The storefront at 193 Mamaroneck Avenue looks as simple, elegant, and unobtrusive as that of a bookstore, boîte, or art gallery. In other ways, it’s not dissimilar to number three, maybe because art really does get created here. Hanging on the walls are colorful drawings of fire-snorting dragons, plus countless black-and-white motorcycles, crucifixes, scary skulls, and all sorts of biker and religious iconography. Welcome to the new home, as of this past November, of Big Joe & Sons Tattooing.
“We’ve been in White Plains for 15 years, and in Westchester for 44 years, and we’ve done very well here,” says Adam Kaplan, manager of family-owned Big Joe’s, who also has tattoo and piercing shops in Yonkers, Mohegan Lake, and Norwalk, Connecticut. Kaplan’s late father, Joe, a Brooklyn native, started the business in the late ’60s after getting into the tattoo scene around Coney Island, he says. Now, eldest son Adam works five to six days a week by appointment (walk-ins also are accepted), mostly in the White Plains studio, while the shop is open seven days a week.
As friendly as he is, Kaplan has the look and manner of a guy it seems it would pay to get along with. He is built low to the ground, has only the slightest remnants of hair on his head, and appears tough enough to be on MTV’s Bully Beatdown. Yet, he’s colorful and fun to talk to. “We’ve been kicked out from our place across the street,” he says, as calmly as a guy who’s seen worse—since this morning. “It’s ridiculous. The owners of the building claimed our customers would scare away other tenants. Meanwhile, they rent to a bar on the next corner. Their customers urinate in our doorway and are getting into fights all the time.”
For those of you who remember the old Joe’s, the only difference is size. Number 193 is a slightly bigger space. But it still has an incredibly clean floor and a smell of disinfectant you’d like in your hospital. It’s also as quiet and mellow as an ashram—fittingly, as they do all kinds of work to glorify the human body. Of Joe’s apparently higher grade of service compared to traditional holes in the wall—and local competitors—Kaplan says, “We’ve been doing this before tattoos were even popular. We’ve always been this way.”
During the past 45 years, the days of drunken sailors having “Mom” tattooed on their arms have come and gone. Who comes in now? “Every sort of person,” says Kaplan, “but lots of upscale, white-collar people. I’ve worked on judges, lawyers, famous athletes, a woman who was studying to be a rabbi—you name it. We’re always busy, because the sorts of things people get now take hours and hours. You have to come back several times if you want something intricate”—say, a Nightmare Before Christmas-themed sleeve or a vividly shaded, shoulder-to-earlobe piece.
At this point, a male teen enters and shows Kaplan a picture of a guitar and asks what he thinks it would cost. The owner looks at the magazine page for a minute and says he thinks about $300. Considering its size, business must be good at Big Joe’s. Kaplan says the store’s number of clients per week ranges from “20 to God knows how many, depending on the project. We’re pretty steady all year round, but the warmer months are always busiest.” Additionally, piercings, costing $20 to $60 apiece for the most popular ones (nose, different ear piercings, and navel), “are a big part of the business,” with the bonus that they’re “in and out,” whereas tattoos often take hours.
One thing that hasn’t changed: People, married and single, are still getting the names of their lovers etched on their body, and, when the relationship goes, so must the tattoo. “We do a brisk business in covering up things people don’t like,” says Kaplan. “I always tell people they should think about the name thing,” says Kaplan. “But it’s their choice. A fair amount of customers are back to have the girlfriend’s name turned into something else.”
In other words? Love fades. But at Big Joe & Sons, tattoos are forever.