discovering the work of Dean Violante |

Our contributor Sarah Kay learns to step out of her comfort zone when she discovers the work of a new tattoo artist in a tattoo shop where she feels right at home

I’m a creature of habit. Tattooing, for me, is no different from travelling, eating out or going to the gym: same tattoo shops, same airlines, same trusted restaurants, same gym. It’s a question of stability, in a world that offers none, and in a lifestyle, in my case, that takes any away. But tattooers change shops, styles, and clients, so I dutifully follow, and happen to stumble on rare gems, the way one would find their new favourite bar after stumbling out of the wrong subway station late at night.

My tattooer and friend Jessica Nucifora had recently relocated from Brooklyn to Manhattan in an old traditional, renowned, small place cradled between a community garden and a one-dollar-slice pizza store, the most New York City place you could possibly conjure up in your non New York City imagination: the Lower East Side as it is sung and written about. New York City Hardcore (NYHC) made its reputation with its Agnostic Front symbolism, its no non-sense policy and punk aesthetic; I immediately felt comfortable. I have gotten work done in large, airy spaces full of light, in London basements, and in traditional San Diego sailor joints on top of a hill, but NYHC felt comfy, the way you would sleeping on a sodden and lumpy couch at your college roommate’s house.

image0I didn’t just see Jessica that day. A younger version of Richard Hell was hanging at the back, tall, lanky, and I remember smiling to myself, thinking that of course, remnants of my punk youth in West Belfast would follow me everywhere I go. While Jessica was prepping her station, I looked at the flash sheets hung on the wall – one caught my eye. It was recent, and NYC-themed. It featured the usual cityscapes: the “New Yorker” font, a cocktail glass, a single-line skyline, and then something completely out of the ordinary, something only a New Yorker would notice, something tongue-in-cheek, almost subversive given the recent gubernatorial elections: the logo of the MTA, the NYC subway transit company.

I rushed to the desk. “Who did this flash sheet?” I inquired, and lo and behold, the distinctive silhouette at the back came and claimed responsibility. “I want the MTA logo”, I said. He looked up from the computer, probably because no one had ever wanted a tattoo of crumbling infrastructure and citywide incompetence. But I probably travel underground more than I travel 35,000 feet in the air, and I wanted it. “I’m coming back for it”, I told him, in a voice that sounded more like a threat than a promise. Last month, I came back. “MTA girl”, he called me;  it was my birthday, so I laid down on the table, showed him the few free spots I had left on my left leg, and he leaned forward, one Chuck Taylor on the foot pedal, one purple gloved hand on my skin.

image2 (2)Dean Violante hasn’t been in the tattoo world for as long as he’s been playing bass or haunted the streets below Delancey. He apprenticed under the world famous Patrick Conlon, now owner and operator of Speakeasy Tattoo in Peekskill, NY. At the time, he was working in the coffee shop next door, and was already drawing a lot. Stella Vlad, one of the exceptional members of the Speakeasy team, tells me: “I feel like he was in his late teens or early twenties at the time; not very heavily tattooed, very artistically driven, chill as a human and would ask me about tattooing and apprenticing.  His drawing skills were strong, and Patrick wanted him to finish college and then come back and talk to him, which eventually led to Patrick taking him on as an apprentice.” Patrick gave Dean two tattoos that I also have: a Lady Justice, and a Lady Liberty. I wear them on my arm and leg respectively; Dean has them on his stomach. He is a quiet, calm, introvert type, with an outstanding sense of focus despite my antisocial extroversion. He added the name of his band, Cutie, next to a portrait of Joe Strummer Jessica had done a while back. It is all a play of thin lines, impression of torn paper, more like anger ripping a written page; it is delicate and detailed, while being strong, dark, and powerful. It figures. It is NYHC after all, and if this man hadn’t known the ghosts of Sid and Nancy like I did, he sure looked for them.

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I expected the rest of his work to be more along those lines: barbed wire, safety pins, hardcore. There is nothing wrong with finding what works and sticking to it. But in a tattoo world now largely democratised between mind-blowing realism and traditional renaissance, Dean Violante stands firmly out. Vlad continues: “His style is very versatile. He’s STUPID talented and can work from realistic to stripped down art brut, from traditional to graphic intricate line work.” That mischievous smile hid something larger, wider, an appetite for anything that pop culture could elevate and rip apart, a tendency to spin a myth on a dime and give it a different outlook, something black, something a little dangerous. With time, his work also evolved into a palette that is rare in such young artists: the capacity to see beyond a certain label. Dean Violante brought vibrant colours on traditional roses, painted a still life of an orange tree that felt almost real, proof that his artistry was more diverse and expansive than I had seen that day.

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image4The weather had been rough in New York; leftovers from Hurricane Dorian carried a palpable, heavy humidity in overcast and low skies. I came back for a Friday the 13 event at the shop, alongside lines and lines of fellow skin art lovers. I had picked the design I wanted with Dean a couple of days before; I broke the rules and asked if he could do it, not the first-come-first-served basis. Those days are notoriously hard on tattooers; lines of people come one after the other for a full work day; I watched him fill an odd spot on the side of my left wrist with a tree (that could very well be a mushroom cloud), a tree in the summer, with full head of leaves, casting enough shadow for my hand to rest under on a hot day, big enough to have let its roots dug deep into the cement and water below the island of Manhattan.

image1 (4)I am much older, and I thought I had seen a lot. My passport is two years old and already tattered; my skin is stretched, my dark designs on sleeves and legs have nicely settled into a charcoal imprint weathered by friction and air. Watching someone grow, evolve, but mostly reveal their work as they go, as you follow them, the way I did Jessica, watching the paper unfold under the pen, is definitely a privilege. Someone so capable across a large palette that may elude others, with a Gen Z attitude that defies a city struggling to hold onto its legendary figures, Violante is unlike any other. In details, one may find a nod to 1990s icons; in others, sexual content; some are simple drawings of someone who never lets go of a pen in any situation, and has committed to making it their profession. I am keeping some skin virginal just to see what Dean Violante could do with it. So should you.

Sarah Kay is a very, very tattooed international human rights lawyer living between Paris and New York. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sarah has kept its taste for cold rain and the rewards that come from sitting still under pressure. You’ll probably find her in London drinking wine.

 

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