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Rich Zayas

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Rich Zayas Jr. works his girlfriend’s tattoo. Photo by Chris Mellides

By Chris Mellides

The intermittent sound of buzzing machinery rattles off like machine gun fire, while guitar riffs and drum work pour from the sound system of the Inked Republic storefront at Westfield South Shore mall in Bay Shore.

Inked Republic is a retail store that doubles as a tattooing and piercing parlor owned and operated by Tattoo Lous — a company established in 1958 that has several shops scattered across Long Island.

Inside Inked Republic, apparel featuring tattoo-inspired designs sits on shelves and hangs from racks, and opposite them is an array of custom guitars that are proudly displayed on the far wall of the shop.

The work of Jay Mohl. Photo from Mohl
The work of Jay Mohl. Photo from Mohl

Just past a roped-off motorcycle emblazoned with skulls and a Lou’s company logo is the shop’s live tattooing area. The first of two work stations belongs to Rich Zayas Jr., a 36-year-old Long Beach native living in Bay Shore, who works for Tattoo Lou’s and who has been tattooing professionally for just under four years.

Zayas is of average height and has long hair tucked underneath a black baseball cap that he wears backwards. His loose-fitting, black T-shirt has an oversized print of some original artwork drawn by Dmitriy Samohin, an artist from Ukraine, that features a skull design with octopus tentacles.

He and his girlfriend, Melissa Ann White, make their way to his workstation, passing the front desk where the glow of warm neon lights casts a shimmering bright blue hue onto the piercing supplies and tattoo aftercare products shelved behind glass displays.

Zayas says that he started work on White’s back tattoo in 2012, and that it was finally time to finish it. The design: a Day of the Dead-themed sugar skull girl wearing a cowl.

As he begins prepping his station, Zayas reaches for the bottom shelf of his stickered tackle box to reveal a rainbow assortment of tattoo ink in the neighborhood of 200 bottles. “It’s totally normal for artists to have this much,” says Zayas.

A tattoo parlor operating inside a mall is a recent phenomenon. “Irish” Jay Mohl, 45, owns Irish Jay Tattoo in Miller Place and is an artist with 23 years tattooing experience. He recalls a different time when first getting his start in the industry back in 1992.

“When I first started, it was a completely different business; there was a different mentality and it was a very rogue profession,” says Mohl. “You had a whole different segment of people that came in here. They were drinking and crazy, and you had total outlaws coming in, and now it’s not crazy anymore; it’s very normal.”

Now that tattooing has gone mainstream, body art is no longer a choice of expression solely for outlaws and drunks with criminal records. People from all walks of life, who value the beauty of art and the freedom of self-expression, have made and continue to make the leap into body modification. With the practice having become more culturally accepted, more people are seeking quality artists, and the demand for custom tattoos has risen.

“[Tattooing] is so culturally accepted right now, it’s almost like a rite of passage,” said Mohl. “I think it’s become a new way of people expressing themselves, and with the popularity of it on TV and all the media and everything like that, it really has opened the door for a lot of people.”

Work by Lake Ronkonkoma tattoo artist Stacey Sharp. Photo from Sharp
Work by Lake Ronkonkoma tattoo artist Stacey Sharp. Photo from Sharp

Mohl isn’t alone, as more and more artists have noticed this trend and understand the changes affecting the industry as a whole.

Zayas understands this shift, and his employment at a retail and tattooing hub nestled in a shopping mall shows just how far the industry has come. Years ago, a mall would have been the unlikeliest of places to get tattooed, but things have undoubtedly changed, with artists adapting to new customer demands for convenience and greater accessibility.

“Being in the mall kind of closes that weird stigma gap in between things to where you can have the lady that’s shopping in Lord and Taylor or Macy’s come in and maybe have something that was done bad years ago…fixed or covered up,” Zayas said. “Or maybe [she can] get that first tattoo that she’s been petrified about forever.”

When it comes to the kind of art being tattooed, themes and the art itself range anywhere from lettering to hyperrealism. Deciding on the right design and its placement will always be dependent on the client’s tastes, personality and life experiences.

Stacey Sharp, a 42-year-old tattoo artist working at InkPulsive Custom Tattooing in Lake Ronkonkoma, said that people who get tattooed do so to express themselves and to connect with others, and sometimes certain events in a person’s life can heavily influence their choice in art.

“Life-changing experience I think is a big one — a birth, a death, something that’s profound,” says Sharp. “There are a lot of people that say, ‘I normally wouldn’t do this, but I feel like this is a momentous occasion and I have to keep that with me all of the time.’”

On the other hand, Sharp also acknowledged there are people who have always known what they’ve wanted to get tattooed.

“Other people, they know from a very young age like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to get done … and I know that I want to have these marks,’” said Sharp.

Now that spring is here, artists say that they expect a bump in business. And while the winter season sees serious collectors taking advantage of shorter wait times, the warmer weather allows people showing more skin a reason to flash some new ink.

“Summer and spring are always the biggest, and I think it’s just because people are showing more skin,” says Mohl. “It’s almost like they’re priming themselves all winter, working out in the gym … and it’s kind of like a new paint job on a car; people want to get it, and they want something to show.”

As far as tattoo tips are concerned, artists agree that researching a new artist or shop and planning ahead are things that customers should do before booking time in a chair to undergo a lengthy session.

“Don’t bite off more than you can chew; I get a lot of people that do that a lot,” Zayas said. “If you want to get a sleeve for your first tattoo, you totally can, but just find a decent artist that is going to work with you and design you a cool custom piece.”