Down town Salem Massachusetts is known more for fortune tellers and witches than body art. But when Witch City Ink opened their doors in 2008 we were flooded with media. With our new shop location being right on the main thoroughfare, the Essex Street pedestrian walkway, people were watching us build out a beautiful space but still didn’t know what we were putting in there.
One of the first news pieces to be published about us described the vibe of our shop and the vision of Natan our shop owner and artist.
Owner of the new Witch City Ink shares inspiration for his art
To distract bare-skinned clients from the buzz of his tattoo needle, artist Natan Alexander has done all he can to make Witch City Ink as peaceful as a Tibetan temple. Incense curls skyward and Enya plays softly, while overhead on the walls is a collection of cultural symbols: a Babylonian seal, a Tibetan mask designed to scare away evil spirits.
“It’s about creating a feeling,” says the 38-year-old owner of the new shop on Essex Street. “I’m a big believer that tattooing is a magical process. I wanted to create a sacred space.”
Alexander, 38, is part philosopher, part rock star. He looks like Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but talks like a medical school student, throwing around words like maxilla and mandible when talking about a skull tattoo he’s particularly proud of, that takes up an entire man’s back.
“A little bit of anatomy understanding is a key thing to get a tattoo to flow correctly,” Alexander says. Later, when explaining his passion for the art of tattooing, he says, “The universe is perfectly expressed in the human form.”
For Alexander, tattooing is about an appreciation for art and anatomy, the perfect fusion of his two passions. The Western Mass. native was on the track to becoming a doctor, studying physics and biology when a he got sidetracked on a trip to Holland. There, he fell in with some local tattoo artists who took him under their wings.
At 27, Alexander returned to Boston intent on opening a tattoo parlor. But at that time tattoos were illegal in Massachusetts. So Alexander set about rallying to get them legalized, writing letters to Congress and campaigning around the city.
“I felt it was wrong for tattoos to be banned, coming from Europe where it was a cultural movement,” he says. “I’m a big believer in freedom of the individual.”
In 2001 tattoos were legalized, and Alexander soon after helped organize the Boston Tattoo Convention, an annual gathering of tattoo artists from all over the country. He went on to open two tattoo parlors, one in Boston and one in Saugus. Last month he opened the doors of his latest shop, on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall.
Witch City Ink he hopes will be a multicultural center, which will showcase tattoo artists from around the world. With three full-time artists employed at the shop, Alexander is working with the Salem Board of Health to get permission to bring in guest artists from Japan, Italy and other countries, whom he says all have a unique style to offer. A Japanese artist may be influenced by the traditional dragons and boldly colored flowers found in Asian art, while an Italian artist may draw ideas from the sparse grays and lines of classical Italian sculpture.
In the U.S. tattoos have their roots in the 1940s, a time when sailors returned to their sweethearts fresh inked from a foreign land. “If you talk to your grandmother about a tattoo, she’s most likely picturing an anchor with a name in it…” he says.
Alexander’s own tattoo style tends toward the mystical; he loves religious symbols, folklore and gothic art incorporating details from stained glass and wrought iron. He once covered a man’s arm in magical symbols to ward off evil spirits. But he also enjoys somewhat sentimental pieces, like a watercolor-inspired tattoo he did of someone’s pet dog.
Tattoos, he says, are a joint effort between the artist and the client. “Your energy combines with their energy,” he says. “You collaborate.”
Often in his work, Alexander finds inspiration in the work of classic artists, looking to Alphonse Mucha for art nouveau style lilies, or reproducing a scene with an angel and devil from a Renaissance painting. “You have to stand on the shoulders of giants to see far,” he says. “I like to think occasionally I get that chance.”
He must be doing something right, because last week a client came all the way from Japan to have him fix a tattoo she didn’t trust anyone else to touch.
People come to Alexander for different reasons. He has been tattooing Tim Coady, a retired custodian from South Boston, for eight years. After a knee injury, Coady started going to him twice a month to have a sleeve done. He says the tattoo process helped take his mind off the pain in his knee. “When he was doing it I’d pay attention to the details and it distracted me,” said Coady.
Aya Hashimoto, Alexander’s girlfriend who works as Witch City Ink’s bookkeeper, got her first tattoo last month, a detailed poppy flower on her right shoulder. Japanese by birth, Hashimoto grew up with a negative image of tattooing — in Japan, they are associated with a criminal organization, the Yakuza, who often cover their bodies with samurai and dragon images. After she moved to America, her perception changed. “After meeting Natan and his friends I realized tattoos are art,” she smiles.
Of his life’s work, Alexander says, “It’s an intense responsibility.” He practices his tattoos painstakingly before they ever get to the human form, talking over ideas with clients and sketching them out on tracing paper so they can be laid over the skin and envisioned beforehand. In 15 years Alexander’s art has often helped make clients look slimmer. It’s commemorated dead pets and relatives. And marked love affairs that some may later wish could be forgotten.
“Tattoos mark time,” he says. “Your beliefs, your loves, your passions at that time, who you were, what you felt…”
For most people that may sound serious, but for Alexander it’s all in a day’s work.
The full article by Kristin D’Agostino, complete with photos of our first customer being tattooed is avaiable on the Salem Gazett’s website, head on over and have a look.