Often called the forgotten neighbor, Staten Island is one of the 5 NYC boroughs that is somehow underestimated or well… forgotten, because mosty residential and out of the traditional touristic route but that is housing a very vibrant and relevant tattoo scene. This is where tattooer Nick Caruso grew up and where he decided, almost 10 years ago, to open up his shop Bound for Glory, together with partner Mike Bee.
With a great team of tattooers and many international guest artists, BfG specializes in old school traditional and neo traditional, and definitely helped in putting Staten Island back on the map! I meet with Nick Caruso for photos and interview, to get to know better the man behind the silly mask that he likes to portray. A really skilled and strong tattooer with a real passion and respect for tradition and a real nice guy, a street shop tattooer able to pretty much handle anything that comes throught the door. Not afraid to crack a joke, be honest about stuff or to say exactly what he has in mind, and we know not everybody like that. But that’s another story… let’s go back to tattooing.
Tell us about your story.. what’s your background, who was Nick growin up…
I was a weird kid obsessed with cartoons, comics, and Japanese robots. I was always drawing and copying that stuff, to the point where I was often getting in trouble at school. My family life was hard. I grew up in a italian lower middle class family in South Beach, Staten Island, and I’m pretty sure my dad wanted me to be a truck driver like him I think, or definetly get a real job. But I really hated real jobs and sucked at a lot of normal things. When I was a kid I went through phases like anyone else… graffiti, metal, hardcore, etc but I always was really into metal, punk, comics, toys and stuff, and still am. As I got older, I guess I got weirder, but quieter about it. I’m probably still mentally 12 years old… (laughter)
What was your first contact with tattoos and when and how you decided to start tattooing?
A lot of my dads friends and a couple family members had tattoos. They were shitty as hell, but i loved them. My dad was a truck driver for the New York post, and would bring me home comics and weird magazines I asked for, but the tattoo ones were my favorite. I ate that shit up! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on skin. I started copying them and trying to paint the stuff, and shamefully I admit I did a few crappy stick and poke ones and figured out that I needed help if I wanted to start tattooing. I was a kid. I landed an apprenticeship when I was about 19? It’s pretty blurry. I landed an apprenticeship with a guy who I later found out had only been tattooing a few months, but I was young and determined to learn.
Thankfully it was at that place I met Mike Maney, who along with Eric Perfect, Elio Espana and a few others really took the time to teach me stuff. After bouncing around cause I sucked, I landed some days at Fly Rite in Brooklyn, and even though I always traveled and stuff,working a day here or there at other spots, and I stayed there for about ten years!!! Man they were crazy and good times… I learned so much there, and met some awesome tattooers – there were always guests there. That place opened a lot of doors for me, and I have nothing but fond memories. I’m forever grateful to everyone who helped me.
I worked my ass off, and when I opened my shop i did it as respectfully as possible for Elio.
What was the main force behind your decision to get into professional tattooing
I guess it would be my interest in the imagery and also the need to support my daughter, Koral, who was just a baby at the time. It just seemed like a natural thing to try to do for money, since i suck at math, authority, regular jobs etc.
You are now 42 years old, many years have gone by since you put your foot through the door… how you think the trade of tattooing is changing/developing?
Well, it’s been almost 22 years professionally for me, and yeah, the scene is almost unrecognizable… It’s been hard to adapt to, but I think with all media being forced down the public’s throat, its forced a really rapid change. I’m not one of those people who is terrified by that. Confused occasionally, but not scared. Sure it’s exploded in popularity but with that so have techniques, pigments, and the bar has been raised super high now. Personally, I just try to keep doing better every time, its all I can do. I’m nervous and excited to see what its gonna look like in another 22 years!
Your style is a mix of traditional americana and japanese… with a touch of weird and crazy. How did you develop your personal style and what does it mean for you being a traditional tattooer nowadays?
Yeah i guess it is, thanks ! Being a traditional tattooer always meant the same thing to me – do your best, be good at everything, and do it so it will last. I apply that to every tattoo I do.
You live and work in Staten Island NY but you are also constantly traveling abroad for international conventions and guest spots… do you still feel like your roots are in NYC and how is it working at home compared to abroad for you?
Good question! Of course my roots are here, and I will never forget that, but traveling so much has had a big effect on me, not only as a tattooer but as a person. I can’t imagine who I’d be if i hadn’t traveled so much, experienced different cultures, languages, art, food and everything. It’s really humbling and inspiring. And meeting new people and being at conventions and seeing all the crazy mind boggling things that people are doing on skin. Whether i personally think it should be a tattoo or not is a different story, but the craft has come a long way.
What does it take to be a complete tattooer nowadays and which advice would you give to the newcomers?
In my opinion no one cares about being a complete street shop tattooer any more it seems. Everyone is mostly about Instagram followers, or whatever. As for newcomers: I’ve been tattooing very hard for almost 22 years, the only thing I don’t like about you is the “tattitude” and lack of respect shown to people who came before you, who worked their asses off so art kids can “close their books” and wear fancy shoes to work. Don’t forget that.
What are your favorite style and set up when tattooing technically speaking and what’s your favorite subject to tattoo?
I guess my favorite setup would be one that doesn’t hurt my back (laughter)! Like i said, I just try to use my traditional sensibilities on every tattoo I do, so I try to have a little fun with everything. I like doing big weird stuff mixed with American and Japanese imagery, with Japanese backgrounds. In my opinion, there is no better way to have movement, dark contrast and large areas of coverage that will last.
I know you will be moving to Paris soon, to work with tattoo legend Tin-Tin… tell us more about this decision!
Well, it’s kind of a long story. The short answer is my life recently changed very drastically. I’ve been divorced twice, my daughter is almost 22, my parents and most of my family are dead. Depressing yeah, but this last divorce thing made me realize that you really truly only live once. I’ve known Tin-Tin for many years now, and I am proud to not only call him a peer but a friend – a real one. I was out there for his convention and my life was falling apart. We talked about it and it just seems like in the last few months everything has been working out on both ends. So I said, I’m going! It’s a great shop, fun, and I love Paris! I mean, its Tin-Tin’s! I think moving there will be really inspiring, and will revitalize me. I will keep my shop of course, and come back often to work and visit. Overall, I’m very excited!
You are constantly drawing and painting tattoo art. How important is that in a tattooer’s profession today, in a world of technology and what’s the value of tattoo art nowadays in your opinion?
Damn, thanks for noticing! Well, honestly I do that mostly because I’m crazy and if I don’t occupy my time somehow I’ll probably get into trouble. The value of tattoo art? I guess that’s up to the collector. I think its been super watered down now, I don’t even bother making flash or prints any more. If I do, I usually sell one, and give the rest away to friends! (laughter)
Which are in general the artists that inspire you the most, from the past and from today?
This is gonna be a long list, and you people might have to google a little, sorry. From comics, it would be Moebius, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Bill Elder, Jack Kirby, Jack Davis, Angelo Torres, Robert Crumb, Greg Irons, S. Clay Wilson, Geoff Darrow, just to name a few. Tattooers… man there’s a lot! I mean how can you be tattooing for over 20 years and not have a million names and images banging around in your head? (laughter) I’d say Ed Hardy, Filip Leu, Luke Atkinson, Rollo, Dave Lum, mike Wilson, Eric Perfect, Oliver Peck, Eric Inksmith, Bob And Charlie Roberts, Bob Wicks, Elio Espana, Scott Sylvia, Jeff Rassier, Jojo Ackermann, Robert Atkinson, Mick, Horiyoshi 2, Horihide, Chris Trevino… I have to stop!
You opened up your shop Bound for Glory almost 10 years ago – how was the journey together with your partner Mike Bee and your amazing team of tattooers?
Well, it’s been a pretty crazy ride! Mike only recently became my partner on paper, but really he always has been the whole time. He has been a true friend, and I can’t think of a better business partner. We are kind of opposites in a way, but he keeps me grounded cause i can be pretty crazy sometimes. I have no idea how I ended up with such a great team! I never set out to have a ton of people working for me or anything. I opened the shop so Mike and I could do our own thing and be closer to home. I was never trying to be a millionaire or anything, I just wanted stability. Having more and more people just kinda evolved, we got busier, people needed jobs… you know how it goes. Today I’m very proud to work with Dave Borjes, Tom Connors, John Lemon and Jeremy Miller. Adding Paul as a piercer was also never part of the plan, but hey, like I said things just evolved that way.
Everyone is great, and we make a really weird team/family. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Your shop has been compared to a boys club… how you feel about that? Is there room for women in this trade and how you see the women working in this industry? Any women in your shop in the future?
That is FALSE. I welcome tattooers who put out quality work. Their gender makes no difference to me or anyone working at Bound for Glory. I have had several reputable female guest artists work here (like Moira Ramone for example). As of right now we do not have any female tattooers, but we do have a female shop manager and she rules. I cannot predict the future, but I prefer to judge tattooers by ABILITY, not by their GENDER.
You said I like tattoos that look like tattoos: I know exactly what you mean but can you explain this to the general public?
Well, to me that means all the classic imagery of course, but also the application of the tattoo. People seems to forget that it’s a craft, and you’re working on a living breathing organ, so I prefer tattoos that are crisp, that you don’t have to squint at to see what is going on, high contrast. All the crazy stuff going on right now with tattooing is amazing, but I don’t think a lot of it should be on skin. BOLD WILL HOLD.