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Somerville Ink : An Interview with Jason Zube

By Stefan Linhares

Nowadays, tattoos aren’t entirely as taboo as they once used to be. More and more people of all different walks of life are getting ink’d up. But this permanent art style wasn’t always regarded in this way. It wasn’t until late 1999 when tattoo shops were made legal in Massachusetts. Jason Zube, owner of the renown Boston Tattoo Company, reminisces about his roots in Boston’s underground tattoo industry.

Image by Stefan Linhares

“I moved up here and I started tattooing underground, it was totally illegal. I used to do house parties and stuff like that for people in the area,” Zube says. Zoning laws have always been tough on tattoo shops. Because of this, some towns are much more likely to have a shop than others. 


What made you want to start being a tattooist?

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JZ: Part of it was the flexibility. You know, it’s not your typical 9-5 job. I put in about 80 hours a week. Nobody really gets tattoos at 8 in the morning. A 9-5 didn’t work with my lifestyle when I started. I like working with my hands, I like tattooing, I like everything about it really. It’s a cool way to make good money. There’s really no limit to what we can or can’t do here moneywise. If you wanna put in 80 hours and hustle, you’ll make over $100,000 a year. If you wanna fuck off and be lazy and just rely on people coming in, you’ll still make a living but, you know, everyone’s in between those two.

Zubi has been in the Somerville area for 20 years and has owned the shop for 14 of them. The second Boston Tattoo Company location is in Medford, MA. He’s served 21 years as a tattooist. At 18 he got his first tattoo and at 22 he gave his first.

Why do you think people don’t want tattoo shops in their area?

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JZ: Stereotype. You know, just the reputation of a tattoo shop. It’s still not the type of thing people want near a school. My place is pretty mainstream but not every place is. It's not really a place for kids.

What makes it mainstream?

JZ: Mainly the area. Davis Square is a pretty trendy spot. The clientele that you see here is mostly women and college students, as opposed to being in more deeper urban places where you see motorcycle guys or gangs. We don’t see a lot of gangs around here, and that’s not to say they’re not in Massachusetts, but those types of clients stick to their own. People have this idea of what a tattoo shop is gonna look and then they come here and they're a little surprised. It’s still a little edgy and cool, but I don’t want it to look menacing, you know? I don't want it to look like you’re walking into a serial killer’s place.

What’s your favorite style?

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JZ: My favorite type of style is the Japanese style. Dragons, samurai; stuff like that. When I first saw tattoos and saw that artwork, that's what I was attracted to. I mean, I appreciate all of it, but to me that’s the epitome of what tattooing should be. You should be able to pick out what it is across the room. It can’t be so small and delicate that you need to get up and use a fuckin magnifying glass to try and decipher what it is.

What’s a big trend in tattooing right now?

JZ: I’d say geometric pointillism. A lot of linework and dotwork, that sacred geometry. People are getting cubes and stuff tattooed on them in patterns. I think it looks cool, it looks like 3D, but I also see that becoming the tribal of the millennial. There’s no difference. Mandalas are popular now, birds flying off, quotes and writing on the ribs. You just run out of spots. 10-15 years ago every girl had a lower back tattoo, now to the ribs, now it's the fuckin underboob. Rihanna got it and now it's like the hotspot.

What separates you from a traditional painter?

JZ: A painter can just grab his canvas and go. A person like that doesn’t need to compromise. This is like half artist, half service. With the service you can sprinkle some therapy in there. There’s always something that triggers someone to get a tattoo. Something’s going on; job promotion, you broke up with your girlfriend, you lost somebody you loved, got in a car accident and almost died and think, “hey life’s too short.” There’s always something that makes a person instinctively want to get a tattoo. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean what it is they’ve got going on. But I always have someone in the chair who’s ready to spill their guts. So I've heard some weird stuff. Just like, shit people wouldn't tell their best friend. They just feel this connection. I like having that bond with people because they always remember the tattooing experience. You wanna make sure the experience with that person is the right one. You don't want them to have a bad time so that every time they look at it they have bad memories.

Do you remember the people you tattoo?

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JZ: Oh yea. If you spend that much time with people you definitely become friends with them. If I need a lawyer, I know one. I know a guy who works at the morgue even. I know club workers and restaurant workers. You get tired talking about yourself all day, but sometimes you just hit it off with people.

Do you have any words of wisdom for someone thinking about getting their first tattoo?

JZ: I’d just say do your research, ask questions, but don't be like, “where can i get it cheaper?” Nobody wants to hear that. Ultimately, you always get what you pay for, so you definitely don’t wanna go cheap with tattoos because they’re gonna be stuck with you forever. It ain’t like a bad meal you can get rid of. It’s gonna be on you forever. A tattoo you’re gonna take to the grave. Think about how it’s gonna look, how it can affect you. I think people do things without really thinking them through-- and you’re talking to a guy who owns 3 tattoo shops. If i covered up and had pants on, you wouldn’t know I’m a tattoo artist. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. I got them not to show off or say, “hey look at me I've got tattoos,” it’s just something I like to do. I don't need to wave it in people’s faces.

Zube recently opened The Samuel O’Reilly House, an interesting vintage-style mix between hotel and tattoo shop in North Conway, New Hampshire. This town is very special to Zube, as it is the place where he got his first tattoo and has been traveling there for 25 years. The opening of The Samuel O’Reilly House is like a crown accomplishment for Zube, pioneering a creative new experience for guests visiting from all around the world.

“I wanted to have a place that not only can you get tattooed. But you can make a whole weekend out of it. It’s for somebody that wants to go one step beyond,” Zube says about his bed and breakfast. The site is located in a touristy part of town but still exhibits wonderful opportunities for nature-related adventure.

The Boston Tattoo Company remains one of the most highly regarded shops in the Boston area, winning numerous awards such as The Phoenix’s Best of Boston 2011 & 2012, Somerville Scout Best of Somerville 2013, '14 & '15, Readers Choice Best Tattoo and Piercing 2014, and many more.