Christian DiMenna at Lovecraft Tattoo

Friends in Needles

When the tattoo artists at Lovecraft need a bit of inspiration, they often look to their walls. Each of the four inkers has a dedicated work room, and, in a sense, three of those rooms are themselves inked.

One room, belonging to Christian DiMenna (pictured first and second above), is filled with multicultural artifacts, spooky framed portraits and shelves of books preoccupied by the mythical and arcane. Another, stocked with various skulls and exotics, could stand in as a natural historian’s workshop, or a shaman’s toolshed. This is where Laura Usowski, who used to work as a taxidermist for the Peabody Museum of Natural History, does her work. A third space is Bronwyn Cyr’s, stocked with posters depicting scenes from Edgar Allan Poe stories. A book detailing Goya’s The Disasters of War—reproductions of a series of historic etchings and aquatints that are currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, by the way—stands out on the bookshelf.

The exception is the relatively sparse workroom of tattooist Rick Waite, though he does tend the carnivorous plants that live in the parlor’s front window.

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Oddly enough, Lovecraft, not far from the foot of Sleeping Giant State Park, had its beginnings at a different kind of parlor: Ashley’s, the ice cream place on York near Broadway. Lovecraft’s founders, Luis Martins, Christian DiMenna and Laura Usowski, had all gone to art school when professors were telling them to stop pursuing dreams and start using computers. Graphic design was in; the fine arts were out.

Their professors had a point. In the summer of 1995, with diplomas in their back pockets, the trio found themselves scooping ice cream at Ashley’s. Then, one by one, they started picking up apprenticeships at tattoo parlors.

Though the contrary might’ve seemed true at the time, it was no coincidence. Tattoo culture had begun to change. According to Usowski, a lot of tattoo artists are coming into it with fine arts educations, which is also changing the kinds of tattoos that are appearing. Surrealism is becoming increasingly popular, part of a growing emphasis on elaborate, custom designs.

Not only have the people holding the needle been changing, but so have those who go under it. “It used to be bikers and mechanics,” says DiMenna. As recently as the mid-’90s, he says, he would hear negative comments if a tattoo was peeking out from under his shirt.

Now even the artists are surprised at who comes in. “All walks of life, all ages,” says Usowski. “Normal housewives, ministers, surgeons from Yale. We’ve had a 90-year-old woman come in. Just everybody.”

After about a decade spent learning the trade separately, the Ashley’s gang got back together, opening Lovecraft Tattoo in January 2005. At Lovecraft, there’s no “flash art,” or ready-made cookie-cutter designs. “No two people are exactly alike, nor should their tattoos be. People’s idiosyncrasies and quirks are what make them interesting, and their tattoos should reflect this,” as the parlor’s website puts it. Customers are asked to bring in some kind of relevant inspiration—an object, a concept, even an image off the internet—which creates a starting point for a custom design process. “Our customers trust us to help them to externalize things that are going on inside of them,” the website also says, “and we don’t take this trust lightly.” Lovecraft thinks of your tattooer like a favorite bartender times 10, or maybe a trusted clergyman.

In the Hebrew bible appears this verse: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves” (Leviticus 19:28). In Abrahamic religions, this and other verses have been taken by some as a prohibition of tattoos. In the orthodox Jewish tradition, getting a tattoo may forfeit the right to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Yet the first tattoo DiMenna ever did was a Star of David. “Nerve-racking” is how he describes it, though it’s a good bet he’s gotten used to that sort of thing. He says Lovecraft’s regular customers include Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Luis Martins, one of the original founders of Lovecraft, has since departed, making a pilgrimage to a Mecca of tattooing: Portland, Oregon. But Lovecraft’s team remains tight. DiMenna and Usowski went to Southern Connecticut State together. DiMenna and Waite grew up together. Bronwyn Cyr, the newest Lovecrafter, began apprenticing there in 2009.

During my visit, I watched DiMenna go to work on a client, light-hearted conversation belying the fact that he was injecting ink into someone’s arm. A regular who’d decided to visit the shop pulled up a chair to the door of the room. Usowski was there, too, all of us surrounded by DiMenna’s many-splendored ephemera, including the latest, still in progress: an elegant image of a bird—perhaps a swallow, or a wren—taking flight on human canvas.

Lovecraft Tattoo
3714 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Tues-Sat 12-8pm
(203) 287-1785

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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