Last Punks Standing: Fun City Tattoo Is a Relic of NYC's Punk and Hardcore Glory Days
Countless musicians from Dee Dee Ramone to Miley Cyrus have gotten inked at the last non-gentrified spot on St. Mark's Place.
Photos by Louisa Hamby
In a grimy basement off the Bowery in the late 70s, literary madman Jonathan Shaw, son of legendary jazz artist Artie Shaw and starlet Doris Dowling, was high off speedballs, tatting bikers and conmen. Well before tattooing was even legal in Manhattan due to an archaic law passed in the 60s, Shaw had transformed his living room into a DIY tattoo studio, which doubled as a trap house.
It was an unrecognizable downtown Manhattan. Overdoses at the Valencia Hotel were rampant and anarchists traumatized from Vietnam had crushed beatnik bohemianism into violent protests. Bombings exploded at the headquarters of the Weather Underground and the dance-floor of Electric Circus, causing survivalist stores selling gas masks to pop up. Shaw kept a handgun strapped to his chair in case anything went sideways, and installed a peephole on the armored front-door of his Bowery studio for the barrel of his AK-47.
As the New York punk and hardcore scenes raged against Reagan-Thatcher policies and class hierarchy, encompassed within a Hobbesian state of gang violence and opposition to authority, Shaw’s basement became a regular hangout for artists and musicians. Dee Dee Ramone and Lydia Lunch stopped by to philosophize and hone signature styles before performing shows at CBGB. Shaw was the ringleader, an eccentric and deranged vagabond who infused traditional tribal art with occultism while smoking crack and befriending musicians who would later enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“The style I’ve been accused of, or accredited with, depending on your point of view, pioneering in the early 80s, is defined as an urban neo-tribal wild-style, graffiti style of tattooing. That was a style that seemed to visually express an underlying and popular sentiment synchronistic to these other forms of musical expression,” explains Shaw. “Punk rock was this angry, confused, and rebellious ‘fuck you’ scream looking for a mouth. For a while, that mouth became a way people responded to certain iconography that might subliminally express some of those unstated emotions: the vibe that went with that sentiment. The styles of imagery I was familiar with and comfortable with seemed to naturally appeal to a certain class of people who really wanted to express themselves visually in a way that was iconoclastic and outside the accepted norm, even in the context of tattooing.”
In the mid-80s, Shaw established Fun City Tattoo on Macdougal Street, before moving it to Saint Mark’s Place in 1989. Though it had a long way to go in terms of gang violence, by the late 80s, the East Village had transformed into a cultural mecca. And with it came the inevitable tides of gentrification, culminating with the Tompkins Square riots in 1988. As musicians raged against yuppie culture and Wall Street types viewed as denigrating the East Village’s authenticity, hardcore coming from DC and Los Angeles—bands like Bad Brain, Minor Threat, Black Flag—became commonplace.
Fun City emerged as one of New York City’s first legitimate walk-in shops that merged fine art with hardcore and punk. The shop embodied Shaw’s brazen personality. Inside, esoteric paintings, rusty meat cleavers, blood from fist fights, and a sign reading, “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport” aligned the walls, attracting a diverse client-base that included gang members, Hell’s Angels bikers, celebrities, and artists tied to New York high-society. Iggy Pop, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jim Jarmusch, Kate Moss, John Joseph, Naomi Campbell, and a young Freddy Madball were just a few regulars intoxicated by the allure of Fun City’s decked out gonzo fantasy. Johnny Depp even based his role as the swashbuckling boozer Jack Sparrow off his longtime friendship with Shaw, along with Keith Richards.
“People of alike nature tend to gravitate together. That’s just the law of attraction. Me and Iggy have been friends for nearly 30 years,” reflects Shaw.
Hardcore, punk, and hip-hop aficionados all congregated at Fun City, blending together in a quintessential New York melting pot vehemently opposed to Giuliani’s mayoral policies and skyrocketing rent costs. Marilyn Manson, The Cure, and Tupac all paid visits to the shop. Vanilla Ice even waited in line for an appointment, much to the horror of Shaw and everyone else working at Fun City.
During the mid-90s, a young apprentice of Shaw’s nicknamed Big Steve started off as a shop boy at Fun City. At a time when tattooing was exploding as an international art-form, and still very old-school and competitive where trade secrets were hard to come by, Steve was on the ground floor, learning from the very master who had orchestrated its cultural renaissance. After leaving Fun City, Steve gained fame on the tattoo circuit with a diverse style drawing heavily on traditional Americana, miniature work, traditional Japanese minimalism, and black and grey imagery.
“Working under Jonathan was really cool and immersed me with some of the best artists in the industry. There was definitely a cast of characters, but I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start,” says Steve.
“Steve answered the phones, he cleaned the shop, and he wrangled the customers. Like so many people who work in that capacity, he got bitten by the tattoo bug just through osmosis and being around it. He was always a really nice guy and someone who I always really liked,” says Shaw.
After September 11, Shaw had a spiritual awakening and decided to leave New York City to pursue sobriety in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. He sold the shop to Brad Fink and Michelle Myles, who were running Daredevil Tattoo in the Lower East Side, and started writing gonzo-style fiction.
After just a couple years co-owning the shop, Fink and Myles sold Fun City to Steve and his partner, Maxx Starr from Richmond, Virginia. Together, the duo polished up Fun City’s aesthetics while recruiting a talented team of tattooists, including Mina Aoki, cousin to the acclaimed DJ who also grew up in the hardcore scene.
“Growing up in the hardcore scene, touring across the country, you wind up meeting so many cool people and that’s how Steve and I first met,” says Starr. “Steve and I met through mutual friends at Fun City and immediately trusted one another and it’s been smooth sailing ever since.”
“When I heard that Steve had managed to buy the shop, I was very happy and gratified,” adds Shaw. “I still stop by on my trips to New York to lend my support to that happy transition. He’s a real two-fisted tattoo guy who respects the traditions of tattooing.”
Having a deep respect for tradition allows Maxx and Steve to blend the old school with the new and help tattooing adapt to modern times.
“Our goal was to be very respectful of the shop’s history, while carving out our own niche within the industry,” explains Maxx. “We’re probably the most versatile tattoo studio in New York because we pride ourselves on an intensive mastery on all tattoo forms, whether it’s lettering or portraits. Celebrities and musicians come to us because we’re low-key and don’t make a big spectacle like most of the competition. We’re very relaxed and oriented on getting the job done perfectly.”
Maxx Starr and Big Steve
“I tatted Lizzie Grubman the day she got out of jail,” laughs Steve as he picks up a sterilized needle and goes to work on delicately brushing up the contours of a blackened rose petal. “That was pretty funny.”
Fun City Tattoo has endured numerous incarnations and a revolving door of crowds passing through its doors. Though the violent history of the East Village that birthed the punk and hardcore movements has come and gone, the legacy of the environment shaped by them lives on through the shop, attracting new generations of artists. The Lower East Side rap group Money Boyz stops by Fun City every weekend to impress clients with freestyles that paint a darker portrait of downtown Manhattan. Chicago rapper-turned-punk star HXLT, signed personally by Kanye West to the G.O.O.D Music roster, is a regular. Even mainstream artists are attracted to the allure of Fun City as a hub for punk, hardcore, and hip-hop. Action Bronson was tatted by Big Steve last year. So was Miley Cyrus this past March, who brought along Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne.
On a historic street that has gentrified into a glorified food court, complete with identical looking sushi restaurants and smoke shops, Fun City Tattoo stands as one of Saint Mark’s’ last true relics that continues to shape American culture.