Any great rock scene is about much more than the bands that call a city home at any given time.
This blog has frequently and passionately touted the rich infrastructure that makes Chicago such an extraordinary place for music: the often self-effacing and under-heralded network of mom-and-pop record stores, rock clubs, recording studios, rehearsal spaces, musical instrument dealers, independent labels, and D.I.Y. press and radio outlets, all of which foster and maintain a deep and abiding sense of community.
Shame on me, though, for so far neglecting one other key player: the talented, music-loving tattoo artist. And Chicago has none better than the legendary Ben Wahhh, a.k.a. Beverly native Ben Lewis, who on Saturday celebrates the 20th anniversary of his shop on Irving Park between Southport and Ashland, the internationally renowned Deluxe Tattoo.
Charting the long history of tattooing, the skilled methodology, the many varieties, and especially the personal joys of those who administer or proudly display this most personal of art forms is beyond this correspondent’s abilities as a cultural anthropologist. And that’s a book, not a blog post; heck, there’s a celebrated museum exhibit on the topic right now down at the Field, and even it barely scratches the surface.
What I can do is share my experiences with Ben and Deluxe—as well as Ben’s work for me—and why I think all of those are so special.
I first became aware of Ben thanks to two close friends, my guitarist/bandmate pal Tony Vortis and musical marketer-without-peer Kate Darling. They didn’t exactly scoff at the few tattoos I already had—none of those pictured below—but they did ask why on earth I’d gone to anyone but Ben. (Um, I was not living in Chicago at the time.)
I’d heard the name and knew of Deluxe Tattoo before, from more than a few celebrated musicians who’d sung their praises—none of whom I’ll name, because Ben despises that sort of thing. (He’s unfailingly modest, almost to a flaw, about everything except his children and his pool playing. He can also be a bit grouchy if rubbed the wrong way, and I would never want to do that.)
Then there was the beleaguered road manager of one rock superstar who I knew used to flee to Deluxe when his band was doing a residency nearby at Metro to escape the group’s megalomaniacal leader and find a little bit of funky-cool peace before returning to the abuse. Ha!
I can’t remember what ink Ben first did for me, or exactly when, but the shop could not have been more than a few years old at that point. And every visit made me eager to return, until we finally completed two full sleeves just a few months ago.
At the moment, I think I’m done. Ben laughs when I say that and tells me he’s sure I’m not. And he’s probably right.
The biographical details and Ben’s career trajectory can be found elsewhere—most notably in this fine profile by Liz Armstrong in The Reader in 2002—but I’ll add one historical footnote (again, because Ben likely will not).
The Lakeview neighborhood that realtors and developers have now dubbed “the Southport Corridor” decided about 10 years ago that it had become far too classy to still be home to El Gato Negro, the infamous transvestite bar. So the city, as is its habit, drove the place out of business with myriad bureaucratic hassles. Then it set its sights next door at Deluxe Tattoo.
Ben asked if I’d write a letter in his defense as a local resident, contributor to Chicago Public Radio, professor at Columbia College Chicago, and father of a daughter then attending Blaine Elementary School around the corner, and I was all too happy to oblige. I’ve spent a few hours looking for the original in vain. But I remember waxing rhapsodic about this upstanding artist and businessman and his meticulous and thoroughly licensed establishment; how it was every bit as vital and welcome a fixture in the ’hood as Southport Blooms, Grace Cleaners, Klein True Value Hardware, and the historic Music Box Theater, and how if she someday decided that she wanted a tattoo, I would not allow my daughter to go anywhere but Deluxe.
I was far from alone in standing up for Deluxe: Such was the outpouring of support that unlike many other treasured fixtures in Chicago’s rock underground—Lounge Ax! Ronnie’s! The Fireside Bowl! Double Door!—Ben’s shop was spared.
Now the place is 20 years old. Over maybe 20 hours in the last decade and a half, I’ve rarely spent a minute there when every work station wasn’t busy, with plenty of customers waiting for their turn next. And it’s no exaggeration to say that in the world of tattoo enthusiasts, the name Ben Wahhh is hailed worldwide, with bragging rights attached to all of the equally talented artists he’s deemed worthy of working with him. I’ve met some who’ve come from Paris, New York, and L.A. to spend a few weeks tattooing at his side, as well as others who grew up admiring his handiwork and now think of working at Deluxe the way a musician thinks about playing the Riv or the Aragon.
Why? Well, Ben is a true artist, needless to say. But he’s also a perfectionist who cares deeply about every drop of ink applied to any customer who walks in the door. (He’s currently hounding me to touch up the red on a piece that bothers me not in the least—it’s on my body, but he’s the one troubled by the color not quite healing to vibrant perfection!)
Just as importantly, though, Ben and everyone at Deluxe are endlessly fascinating and passionate people. I’ve never walked out of the shop without having a long list of books to read, movies to watch, music to download, bands to see, visual artists to investigate, and places to eat, thanks to the hours of stimulating conversation with Ben and his fellow tattooers, as well as the always primo soundtrack to the events at hand. (The rule of the shop is that the first artist into work gets to choose the streaming audio for the day—at least until it offends Ben’s finely honed aesthetic sensibilities and he exercises the rare managerial veto.)
In other words, I walk out of Deluxe inspired—by my new ink, of course, but also by having spent time there at this center of alternative community, without ever having been made to feel as if I wasn’t really cool enough to be there (and to be certain, I am not).
These good vibes aren’t just the celebrated post-tattoo endorphin high. I’m feeling that way again right now as I type this. And that’s the other thing that people lacking ink don’t quite understand about tattoos.
Yeah, okay, they are in part about making a statement to the world, using your own body as the canvas or billboard. But that’s the least of it.
For me, they are the most intimate reminder of the things I value most in life, and a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Every morning when I see that visual record anew, it’s as much of a welcome wake-up and motivation to move forward as the first cup of coffee. And it’s a jolt through every other waking hour whenever one is needed.
So, thank you, Ben, and most sincerely. Happy anniversary! Here’s to 20 more years of Deluxe Tattoo. And please know that for no one else in the universe would I risk crossing the line of T.M.I. to show your handiwork (because, really, it’s all just talk until you see the art).
(Photos by Carmel Carrillo-DeRogatis; hackneyed PhotoShop editing by me, with apologies to Ben for marring his artistry.)
Deluxe Tattoo, 1461 W. Irving Park, will celebrate its 20th Anniversary from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday with anniversary merch, catering from Reggie’s and Dark Matter Coffee, and the special offer of unique designs from each individual artist available for one day only on a first-come, first-served basis for $100. For more information, click here.