The Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Company is Chicago and Illinois oldest tattooing studio. The shop originally opened in the mid 60's at 900 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago Illinois as Cliff Raven Tattooing. Cliff worked with a few different artists then including Buddy McFall and the late Tatts Thomas. In the late 60's due to a break out of hepatitis in New York City, Illinois changed the age to get a tattoo from 18 years old to 21 years old. There were many tattoo parlors on S. State Street in Chicago and with the change in age lost the biggest percentage of their clientele, the sailors from the Great Lakes Navel Training Center in North Chicago. All those parlors closed and quite a few moved to Wisconsin where the law still remained at 18. The only tattoo parlor that was left was Cliff Raven's.
Cliff Raven was one of the finest tattoo artists to ever pick up a machine. He had a BA in fine arts from Indiana University developed a style that was totally unique. Around 1970, Cliff took on a partner, Buddy "Mac" McFall. Mac was a retired army sergeant with 15 years of tattooing and had a very clean Carney style of tattooing. Together they worked at making tattooing safer. They used a steam autoclave to sterilize their instruments and used single service inks. This was unheard of at that time.
Being the only tattoo studio in Chicago, they were usually pretty busy. Cliff was really starting to get a name for himself and many other artists from all over the country would stop in the shop to get tattooed and to pick his brain and exchange ideas and designs. In 1972, I moved to Chicago from New York City after graduating from the State University of NY.
Like most people the only experience I had regarding tattoos was being a customer. I had a fascination with tattooing all my life. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, NY, my parents would take me to Coney Island often. One day there I saw my first tattoo shop. I had my face pressed against the window when my father's hand roughly yanked me away. From that moment on I had to find out more. As I grew up, I would draw all the time. I would draw tattoos on myself and anyone who would sit still long enough. I got my first tattoo from Stan Moskowitz of the S&W tattooing on Long Island, NY. I was 16 years old and used a friend’s draft card as ID to get it done. It was a typical Moskowitz tattoo but I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I hid the tattoo for over a year from my parents. It was on my upper arm and it was a pair of hearts that said "Mom and Dad". I had gotten a few more from S&W.
I had a friend who I grew up with in NY who had moved to Chicago and invited me out for a bit. Knowing my fascination for the art he brought me to Cliff Raven's. The minute I walked into the shop I knew this was what I wanted to do. The Flash was all hand drawn and so well rendered. I knew there had to be someone who could much better work than I was accustomed to and I found it here. When Cliff and Mac did a tattoo, it actually looked like the design you picked out or much better. Their work showed so much life. The shading brought out a third dimension to their work.
I had to get one of Cliff’s tattoos, so I did. We got to talking as he was working on me and I was so impressed that he knew the Moskowitz brothers. It is such a small world and a real tight business way before the internet. I asked Cliff for a job, more or less. He told me that he gets asked that question 50 times a week. He was such a friendly guy I asked if I could hang out there and do gofer work. He told me that he didn't mind as long as Mac didn't. Mac was a scary looking guy. Mac is big dark American Indian but with a heart of gold underneath. Mac relented and I started going there after work every day. I would go into my other two jobs early so I could get out early and get over to the tattoo studio earlier. One of Mac's sons had started working there mopping the floor and trying to put on stencils. I knew he wasn't going to work out. He just didn't have the heart for tattooing. One day I came in there and Mac was pissed at me. He said "you're late for your first day at work". That was one of the best days of my life. I'm still at it 35 years later.
In 1973, we decided to try our hand in the supply business. At that time there was only Spaulding. Since I was going to be doing a lot of the work, they decided to make me a partner and we incorporated as:
The Chicago Tattooing Company. This was still at 900 Belmont Ave.
We were still the only tattoo shop in the city. We were very busy tattooing that we really had no time to run the supply business so we stopped selling supplies. We thought about expanding the business and we bought Lyle Tuttle’s Hollywood shop on Sunset Strip. Around 1976, Cliff moved to Hollywood to work in that shop. Cliff traded his share of the Chicago studio for Mac's share of the Hollywood studio. Hollywood wasn't for me so I sold my share to Cliff.
Mac retired in 1977 and I bought him out. In 1978, my lease was up and had to move. By then there were a couple of other shops in the city, but only a couple. I found a store front just three doors up the street at 922 W. Belmont Ave. I had several different artists working with me over the next few years. In 1986 Cliff spent the summer working out of my shop. He missed Chicago and I tried all I could to get him to move back, but that wasn't to happen. After he went back to California, I need some help. I was tattooing by my self and many days I was working 12 to 14 hours. I now had a wife and a baby one year old and hardly saw them. One of my customers just happen to be around at the right time and I hired him as an apprentice. This was David McNair. He still works at Chicago Tattoo. As time went on I needed more help. Around 1984, Nick Colella started working at the shop.
In 2005, the owner of the building that housed the shop sold it to develop condos. I found another store front again just a few doors up the street to 1017 W. Belmont. That is where we operate now.
By now there are some 150 tattoo shops in and around the Chicagoland area. This is due largely to the popularity of tattooing and body modification and primarily due to the ever changing Chicago Tattoo. With the enormous popularity increase, Chicago Tattoo adapted and led the way to a cleaner and safer tattooing process.
Another big change in the industry was again largely due to Chicago Tattoo. A bill was presented to the Illinois House of Representatives to lower the age of tattooing from 21 to 18 years old. I never thought it would pass and I was right. The bill died in the Senate. I knew nothing of politics preferring to live and let live. However, the following year the bill was again introduced into the House. This time I was determined to do what I could to get it passed. With the help of Nick Colella and his wife Sarah, we drafted a letter and mailed one out to every member of the House. We also e-mailed each member. We got an online petition going as well. The bill passed the house and again went to the Senate for it's hearing. This time I persuaded Sen. John Cullerton to sponsor the bill and again we wrote letters and e-mailed every Senator in Illinois. All the work paid off because the bill passed in the senate. Now all that remained was for the Governor to sign the bill. He vetoed it for reasons known only to him. Again we wrote letters and e-mails to have the senate override the veto. I am happy to say, it passed. So officially you now can be 18 to be tattooed in Illinois. Proof of age is required from anyone who wants a tattoo or piercing at Chicago Tattoo regardless of age.
Many tattoo shops have opened in Chicago over the years and many have closed. None have the history, style, and talent as that of Chicago Tattoo.
I have worked with a lot of artists over the years, but I couldn't have done it without the help of Cliff, Mac, David McNair and Nick and Sarah Colella. A person could not ask for more loyal friends.
Nick has since left and opened his own studio. I wish him well. I also want to thank my wife of 24 years who put up with a lot of the long and sleepless nights I've had in this business.
Thank you for taking the time to read this bit of history. I know it's long and long winded, but so is the history of Chicago Tattooing and tattooing in Chicago.