Tattoo Duke: 40 Years Strong

Article By: Amelia “Killer” Rose

Originally Published In The March 2o17 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine

In the 70’s, the tattoo scene on California’s West Coast was hoppin, but over on the East Coast, specifically here in Pennsylvania, it was just Hank Savini, Duke Miller, and Moose. Then Red moved in from Florida and Nick came out of New York and opened a shop in the Rocks. Today, only a few of them remain; Hank, who’s now in his 90’s, Animal, though he’s since quit, Nick Bubash, and Duke, who this past year celebrated 40 years of tattooing. When Duke was a young man, around 16 years old, he spent most of his time outside of school making money working on farm equipment or working on cars in a garage. Soon after graduation he went to work at the steel mill. But for him, it was more like working in prison. Everyone stayed in their own little corner of the mile-long building, not allowed to leave without a signed pass. He felt like a slave, less than human, and was treated worse than when in school. It was then that he realized he needed to figure out a way to not work for “The Man”, which is how it all started. Duke quit working at the mill in 1976, which is also the year he started tattooing. He could draw and paint anything but at that point in time, no one was taking apprentices, heck apprenticeships weren’t even a thing back then. Tattooing was like a secret society- you had to find your own way in. “The mind is a powerful thing, if you decide what you want to do or be, you can do that. So, I thought, I’m doing something, and tattooing was the coolest art form I had ever seen in person. When I got to see it I was like, I’m in.”

The first tattoo Duke ever did was on a close friend of his, two hearts and a ribbon with his wife’s name on it. Soon enough he started working under Bob “Moose” Rutter. At that time, Bob was going to Art School during the day, and didn’t have money to pay the rent on his tattoo shop. One day Duke ran into him, after tattooing a little bit, and Bob goes “Hey man, I need 60$ to pay the rent at the tattoo shop. If you got $60, you’re in.” Duke didn’t have the money so he borrowed $60 (which was big money back then) from 3 or 4 friends, and that’s how he got started building his legacy. Duke would tattoo all day while Bob was at school, then he’d come back, they’d eat dinner, and Bob would show him everything he was taught at art school, so essentially Duke got a free art class.

Duke traveled around with the carnival for roughly 10 years, tattooing and working some of the sideshows; laying on the bed of nails, walking on broken glass, etc. In the winter, all the carnies would go to Gibsonton, FL where they would repair rides, and Duke would repaint all the sideshow signs. During the season, they would travel from Florida all the way out to Ohio/Indiana, and then work their way back to Florida. In the summers, Duke tattooed every weekend, he would sometimes do 150 $20 tattoos in a day. At the Butler Fair, Duke and Red would tattoo starting at 10 am and on Friday’s they’d tattoo all night. Saturday’s, they would go until 2 or 3 in the morning. Sometimes it’d be a $50 tattoo, sometimes an $80 one, which, back then, was the equivalent of $800. They would walk out of there sometimes with $7,000/$8,000 but thanks to their lifestyle by the next weekend they’d have to borrow money to pay the rent!

Since his days as a Carny, things in the tattoo industry have changed quite a bit. Though the machines Duke uses are still the same, just two magnetic coils, the inks have changed tremendously. Years ago, they were using things like candy cotton dye, stuff with no pigment that the blood could take right out of the skin. Today they know how to grind down the pigments to a specific size so they stay better and give more vibrant colors. And thankfully the old guard is no longer telling the competing newcomers to put urine in the ink to make it brighter. Another big change is the way the image is transferred to skin. Nowadays, tattoo artists use transfer paper to transfer the design to the skin and once it’s on there, it’s nearly impossible to wipe off. The old way of transferring was to use stencils made of pieces of thin, flexible acetate plastic. You would take a needle the size of a screwdriver and scratch whatever design you were doing into the plastic. Then you’d take some black powdered ink, rub it into the grooves, put on a thin coat of anything sticky, primarily ointment, on top of it, and it would suck all the black out, thus transferring the image. You had to be extremely careful when starting the tattoo to not smudge or touch the transfer, or your stencil would be gone.

Duke still has some of his original stencils and every now and then will bring them to the tattoo conventions with him: Not to sell. He lines them up and tells younger tattoo artists that he’ll tattoo one of the stencils on them and they can keep the stencil. The last time he went, he only gave out 6 or so before he packed them up. Even though Duke’s presence at a convention causes quite a stir, he still sees himself as just one of the boys. “I just want to hang out with the guys. I’m honored that they look up to me, but I don’t get it, I’m just a dude havin fun.”

In all reality, it was Duke and the other artists of his time who paved the way in the tattoo industry to make it an acceptable art form. They fought hard against the government for years to make things work. He, Tim, Animal, and Moose would go down to Harrisburg, and meet with the congressmen, and those that were trying to pass tattoo restriction laws. As much as they could, Duke and the other artists tried to educate the younger guys as well. They’d have meetings where the old guys would sit at a table with the young guys and talk. He’d tell them to pay attention, cause if it happened again they were on their own. In the beginning, tattoos clearly weren’t widely accepted. Treatment of tattoo artists by the “straights” back in the 70’s was pretty harsh. “Oh, we were the freaks. It started in the heyday of pot and protests. I used to go to DC to the smokeouts, where we sat on the lawn of the White House and smoked dope. Timothy Leary would be there, Andy Warhol would be there, Abbie Hoffman would be there. They were the spokespeople for those things. And hey, I sold acid to all of them. People would just come by and go “what a bunch of f#@kin freaks!” and we thought “yeah we are!” and we dug it. And that’s where it came from.”

In the 80’s shops became nicer. Shop owners realized if you had a nice shop, you got better clientele. Older folks started to get tattoos too. Marty Holcombs was the first good artist in the Tri-State area, who could do really beautiful artwork, not just tattoos. He was getting doctors, lawyers, and other professional people in his shop. Marty still paints today. When the 90’s rolled around, tattoo magazines came out. There was one called Tattoo, and one called Skin Deep, then everybody was seeing them, and everybody had to have a tattoo. When the magazines first came out and needed to make money to continue publishing, the little guys that were trying to sell tattoo equipment would put ads in. In 2000 the Japanese came out with $12.50 tattoo machines, and were selling poorly made ink for next to nothing. All of a sudden, everybody has a tattoo machine and everybody thought they were a tattoo artist. In terms of the culture, many people think that Ink Masters and shows like that really depict what it’s like to be a tattoo artist today.

As for Duke, he knows the truth. He feels the shows are too misleading, because nobody really knows what’s going on there; it’s scripted for TV. They’re not really doing that big giant tattoo in 4 hours like they say they are, it’s just not happening. Although Duke could do a tattoo that they’d take 10 hours to do, in 2. Like everyone else, Duke has his limitations. For instance, he doesn’t do portraits, “I’m not makin’ your wife pretty, if she’s got a cross eye, she’s gonna get a cross eye in her portrait, so I don’t touch those things.” He prefers the old-school stuff, which is all he did back in the day. “I’m capable of a lot of cool things, I’ll do some cool things that ain’t my style, but others it’s like ehh, and I’ll pass it along to one of the other boys in the shop.

Today, Duke spends his time in his newest shop, Old Skool Tattoos, creating the same incredible artwork he started 40 years ago. It is truly aweinspiring to think that this man has been an active part of the tattooing community for 40 years. He has seen the rise and fall of politicians, watched the world change right before his eyes. Experienced four decades of awful fashion and terrible hairstyles, all the while he remained unchanged. Duke’s artwork has stood the test of time and even today, his art is still just as clean and bold as it was when he first picked up a machine. Duke, to me, is an inspiration for artists everywhere. He wanted to do something more in life and instead of sitting around and waiting for things to happen, he went out and achieved it. And at a time when tattoos had just been legalized only a few years prior and were still too taboo to even be talked about. His hard work and dedication to the art form will surely be noted for generations to come. When asked what advice he would give the newcomers his answer was simple; “Respect…just gain a bit of respect, for themselves and the people they work with and learn from.” If you want to know more about Duke, see some of his art, get tattooed by the legend himself, or head to the shop for some ink therapy, head over to https://www.facebook. com/TheOldSkoolTattooing/

Here’s to Duke, 40 years under his belt and another 20 to go.