Tattoo artist Bang Bang got a call one day from Rihanna asking him to come to her hotel room in downtown New York to do a tattoo. “She was in room 420, which I thought was hilarious,” the artist recalls. “I go in and meet her friend, this blonde girl who I didn’t know, who wants me to tattoo the word lion, written out, on her finger.”
Bang Bang thought this was a terrible idea. “My job is to think of the vision. The meaning comes from the person. She’s a Leo and she wanted the word lion on her finger. I told her a drawing of a lion would be much better, and I showed her a tattoo on my finger. It feels and looks like a piece of jewelry. So I said, ‘Let’s put the image of the lion on your finger,’ and she trusted me.”
That little lion Bang Bang tattooed on the “unknown” blonde’s right index finger went on to become an international icon, thanks to the finger’s owner, supermodel, actress, and singer Cara Delevingne, who flaunted the piece proudly in a now famous Tag Heuer campaign, sans watch. “When I get off a plane in Paris, it’s the first thing I see,” says Bang Bang. “I drive down the BQE, and there’s Cara holding her tattoo right in front of her face, selling watches and not wearing a watch. I love it. That tattoo really helped me bridge fashion and tattooing together, something I had been trying to do for some time.”
This is just one of Bang Bang’s countless celebrity tat tales, many of them revealed for the first time in his new book, Bang Bang: My Life in Ink, released last week. They include tattooing Justin Bieber in a private jet at 40,000 feet, furnishing the inkings Katy Perry asked for to commemorate her tours, and providing LeBron James his wearable art in his basement barbershop (yes, King James has a barbershop, which, as Bang Bang writes, is “next to the bowling alley”). His works are immortalized on the bodies of a veritable who’s-who of modern-day pop culture — Rihanna, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Kylie Jenner, Odell Beckham Jr. After Bang Bang gives them their tattoos, he has them tat him back on his calf — “my way of autographs,” he says. “I put training wheels on them and walk them through it. I tell them what to do, and I have amazing videos of every time one of them tattooed me.”
So Bang Bang is kind of a big deal in the tattoo world, although you’d never know it when you speak with him, given the humble way he talks about himself. That’s not to say that he’s also humble in his appearance. When he was eighteen, Bang Bang was Keith McCurdy, a failing high school student from Claymont, Delaware, living with his single mom, who was earning a living as a stripper. After Keith flunked out of school for a second time, he decided his ultimate career calling would be as a tattoo artist; to seal the deal, he got revolvers tattooed on either side of his neck.
“The guns were a source of confidence,” he says. “I grew up not feeling very good about myself. The guns changed all that. Tattoos are a great way to externally show how you feel internally. So I decided when I got the guns that I’m going to make this dream of becoming a tattoo artist come true. A girl that I know started to make fun of the guns by saying, ‘Hey, Bang Bang.’ Another person picked up on it, and then another, and that became my name. Nobody forgets my name. My end goal was to work for a famous tattoo artist, and I reached that goal when I was 22,” after moving to New York.
Bang Bang, who’s just about to turn thirty, now has his own tattoo shop on Broome Street on the Lower East Side, which he calls — yep — Bang Bang Tattoos. He’s also the proud father of two beautiful daughters. Bang Bang couldn’t be happier or more grateful for where he is today, leading the charge, he says, to make tattoos the ultimate personal accessory.
“A tattoo is the ultimate expression of a person,” he says. “When you decide to get a tattoo, it’s not a seasonal decision that you are making, so it has a lot more bearing than the shoes you are going to buy or the hairstyle you are going to choose. It’s going to last for your entire life, so it really needs to be a timeless design that fits the person perfectly as well as their personal style.”
Getting a tattoo for the first time is all about one thing: confidence. Bang Bang claims it is also the ultimate art form because it is the most difficult medium in the world in which to work. “We create some of the most incredible art in the world, right in people’s skin. We are talking about a living, breathing canvas. I’ve never fallen in love with any other medium more than I have with tattooing.”
And the best place in the world to create tattoo art, according to Bang Bang, is on the Lower East Side, where his shop resides. “The Bowery is where tattoos first got started in America, and that’s why we are here, to carry on that tradition. Tattooing is an art form. It is expression. The way you wear your clothes, or the way you decorate your home, you can decorate your body. I look a lot cooler when you look at my skin versus people who don’t [have tattoos].
“People say to me, ‘What are you going to do when you are old?’ Well, when I am old, I am going to look fucking awesome, because I am going to be covered in tattoos. Tattoos are the ultimate style. You also have to earn it. Not only does it cost money, it costs effort. It hurts. Your brain releases endorphins when you get tattooed which your body actually enjoys. So you like that hurt. It hurts so good.”
328 Broome Street
[This is part of the winter 2015 edition of The Seen, a quarterly style supplement by the Village Voice devoted to exploring and sharing the most dynamic elements of New York City’s fashion and design worlds, from the iconic to the as yet undiscovered. Check out the rest of The Seen’s featured stories here.]