Ronnie Dell’Aquila

A Conversation

Can you tell me about growing up and when you first started to discover tattoos.

I grew up in Dyker Heights, Benson Heights, whatever you want to call it on 13th Avenue? I came from an Italian family where nobody had tattoos and tattoos were never mentioned, period. Anytime I ever saw one, it caught my interest more than anything else. Anytime I see anybody that had any bluish thing on their arm, 6, 7 years old, I was like what is that?

Back in ’59 when the news flashed the thing on about Coney Island and hepatitis and whatnot, I was over at my grandmother’s house, and my uncle was there. New York was talking about a ban on tattoo shops. All of a sudden, my uncle went, I don’t want to watch this shit. Ever since that happened it clicked with me, and I wanted to know what this was about even more.

As I grew a little older, every time I saw somebody in the neighborhood with a tattoo, like guys that came out of the service, or neighborhood tough guys, who had a tattoo - I’d ask “Who did you get that from?” At the tender age of 9 years old, I tattooed myself with a pin and needle on my leg. I heard from older guys like how to wrap the thread around the needle and how to pluck it in your skin. So I put it on my leg, I figured, I don’t want nobody to see it.

Then not too much after that, I found out that Coney Island Freddy did tattoos, and I was only like probably like 13 and a half maybe 14. I got his number from somebody that came by the ice cream parlor, where we all hung around and I got his number. I had a phoney ID... At that time, everybody had a phoney IDs. I got in the car and I was with another guy. It was a Sunday sometime in October. It was raining, damp. I went there and he said, 18? I went, “Yeah”. I showed him a birth certificate or some crap that I made or something. He went “Alright.”

He had a big room and house in Seagate. He lived there with his wife and his mother in law, and he had a son, Freddy Jr. That was his first shop. He had a real thing going. Back then, a name was $5 and to get what they call sparrows today, which we called blue birds back then, was $10. I had $10 on me because I worked a job after school in a restaurant, so I said to the guy that was with me, you want to get a name? We’ll get a name each. He went, “Oh, I could never go home with a tattoo.” The guy was two years older than me and he’s shitting himself. So I said, “Give me the blue bird.” He was not a very sociable type of person back then, let’s just say. He had a way about him, where you didn’t get to ask questions, it was just like “Sit down and get tattooed and get the fuck out” more or less. I thought ok, I can respect that. I started getting woozy. I put my head down, and then I came up and we wound up finishing the tattoo. That was first one I got. Nobody knew I had it and then when I was 14, I wound up getting one from a tattooer Billy Nyffler in the neighborhood—a panther.

Then like my interest grew, and friends started getting them, and then I’d go over there if I wasn't doing nothing, just watch him tattoo. Asking like “Why are you doing this? ” and just hanging. Just to be amongst that. Then for me, it was mostly girls, cars, and tattoos. It was like at 14, 15, that’s all I cared about. School, I went to a point, but it never fucking interested me so I knew it wasn't long before I wasn't going to be in school, which it wasn't. I’d go in one door and I’d run out the other door.

When was it that you would say you really started tattooing?

I didn’t do anything with tattooing until like ’68, I did a half a tattoo on a friend of mine. It was a little Jonesy flower, and I just thought of doing a couple of lines. Then around 70-71, I was a little older. I was already married. I was married at 17. I went to the draft with a wife and a baby in my arms during the Vietnam War. Not that I didn’t want to go, but that was my situation. I was marked 3A so they didn’t take me. From that, I had an old lady that stood behind me until this day, we’ll be married 44 years in November. At the time, to get a supplier’s address, you had a better chance of meeting the pope. It wasn't going to happen. You needed an introduction or somebody to say whatever for you. But Zeiss was alive at that time out in Rockford, Illinois. And I got his number through Billy, got the catalogue, and then in ’72, I wrote him a letter trying to get used equipment because I didn’t have that much money. I was out of work at that time. My wife wrote him the thing. He sold me some new shit and that’s how I got started not knowing what I was doing at all.

In ’73, after tattooing for a year, the first guy that I ever put a tattoo on, I saw had this really crisp, clean, boxer boy with Clouds with Brooklyn written underneath it. I said, “Where did you get that?” He said this guy Tony Polito on Leppards Avenue. There wasn't even a phone number. Everybody back then was doing some really scarred stuff. It wasn't velvety or silky shit. Tony the Pirate out in Jersey in Union Beach, he was doing sweet work. He came from the old school of Crazy Eddie and Chance and all of those guys, but he always did a nice, neat, clean tattoo, but there wasn’t that many out there.

We wound up going down to Tony’s, and the first night and I wound up getting two tattoos. When I went there, I brought a stencil for one of them that says “Emily and Ronnie” in it. He says “Why do you got a stencil?” I went, “I tattoo,” and he said, “Oh, yeah, who are you?” I said I’m Ronnie and this is Billy. The place is full with people, and he goes “You’re the guy that’s carving up all of these guys. You’re not working on wood.” He embarrassed the shit out of us. He made me feel this big. That was part of my introduction to what it was or what it ain’t. But also in the same respect, he took a liking to the both of us and he got us on the right path, telling us what machine he’s using. That’s junk, this and that. He introduced us and gave us Spaulding’s number, then I made a trip and got machines.

Then he helped me with colors, and he made me needles at times. I used to work a regular job during the day, and I used to go there at night and stayed there until 2’o clock in the morning, and then get up and go to work delivering furniture. I would just to try and soak up as much as I could, and then at one point, someone came in and wanted something and I would assist him from time to time, but this time he says “Tattoo them.” I go, “Yeah, but I’m not as...” He goes “Do you want to be a tattooer or what?

From that point on, I just stayed motivated, and I kept visiting him. I’d sit in a chair and keep my mouth shut. He’d be tattooing. His work was nice and clean and sweet, it looked like magic marker. Then at night after we’re done, we’d go to the diner. We eat and we talk and this and that. He was a bachelor at that time. Almost before I left Brooklyn, I started getting where my tattoos were pretty similar to his. A customer would come in and he’d say “When did I put that bird on your chest?” The guy went, “You didn’t. Ronnie did.”

Then he’d say “Oh sure, I gave him green ink, and I gave him needles.” I didn’t give a shit. To this day, I don’t care. But you know, he was still helping me. He’d say, “see that guy, he’s a hard on.” He knew who’s serious and who wasn't. Then on Sunday’s he’d come by the house and bring pastries sometimes. We’d have coffee and bullshit about whatever.

I got to tattoo or do something with tattoos. It just got me that way. Even though you shut the door and you go home, if it’s really in your soul and it’s really in your heart, you’ll never stop thinking about what you drew today, or a certain machine you’re working’s a 24-hour thing.

What came next in your tattoo career?

I wound up leaving Brooklyn to come out here to Pennsylvania because my mother and father were here, and my kids were going to start school soon, so I figured I was coming up here every weekend and there was a house available next door, a little bungalow or cottage. I probably should have stayed in Brooklyn, but due to my own stupidity, that wasn’t going to happen. I opened a shop here in ’78. I got a few locals that were around and before that, in ’77, I actually saw a few guys with tattoos, everybody had homemade stuff around here like pin jobs, jailhouse style stuff.

I gave out some cards at the time and I started doing a little bit out of the house. Then I got the nuts to open the store. With that, all of a sudden in ’78, Coney Island Freddy was coming up and seeing me. I was tight with him also. He was in Staten Island and he had dropped out of tattooing for a while. Me and Carl Mann were in Brooklyn and we had this place almost like a social club, but it was a tattoo shop under the L. We were doing really good there. Freddy got wind that we were tattooing over there and he came over, so I invited him to work and get back into the swing of things. As a result, we wound up getting busted for tattooing by the New York City health department. That means you go to the same court as you do for speeding and smoking on a subway. It’s a health violation. It’s not a criminal offense.

We got cited and we got ticketed, and at the storefront, a captain and a uniformed cop had to make the bust. They came, they raided the store. They took us to the precinct. They wrote us a ticket and we had to appear on court. We paid a fine and that was the end of it. The only thing is, they confiscated one of my machines and a stencil that I was using but they never gave me a receipt for it. Luckily, at the time, I was tight with a transit cop, so he came with us. When we went to the property, obviously, he said, you need a transcript of the trial. You need a release. You need this. He even flashed the shield. He went, “look, I’m on the job. Nobody ever gave him a receipt. It’s docket blah-blah-blah. Give them their shit back and let’s get on with life.” That’s what happened with that.

Then Freddy got a brainstorm about opening a place in 79 in Brooklyn. He opened up this t-shirt place in the front, and then the backroom was a tattoo shop. I went over there so many days a weeks. At that time, I stayed by Pete Giaquinto’s in Queens somewhere. We became really tight friends and whatnot. Then all of a sudden, the partnership between him and Freddy lasted from November until February, March and then we wind up pulling out of there. I went to go to work for Freddy in Staten Island, which was great because he hadn’t worked with anybody since Sailor Ralph in the late 50’s. That was the last person that ever worked with. He always worked by himself.

It was a busy shop but over there, like names were still $5. You were doing good sized tattoos for $80. You weren’t making any kind of money. So that played out until around November, and then it became really slow. I came back home and said screw this. Then I wound up getting hooked up with Dominic Chance’s brother who had seen a tattoo I did on somebody in a pizzeria in Staten Island. He asked the guy where he got it, and he got in touch with Freddy. Freddy gave him my phone number, and this guy says I want you to come down here and work and this and that.

I went and met him by his sister’s house in Staten Island and he’s telling me about all the money there is to be made in North Carolina and all of this. Then he’s talking percentage and just like Dominic who would try and screw you out of a nickel if he could, God bless his soul; he’s telling me to come down for 40%. I said listen, I ain’t been doing this a long time, but I ain’t going no place unless it’s 50%. Oh, you don’t understand, it’s actually this and that. I went, Nick, I respect all of the above. So we made an arrangement. I was welcome to come there. Any payday, the service men got paid twice a month on the 15th and the 30th.

Dominic was great for opening places. Dominic had a knack for fighting the law and getting something that was closed opened back up, but then he wasn't a tattooer like Eddie says in his books. He wasn't a good tattooer. His interest in it was that he had to have somebody that could put out work. He’d hire whoever walks through the door. It so happened that they needed somebody so he found me. So like we agreed, I went whenever I went, and he had one guy that was a steady guy. Dominic told the guy, “When Ronnie comes, he’s got an open chair. Don’t get pissed off for nothing. That’s the way it is.”

Were you back and forth from here and North Carolina for a while?

I ran that like from ’80-’83. Then I came back, and I wound up going to Queens working in a basement shop before it was legal. I used to hang out, work three days a week with him over there, which was cool, because then I still had the shop going. I was almost going 7 days a week for a while. Then I wound up working in the Watchung flea market. I don’t know if you remember years ago, there used to be a tattooer inside.I got to know him through another friend of mine, and I used to go there on a Sunday.

I never liked just being in my shop and not being in other shops. I liked the idea of what other guys were doing in their shop. Even if it was the same designs we had, it was different people. It was a different atmosphere. It’s nice to be in your own place, but I like to have the option to go to other places. I’ve tattooed in every borough except for Manhattan. Manhattan’s the only borough that I haven’t tattooed in. I just kept on trucking with that.

It seems tattooing took you around quite a bit?

I got to tattoo or do something with tattoos. It just got me that way. Even though you shut the door and you go home, if it’s really in your soul and it’s really in your heart, you’ll never stop thinking about what you drew today, or a certain machine you’re working’s a 24-hour thing.

It’s not like a regular job where you go home and you forget about the job and you go and play with your family and this and that. You try and give your family as much time. I’m fortunate that I have an old lady that more or less accepted me for the crazy person that I am. I don’t think too many other women honestly would have put up with it. When you’re in this, and you’re really in this, it’s not easy on those that are around you.

I know you have a special affinity for what are known as East Coast tattoos.

Guaranteed. Definitely. East Coast tattoos for the most part always were more bright, brilliant, well-shaded, darker. Whether it was from Coleman or passed down to whoever, it always had a bolder, stronger look to it. West Coast stuff always looked lighter. They used more yellows. More pale colors that didn’t hold up in the skin at all and didn’t last over time like East Coast would. There’s green in guys from 1920’s that is still green when everything else is gone except for the black which turned blue. It’s still bold. Then I’ve seen a lot of stuff where guys had their arms sleeved out from the West Coast in the 70’s and 80’s and with all this black shading and their arms almost looks gray compared to black because they run their machines in a different way. They don’t run them as hard, hitting and stroking the way the East Coast guys broke into tattooing.

I mean, there’s been beautiful stuff come out of the West Coast. I’m not going to deny that. It was the primary colors on the East Coast though. You can make a tattoo look good with just green, red, yellow, and maybe some brown shading if you wanted to. You don’t really need the blue, the purple, the magenta, and all of that stuff to make it pop. You can make it pop with just black shade with some red behind it.

I just think that it’s like when Crow came out with that flash. There was nothing great about it, but it was colored so much that it attracted people. When he hung that flash up over there, people were sucked to it like it was gold, and it was like eagles with blue and purple feathers, which to me, was like a curse. Eagles get black shaded, if you wanted to get a little stupid, you put a little brown after the black. That’s it. I would just like to make them shade it out just the black. You didn’t need the brown. You didn’t need the yellow.

Truthfully, at one point, I had a lot of it up because I was getting it because customers like the look of it. You try to tell them to change to something a little more traditional, but if that’s what they wanted, you gave the customers what they want. It seems like it is back to traditional now. It’s always going to be changing and you just roll with it, or you get left behind. That’s what it’s all about.

In your opinion, what makes for a good tattoo?

A good tattoo starts with a nice, clean outline. Good, realistic black shading the way it should be shaded. Color put in solid. To me that’s a good, bold, classic, traditional tattoo. When you want to put smoke around it, clouds around, flames around it, and everything else, that’s all extra and good. But if you know how to capture the essence of it, and make it look good, that’s one thing. If you don’t, then you just wrecked something that was really done sweet and that’s something else.

As far as a nice, clean, bold, outline—I don’t know about everybody that’s doing this really bold, bold outline. Truthfully speaking, everybody talks about the 40’s, the 50’s. Most of the people I spoke to, they all used 5 needles. The lines got to be that fat because of the way they used them to death. After awhile, they spread so much. That’s why around them curves all of a sudden, it looks like a magic marker, because the line would blow out. If they didn’t scar them, you could still see the line and it stayed nice and clear. Today, they’re doing them 8 or 9 needle outlines and other than the elasticity of the skin and time, the lines hold really well.

Tony used 5 needle lines on me and I mean these names in here—this one you can read but this one you can’t read. Luckily a lot of the stuff that I got is all still readable and it’s clear. It didn’t blur together and it didn’t run together. Tony did this also, and that was with a 5 needle. That was in ’79 maybe and it stayed. Then me and Pete were fortunate enough to get tattooed by Paul Rogers in ’79 at Ernie Carafa’s in Toms River. He used to come up in the summer and hang out with Ernie. At the time we went there, we heard Paul was going to be there, and I don’t think I had met him before. It was me and Pete and Coney Island Freddy and a friend of Pete, Paul, that went. We hung out a little bit and then we went back, it was just me and Pete, so we asked him about tattooing. He said “Well, at this point, Ernie outlines and I color them in.” So Pete turned around and said, “Ernie, nothing against you, but if I’m going to get a tattoo, I want Paul to do the outline and do the thing.” Paul was a gentleman. He said, “I ain’t outlined in 10 years.” Pete says, “I don’t give a fuck. I want a tattoo from you.”

So Paul took out a pen and he drew a simple, little brown flower. All of a sudden, he took out his outliner and he outlined it, and he felt comfortable and he colored it. We said we want you to sign it. He signed “PR 1979”. The weird thing is when he did that, all of a sudden he says to me “You want to get tattooed?” I said, “Yeah, I got this spot here”. Now, he got his chops back. He said, “how about I do that in there?” This was with supposedly a red that Ernie had at the time which was safe red, but it swelled up more than any other red that I ever had in my body, but that’s another story.

Paul did it, and he signed it PR. I got to spend the night down at his house in ’84 of January. I made a trip down to Zeik’s to hang out and work with this guy Jo from New York, and we were supposed to work at Zeik’s. I worked a little bit. We called him up and it was like a 7-8 hours drive and we drove down to Jacksonville and we hung out with Paul like for a day and a half. He had this little shed. He was like the true machine builder from scrap iron whatever he had laying around.

He was a gentleman of gentlemen tattooers. He was a sweetheart of a man, that man. Paul would never have an F-word or a bad word to say about anything or anybody. If he didn’t like somebody, he wouldn’t comment. Sailor Jerry at the time was sending him tons of photographs and memorabilia. They were all over the floor and it was like 3 in the morning and that time, I was just smoking cigarettes and I had like super headache. Me and Pete used to call them tattoo headaches, when you didn’t eat and all you did was smoke and talk a lot of nonsense. But we were so overwhelmed with it that it just blew us away, so fuck the headache. I’m looking and I’m thinking, “Is he going to know where to put all this shit back?” He would tell us that a photo was from this or that year, and Jerry sent me that, all sorts of good stuff that he shared with us. That was like an experience.

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