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(photo credit: Meredith Price)
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last month, Johnny Depp told writer Mark Binelli that back in the early '80s, tattoos still had shock value. His Indian tattoo gave the director of Nightmare on Elm Street such a surprise that Depp was politely asked to turn on his "other, tattoo-less" side for one scene. Today, as Depp so eloquently put it, "Everybody and their mother and their goldfish is inked." And this might be one of the reasons why Arad Bert and Arik Rabinowitz say that owning a tattoo parlor can be a lucrative enterprise, especially in the metropolis of Tel Aviv.
Slightly after noon a few weeks ago, as the mid-July sun beat down upon a flurry of activity in the heart of the city, Bert and Rabinowitz were still sipping their first black coffees of the morning and straightening out their sleep hair. "Would you like a glass of mud too?" Bert offered. By that hour, I was on my third cup.
But the air-conditioned shop on Rehov Bograshov did offer a welcome respite from the outside heat and a comfortable place to contemplate the quirky space. Azure walls display artwork by Bert, Rabinowitz and some German friends while a spotless '50s-style black and white checkered floor lends the area a cool, underground ambiance. Two faux leopard-skin recliners in the corner, referred to as "the artist's chairs," are situated next to a small, black table where a single orchid named "Tsachi" sits. A surrealistic, mini art exhibit entitled "PMS" gives customers even more to mull over before stamping their skin with permanent ink.
"Tattooing is technical work, and you don't necessarily need to be an artist or creative to do it," explains Bert, who has been drawing intricate, imaginative scenes since he was sixteen, and is active in the underground art scene in Tel Aviv. Last year, he and Rabinowitz produced a Tattoo Art Show in Tel Aviv entitled simply "Good vs. Bad," and Bert dabbles in many artistic mediums - from charcoal sketches to oil paintings.
"Our aim is to put art into our tattoos by doing custom pieces and drawing one-of-a kind things for people. And we see the shop as both an art gallery and a tattoo parlor," says Bert.
This fusion of art with tattoos is one thing that sets B-Street Tattoos apart from the nearly thirty other tattoo places in the vicinity. That, and their reputation for doing custom, American-style rock 'n' roll tattoos. According to Bert and Rabinowitz, Israelis follow the American tattoo trends, while Jews in the Diaspora prefer Hebrew designs. Typical American designs include symbols like eagles, panthers, stars, roses, and skulls, while Hebrew styles include more typical Jewish symbols, such as the Hebrew alphabet, the Israeli flag, hamsas for good luck, Kabbalah-inspired designs and the Star of David.
"It's cool to be a minority these days, and having a Jewish identity carries a lot of weight because it leaves few people indifferent," says Rabinowitz. "People usually either love the Jews or they hate them."
But wearing your identity on your sleeve carries implications beyond being cooler or more unusual. With the ink also comes negative attention: from customs agents, security guards, police forces, and potential bosses - to name just a few. Historically, Israelis and Jews have also been opposed to tattoos, both because of the Holocaust connotations and halachic restrictions. In fact, behind the lounge chairs, one of the drawings is a creative rendition of the biblical text forbidding tattoos on the grounds of it leaving lasting marks on the flesh [ Leviticus 19:28].
But this doesn't stop Bert and Rabinowitz, who, ironically, have even tattooed neo-nazis in Germany. "It didn't bother me that they had swastika tattoos," says Rabinowitz. "They kept it respectful and appreciated my work."
He explains that the older generations in Israel are still anti, but this leaves plenty of willing clients.
"Today in the Tel Aviv bubble it's fine to have a tattoo, but out in the real world, people treat you differently," Rabinowitz says. "A lot of people immediately assume you're a criminal or a drug addict, so when clients want their first tattoo in a place that can't be hidden, like their face, neck or forearm, we highly discourage them."
Before the opening of B-Street Tattoos a few months ago, Bert, 32, and Rabinowitz, 29, discussed the idea for six or seven years. Never in Israel at the same time until recently, both artists lived and traveled their way around the globe through their trade.
"The decision to open B-Street Tattoos was a sober one, but now we're not sure what we were on," jokes Rabinowitz.
Thanks to celebrity support - among them Angelina Jolie, Alyssa Milano, Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, David Beckham, Eminem, Robbie Williams and Pink - and a renewed interest in patriotic tattoos, the past few years have seen a worldwide explosion in body stamps. Thus, the duo's "sober" decision seems to be a well-timed one too.
"We get all kinds of people in here - those who want to make a fashion statement, those who want a tattoo as a reminder of a turning-point in their lives, those who get one out of boredom or as a reward, those who use tattoos as a way to turn something negative into something positive... all types for all different reasons walk through our door," says Bert.
But no matter what the reason for getting a tattoo may be, inking just about anything, even their client's goldfish, poses little problem for these tattoo artists.
"As long as the living, breathing, moving, and complaining work surface can stay still long enough for the design to be imprinted, the possibilities are endless," Rabinowitz says. "It's all about art appreciation."
For more information, visit B-Street Tattoos on 57 Rehov Bograshov in Tel Aviv, or call the parlor at (03) 629-0234.