Mike Maldonado is an artist. His medium is ink, preferably black; his paintbrush is a needle; his canvas is an arm or a shoulder, a thigh or an ankle, maybe even part of a torso -- whatever body parts his clients entrust to him as co-owner and chief tattoo artist at a Noyac studio called Hamptons, Ink.
Once a highly stigmatized form of personal expression, more often than not associated with foul-mouthed sailors and dangerous-looking motorcycle enthusiasts, tattooing has become more and more popular and accepted as an art form.
In a 2018 study published by the BBC involving 9,000 people in 18 countries, researchers found that 46 percent of American respondents had at least one tattoo, up from the 36 percent that the Pew Research Center found in a separate study eight years earlier. "In many places, tattoos are no longer the preserve of rebels on society's fringes," the BBC's Elizabeth Hotson wrote in January 2020.
Mr. Maldonado knows how they were once perceived; he doesn't really care. "I show my grandmother my tattoos and she still says, 'Ugh.' It was for sailors or criminals back in the day . . . sort of underground," he said. "After 'Inkmaster,' the TV show, it really became mainstream. Now you have doctors and lawyers and people in respected professions with sleeves under their lab coats. Women made it very popular, too, by getting smaller ones, and it's elegant and classy."
Hamptons, Ink opened in March 2020, but it barely had time to get off the ground before Covid-19 began to wreak havoc. It reopened in July that year. In general, there aren't a whole lot of places on the East End where one can get a tattoo -- or take advantage of microblading and piercing, which are also becoming more mainstream -- which is why Mr. Maldonado is booked right through May 2023 with local clients looking to get inked.
His partner in all of this is his wife, Kat Maldonado, who grew up as a summer resident of Sag Harbor. She handles the piercing and microblading, which is a type of cosmetic tattoo most often applied to eyebrows. Not only is there a delicate artistry involved in microblading -- it also involves math, which Ms. Maldonado happens to be very good at.
Neither of them set out to work in their current professions. Mr. Maldonado studied music and had a job in the New York City Department of Sanitation, and Ms. Maldonado was an assistant to a fashion industry executive. Mr. Maldonado's older brother, Joe, is a tattoo artist in a Brooklyn studio that also did piercing; that's where they both learned their current craft. They live in a house that's walking distance to the studio, a good thing since they have an energetic toddler, Audrey, to care for.
Mr. Maldonado's primary focus is tattooing in black and gray with dramatic shading for detail and depth. He'll do color, too, but educates his clients that it won't have the same long-lasting "wow" effect.
Much of his work on the canvas of other people's skin is of his own design. He's been doodling and drawing ever since he was a kid. He likes when a client comes to him with a specific idea or simple sketch that he can then fine-tune into a sophisticated design. He also likes doing memorial pieces.
"I love doing religious imagery with a Renaissance look, and black and gray is my favorite," he said. "Over time, that heals the best and lasts. There's a saying in the industry: 'Bold will hold.' "
Be careful -- getting inked is addictive. There's another saying, Mr. Maldonado says: "It takes you five years to get your first tattoo, and five minutes to think of your second."
Ms. Maldonado's job is to help her microblading clients achieve a natural, timeless look. Navigating ever-changing cosmetic trends, she finds herself advising them against the thick brows that models on Instagram have been sporting lately. She also sees clients who have lost their eyebrows to chemotherapy, thyroid issues, or other health conditions, helping them regain confidence in their appearance.
Their studio, on Noyac Road, is bright and clean with an edgy feel to it -- neon on the walls, faux skulls on the shelves. On the coffee table are binders filled with pictures of Mr. Maldonado's past work. Images by James Katsipis, a popular Montauk photographer, are on display, giving it kind of a gallery feeling as well.
"We're selling the art, but we're also selling the experience," Mr. Maldonado said.
Downstairs is a separate, and cute, microblading and piercing room where Ms. Maldonado does her thing.
Body piercing is also an art form unto itself these days, though the acceptance of some of the more exotic pieces might lag tattoos a little bit. "Now it can be very feminine and dainty, and there are so many options," Ms. Maldonado said.
Mr. Maldonado envisions having other tattoo artists do short residencies at Hamptons, Ink, to take advantage of in-demand names in the industry who often travel for those types of guest spots.
"It's almost the new rebellious thing to not have a tattoo," he said. "Twenty years ago, people might have said, 'You'll never make it out here.' Just the fact that we're out here is a testament to how mainstream it has become."