Tattooing A to Z #13: Thom DeVita

Thom DeVita has been one of the most unique American tattooers and artists. A Manhattan native, born 1932, Thom DeVita showed at open-air art fairs in Washington Square Park in the 1950s, and mingled with famous New York School painters at the Cedar Tavern. Interested in tattooing from an early age, he began tattooing in the 1960s, soon after it was declared illegal in all the boroughs of New York (the ban was nally overturned in 1997). Although he pursued that as an underground career for nearly forty years, he continues to work in drawings, montage and constructions.

On November 2nd, 1961, the day after tattooing was officially banned in New York City, Thom DeVita opened his first shop. He tattooed mostly working class people from the neighborhood, and tough guys that other tattooers didn’t want to tattoo. He opened around an hour after dawn, and would close by three or four o’clock in the afternoon, seven days a week. It was the time of day that the tough guys and miscreants were on their best behaviour, so it kept problems to a minimum. One time, Tony Polito stopped by and saw some of the same rough characters he was tattooing in Brook- lyn sitting around DeVita’s shop quietly reading National Geographic, with classical music playing, and he was astounded.

DeVita used to tell people that he woke up at first light, and he slept near the front window, so as long as there was light, you could call his name quietly and he would open up. But if it was still dark, you better not come back until he forgot your face. He had an erratic approach toward age restrictions. One Irish kid from uptown got both his arms completely covered from DeVita, and when he turned eighteen, Thom refused to tattoo him anymore: “Now you can get tattooed by anyone”.

Thom DeVita, watercolor by Pepe
Thom DeVita, watercolor by Pepe

DeVita’s bootleg tattoo studio apartments were densely-packed installations of found art and objects, assemblages, works on paper, wood and photographs. This complex and inclusive work/live environment, mixing history and cultures, transcended boundaries of High and Low, Art and Craft. DeVita’s tattoo customers became moving visual components in the living assemblage of the city. As Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, and Joseph Cornell – all artists he admires – drew sustenance from sights and objects encountered on the streets, DeVita brings seeming chaos into a personal and mysterious order. All elements are combined and transformed to create a swarm of dark visual jazz.

Deep, sophisticated and unclassifiable, DeVita is a great treasure who has not yet gained the recognition he deserves in the art world at large. Don Ed Hardy and Scott Harrison have written DeVita Unauthorized, a book that reproduces DeVita’s portfolio, issued in a unique limited edition in 2002.