T he first tattoo Joe Capobianco ever did was a scorpion for one of his oldest friends. “I was shaking like a leaf,” he says. That was 24 years ago.
Now Capobianco is settled in his tattooing room at Hope Gallery Tattoo, which he owns. The parlor is slick and brightly colored, as if it’s been decorated for a gothic circus. A skeleton reclines in a vintage dentist chair. A spindly black spider crawls out of a doll’s mouth. Technicolor paintings grimace and grin on yellow walls. And, of course, there’s the muted hum of tattoo guns buzzing all throughout the studio.
Seven tattoo artists currently ink at Hope Gallery, and although Capobianco says the shop doesn’t have an overriding aesthetic—that it’s “loosey goosey”—there are common themes in the artists’ portfolios. The present trend in tattooing might be described as subtle—whisper thin lines, grayscale palettes and organic content like blooms and bird feathers—but the tattoos at Hope Gallery are maximalist in the best way: pinup girls with mermaid hair and perpetual sneers, photorealistic bald eagles and boa constrictors, maniac clowns and blue-skinned Nosferatus.
Hope Gallery caters to those clients who want big, bright work that isn’t easy to hide, and perhaps this explains Capobianco’s assertion that tattoos, for all the popularity they’ve enjoyed recently, are still outsider art. “I would like to say that they’re more mainstream… but deep down I don’t think tattoos are more accepted. Anybody who says it’s accepted has never tried to take out a lease with full sleeves.” That said, Capobianco isn’t campaigning for total tattoo acceptance, which he thinks is counter to the art. “It was never supposed to be accepted,” he says. “Just because a bunch of kids went and shitted themselves up doesn’t mean that the rest of the world should be okay with that.”
Capobianco got his start on Long Island after he lost his freelance illustration job and was approached to become a tattoo artist’s apprentice. “I knew nothing about it,” he says. “I only had two tattoos at the time. Tattooing is one of those trades that once you start doing it you get dragged into the rabbit hole, and before you know it it’s taken over your life. In a good way. When I first got into it, I thought it was going to be a breeze. It wasn’t. Working on skin is like nothing else. Every day is still a challenge.”
There are tattoos that Capobianco won’t do. Face tattoos are out for him, and he’ll only tattoo the hands, necks and fingers of people who have paid their dues. “You get your arms done, chest done, ribs done,” he says. “Now get your hands done. Don’t start with your hands and work your way up.” Those clients, he says, aren’t “getting tattooed for a love of the art—they’re getting tattooed to make a spectacle of themselves.”
For all his gruffness, what Capobianco loves best about the work is the social component. He says he doesn’t have favorite pieces from his career so much as favorite people he’s tattooed. Spend five hours pressing ink into someone’s dermis, and you’re bound to get under the surface.
And yet, “I don’t want to sound artsy-fartsy,” he says. “I don’t believe in that. A tattoo is a tattoo and a painting’s a painting. You can say you create your art on skin, that’s fine. But it’s not what I do. I do tattoos. I do cool tattoos on fun people.”
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.