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Meet Montauk's New Tattoo Artist

Mon, 06/10/2024 - 14:56
Chris Clemence grew up in East Hampton and recently returned to open Montauk Tattoo on the hamlet's Main Street.
Christine Sampson

Chris Clemence got his first tattoo in 2002, at the age of 16, which is technically illegal. What he got should have been illegal, too: a leprechaun with a pot full of beer. But at the time it made sense to him because he's Irish and his birthday happens to be St. Patrick's Day.

"I was a crazy little kid," he said. "I've covered it up since, but it was a pretty funny tattoo -- especially back then when tattoos weren't as mainstream and popular as they are now."

Twenty-two years later, Mr. Clemence, whose numerous tattoos are a lot more sophisticated now, is surfing the wave of popularity that tattooing is experiencing as an art form. He is the owner and chief artist at a new studio called Montauk Tattoo, which opened in March -- fittingly, on the weekend of the Montauk Friends of Erin's annual St. Patrick's Day parade. It was a chilly day, but the reception was warm. He offered a special on ink with an Irish theme. "There's a lot of shamrocks floating around Montauk right now," he said.

It's "the fun, cool part of the Hamptons, in my opinion," Mr. Clemence said. "It's where everyone goes to have a good time. There's really no better place for a tattoo shop. You have amazing locals and tourists and travel clientele coming in. . . . It's exciting. You can come work on your tattoo and then go out and enjoy yourself."

His journey from East Hampton High School (class of 2004) to a tattoo parlor that overlooks Montauk's Main Street came by way of a successful music industry career. He was both a solo artist and the bass player in a band called RapScallions, which in 2014 released a song called "Can You Feel It" that became a huge sports anthem, played by professional teams in hockey, basketball, baseball, and football (including at the Super Bowl in 2014). He was a writer of "Let's Go," the hype song often heard at Madison Square Garden, and a number of songs that have appeared on video game soundtracks.

A visual artist, too, he designs a line of shoes called Tattshoos.

"I've always been an artist, whether doing music or visual arts," he said. "The band was signed to Virgin Records, but I wanted to get off the road a little bit. Tattooing is great for that. You can have your setup and your studio, and everyone comes to you. You don't have to go all over the place."

So, people come to him -- and his nine other rotating artists -- for custom-designed work. "Pretty much all the art I do is hand-drawn," he said. "Most of my clients come to me for large-scale Japanese-style tattoos. It's my specialty -- big dragons, koi fish, phoenix, sleeves, and full backs. I will draw them directly on the skin with a marker. It kind of flows with the body more -- it fits the curvature and shapes and looks natural. When I do a tattoo, I want it to look like they were born with the tattoo and it looks natural on their body, not like a stamp, like it was meant to be there."

He apprenticed in Los Angeles with Greg James, a master tattooer whose clients include Joan Jett, Ozzy Osborne, Charlie Sheen, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and pretty much all of Motley Crue.

"To learn from him was an amazing experience," Mr. Clemence said. "I was in this shop in L.A. with all these heavy hitters. It was intimidating, but I learned the right way to do it. It was about a year and a half, and then I started getting to the point where I was doing solid tattoos and he invited me to join the crew at the shop."

He worked under Mr. James professionally for a few years, then took his gear on the road, stopping in Scottsdale, Ariz., Las Vegas, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Steen Jones flew in from Australia to create the shop's graffiti-style dragon mural.

His shop, with its floor-to-ceiling windows perfect for people-watching during slow times, features a huge dragon mural that's like a graffiti-style tattoo on the wall. It was created freehand by Steen Jones, an Australian artist whose work can be seen worldwide, from giant murals in Melbourne to Berlin and London.

In Montauk, Mr. Clemence succeeds the hamlet's original tattooer, Lola Snow Esperian, who died in 2016. "When she started it, tattooing was illegal," he said. "It was a big battle. She paved the way for this to happen, so major respect to all she did for tattooing."

He has the endorsement of Kimberly Esperian, Lola's daughter. "She invited me over and showed me old pics and the flash from the shop," he said. ("Flash" refers to old-school tattoo styles, like the classic "Mom" with a heart.) "Kim gave me a framed picture of some of the Montauk old-timers with some of their tattoos. I have it hanging up. It's cool to be a part of this history in Montauk, carrying on the legacy that Lola started."

Nowadays, tattoos are cool. Doctors and C.E.O.s have shoulders and arms full of sleeves under their lab coats and tailored suits. It wasn't always that way -- starting in 1961, New York City banned the art form following a hepatitis outbreak. The ban lasted about three decades and helped to drive tattooing underground.

Attitudes changed when "people realized it's not this big, scary, mean thing. It's artwork," Mr. Clemence said. "Instead of buying a painting to hang on your wall, you're adorning your skin. It's a piece of art you can carry with you everywhere that you can show off. There's something magical about that."

It's more popular than ever, and like potato chips and golden retrievers, it's hard to have just one. "I tattoo everyone from all walks of life, which is cool," Mr. Clemence said. "They're all different people but everyone's connected by their love for the art."

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