The Gem of Little Italy
The bell on the front door dings as it opens and the humming buzz of tattoo machines is audible from the front of the shop — the term tattoo gun became obsolete a few years ago. The likes of Metallica and Iron Maiden blare from unseen speakers as the smell of antiseptic fills the nose. A gray-haired man whose arms are filled with swirls of color greets you at the counter with a smile and a wave.
He’ll encourage you to take off your heavy coat and hang it on the stand in the corner before taking you behind the swinging door to where the black tattoo chairs are arranged.
Taylor Street Tattoo, nestled in Little Italy near the West Side, is a popular shop for locals and tourists alike. Smaller than most, Taylor Street Tattoo makes up what it lacks in size with character; frames and frames of flash tattoos (pre-made designs available for tattooing upon entering) hang on the walls.
Possible options include panther heads, flowers, silhouettes of naked women, skulls, frogs and crosses of all styles, colors and sizes, all ready to go. Mismatched church benches and haphazard black and red rugs fill the space between the walls in the small lobby up front, allowing visitors a place to sit and wipe their feet while waiting for an artist to get ready for them.
“Tattooing is the oldest profession next to hooking. It’s a tradition as old as time,” said owner Brad Rearden, 41. Rearden, slouched in a chair under a television playing “Family Guy” reruns, is one of two owners but is more active at the shop than the other owner Keith Underwood.
Underwood opened the shop in 2002, despite roadblocks from the city. There was concern about the shop bringing a “bad element” to the neighborhood and that it would drive property values down.
Now going on 15 years, Taylor Street is known for its friendly atmosphere, its holiday flash specials and its “Get What You Get” machines. The machines are old-fashioned bright red gumball machines with slots for tokens and a spout for the candy to come out. However, rather than candy, the machines are filled with flash tattoos in plastic bubbles. Each of the three machines varies in price, starting at $60 and going up to $180.
Patrons can pay for a token and “try their luck” by spinning the knob on the machine and seeing which tattoo rolls out. The design that pops out is theirs to be tattooed wherever they want.
Taylor Street is home to seven tattoo artists who all vary in style. One of whom is 34-year-old Mike Attack, who is the only artist at Taylor Street Tattoo to wear an apron while tattooing clients. Attack was a high school dropout doing graffiti art when a few people in his crew introduced him to tattooing.
“I just kind of got drawn to it because I got sick of being arrested and the cops, and it was a means to be creative…I could be a f****ng pirate and do whatever I wanted,” Attack says, hunched over a drawing table, trying to decide which color the skull he’s drawing should be. “I think my favorite part of the job is making people happy. It’s really cool that you can get in someone’s head and show them what they were thinking.”
Taylor Street Tattoo is most famous for its flash tattoo specials, wherein customers can choose from a pre-made list with a theme pertaining to the holiday it is based around. Past flash specials have been Friday the 13th, Halloween and most recently, Black Friday. Each flash sale features a different sheet of holiday tattoos for a lower than normal price. “It makes the customers happy and keeps us busy during the slow season,” Rearden said.
Vincent Weiss, 19, a graphic design student at UIC, got a tattoo during Taylor Street’s October special: flash tattoos ranging from pumpkins and bats to the paper boat in the gutter from the horror movie “It,” all for $40.
“It’s like a different feel,” Weiss said. “You walk in, people greet you, you feel like you’re just part of the group or you’re friends. It kind of helps you ease the fear of getting your first tattoo.”
Overwhelmingly, Taylor Street’s main business, roughly 80 percent, comes from everyday walk-ins. “We’re here for everyday Joe to the tattoo collector and everything in between,” said Attack.
One such everyday Joe, Alyse Yashinsky, 25, came in with a few friends while in town from Detroit. Yashinsky came in looking for a cover-up for an older tattoo she didn’t like anymore.
Ever the stereotypical walk-in client, Yashinsky based her decision on Taylor Street on a quick Internet search; “I Google searched it, they had a five-star review,” Yashinsky said with a laugh. “It seems a lot cleaner compared to the shops at home. Very clean and professional.”
Burrowed between a coffee shop and a comic book store on Taylor Street, the shop helps to bring character to the busy street and the sidewalk is often filled by people lying, sitting or standing in line for flash tattoos on holidays — the wait can take hours.
Despite the original reluctance from city officials about the type of crowd the little shop would bring, it’s safe to argue that Taylor Street Tattoo has brought plenty of life and plenty of business to the area.
After being tattooed, patrons can grab their winter coat off of the wooden stand in the corner and make their way back into the cold wintry air of Chicago, feeling the bandage on their new tattoo, sore and exciting, as the door dings behind them, closing and leaving the buzzing of machines behind.