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Imprinted by the Gun….
Tattoo Gun That Is
By: Allison Ryder
Ron & Dave’s is an extremely well known and respected tattoo shop in Staten Island. It’s a place customers go with trusting attitudes and the ability to release the reins of control and allow the tattoo artists to create art that incorporates their vision as an artist, with the reflection of the idea in the customer’s mind. Ron Lopez is a dedicated and extremely talented artist whose reputation precedes himself, and his sons David and Christian Lopez, not only followed in his footsteps but are also impeccable tattoo artists. Ron opened up his own shop in Elizabeth NJ after working underground early in his tattoo career. In 1998, Ron and Dave opened up a tattoo shop, side by side and seventeen years later, that shop has not only become a landmark in the midst of Castleton Corners but it has become a location, people travel from all over the world to, to get a tattoo done by one of these artists. Ron passed down all of his knowledge and abilities to both of his sons and Chris began tattooing at 16 years old. Prior to this shop opening, the first tattoo Dave ever did was “the outline of the hot stuff red devil on my dad’s leg at twelve years old,” he nodded in remembrance of where it all began.
I wondered if he had always known this is what he wanted to do. Some people know their whole lives and some people know in a moment. When asked, Dave’s response was;
“As a child, I was always fascinated by tattoos and watching my dad do his work. He’s been incredibly influential in my career but in high school, I had no idea if I wanted to be a tattoo artist or not. I approached my dad about learning how to tattoo because it was something I wanted to know how to do. I didn’t learn, thinking it would be my full time job but once I started, I fell in love with it.”
The love he speaks of is reflected in every creative, finely detailed, and beautifully colored piece of art he sends out into this world on someone’s body. At 16 years old, Dave began tattooing and his first in shop tattoo was a blue rose on a woman’s back. Since that moment, it’s become such a significant part of his life and it has brought him countless opportunities, friendships, and experiences: “I love that someone comes in with blank skin and leaves with a picture that’s going to be on them for the rest of their lives.” Spoken like a true artist, appreciative and dedicated to the work he’s putting out there.
Dave followed his father’s footsteps in a courageous way, however, Ron is not the only artist he admires and finds influential. Kevin Craig, Guy Verderosa, Satoru Koizumi, and Shuryu are others, just to name a few.
While Dave does not categorize the style of tattoos he is capable of creating and while he enjoys everything he does with no piece favored over the other, he likes Japanese and traditional American tattoos best. I admire the mixture of these two styles which cover his arms as he states, “I like Japanese style because of the stories that are involved with the designs and I like traditional American style based tattoos because it’s the stuff I grew up seeing and doing on those who came before me. I would like to do more Tibetan style tattoos in the future.” Dave also enjoys tattooing older people generally because they’re usually more tolerant, however, “I can usually tell who is going to give me a hard time as far as pain goes but then some people really surprise me.”
I look around at the diverse artwork hanging upon the walls of the shop by various artists. I admire the large red letters towards the back of the shop with little bulbs illuminating RON & DAVE’S, to be seen immediately upon entrance. There are countless books and sketches for customers to go through and pinpoint precisely what kind of tattoo they’re interested in getting. Driving up Victory Boulevard, you can see the lights shine from the frame of the glass window out front, as the shop makes its mark on the busy street. It’s not just the tattoos that Dave puts his time and efforts into, it’s the entire shop. Upon first glance, this immaculate, artistic, and comfortable atmosphere draws customers in, as does his personable and honest approach to the customers. A conversation can be started with anyone if someone cares enough to try, and he always cares enough to ask.
So now I ask, what is it like owning and running your own business?
“Owning my own shop can be extremely stressful sometimes but it also allows me the freedom to do other things like travel. When I work as a guest artist in someone else’s shop, they are my boss and I enjoy that as well because when I’m working for someone else I’m less stressed. This is because I’m only worried about what I’m doing and not worried about how everyone else is operating. But I wouldn’t change a thing.”
And thank god for that.
The history of tattoos is a lengthy one, dating back to Neolithic times. The practice has been transferred through various cultures and countries, as a portrayal of religion and status, to pledges of love and bravery, to identification, and independent and artistic expression. In periods of Chinese history, tattoos were used upon slaves to reflect ownership, in India, tattoos can be symbolic to specifics within culture, in Japan, criminals were tattooed as a sign of punishment, and in the United State, tattoos were once used to identify someone as a seamen. For someone who’s been tattooing for a little over 20 years, there has to be distinctive changes in this practice and I questioned how it’s changed throughout the years.
“Tattooing became mainstream. Tattoos used to be symbolic images conveying feelings and thoughts, and now tattooing is very literal. Everyone thinks their tattoo is different and has a specific meaning to them, when at this point in tattooing, I find the opposite to be true. Tattoos mean less now than they ever did.”
A lot of younger generations get tattooed because it is the latest trend and not because of their value or appreciation for the origin of tattoos, whereas citizens of history got tattoos that stood as an individualistic mark. However, there are still some people who get tattoos of meaning, myself included, and then there are the people who get pieces of artistic expression in uncommon styles of tattooing to truly portray the beauty of art. How I came to begin getting tattooed at Ron & Dave’s was because of my sister who has been loyal to this shop, as well as Ron’s other shop in New Jersey for many years. My first tattoo was done in another shop and initially it was beautiful but upon healing, I could see the error and returned in hopes the artist would fix it, however he was no longer working there. I was extremely picky in entering another shop after my first experience but I knew of Ron & Dave’s from many people. Their reputation certainly proceeded itself and I knew my sister’s work was done well. Her loyalty instantly transferred down to me as I reached out to Dave and had my first interaction with him. While my first encounter was for a miniscule quote, I’ve come a long way since that tattoo, with intricately impeccable pieces that cover entire portions of my body. Almost all of my tattoos hold a significant meaning to me and while I provided him with an idea or an image, he took it and painted it more beautiful than I could have ever imagined, marking it different with his signature. But one tattoo, I completely released the reins on as I entered the realm of Japanese style tattoos with a David Lopez twist. As someone who has been tattooing through such different time periods, it is more visible when something becomes more about popularity than symbolism. It not only shows the change in the business but the change in society.
Not only does Dave co-own and run Ron & Dave’s but upon relocating to Arizona, he opened up Black Sails Tattoo Shop with Fritz Andrews, where he remained for five years: “I looked around and I couldn’t find a suitable shop. I was self-employed here so why not open up my own shop in Arizona and do things my way.” Most people would fear starting up their own business, let alone doing it away from all the people they know but confidence surrounds every word he speaks because no matter where he is, the quality of his work is unquestionable.
So now I wonder, what is the biggest difference having owned a shop on two sides of the United States?
“People in New York give me more freedom to do what I think is best. They’re more comfortable with me because my reputation is more well-known here, whereas in Arizona, they’re taking my word for it.”
Aside from New York and Arizona, we can add Nashville and Japan to the list. Let’s begin with Mike Kepper, a professional skateboarder from New Jersey who Dave looked up to, as he was a skateboarder himself. He eventually got to meet Mike because his father tattooed him and since their first encounter, Mike became one of Dave’s longtime friends. Mike ended up moving to Nashville and opening up Music City Tattoo with his girlfriend Laura in 2004. Within a year of their grand opening, Dave became a guest artist in their shop, describing the experience as “Amazing. I’m working in a shop with great friends of mine and Nashville is drenched with creativity and such artistic people. There’s an enormous amount of individualistic expression there and it’s truly awesome to work beside someone I grew up, looking up to.”
Dave doesn’t stop at the border of fifty states, he crosses the world to be a guest artist at One Shot Tattoo in Okinawa, Japan. Satoru Koizumi has been tattooing since 1994, opening up One Shot Tattoo in 2004. He is an artist with a pristine eye for detail, and a shop that tourists and inhabitants alike are sure to visit to get some of the most culture infused pieces they could get done in Japan. How does a situation like this even begin you might ask and I would say, through proactive initiative to not only market himself as an artist but to learn more, to improve, to expand his knowledge and apply it to his own business.
“I contacted Satoru through MySpace to ask if he took guest artists and he said yes so in December of 2012, I traveled out there for the first time.”
Irezumi is the Japanese word for tattoo or to be literal, the insertion of ink under the skin. In Japanese culture, the art of tattooing is said to date back to approximately 10,000 BC. At the beginning of the Meji period in roughly 1868, tattoos were outlawed by the government and it wasn’t until 1948, that they were legalized.
So the question is: What is it like tattooing in a culture that inspired so many great artists and pieces of work varying from religious reasons and social rank, to cultural and artistic expression?
“The work ethic of the Japanese is better than anyone I’ve come into contact with. Being able to work alongside of them is truly a privilege and it improves the way I go about my daily business in every aspect. I actually tattoo mostly Americans in Japan but it’s just an amazing experience to work side by side with people who are so dedicated to what they’re doing. It’s not just a job to them, it’s their life and they take every aspect seriously down to the smallest detail.”
Shuryu is a Tebori practitioner who Dave met through Satoru at One Shot Tattoo. Shuryu comes from a large tattoo “family” in Japan and upon their meeting they had become friends and his first time in New York was in 2014 with Dave. It’s upon rare occasions, you can find this amazing artist at Ron & Dave’s shop where he tattoos in an authentic Japanese way. The style used at Ron & Dave’s is strictly tattoos created with western style tattoo machines whereas Shuryu’s style is a mix between western and traditional Japanese style with hand tool methods. Tebori is the traditional form of tattooing in Japan. The tattoo is applied using a bamboo or metal stick with needles attached at the end that is thrust into the skin at a specific rhythm, depositing pigment into the skin layers.
Not only is David Lopez a remarkable tattoo artist traveling around this world creating art, learning and absorbing practices and cultures to mold into the business he’s created for himself, but now, as of 2015, a new road is on the horizon. Not only does he offer tattoos and piercings at his shop but he also offers non-laser tattoo removal. It is considered to be the tattoo over method where a solution is applied in the exact same way as a tattoo. It is applied with use of a tattoo machine and tattoo needles, to inject the solution under the skin. This in turn reacts to the tattoo pigment already embodied in the skin and removes it via the scabbing process, as it’s healing. Depending on the person, it takes between 2-3 months to heal. Dave reassuringly confirms, “This process is better than laser removal because it is not color specific like laser is and it is much less painful. It also tends to remove more pigment per session than the laser does.”
Dave speaks of his experience and opportunities in Japan with the utmost admiration and respect of their work ethic, never once comparing himself. The reality of it is that Dave was raised by one of the best artists in Staten Island and New Jersey, and he worked his way up to gain his own well-known reputation, and he continues to build this tattooing empire. His work ethic is identical to that of the Japanese. He is hard working and dedicated, and has such a love and passion for what he is doing. It isn’t just a job he clocks in and out of; he puts in the hours on days off to draw pieces, he looks for ways to change with the times but also keep the authenticity and history of tattoos alive. Dave runs an immaculate shop with a talented artist at his side (Guy Verderosa), filled with pictures of some of the greatest work this world has ever known and filled with culture. He is courageous enough to begin a business in a place where he has to make a name for himself, literally from the desert up. Since Dave imprinted my body with ink, there is no place else I would go or refer to because this is a man who has devoted his life, his time, and his heart to creating pieces of art that will not fade in color but last for years, just as vibrant as the day it was done. A man who puts the time into every detail and works seven days a week, 365 days a year to accommodate people, to better his business, and to inject images onto bodies that truly matter and are admired by those wear his work so proudly.
So lastly, I ask: Any advice for future customers?
“Yes. Future customers should be concerned with quality over price. People need to stop shopping by price and start focusing on the quality of the tattoos they’re getting. I have an absurd amount of cover-ups, and the reason is because most people don’t research tattoo artists before they get garbage tattooed on them.”
Some businesses charge minimal money to try and gain customers which is appealing to people but the thing is, this isn’t like buying a cheap but attractive sweater that may rip the first time you wash it– this is a piece of art on your body, portrayed to the world, permanently. The customers think they’re scoring a deal because they’re saving money and getting work that seems to be mediocre in their eyes and they end up with work that’s just not done well. A lot of the shops that customers think are a little pricier are the shops with the artists who are doing the better quality work. The bottom line is, a person is going to spend the extra money for something that is better for them and when it comes to tattoos, it shouldn’t be any different. Instead of focusing on the price or thinking what you think they might charge, try focusing on the work and try asking them.
David Lopez is an extremely talented and inspirational tattoo artist who is ambitious, dedicated, worldly, and hard working. He puts in the sleepless nights to make sure every detail is perfection and he has an amazing mind to come up with vibrant color combinations perfectly befitting the piece. The amount of years he has been tattooing, plus the many requests he receives to tattoo outside of New York, as well as the incredible work he produces is part of what makes his reputation so great and well-known. He is his father’s son; both highly dedicated to their craft and putting every ounce of themselves in the business and life they are creating.
The three photos below are done by Guy Verderosa, who also tattoos at Ron and Dave’s in Staten Island.
Ron & Dave’s
603 Manor Road
Staten Island NY 10314
607 Westfield Avenue
Elizabeth NJ 07208
Find these shops on Instagram & Facebook to see some of the amazing work done by these one of a kind artists.