East Side Ink's Josh Lord Talks NYC's Gritty 90s Tattoo Scene, Old-School Icons | Revolver

East Side Ink's Josh Lord Talks NYC's Gritty 90s Tattoo Scene, Old-School Icons

A Revolver x Inked x East Side Ink collaboration
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Josh Lord, East Side Ink, 2018
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

Revolver and Inked have partnered to bring you stories on some of the world's best tattooers and tattoo shops, including New York City's East Side Ink. CLICK HERE to book your consultation at East Side Ink now.

East Side Ink co-owner and renowned tattooer Josh Lord has made a name for himself thanks to his detailed, fine-line pieces and high-profile work on the cast of The Avengers and myriad celebrities — but his early days starting off in New York's gritty tattoo scene were decidedly un-glamorous.

Lord came up at a time when tattooing was still illegal in NYC, and due to the willingness of those who came before him to teach, he caught a break and was able to forge his own path in the city's growing tattoo industry. From his beginnings in the then still-punk days of the East Village to becoming a mentor to some of the best upcoming artists in the game today, Josh explains where he came from, how he got here, and the people that helped and inspired him along the way.

I'm originally from New Mexico, the wilds of New Mexico, but I grew up mostly in western New York, Rochester. I moved to New York about 20 years ago and got my first real tattoo job almost immediately, luckily, under interesting circumstances actually I probably shouldn't discuss in this interview. [Laughs] I had like 600 bucks in my pocket and really had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to live.

The East Village was a very different place back then. I started off in a shop called Fun City, which is a really great shop right now, but anything I might say about it is about how it used to be. It was quite a sketchy and relatively frightening place back then — the people who have it now really have done a wonderful job. So I just want to make sure I don't say anything bad about them.

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Josh Lord with Isobel Varley, Guinness World Records “Most Tattooed Senior Citizen Woman”
Courtesy of Josh Lord

It was a right by Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, St. Mark's ... It was seven days a week job that I was there pretty much 12 hours a day every single day for the first few years of my time in New York, which was a great, great way to learn the basics. I didn't really have any teachers or anything, so at the time I was really just trying to fake it until I eventually knew what I was doing. I did maybe about six months of actual tattooing prior to coming to New York, but really had no idea what I was doing until I put in the time here. Quite a place to learn.

I never actually apprenticed. I'm self-taught, but I should say that I learned so much from wonderful artists that I was around. Nobody ever really, like, you know, officially took me in under their wing. I learned most of my tattooing skills from Patrick Conlon from the old East Side Ink, from [original ESI owner] Andrea Elston, Nalla Smith — those were like, the really great artists that I got to watch and learn from mostly.

I learned all of my bad habits or business sense from [Fun City's] Jonathan Shaw. [Laughs] He was the owner of the first shop I worked at. So in a way I could say, you know, he was my first mentor, although if anyone knows Jonathan Shaw, they'll understand that there's a lot of tongue in that cheek.

As for apprenticeships, I've taken on a various apprentices over 20 years. Jess Mascetti … Just an amazing, beautiful, wonderful artist that everyone should check out. She'll do way better than me in the long run.

Everyone stands on the shoulders of the giants before them, right? So when I was coming up and tattooing, there was a lot of the beginnings of the subtlety that's in the art, but not tons of the tiny detail that I've kind of been obsessed with for most of career. Let's say that maybe most of the people tattooing weren't art-based as much as they had to survive. So they were like, tough guys too, as well as tattooers. But now you know, that's a different world. The artists are from an art world, usually. The things they can do are remarkable and much, much better probably than we did when I was starting, and probably the next generation will be better than them.

I just took on a new apprentice recently. He's also an art graduate and he's going to do great things. Craig. Give him a little plug ahead of time. Good for you. Craig. Trudie Kaiser is the other apprentice I've taken on and she's up in Boston right now doing remarkably well for herself. Very sweet girl, wonderful work. So I've had good experiences with the apprenticeship system.

I think I was too rebellious probably to actually do what anyone told me. That's why I got into tattooing to begin with. It was more of like a, you know, a fuck you, I'm not going to do a real job at the time. And somehow here I am doing a really real normal job, but the whole a tattoo world has changed so much since I started. So there's that. I'm not complaining. I do like the changes, but it is far less rebellious than it used to be.

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Bob Shaw
Courtesy of Josh Lord

Well, I was very lucky to work with the people at East Side Ink initially — the old East Side Ink — opened by Andrea Alston. So I really looked up to her and to Patrick Conlin again, and Nalla Smith — the three artists that I'd say really I just tried to copy their professionalism and a level of detail and art that they could pull off was remarkable to me at the time. So those guys were always my favorite. There's tons of great artists out there, though ... I don't even know where to begin really. Especially nowadays, it's not the same group.

All the old guys are phenomenal. I love the history of tattooing. I think that really drew me in, especially because New York is really, in my opinion, the most interesting place for the history of tattooing — American tattooing. Obviously there's a whole different world of other cultures, but you know, it was a great group of interesting people. Then it became illegal here in New York. All those people had to spread out and move out to other places with their art and [took the] New York style with them. And my first boss, Jonathan Shaw, was a direct lineage from Bob Shaw — an incredible old traditional artist. So I like to, you know, even though I never met him, I like to think that I learned some things from a master one step removed and of course all the old guys, Lyle Tuttle ... beautiful work.

Revolver and Inked have partnered to bring you stories on some of the world's best tattooers and tattoo shops, including New York City's East Side Ink. CLICK HERE to book your consultation at East Side Ink now.

Below, watch Philip Anselmo — former Pantera and current Illegals' frontman — give one luck fan the tattoo of a lifetime at East Side Ink.