When Ariel Padilla told his parents he was going to open a tattoo shop, they gave him two years to succeed. If he didn’t, he would go back to school and finish his master’s degree in forensic technology.
“In my heart I knew I wasn’t going to fail,” Padilla said.
His heart was right. More than 15 years have passed since he opened his first tattoo parlor in Ozone Park, Queens. Today, Dark Child Tattoo is located about two miles from his high school.
After graduating from Port Jefferson’s Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in 1987, Padilla attended NYIT, where he studied criminal psychology. Artistically inclined, Padilla worked as an airbrush artist at an artist colony in Smithtown. A Long Island tattoo artist told him he was wasting his time and talent and encouraged him to begin tattooing.
Padilla began shadowing tattoo artists in the city and New Jersey, just trying to get in where he could. Most of what he learned was self-taught, which he said was very difficult and something he wouldn’t recommend.
At the time, tattooing wasn’t legal in New York City. In 1961, the city banned the practice after a possible connection between tattooing and a Hepatitis B outbreak. In 1997, the city lifted the ban and began licensing tattoo artists. Padilla said he welcomed the industry regulation.
“Sometimes people look at you … and they think, ‘This is all you had left,’” Padilla said. “No, I had a lot of choices other than this. I chose to be a tattooist because I loved tattooing and the art form it expresses.”
Padilla began working at a tattoo shop and married his wife, Velkys, in 1996. Wanting to be his own boss and having built up a strong client base, he decided to open his own business. The couple compromised — they would move back to Long Island and open a store close to the city.
The shop has moved to numerous locations since. After Ozone Park, a Brentwood location opened, but Padilla moved the business when the area began to change. He set up shop in Uniondale, right around the block from Hofstra University, where his eldest daughter, Caryn, was majoring in Asian Studies and minoring in Japanese. She managed the Uniondale shop while attending school.
“I chose to be a tattooist because I loved tattooing and the art form it expresses.”
Padilla has two other children: Illyana, 15, and Elijah, 12.
Caryn Padilla apprenticed under her father and has been tattooing professionally for six years.
“I started it as a back-up, like as a way to pay for school. … At some point, I fell in love with it,” she said.
Ten years after opening up the first store in Queens, the family opened a second location, in Port Jefferson Station, close to their Miller Place home. While the Uniondale shop was doing well, Padilla closed the location due to the long commute and slowing economy.
Ariel and Caryn Padilla are the only tattoo artists at the Port Jefferson Station store and every employee is a family member. The daughter specializes in tribal tattoos and lettering while the father specializes in fantasy, portraits and full-color works.
“Since I am family, he is hard on me, but I appreciate it because it has helped me grow into a better artist,” Caryn Padilla said about her father.
He also isn’t scared to tell clients that what they think will work, won’t. Deanna Cammarata, a 20-year-old from Holbrook, came in wanting a butterfly on her lower ankle. Padilla sat down with her to explain it couldn’t be so small or the details would be lost. Cammarata’s boyfriend, Jim Fritz, a 27-year-old from Farmingville, heard about the store through a friend.
“I have many, many clients who want me to do it their way … but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way,” Padilla said. “The right way is more important to me. Perfection.”
Gina Daleo, whose family owns Chandler Square Ice Cream in Port Jefferson, has known Ariel Padilla since she was a teenager. He has completed pieces for her and her family. Her daughter, Dominique Godsmark, has a portrait of her late grandfather, Anthony Daleo, tattooed on her shoulder and a fox intertwined with flowers on her side.
“He’s a wonderful man,” Daleo said.
It has been very busy at Dark Child Tattoo, with the waiting room full of new and old customers. Dark Child will be heading to Long Island’s first tattoo convention in a decade at the end of July. The convention will be held at Nassau Coliseum.
“We’re just not a biker tattoo shop,” Velkys Padilla said. “[We want] customers coming back to get something that will represent them for the rest of their lives.”