INTERVIEW // Bert Krak
January 10th, 2021 // Interviewer: Shane Allen // Art
In celebration of the BEYOND THE STREETS virtual art fair streaming on the NTWRK app December 5th & 6th, 2020. We got together with legendary New York tattooer Bert Krak, from the world famous tattoo shop, Smith St. Tattoo. who is featured in the line-up, to talk about his contribution to the fair.
As you probably know, the world isn't really working right, We're not really able to enjoy ourselves like we used to and the arts and entertainment industries have suffered due to the lack of opportunities to experience the outside world. This festival is a great way to get people excited about something and give them the opportunity to experience the festival and make it happen.
Being that the world is kind of crazy and things like public art isn’t really accessible, how does this festival play into the bright side of things right now?
I thinks its great and people don't really have a lot of things to do right now. It’s a great chance to see all the work and be apart of it. I think what Roger and NTWRK put together seems like its really directed towards keeping people attentions and showing a good story for each artist. I was excited to see all of it myself.
What importance does tattooing have to do with the streets.
Tattooing has everything to do with the streets, that’s where you’d see tattoos. Tattoo shops were originally street shops that relied on foot traffic. Plus the shady characters that were originally getting tattooed were streets dudes. I remember as a kid, I told my grandma that I saw this guy who was covered in tattoos. I told her that I want to do that when I grew up. My grandmother said
"That's for criminals and drug dealers, that's not for you."
Smith St. Crew.
Tell us about the body of work that you're presenting in the festival.
We're really excited about it. We had a little bit of time to work on it. Roger told us pretty early on and gave me a lot of give us a lot of freedoms of just told me to create something that I'd normally create for your own brand and let us showcase it through NTWRK, and Beyond the Streets. Me and my partner Steve, we just spent a few weeks going back and forth with ideas. We were thinking maybe it should vary a little bit. We're a tattoo shop. and people expect tattoo things from us, but when we make stuff for our own brand, we don't always make tattoo things.
We pick elements of things that we like, but it's more about like the imagery, the look of the item and it doesn't necessarily have to look like I drew it or my partner drew it, or look like something we would do as a tattoo. So for this thing, we picked a few different things with that thought process.
"But we like to keep it classic. We're not trying to break out of anything. If anything, we're trying to get away from a lot of modern trends in tattooing. We like tattoos to look like tattoos"
We're always trying to steer people away from the thing they saw on Instagram and look more at the classics. These things that came from the forties, the seventies and have stood the test of time. We keep it pretty classic. You know what I mean?
Do you feel like that's your responsibility, to steer people in the right direction when coming up with an idea for a tattoo?
There's a lot of choices, right? If you want to get a tattoo, let us tell you how we would tell anybody else. Give us your idea and let us show you what we have to offer for that. If you're looking for a Panther, let me show you the panther that I think is going to fit you the best. So the responsibility for us is really just like, I got to give you a good tattoo, something that's classic, but not that only you can be proud of, but I could be proud of too.
You don't have to get it from us. There's a million options in every city across the globe. I'll tell a lot of people that come with too much direction for their tattoo. If you came all the way here, let's give you the best tattoo I can. Not necessarily the thing that you think is the best but what I'm telling you is the best. And it's not because of ego. It's not because I wouldn't try to push you into something that you don't really want.
"It's because I've already made all the mistakes for you to not make any of them."
Yeah. Yeah. (Laughs) But sometimes people will think you're a dick for it, but it's okay. Sometimes I can be a dick.
We're pretty lucky though. I'll be honest. I don't really do too many complaining about my clients because most of them are great. They come to see me and they're excited and leave happy.
Have you ever tattooed at any of the artists that are on the roster for this festival?
Yeah, I think a couple of them actually, I've tattooed a DabsMyla they've been getting tattooed from us for years. They're good friends of ours. Roger and Amanda, they’ve been getting tattooed for years too. I think do Jersey Joe once. Honestly I talk to a lot of people, It's kind of hard to remember, but yeah a few.
Yeah. Yeah. I’ve tattooed Action, I’ve tattooed him a bunch of times actually, he’s a good friend. That's right. Okay. I keep forgetting the Action is on the line up. He took a little break but he got tattooed again recently and I'm sure we'll be seeing him again. He seemed excited.
How's the industry doing, in regards to adapting to the pandemic?
We're doing pretty good. I mean, I can't really speak for other tattoo shops. Me and most of my friends who are respectable tattooers are operating as safe as we can. Nobody wants to give you anything and we don't want to bring anything home. So we're following all the rules of the COVID as far as taking your temperature, taking my temperature, making sure that everything is good. We don't take anybody off the street.
Since we opened in July, we haven't had any issues, none of our artists or none of our clients have, experienced symptoms of anything that (knocks on wood).
On a business level, we've been around for a long time. Me and my partners, Steve Boltz and Eli Quinters, we've been tattooing in the city now for years. So we have a lot of clientele that's been built up over years. People who are really more than just customers, they're friends at this point. They've been with us forever.
I think a lot of people don't have that much to do right now. They're all excited to get back in the shop and do a little something that makes them feel good about themselves. But I'll tell you, I bet you that if you're a shop that doesn't have what we have. If you're a tattooer that's counting on people walking in off the street then It's gotta probably be pretty hard right now.
Do you think people are more appreciative getting tattooed right now?
Yeah I think the people are definitely really appreciative just being able to get out of the house and do anything that makes them feel good about themselves. A lot of our customers, they just enjoy being at the shop, it's all they want to do, the tattoo is just like a bonus.
Do you draw any similarities in tattooing and graffiti?
I could say it is an outsider art, tattooing was illegal such as graffiti. There's also the element that that really there are no rules, but there's a ton of rules as well. Like there's things that you, even though you can do it, you shouldn't be doing it.
Do you enjoy painting flash any more or any less than you do tattooing it?
I mean, I liked tattooing it for sure, but you know what's nice about painting? It kind of gives you an idea. You're like solving all the problems on the piece of paper so you can do it as a tattoo. Painting flash is pretty relaxing and it's pretty fun when you're uninterrupted. I was able to pick it up a lot during quarantine and I forgot how much I really enjoyed painting when I wasn't tattooing. E
very day, five days, five days a week, three appointments a day, I live in Queens, drive all the way to Brooklyn, could be an hour there an hour back. By the time I'm done tattooing, its really hard to come home and be like, “I want to paint a sheet of flash right now”
But I painted hundreds of sheets of flash during quarantine, I've had a lot of fun. I basically took every single painting or sheet of flash that I didn't finish, home with me. I finished every single one and made even more in those four months of being in quarantine.
Always good to get those things that have been sitting there forever finally out of the way.
Yeah. It's fun. You know, when we put a tattoo on somebody, the tattoos done. You take a photo, they get the tattoo. So they got the better the deal really. The photo is sweet for me to show off, but for the person, they show off the actual tattoo. When I’m painting, and I finish it, I can hold it in my hands and it's say "Here's my work. I did it." I remember probably exactly where I was when I did it, the feeling it gave me.
Maybe cause I'm not really ever thinking about it as like “Oh, I'm going to sell this” because flash is something I make, for me. I get the flash, You get the tattoo.
For them it's forever, for you it’s the amount of time you spent to do it.
Yeah. And Hey man, you know, no matter how cool a tattoo looks in a picture, it always looks cooler in person.
How did Smith street, uh, come to be about
We opened the shop like 12 years ago. Me and Steve Boltz and Eli Quinters.
Why did you feel the need to open a shop?
I already had a shop in Queens at the time. Those guys used to work for me from time to time. We just thought it was time. It was a long commute for them to come all the way to Queens. They already had both had private studios in Brooklyn, so we just kind of thought that it would just make more sense for them, for us to just maybe open a place together here.The commute would be like less for them.
Steve actually lived in this neighborhood, it was a pretty quiet neighborhood back then. There weren't a lot of restaurants and bars like that. it's pretty off the beaten path. Steve just saw an ad for this place in a a deli, called me. He told me that I should take a look at this place soon as I could get here with him. We ended up taking it that day.
What was the game plan starting it?
We just wanted to kind of base all of our style and all of our work off of traditional tattoo flash.
We're just following the rules of tattooing. Aesthetically. we're just picking things that we like. We like tattoos that look like tattoos. So really we try to steer everybody in that direction.
So how did you personally start tattooing?
I was hanging around at a tattoo shop when I was young, 18 years old. I just kinda started thinking I really liked this. I like what's going on here. The guys at the shop really liked me too.Basically I had opportunity to start learning. I was already married, I had a wife and a kid. I was young still, I had a regular job and the tattoo shop job. I just kinda knew that I was going to take a crack at this and give it a hundred percent.
What happened was that the guys that owned this shop in Florida. A shop called Rockabilly Tattoo and Lauderhill, Florida, the guys that owned it, I consider them my uncles, Danny Knight, Johnny Holmer and They gave me my first chance. They were partners. Johnny sold his part of the shopto this guy named Dave Pool, When Johnny sold his part to Dave, we told Dave, I really think that you should give Bert a chance.
I was apprenticing under Danny, It just really kind of wasn't really working out. So Johnny was like, Hey, Dave, I think that if you give him a different chance, It could really work out and be beneficial to you and to the shop.
Were you into anything else as a kid?
No. Honestly I liked all kind of stuff when I was younger, but not the way I love and care about tattooing. When I was younger, I thought maybe I was going to become a mechanic. My uncle owned a gas station, I would go down there and they had a bay where they used to work on cars and it was kinda cool. So /i though, well my uncle was a mechanic so maybe I'll just take my uncle's path.
Berts Instagram // @bertkrak
Smith St. Tattoo // https://www.sstp.store/