East River Tattoo feels like you’ve stumbled into the captain’s quarters of a sunken ship. Every surface has an object on it that’s slightly distressed, a little quaint, and seems as if it was there all along, since the dawn of time. With dark wooden floors and a reflective antique-style tin roof, East River is clean without being sterile, cozy without seeming claustrophobic, and covered in seafaring kitsch that in the wrong hands could be cheesy, but at this parlor, it’s charming and low-key.
Every single person who works at East River is easy going, chill, willing to chat. It’d be easy to fake or even forgo this friendly customer service, since the shop is filled with so many highly sought after artists, but the folks at East River are incredibly open-hearted.
Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll find resident artist Rob Banks working walk-in weekends. First come, first serve, this model is a clever way to make it so folks who want to get some flash (or a beloved banger) from the talented Banks can have access to his busy schedule. I was blessed to be accompanied by my dear friend and frequent-flyer Joseph, who knew it was smart to get to the shop early — we arrived a full hour before they opened — and we were the first two on Banks’ list.
There’s plenty to ogle and enjoy in this area of Greenpoint. It was cold but sunny, and we wandered up and down Manhattan Avenue, sipping turmeric lattes (yes, those are a thing, and yes, they are wonderful), chatting in the sunlight. A wander around the neighborhood and another coffee later, Joseph was getting prepped for a modified nautical compass on his shoulder. I’ve been an admirer of Banks’ heavy lines, scrimshaw, and traditional stylings for a while now, particularly his ocean imagery, so I chose his classic lighthouse flash.
While we waited for Banks to prep, three older women came in. They were so excited, they’d traveled all the way from Westchester together on a ladies’ day to get tattoos. For one of them, it would be her first. Kitty Joe, majordomo of East River, kindly explained how the first come, first serve would work, and after the trio put their names on Banks’ list, they headed out for a bite at a diner across the street.
The day wore on, and my tattoo was taking longer than I think our traveling trio anticipated. They began to barter with one another — one of them was willing to release her spot so the others could get preference. But as they debated, in walked Rachel Hauer. She was early to the shop before a scheduled client, and absolutely willing to take on one of the enthusiastic women.
Rachel Hauer isn’t known for tiny infinity symbols on people’s wrists, but it is a true testament to her humble, sweet nature that she didn’t blink. In fact, as she prepped her station and organized her thoughts, and while Kitty Joe put some chairs out for her friends, Hauer gave our First Tattoo Ever Woman a perfect tutorial on what to expect. She walked her through how the stencil goo would work as she applied it to our heroine’s wrist (“This is a really sticky substance that will help the stencil stay on your skin”), and had her lay down on a fluffy spa table with leather pillows (“It can relax you and keep you out of your head to lie down, you know?”).
As Hauer prepped her machine, she turned to me. I was also on a table, facing Hauer’s station, lying on my front with my arm raised on a stand for Banks’ to work on the back of my forearm. “See?” Hauer said to her nervous client. “She’s not crying. Are you crying?” I laughed. No, no, I wasn’t.
These women illustrate perfectly how the humility and brilliance of East River can shine. From heavily tattooed folks like Joseph and I, to the Traveling Trio of older, nervous, one-to-none tattoo holders, the artists at East River treated everyone with respect, deference, and warmth. I’m sure that those women didn’t realize they were getting simple, street stop style work from some of the most revered artists in New York — they didn’t have to know that. They were treated with the same attention and care that Joseph and I were, and for that alone, East River and Banks’ Walk-in Weekends are a joy and an utter gem.