To the untrained eye, the modest storefront at Taylor Street Tattoo might look like any other parlor: sheets of tattoo designs paper the walls and cases of body jewelry line the front counter. Closer inspection, though, will uncover a gallery of hand-watercolored flash sheets from some of the most famous tattoo artists in history, mostly done in the American Traditional (the “sailor tattoo” style marked by colorful pinup girls and nautical themes) style.
Owner Keith Underwood, 29, takes a drag off his cigarette on the back porch of the shop and recounts the history of American Traditional tattooing–the abridged version–spanning from Chicago to Honolulu and back. “Sailor” Jerry Collins began his tattooing career here in Chicago on South State Street while he was enlisted at Great Lakes Naval Base in the 1930s. His naval career took him to Hawaii, where he opened China Sea Tattoo and eventually trained Mike “Rollo” Malone and “Don” Ed Hardy, who had traveled to Hawaii to learn his style. Malone took over the shop when Sailor Jerry died in 1973 and mentored Underwood in the American Traditional style. Malone closed in 2001 to retire to Chicago, where Underwood was looking to open up his own shop. In March 2004, Underwood opened up shop in the first floor storefront of he and his wife’s 1150 West Taylor Street home, where he and Malone paint, build tattoo machines, and tattoo. “A lot more goes on here than just tattooing,” Underwood says.
Taylor Street is a major stopping point for tattoo artists and collectors, says Underwood, to get tattooed or “just to stop by and talk to the Old Man [Malone], or to buy a T-shirt or memento. There aren’t a lot of shops like that in Chicago that are a touristy stop for tattooers.”
The shop’s future is up in the air amid controversy stemming from administrators at nearby St. Ignatius College Prep. According to Underwood, school officials (who did not return phone calls at press time) are “afraid for their students” assuming that their students will get tattooed at the shop, or that the shop will bring undesirable clientele into the neighborhood.
“I live here and shop here and eat here. I’m more invested in this neighborhood than most of the people who are against me,” Underwood says. Underwood even gave a check to St. Ignatius’s tuition-assistance program when they solicited him for donations.
“They’ll take my money and write me a thank you letter while they’re suing me at the same time,” he laughs.
St. Ignatius filed an appeal against the City of Chicago for granting Underwood a Special Use Variance. If the court decides in St. Ignatius’s favor, Underwood will have to close his doors pending an appeal from the Illinois Supreme Court.
“Now I’m in the hole. I opened with the understanding that I would have a license,” says Underwood, who’s sunk over half a million dollars into his business. “It would be tough to start over.”
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