Earlier this year, the tattoo industry lost an icon as Thom DeVita passed away at the age of 85. The New York native has become a legend among tattoo artists and enthusiasts as he was one of the most unique artists in America. Moreover, he marched to the beat of his own drum as he famously opened his first tattoo shop in the 1960’s—just a day after tattooing was officially banned in NYC. Here’s what makes DeVita such an inspiration to tattoo artists everywhere, and why he’ll forever be a legend among famous tattoo artists of today.
The Early Years
Born in Manhattan in 1932, DeVita has always been interested in art and tattoos. In a 2014 interview with Hudson Valley Magazine, the artist revealed that he started out as an art school model for the National School of Art when he was about 17.
“I didn’t have a lot of tattoos when I was modeling,” he added.
In the 1950s, DeVita showed his art at open-air art fairs in Washington Square Park, and by the early 60s, the artist opened a tattoo shop one day after tattooing was considered as illegal in New York City. The date was Nov. 2, 1961.
Waking Up At First Light: How DeVita Kept His Business Going During The Ban
DeVita found a way to beat the system by being available to anyone who wished to get tattooed by him. At the time, he lived in Alphabet City, a place that was known for being a rough neighborhood. The artist used to say that he would wake up at the crack of dawn and slept near the front window of his shop so that anyone could call his name softly and he would open up to let them in. He would only entertain customers as long as there was light, and woe to the unwitting person who would dare to ask for a tattoo when it was still dark.
It was said that the artist would open about an hour or so after dawn and kept the shop open until three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Apparently, there was a reason why DeVita chose to open shop within these hours—it was when his customers were at their best behavior, so it lessened the chances of problems or fights arising while he was at work.
DeVita’s Unconventional Tattooing Style
DeVita attracted a diverse clientele that ranged from aspiring tattoo artists to sanitation workers. He had an unusual tattooing style, and he would often combine conventional designs with abstract or tribal images. In VICE’s “Tattoo Age” series about DeVita which was aired in 2012, tattoo artist Scott Harrison said that the legendary artist would usually do “what he’s inspired to do at the moment.”
“He observes and he thinks carefully about what he sees and he develops his own take on it,” said Harrison.
To make sure that his clients are getting an original DeVita tattoo, the New Yorker signs his name and his birthdate on the tattoos. The artist decided to do this after he heard that there was someone else named DeVita who was tattooing, pointing out that there was “no other DeVita who can claim they were born on 5/20/32.”
RIP Thom DeVita
DeVita passed away on April 5, 2018, in his home in Manhattan. Inked Magazine reports that according to the artist’s wife, DeVita died of complications due to Parkinson’s disease. However, his legacy and contributions to tattooing will continue to live on in the works of many artists who were inspired by him such as Ed Hardy, Angelo Scotto, Nick Bubash, and Robert Ryan.
Bubash probably summed it up best when he told VICE that DeVita wasn’t just a mere tattoo artist.
“He wasn’t just a tattoo artist. He was an artist who tattooed,” Bubash explained. “Everything he did was art—the way he lived, the way he talked, the way he thought, what he did, where he went.”
1. Tattooing A to Z #13: Thom DeVita, Tattoo Life, https://www.tattoolife.com/tattooing-z-13-thom-devita/
2. Thom DeVita, Newburg, Hudson Valley, https://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/September-2014/4-of-the-Coolest-Tattoo-Artists-in-the-Hudson-Valley-Right-Now/Thom-DeVita/
3. Vice Tattoo Age: Thom DeVita Trailer, Juxtapoz, https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/tattoo/vice-tattoo-age-thom-devita-trailer/
4. NYC Legend Thom DeVita Dies At 85, Inked Magazine, https://www.inkedmag.com/g/nyc-legend-thom-devita-dies-at-85/2/
5. Tattoo Age: Thom DeVita, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l1mqYQuNf8