Update: Thom DeVita passed away on April 5, 2018 at his home in Newburgh. He was 85.
For those in the know, Thom DeVita is a household name. Revered by the tattoo demimonde, this prolific artist has been producing since the 1960s, when he had secret studios on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (since tattooing was illegal then).
Known for his completely unconventional approach, DeVita layered tribal, abstract, and conventional designs according to his whims, attracting all manner of clientele by word of mouth — from Chinese gangsters to sanitation workers and tattoo artist wannabes. Today he produces a steady stream of art in his Newburgh home, perched high on a hill overlooking the Hudson (he moved here 20 years ago when his wife got a job with IBM and for several years he also operated a shop on Liberty Street). Using stencils of classic tattoo motifs, he creates colored rubbings on paper that are collected by connoisseurs.
Hometown: East Harlem
First gig: I was an art school model for the National School of Art. I didn’t have a lot of tattoos when I was modeling. I was around 17.
First tattoo: It’s buried now. You can go over tattoos and use old tattoos as part of a new one.
Last tattoo: Probably the diamond on my finger. It’s a cheap way of wearing jewelry.
More tattoos? I don’t have much room left.
After the move: I didn’t have a shop on the street when I first moved up here. I took out the stove and was tattooing in the kitchen. I put an ad in the newspaper, but you weren’t supposed to do business out of the house.
Thoughts on home: You could put me anywhere — on a mountaintop.
Working habit: I listen to talk radio. I agree with them, I always have. That’s why when I was on the Lower East Side and people were doing all these protests against America, I didn’t understand it. I had an American flag out on East Fourth Street when people were burning the flag.
Better with age? Tattoos change the way you change. If you don’t look good, your tattoos look bad.
Why he signs his name and birthday: I heard about someone else named DeVita tattooing. There is no other DeVita who can claim they were born on 5/20/32.
What’s new? Landscapes. When I’m finished with my work, there’s a little bit of ink left in the bowl that would dry in five to 10 minutes. These [landscapes] are done on scrap paper. I do Bannerman’s Island a lot. A friend of my wife says, “Do what you’re good at.” I found out what I’m good at. It takes about 20 minutes, but sometimes I gotta cheat a little and put in a little extra ink to finish it up. I’m just making brush strokes. I never thought I’d do landscape painting and live in the mid-Hudson Valley.
Out and about: I don’t drive. I’ve never been behind the wheel of a car. I stay in the house most of the time. The only time I go out is to walk the dog. His name is Caleb and he’s a Husky. We got him from the shelter. That was the first time we kept a name from a shelter.
Is tattooing art? If I’m doing it, it’s folk art, although the tattoo artists coming up over the past 20 years or so come out of art school, and they don’t want to be called folk artists. I never set out to change anything.
Coming up: In September , Newburgh has an open art studio tour. I’ll be on it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.