Keith “Bang Bang” McCurdy is an entrepreneur, a best-selling author and the face of the ever-expanding Bang Bang Tattoo empire. He’s one of the most famous tattoo artists on earth, responsible for tattoos on people like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Kylie Jenner. Which means that even if you don’t know McCurdy by name, chances are you’ve seen his work.
But he is also one of a growing number of tattoo artists changing the experience of getting tattooed.
McCurdy honed his craft at age 18 outside a trailer park in his hometown in Delaware. By his early 20s, he’d made his way to New York City and was working in some of the city’s best tattoo shops.
He quickly realized he was often uncomfortable in many mainstream tattoo parlors.
“I didn’t feel very welcomed when I was a younger person that wanted tattoos and I would go into a tattoo shop,” McCurdy says. “I felt very nervous and in a really vulnerable spot.”
When it came time for McCurdy to open up his own shop ― Bang Bang Tattoo ― he took his experience to heart. Tattooing is a largely self-regulated industry and quality of care can vary widely. McCurdy made sure that at his shop, tattooing was treated as a service with an emphasis on the client’s overall experience.
“I know the transformation that comes in people and the confidence that comes in people when they get a great tattoo,” McCurdy says. “I see it every day.”
Bang Bang Tattoo’s second location in New York’s Soho neighborhood could be seen as the realization of McCurdy’s vision, as well as a direct response to the grungy tattoo shop stereotype popularized in the reality TV of the 2000s with shows like “LA Ink.”
The shop’s ultramodern interior brings to mind an immaculately clean spaceship, complete with koi fish, Fiji water and a massive indoor plant terrarium that takes up the shop’s back wall.
“As much as I love that old-school, traditional look that we see in tattoo shops, I’m not that guy,” McCurdy explains. “I’m this guy. This is just a representation of me.”
I felt like it was important to create space where trans people and queer people and people of color can feel at home in an environment where people are getting tattoos. Jas Morrell, a trans tattoo artist in Philadelphia
While McCurdy might already be a household name, lesser known tattoo artists are also at work changing the norms of tattoo culture.
For Jas Morrell, a trans tattoo artist in Philadelphia, mainstream tattoo culture was especially problematic.
“I experienced a lot of transphobia, homophobia and then just straight-up racist remarks,” Morrell says. “And when that happens over and over again at different shops and it’s not just one person or one shop, that’s when you know it’s truly a problem.”
As a response, Morrell opened Spirited Tattooing Coalition, a tattoo shop in Philadelphia’s Cedar Park neighborhood that serves as a safe space for communities of people often overlooked by mainstream tattoo culture.
“I felt like it was important to create space where trans people and queer people and people of color can feel at home in an environment where people are getting tattoos,” Morrell says.
Spirited Tattooing Coalition has quickly become a fixture of the neighborhood’s queer community, with people often just stopping by to say hello or grab a few candies from a bowl by the register.
Like McCurdy, Morrell believes that the key to his business’s success has been its emphasis on the relationship between tattoo artist and client.
Says Morrell, “That’s just as important as what the tattoo looks like.”