At first glance, he’s your typical tattoo artist: stocky, built, arms and chest covered in vivid skin art, and a mug that could threaten your entire family without him uttering a single word. His dark, neatly-kempt hair and his rounded, strong and clean-shaven face suggest Michael Corleone on his most serious day.
But then he smiles. And if he was wasn’t wearing a t-shirt and ink-stained jeans – perhaps a well-cut suit and tie instead – he’d win your trust faster than you could say, “Stereotype.” Normally, though, it takes a brief, sit-down consultation for you to realize that he’s completely capable of professionally and skillfully marking you for life.
Natan Lin has spent the better half of his career battling stereotypes and turning people on to the safer, more respectable side of tattooing. Thanks partly to him, everyone in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can get tattooed safely and, perhaps more important, legally. He’s also produced – for six years in a row now – the annual Boston Tattoo Convention, through which he spreads the word about the artistic value of tattooing, and helps introduce talented artists from across the country to a greater following.
Foremost, though, Lin, 38, is an artist and business owner. Running two successful studios in the greater Boston area – with another, his biggest yet, on the way in Salem – Lin has gained a crucial understanding of what it takes to run a solid, lasting business in a relatively new-age profession. Twenty years ago, Lin’s career path would’ve seemed inconceivable, but today, his business is a “million-dollar baby.” And that, it seems, only makes him stronger.
“There’s a high degree of responsibility in what I do. People entrust me to alter them for the rest of their lives, so I take that pretty seriously,” said Lin. “And as a business owner, people entrust their careers and livelihoods to me.”
But before you peg him as all business, he’s got a self-admitted light side, too.
“Underneath the crushing weight of all that responsibility is the essential fact that I get to draw and paint on a daily basis,” he said. “That, in and of itself, is a miraculous and beautiful thing.”
Lin’s ascension to the top of the Boston tattoo game began sometime in the early â€˜90s, when he flew to Amsterdam expecting a much-needed vacation. But, as any chick-flick would have it, he met a girl while in Holland, prolonging his original, brief visit to a stay of five years. But after some time in the land of flowers and windmills, the girl, Lin realized, wasn’t the biggest pull.
“I met some tattoo artists there,” said Lin, “and I started spending my time in the company of tattooers and people who collected tattoos who were interested in the art.”
Within a year, Lin – then a freelance graphic designer – had gotten his foot in the door at one of the very few shops in Amsterdam and began apprenticing under a Dutch artist, learning the ins and outs of the business while occasionally inking a willing customer for practice. While studying the art of tattooing, Lin connected deeper with his artistic side, which, although he always maintained, had never before been so stimulated. Still, however, he didn’t expect to carve a living out of a frowned-upon practice.
“I thought that this is a great medium that I wanted to work in, but I didn’t really consider it a career path,” Lin said. “I didn’t think I was going to become a tradesman or a craftsman of some kind.”
Meanwhile, tattooing in his native Massachusetts had been banned since 1962. The only people wearing tattoos had either traveled out of state to get them, or had endured an agonizing and shady homemade procedure, probably in someone’s basement. When Lin returned to the states in 1995, after years of polishing his new craft and now excited about the prospect of tattooing in his home state, he was amazed to find out that he’d have to stick with other jobs to get by. During that period, he found work as a musician, a bouncer and even as a stain glass artist.
But nothing, it seemed, was a substitute for tattooing.
In 1996, he created a website, MassInk.com, which promoted the practice of safe tattooing, as well as the overturn of the tattoo ban within the Commonwealth.
“Once tattooing did come out into the light, then I got pro-active about safe tattooing,” Lin said. “By creating the website, I was able to disseminate a bunch of information about the bare basics of what people should be looking for when they’re getting a tattoo.”
After several years of inaction on the Commonwealth’s behalf, Lin teamed up with a few fellow tattoo artists – including Boston-based Stephan Lanphear, whom Lin credits as the true figurehead of the legalization movement – and other advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Now with a substantial force behind him, Lin began speaking out more aggressively: He organized rallies, helped sponsor bills to the state legislature, and even spoke on Beacon Hill, vouching for the safety of tattooing.
On Oct. 23, 2000, State Superior Court Judge Barbara Rouse overturned the ban, and effective Jan. 31, 2001, tattooing in the Commonwealth would become legal for the first time in more than 40 years. For Lin and his advocacy team, the victory was groundbreaking – it was one that would change the course of his life forever.
“We struggled with it for a few years,” Lin said. “But one key idea applied at the right place and the right time made a massive social change.”
With tattooing in the clear, Lin was ready to pursue his newfound passion at home. He opened his first studio, Darkwave Tattoos, in Roxbury in 2001, followed shortly by his second, Lightwave Tattoos, in Saugus in 2003. A steady, dedicated following of clients provided for the growth of his businesses into some of the most well-known shops in the greater Boston area, and has allowed him to open a third – Witch City Ink, in Salem – later this spring. Lin’s successful combination of professionalism and dedication has made more than one mark on his customers.
“He has the skill, and a certain way about him,” said Tim Coady, a friend and longtime customer of Lin’s. “The conversation’s going along, we ask each other about our families, and next thing you know, the tattoo’s done and it’s just the way you want it.”
Over the course of eight years, Coady, 59, has accumulated 26 tattoos from Lin – two full sleeves, half of his back and half of his chest – and says he won’t let any another artist touch him.
“I’ve noticed that he gets respect,” Coady said. “He has that kind of a personality that you just know he’s a good artist.”
It’s no mistake that Lin has made people happy with his work. He says that his business is not only about giving people tattoos, but about making a greater statement in favor of the art and being responsible for its consequences.
“We have an extended circle of responsibility that includes ethical practice and raising the standards of not only what people perceive as tattoos, but what they perceive as people who get tattoos,” said Lin. “But getting paid to use your imagination and to make people happy when they’re doing something empowering for themselves is a great place to be in.”
Apart from advocacy and tattooing, Lin’s into activism – one of his children suffers from severe autism, and since her infancy, Lin has sought to increase awareness of the disease by donating a cut of the convention profits each year to autism charities, thereby promoting its research. He’s learned the virtues of caring and compassion on this whole other front – when Maya, 6, was diagnosed with the disease, the tattooer quickly realized the stakes of her illness. In the last year, he’s been trudging through a painful divorce from his wife of 10 years, Lily, over disagreements in their daughter’s treatment.
“Autism is something that you don’t plan for and that you don’t expect. But when it comes along, like any severe illness, it changes the road map of your life in a pretty heavy duty way,” Lin said. “It’s a terrifying and heart-breaking thing to cope with, so it’s taught me a lot of things, but I suppose that a lot of deep sadness has a way of tempering your personality in a lot of ways.”
Although he only gets to see his children on the weekends – his son, Max, is 8 – Lin savors the time he has with them, and ensures that he’s still a big presence in their lives.
“He’s awesome with his kids,” said Gwendolyn Ditsch, 41, an employee at Darkwave Tattoos. “I see him with them all the time, and they just light up his life.”
Throughout the past six years, Lin has donated 10 percent of the Boston Tattoo Convention’s profit to organizations such as CureAutismNow and Realizing Children’s Strengths, the school his daughter attends in Natick. As long as his daughter is sick, he’ll be at the forefront of her development, ensuring that she gets the best care every step of the way.
There’s no doubt that Lin has enjoyed substantial achievement throughout his career, but he seems to simply shrug it off his shoulders. To him, business is business, and he’s just lucky enough that his passion is his business.
“As you go beyond, particularly in the larger movement of art, you realize how little you are in comparison to what you do,” Lin said. “I’m not a celebrity. I’m fortunate to do what I love and that I have a good shot at giving my kids a great future through doing something that I do well.”
Sitting on a stool inside his tattooing station, Lin carefully cleans and re-inspects each needle, looking for any imperfection that may lead to infection, or even the slightest change in ink color. He’s a perfectionist, and it shows.