ the negative space is just going to close together and turn into blob. It can’t be that small. The ink is going to grow and expand. It’s not paper. It’d be wet paper, essentially. The particles are going to move and fade, and sort of sink into the skin. So it changes over time, but people don’t understand that. They want to get things tight and small. Or, things without black. It’s going to look like a skin disease. Don’t get it.†
John Reardon is the owner of Greenpoint Tattoo Company. When he’s not at GPTC, Reardon can be found at Five Leaves in the mornings with a coffee, as well as Lake Street and Nights & Weekends. He also likes to go to River Styx “and just get drinks and nachos.” GPTC @greenpointtattooco & Reardon @JohnReardonTattoos are on Instagram.