Young Guns

A new generation of tattoo artists embraces its rough-and-tumble past while forging a new, inclusive future


“I like doing sick tats.” Artist Maxwell Blackmar’s grin radiates across a tattoo bed covered in portfolios of carefully preserved flash (pre-designed) tattoos that go back over 70 years.

Blackmar is the accidental, unofficial historian of Rhode Island tattoo history. In 2017, the 32-year-old self-described history nerd unexpectedly landed at the helm of Ronnie’s Tattoo Studio on Eddy Street, the oldest tattoo studio in Providence.

Artist Ronnie Daigle opened the shop in 1959 after an apprenticeship with Sailor West, the nom de plume for Rhode Island tattoo artist Anthony D’Ambra, a nearly forgotten legend in the business. The history is murky, but West reportedly learned the trade from Charlie Wagner, a famous artist who opened a tattoo shop in NYC’s rough-and-tumble Bowery neighborhood in 1899. West tattooed in traveling circuses and carnivals before setting up storefronts in Providence and Los Angeles, where he partnered with fellow artist Ernie Sutton.

A young Daigle became besotted by a piece of flash (of a pin-up girl) in the window of West’s Federal Hill storefront. With his interest sparked, he learned the trade from West before striking out on his own.

Back then, you couldn’t just open a shop because the mob owned the town. This kept the competition at bay, leaving Daigle with just two competitors in the city. But it was Ronnie’s  – with its chain-link fence protected building and colorful cast of characters – that stood the test of time. It became more than a Providence legend, but an integral part of tattoo culture. Celebrity tattoo artist Mark Mahoney, whose clients include Adele and Rihanna, brought a camera crew to the South Providence storefront to film a documentary.

When Daigle opened, tattoos were far from mainstream: visible ones adorned the arms of sailors and outlaws. The rough and rowdy South Providence neighborhood only added to the mystique. There was an artist who went by the moniker Dead Eye Pete; the Ronnie’s crew nicknamed a regular client “Uncle Scary”  – “But not to his face,” Blackmar’s quick to add.

Indeed, Ronnie’s was a home for misfits, renegades, and rehabilitating hooligans. Daigle took young talent under his wing and taught them how to ink on a flesh canvas. One of those misfits was Victor Morales, Daigle’s last apprentice. Morales, about to become a teen father, was seeking a steady career to provide for his new family. Daigle saw promise in the fledgling artist and brought him into the fold.

When Daigle passed away in 2013, Morales took the helm of the storied tattoo shop. Blackmar, already a licensed tattoo artist, was a regular fixture there, even though he inked elsewhere. So Morales invited him to take a chair and help run the shop.

When Morales died in a motorcycle accident in 2017, a grieving Blackmar found himself alone at the helm. The Ronnie’s crew rallied around the young artist. Blackmar’s friend and fellow artist A.J. Williams took a chair, just like Blackmar did with Morales four years prior.

Grief shades Blackmar’s face as he recalls explaining to Morales’ clients that he had passed. Because Blackmar knew his friend’s style so well — both were self-taught artists, and the pair worked on many collaborative projects — clients with tattoos in progress turned to Blackmar to finish the work, providing an unexpected source of comfort. “It was great,” says Blackmar. “Now I’m working with my buddy again.”

Ronnie’s made it through race riots, outlaw biker gangs, the mob, and COVID. But it couldn’t survive the building inspector. Last year, the city condemned the building, shutting down a tattoo institution and closing a long chapter in the industry’s storied history.

“Artists on the West Coast, in Chicago, they were doing different stuff in the early ‘90s, not as old school,” says Donald Lussier, who opened Art Freek Tattoo on Steeple Street, now on Wickenden, in 1994.

Lussier, part of the then-flourishing music scene in Providence, had fortuitous timing. A Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) trial weakened the mob’s stranglehold on the city, which meant Lussier could hang out a shingle without a hitch.

“At first, there was no one to tattoo but the skinheads,” Lussier says with a chuckle. But once Art Freek became a Providence fixture, “we’d be open all night, tattooing anyone for $10.” He’d meet people at music venues like Club Babyhead and Lupo’s and invite them to get inked after the show. Because of his presence in the music scene, bands began coming in for tattoos. He rolls up his pants to show off a wonky-looking hot dog on his calf, the location he lets non-artists try their hand with the tattoo gun, inked by J.D. Pinkus from the Butthole Surfers.

“Our tattoos were so much different from the other styles,” Lussier continues. Tattoo inks began getting better, with manufacturers carrying more than just primary colors. “Then the tattoo magazines hit, and they were really focused on the artwork,” he says. When the ‘90s counterculture movement exploded, tattoos became part of that narrative.

Lussier and his crew captured the aesthetic on T-shirts with slogans like “your mom’s gonna kill us” and “creating tomorrow’s unemployed today.” Anyone coming of age in the ‘90s remembers the teeth gnashing around young adults – especially women – with visible tattoos entering the workforce.

That’s no longer the case. According to a recent poll from market research company Ipsos, 30 percent of Americans have a tattoo, up from 21 percent in 2012. Unsurprisingly, body art is popular among younger generations, with 76 percent of tattoos adorning the bodies of GenX or younger.

Hannah Medeiros and Tina Lugo opened Black Cherry Tattoo, a spa-like private studio in Olneyville, in 2021. Natural light pours in from the windows and green plant tendrils snake down the exposed brick walls. This serene space is worlds away from the chaotic storefront scene. Both are trained artists — native Rhode Islander Medeiros attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and New York City transplant Lugo has a degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

“I was always fascinated by tattoos,” says Medeiros, calling them the “forbidden fruit.” When they finished art school, the former oil painting major began a two-year apprenticeship at Brilliance Tattoo in Boston (Massachusetts legalized tattooing in 2000).

For Lugo, tattooing was a happy accident. After graduation, they did illustration and streetwear work and showed in some galleries. “I knew a lot of tattooers, I had friends who were tattooers, I got tattooed a lot,” she says. While they were living in Portland, Oregon, their tattoo artist suggested they apprentice with him. “I lucked out that it was the right place at the right time,” they continued, explaining that apprenticeships can be scarce.

Lugo and Medeiros met in New York City when they both worked at Black Iris in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. When COVID hit, Medeiros returned home to Rhody. Lugo, who noticed an exodus of NYC artists to New England in search of more affordable cities, joined so the pair could open a private studio.

Private studios operate more like speakeasies than storefronts. Black Cherry has no website. They work mostly through referrals, although both artists maintain a healthy presence on Instagram, where they reach a wider audience, including clients willing to travel to PVD to get inked. Both require an intake process, and even then, there is no guarantee they will agree to do the job. If it’s not their aesthetic, they will refer interested clients to better suited artists.

“There’s no signage. We are not on Google, we’re not on Yelp,” says Medeiros. “We don’t share our address unless you have an appointment.” This allows them to create a very catered experience for their clients, the bulk of whom are professional women and men.

“We wanted to create an environment that kind of felt like home,” Medeiros continues. “A lot of younger folks feel more comfortable in the studio setting. There’s less stuff going on, less people coming in and out. It’s just a more private, intimate experience.”

“It’s really nice to bring them into a space that’s pretty chill. It eases them into the appointment, especially if it’s their first time,” says Lugo. “Even if we’re both here, it’s still manageable, and it’s not so overwhelming.”

The private experience is crucial to people who are seeking tattoos to cover over scars, which can be from mastectomies, top surgery, or self-harm. Lugo is one of the rare artists that takes on scar work.

“It’s so personal, so intimate,” Lugo explains, noting that the act of covering over these scars can be trauma inducing. “They can come to a gentle place. There’s not a bunch of people staring at them or asking them what they’re getting tattooed. It’s just a calm setting to have that one-on-one experience.”

The pair says tattoos often mark certain milestones or significant changes in their clients’ lives, making their private studio a space for reflection and healing. Medeiros mentions a client going through a really bad divorce. “He came in every week for two months,” she says. “The emotional pain was so intense, the tattoos were an outlet. It’s cathartic.”

“I love traditional tattoos so much,” says Littany “Big Lit” Blais, the last apprentice to come out of Ronnie’s. Old-school tattoos, with their thick lines and riot of primary colors, “hold well and look good,” she continues. “Plus, it comes with all that history.”

A self-taught artist, Blais bought a stick-and-poke kit (a non-electronic method of tattooing) out of curiosity. She began inking herself and willing friends, posting the results on Reddit. Her work gained a following, and she soon operated a small business out of her home. She met Blackmar on the internet, where a teasing back and forth between the two — stick and poke vs. machine — turned into an apprenticeship offer.

Blais relished her time at Ronnie’s, with its fun-loving, anarchic atmosphere. “I feel lucky I got to work there. To be part of that history is something so special,” she says. “But after Vic died, it was getting more difficult. It took its toll on the boys.”

Blais left Ronnie’s and opened the private studio Angels Collective, an inclusive tattoo studio featuring queer and non-binary artists, with Jessa Cabral. However, her heart remained with the traditional style, and that clientele is easier to reach through the storefront shops. So, she left the collective and joined Wild Card Tattoo on Gano Street. With its two levels, it’s a perfect blend of the two. “I like working in a space with more people,” she says, explaining that interacting with a multitude of artists sparks her creativity.

“Max and A.J. were like family,” she says of her time at Ronnie’s. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

The feeling is mutual, with pages of “Big Lit” art beside work from Daigle, Morales, and West on the flash wall at Classic Tattoo RI, Blackmar and Williams’ just-opened storefront on Plainfield Street in Cranston.

While firmly grounded in the 21st century, their new shop pays homage to the rebellious spirit of Ronnie’s. The antique flash that Blackmar lovingly maintains may seem primitive compared to some of the rich colors and detailed work of contemporary tattoo artists, but as Blackmar astutely points out, old-school ink is a form of folk art.

People like Sailor West and Ronnie Daigle, “laid a foundation for artists today,” he says. “They paved the way for us.” 



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