People love Brooklyn’s brownstones, but one woman is now wearing her love on her sleeve — or, more accurately, under it, in the form of a brownstone tattoo.
Last week, Manushka Montemuino became the proud owner of what could be the first-ever brownstone tat, a six-inch black-ink rendering of the century-old Henry Street building she calls home.
The brownstone image — pedestals, cornices, wrought-iron-fence and all — nestles on her right scapula, between a larger tattoo of a red rose and one of a ghostly angel (pictured on page 16).
“I got the rose for my mom, an angel for my grandmother. I needed something else,” said Montemuino, a Brooklyn Heights resident.
People have been inking their flesh with the symbols of their culture since the days when needles were made of fish bones. The technology has (thankfully) advanced, but the basic idea has remained the same: people want to put their passions on display.
And now, like a skull and crossbones, the red, white and blue face of Old Glory or the silhouette of the Empire State Building, the brownstone has become an object of “totemic significance,” according to Mike McCabe, author of “New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art.”
“New York City tattoos [are] a total grab bag of cross-cultural and pan-national references,” he said. “After 9-11, the World Trade Center was very popular. The Katz’s deli sign is popular, the Empire State building, the Staten Island Ferry. The brownstone is a new one.”
Montemuino said that her architechturally inspired tattoo was a reminder of her father, a building restorer who bought 273 Henry St., the year she was born, as well as the “old soul” of the fast-changing borough she grew up in.
“I love the way that brownstones are beautiful, but also really comfortable … like Brooklyn has been throughout my life,” she said.
Montemuino’s rite of urban passage took place on a recent Friday at Brooklyn Tattoo, a popular ink shop on Atlantic Avenue near Hicks Street.
The shop’s owner, Adam Gould, said Montemuino was the first customer who asked for a tattoo of a brownstone — but the homegrown tattoo artist believes that she won’t be the last.
Indeed, he has already reserved a piece of his forearm for a rendering of the Carroll Gardens brownstone where he grew up.
The Tompkins Place house will nestle between an image of a Japanese bat and a banner of his nom de plume, “Suerte,” which he picked up working at a tattoo parlor in Manhattan, where “a lot of the kids didn’t trust a [tattoo artist] with a Jewish last name,” he said.
“When you draw something on your skin, it becomes part of the timeline of your life. In that way, it makes sense to tattoo a piece of the town you love on yourself,” said Gould, whose calf is emblazoned with a drawing of a subway station that resembles the F stop at Carroll Street that Gould has used since he was a kid.
Gould, a 37-year-old bachelor with wild, hard- rock hair, is reluctant to call Brooklyn-centric tattoos trendy.
“We aren’t talking about a 718 T-shirt here,” he said.
But even he admits that the number of people running around with the image of the Cyclone, the Brooklyn Bridge or the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building on their biceps is rising right along with the cachet of the borough itself.
“I’ve been doing a lot Williamsburgh Bank clock towers recently,” he said. “I’ve done the word ‘Brooklyn’ on backs, hands, stomachs, the neck of a kid from Park Slope. I tried to talk that kid out of it, but he was adamant. He had a huge sense of Brooklyn pride that transcended mine.”
But pride isn’t the only motivation for marking a piece of the borough into one’s skin.
Dave Herman is the founder of the City Reliquary, an oddball museum of New York history located in Williamsburg. A tattoo of the Brooklyn Bridge spans his shoulders, and his back is covered with a fiery image of one of the borough’s historic disasters, the 1904 General Slocum fire on the East River.
He calls his “commemorative.”
Herman said that he understood the impulse to get a tattoo of a historic brownstone, or a landmark building that remains the tallest tower in the borough. It’s the same impulse that most people have to interact with history.
But history changes, and that motivates many tattoo-seekers.
“I think change, and disasters, spawn tattoos,” Herman said. “When news is flashing through the screen on TV, it’s hard to relate to it. A tattoo makes something fleeting physical and permanent for a person.”
Or a whole group of people. At least one preservationist believes that tattooing a brownstone on your back is an act if historic conservation (albeit one that may not earn you brownie points with potential employers, or mother-in-laws).
“This kind of tattoo is a new expression of a very human impulse, deep affection for a place and identification,” said preservationist Roberta Lane.
“It’s another document of the structure’s life, but one that is bound to stay around for a good while.”