“Coney Island Freddie” Grossman, born in 1934, is one of the famous old New York style tattoo artists. He got his name from the years he spent tattooing at New York’s Coney Island, and he was a grizzled tattoo artist who opened his first shop in 1956 on Mermaid avenue.
In the bad old days of the tattoo trade in New York City, artists liked to say there was a piece of equipment almost as essential as the machines: the ball-peen hammer. “I had a guy one time getting a tattoo“, explained Freddie Grossman, “and this guy says to me, ‘Suppose I don’t want to pay you?‘, I kept working. He waits and says: ‘Really, suppose I don’t want to pay you?’ So I reached over and took my hammer, I slammed it down on the counter, and I started working again. That was the end of that conversation”.
It was a time when the modern form first flourished, in the city where mechanized tattooing was invented by Samuel O’Reilly, who modified Edi- son’s electric engraving pen in the 1890’s to make the first tattoo machine. “The first tattoo machine I bought was from the Grecco Brothers in Coney Island“, related Freddie in an interview, “They charged me 12 dollars for the machine and laughed like bastards when they sold it. I stood there with the machine in my hand. No nothing. That was it. That was what I got. I took it home, put it on the table and looked at it to try to figure out how the son of a bitch run. Back then, you didn’t ask a tattoo artist any questions. You walked in and told the guy you wanted to be a tattoo artist and you were thrown out of the shop. You wanted to buy things, they told you nothing”.
At that time tattooists didn’t want competition from some new guy who might open up down the block. They didn’t want anyone coming in, copying the flash off the wall or checking out the prices. They didn’t want another tattooist looking over their shoulders to get a closer-up view of the modifi- cations they made to their tattoo machines. Freddie learned the hard way by himself. The old-time artists rarely considered themselves artists. Tattooing was a trade, a job that allowed them to feel that they had escaped the backbreaking work world of their peers. Assessing the gentrified tattoo scene, Mr. Grossman said: “It’s all store-bought now. They go to a course to learn how to do it. Or worse yet, they go to art school! And they order all of their equipment out of a catalogue. If something breaks, they order a new one. There’s no connection to the tools anymore”.
Mr. Grossman‘s is one of 11 artists in New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art by Michael McCabe, a tattoo artist since the early 80’s. The book is a who’s who of tattooists in the 1940’s and 1950’s.