C oincidentally, Keys on Kites Tattoo manager and piercing guru Mati Vee is obsessed with keys. Vee says it began when he was a child and found a skeleton key in the dirt near his home. He was mystified by it, having never seen anything quite like it.
“I thought it was treasure,” Vee recalls. His grandmother got wind of the discovery and played along, jumpstarting Vee’s lifelong key-collecting habit. She worked as a housekeeper in Meriden and would often find outdated keys in older homes, bringing them to her grandson, sometimes with a bag of M&M’s.
Today, his regular customers bring him keys they find, many of which he puts on display inside the shop amongst other artifacts like a shellacked horseshoe crab and old sewing machines. On the day I spoke with him, Vee wore a small key around his neck, also a gift from a customer.
When shop owner and tattooist Eric Mikita opened Keys on Kites a little less than two years ago, the vision hinged on community, and it still does. Mikita sees his shop as not only a spot to get inked and pierced, but also as a gathering place for New Haven’s artistic community. Since opening, Keys on Kites has run both individual and group art shows every three months or so, showcasing pieces from a wide swath of New Haven artists. Kites is also the retail home to graphic t-shirts and hats from The People’s Brand, a collaboration between the shop and local artists.
Mikita’s own artistic beginnings are rooted in graffiti, or tagging. As a teenager, he split time between Milford and Bridgeport and became attracted to the medium. “It was the colors,” Mikita says, “and it was just mysterious-looking.”
Mikita started tagging where he could, meeting other like-minded artists along the way. He honed his skills by copying frames from comic books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Amazing Spider-Man.
After high school, Mikita took classes at Southern Connecticut State and the Paier College of Art in Hamden, but the structure and routine didn’t work for him. Instead, in 2003, Mikita began his own skateboarding company. Though the company only made one type of board, that model could be found in local stores like Eastern Pulse, Trailblazer and B-17. After the venture ended in 2006, Mikita reconnected with graffiti, then scored an apprenticeship with the now-defunct Elm City Ink at 13 Foxon Boulevard in East Haven, transposing his graffiti and illustrative talents into skill with a needle and ink.
Eventually Mikita found himself in charge of the store, something he’d never planned on. After taking over, he renamed the shop 13th Hour Tattoo. But the location wasn’t ideal, and the rent felt too steep.
Needles of a different sort came to the rescue. In 2011, during an acupuncture session with Dr. Artemis Morris of Revive Wellness Center in Westville, Mikita told Morris of his shop and his deeper aspirations of creating a space for artists. A co-owner of the building in which Revive is housed, Morris had an available storefront and suggested a tenancy. Mikita accepted the space immediately.
That’s the origin story for Keys on Kites. The new location proved better for business, Mikita says, because of Westville’s heavy engagement with art. Along Whalley galleries like DaSilva and Kehler-Liddell prove the point, as does the annual Westville ArtWalk. Keys on Kites, of course, does its part to contribute to Westville’s status as an arts center. During the next annual Artwalk, the shop is planning an extensive graffiti exhibit to showcase some of the greater New Haven area’s finest street artists.
But let’s not forget about the tattooing and piercing. Five artists—Mikita, Jodi Longo, Steve Cacioppo, Travis Gregorczyk and Jared Mattes—handle the shop’s ink, while Vee is the sole piercer. Mikita says that, for him, tattooing is a spiritual act: he’s altering others’ bodies, imprinting his artistic sensibilities onto their skin. His specialty is color tattoos, much like the vivid graffiti that first caught his eye.
Tattooing is a serious business. It has to be, given what’s at stake: physical discomfort, emotional significance and the general permanence of the result. Yet there’s a sense of playfulness pervading Kites on Keys, which has got to be a nice bonus for clients who, whether seasoned at it or not, are about to get the needle.
Keys on Kites Tattoo and Gallery
869 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.