At the age of 14 Tony Polito got his first tattoo. That was back in 1959, and it was true love ever since. That same year Polito began working as a tattoo artist himself, mainly serving sailors in such rough neighborhoods as Coney Island and the Bowery, where the majority of tattoo parlors were located.
Just two years later, in 1961, tattooing became an illegal endeavor in New York City due to an outbreak of hepatitis. While most tattoo artist just left town to work in other cities in New York State, Polito stayed behind in the city, working in his basement or other hidden spaces.
“For a couple of years I was the only one in town" he remembers. He had as many as 50 to 80 clients per day. They mostly wanted their tattoos done "fast and cheap."
The ban on tattoo parlors in the city was finally lifted in 1997, and fancy tattoo parlors opened up all over the Village. Today tattooing is gentrified to a certain extent, in contrast to the way Polito, who is still working at age 77, describes the past:
"In the 60s it was rough, you had to know your karate," Tony says.