Few things in NYC have had the luxury of surviving a turbulent economy and rough times, one of those things is a landmark of tattooing, Daredevil Tattoo! Along with Brad Fink, Michelle Myles has been holding down on her tattoo fort for quite some time now, and calling her the queen of NYC tattooing wouldn’t be too far fetched. She started tattooing underground, back in the days when it was illegal in NYC (until 1997!) and then managed to ride the wave and staying on top until present days, with a brand new Daredevil location that is also set up as a tattoo museum, with an impressive collection of vintage flashes and artifacts! Michelle is a truly badass woman, tattooing now for 27 years, keeping it real and being the most humble and the nicest person you can talk to! Those are quite rare qualities! So much respect!
Tell us about your background, where did you grow up and what was your first encounter with tattoos…
I grew up in St.Louis. That’s where I met my business partner Brad Fink. We didn’t get to be friends until after I moved to New York though, but in St.Louis we hung out at the same shows and knew some of the same people. He was the first tattooer I knew of. I think my first encounter with tattoos was this punk girl who worked at the cool record shop in town and looking at issues of Easyrider Tattoo Magazine and Modern Primitives. It wasn’t until I started tattooing and I saw Brad’s work in Tattoo Time that we connected, became friends and he started coming up to NY to visit and work.
What was the main force behind your decision to start tattooing?
I had a roommate in college who got a starter kit and started tattooing. That was probably my first inspiration. I was fascinated! had been getting tattooed for a while and when she got the equipment I figured I could give it a try too. Tattooing was illegal at the time in NY so there weren’t any formal apprenticeships available with any shops so I kind of fumbled along. Eventually it all worked out!
As a woman were you ever intimidated to start in a male dominated industry? Did you ever face some kind of discrimination?
I didn’t really have to deal with the “industry” too much since tattooing was underground I wasn’t in a position to approach any shops for help so it was a little different of an environment maybe than if I was somewhere where tattoo shops were sort of the gateway to starting. In NY in the 90’s if you wanted to start tattooing you went down to Unimax and bought a kit. It was almost the same process as getting a tattoo in NYC. You had to know someone and get a referral to know where to go. I don’t feel like I experienced any direct discrimination and if I did I ignored it. I think being a woman tattooer I maybe wasn’t taken as seriously or embraced as much as other guy tattooers were for a while. These days there’s a ton of really talented women in the industry and there’s a lot of recognition of them.
Which female tattooers you respect the most and/or look up to?
I have a lot of respect for Kandi Everett in Hawaii. I met Kandi in about 1994 when I was visiting the islands and got tattooed from her and Mike Malone. I think she was always a really underrated tattooer and always did really beautiful traditional work. She also has great stories of her time with Rollo.
How is the New York scene nowadays and what’s different from when you started off?
Obviously the New York tattoo scene and tattooing in general has radically changed since I started tattooing in the early 90’s. Between legalization in NYC and the mainstream embrace of tattoos pretty much every aspect of tattooing, culturally and socially, has been affected. I was happy tattooing underground, no sign out front no storefront, everyone knew everyone else but at the same time New York seemed to be a little stunted under the ban. As much as everyone likes to complain about how things have changed I feel fortunate to be in an industry that hasn’t been wiped out or scaled down by all the changes around us like so many other industries have been affected. Tattooing has only grown with the changes. Of course it’s bewildering to see tattooing be absorbed into popular culture, that’s something I don’t think any of us really imagined but I’m glad I was around before the TV shows, the celebrities, Instagram and all the weird mainstream stuff all around us.
Tell me about your love for traditional tattoos and the decision of opening a tattoo museum in the shop and organizing tattoo history walks
Brad (Fink) and I have always had a love of tattoo history and old things in general. When we first opened Daredevil on Ludlow street in 1997 we hung copies of antique flash from Brad’s collection in the front of the shop. At that point people really didn’t get it. You couldn’t give traditional tattoos away. People would come in and scoff at the designs as if the idea of anyone wanting to get those old designs tattooed was hilarious. It’s interesting to see how things come around and change over the years. When we were deciding on the design of the new space we thought it would be cool to have some stuff from Brad’s collection in the shop and that morphed into filling the whole shop with all of Brad’s collection. I started doing more research about the Bowery and made my map of Bowery tattoo artists. Even people well familiar with tattoo history are surprised seeing how many artists were working in that tiny little stretch along those blocks of Chatham Square and the Bowery.
There’s so much tattoo history that has come out of the neighborhood we’re in and Brad has put together such an important collection of work we felt that we were in a position to offer something of value to the tattoo community.
Some notable artists and pieces hung in the shop include a large collection of Bert Grimm flash with the Sundancer, the Garden of Eden, and the Rock of Ages back pieces. Cap Coleman, Stoney St. Clair, George Burchett, Sailor Jerry, and many others. Of the New York artifacts there’s work from Samuel O’Reilly, Ed Smith, Charlie Wagner, Andy Sturtz, the Moskowitz’s and last but not least Millie Hull, “New York’s only lady tattooer” There’s some really great articles, Millie made the cover of Family Circle magazine in 1936 and a really stunning color newspaper article from 1901 about O’Reilly tattooing a famous New York socialite. Brad also has an Edison pen on display that the first electric tattoo machine patent was based on. As an added bonus we have a crushed penny machine we got from Lyle Tuttle with four Daredevil designs to pick from. I’ve always been a crushed penny collector so I was really excited to get that working. It took a lot to set up the shop to display everything. It’s much more difficult to display original artifacts than it is to make copies and hang them up. Everything has to be behind museum glass, be secure and climate controlled, also we managed to buy the storefront that the shop is in so we won’t get priced out of this space (the curse of renting commercial property in the city).
The shop is very lucky to have my husband. Kevin, who built the shop from the ground up. We could never have managed to build out such an amazing shop if wasn’t for him. We have a space that’s beyond anything we could have come up on our own thanks to his skills and keeping in our zero budget. I always say he built the shop for a Guinness and a Rottweiler puppy!!. It was so difficult to pull everything off that at one point we launched a kickstarter campaign to help the museum. I was amazing the outpouring of support we got from all over the world, it let us know that people were really behind the project and that people trusted us. Another thing that came out of the research and the map are the tattoo history walking tours I do through Airbnb. I usually do the tours on Fridays, I take people through the shop collection then we walk to the Bowery I talk about the tattoo history of the neighborhood and talk about the history of the Lower East Side. I’ve enjoyed meeting all of the tattooers that have come on the tours and visited the shop along with all the collectors and people outside of the tattoo community as well who have come through.
Where you see tattooing going in the future? What’s your personal predictions for this trade?
It was a real pain in the ass to try and cover up all the tribal and chunky new school work from the 90’s I’m glad that the present trends will be easier to go over when the micro lines get a couple miles on them and taste change which they will, they always do.
And what’s your plans for the futures? Projects, exhibits etc..
We would like to put out a catalog of the antique flash collection and have been in the preliminary stages of putting that together. Brad has photographed everything and I’ve been working on a history of early tattooing in New York along with my NYC tattoo history map. Also in September we’ve done an event with the Seaport museum. We’ve reached out to a bunch of our fellow NYC tattooers and we tattooed and auctioned artwork to raise money for the restoration and preservation of the Gus Wagner collection. The Seaport got hit very hard by hurricane Sandy, they still haven’t recovered so we wanted to help them out. We are always down for meaningful projects especially if they can help preserve and support tattoo history!
Daredevil Tattoo, 141 Division Street, NYC, NY 10002
Or you can follow her on Instagram: @daredevilmichelle