By Dave Caldwell
the new york times
Jay Fields had been tattooed before, but never in the concourse of an arena as a hockey game was being played. So there Fields sat last week, between the first and second periods of an Islanders-Penguins game at Nassau Coliseum, as an artist who goes by Irish Jay patiently inked the word Believe on Fields’ right biceps.
“It’s a different kind of experience – doing this in front of two, three, four thousand people is a new experience,” Fields said as hundreds of fans, some more curious than others, strolled past Tattoo Lou’s Penalty Box, between Gates 15 and 16.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” he said.
Until three weeks ago, when Tattoo Lou’s opened for a game against the hated Rangers, the Islanders made out fine, more or less, without a tattoo parlor.
Although it may seem that a rough-and-tumble game like hockey and tattoos kind of go together, no professional sports franchise had its own official tattoo shop before this year, according to the Islanders.
Then the Islanders hooked up with Tattoo Lou, or Lou Rubino Jr., an enthusiastic 41-year-old entrepreneur with a shaved head from Port Jefferson, N.Y. Rubino’s father, the original Tattoo Lou, opened his first tattoo parlor on Long Island in 1958.
“He’s taken the ball and run with it,” said Justin Johnson, the Islanders’ senior vice president for corporate sponsorships and marketing, referring to Lou Jr.
An Islanders assistant, Scott Allen, had thought about getting a tattoo in the off-season. He was directed to Tattoo Lou’s because a couple of Islanders had gotten tattoos there, and because Tattoo Lou’s had five shops in Suffolk County, near his home.
Allen got two tattoos that day from Alecia Rey, an artist with swatches of pink hair, and liked them. An Islanders marketing representative at a conference bumped into Mark Perez, Tattoo Lou’s best friend as well as his marketing representative. They began brainstorming.
“We’re always looking for ways to get our name out there,” Rubino said.
Because of reality television shows like “Miami Ink” that have popped up in recent years, tattoos and body piercings have shed their tawdry images and entered the mainstream.
They are not only popular among men, mostly military people and bikers, Rubino said. Rubino said close to 50 percent of his customers were women, “and they don’t get little tattoos anymore.”
At first, the idea was for Tattoo Lou to open a stand at Islanders home games and sell temporary tattoos and other merchandise, like T-shirts and body jewelry. But the team had him come to its draft party, offering tattoos and piercings (after first receiving approval from the Nassau County department of health). Tattoo Lou’s was a hit.
“It’s like Lou always says, ‘If I don’t do it, somebody else will,”’ Perez said.
The idea took hold, like ink into skin. Tattoo Lou’s is to have a booth at Nassau Coliseum for 10 Islanders games over the first three months of the season. Perez designed the booth, which does have some degree of privacy, to look like a real .penalty box.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go over,” Perez said of the idea of a tattoo stand in general, “so I just thought, let’s go with the penalty box idea. When you go get a tattoo, you’re counting the minutes until it’s over, anyway.”
No one knew what would happen when the stand opened for the Rangers-Islanders game on Oct. 15. But the game drew a boisterous capacity crowd, and a boyfriend and girlfriend became the first customers. He wanted a tattoo of the Islanders logo, she the Rangers.
Business was lighter at last week’s game, but both chairs were filled. Getting a hockey-related tattoo is not mandatory. The artists did a Celtic knot, a tree and flowers. Rey was inking a former serviceman with Death Before Dishonor, and three college students decided on the spot to have their nipples pierced ($45 each).
Others signed up for Islanders logo tattoos (average price for a 3-to-4-inch logo, $150). There were also temporary tattoos for sale. The Ink Girls, the tattoo world’s version of NFL cheerleaders, happily mingled with the passers-by.
“Everyone’s getting them now, and you don’t have to have a giant back piece or a giant sleeve,” Perez said, referring to a tattoo that covers the arm. “People are saying, ‘the Islanders are a part of my childhood, and when I think of the Islanders, I have good memories.”’
He was referring, of course, to the days when the Islanders won the Stanley Cup four years in a row, and not so much to the recent past, in which the Islanders have mostly stumbled and are looking for a new arena to replace Nassau Coliseum.
In the meantime, Tattoo Lou’s is pushing the envelope. Some of its merchandise is selling briskly at the team’s official shops, including $25 T-shirts with Islanders logos decorated in flaming oranwge and yellow with the word Revenge. Body jewelry like earrings and tongue barbells ($15) carry tiny Islanders logos.
“It’s part of culture, and it’s not something we’ve shied away from,” Johnson said. “We’re appealing to the 20-or 30-somethings that the Islanders are hip, cool and relevant again.”
The tattoo stand is across a cramped hall from a refreshment stand, but Johnson said the reaction from fans had “been beyond positive.”
The stand is scheduled to be open again Saturday, when the Islanders host the Washington Capitals, and indications are that the shop will be open longer than the 10 home dates.
“For us, it’s been a totally great experience,” Rubino said. “It’s been kind of like a breakthrough. The tattoo industry for years has been frowned upon, and now it’s become mainstream.”
Rubino has a large (and very Rangers-looking) Statue of Liberty tattoo on his right forearm. Asked if he had an Islanders tattoo somewhere on his body, Rubino smiled and said: “No Islanders. But I’m thinking about it.”
Irish Jay, whose real name is Jason Mohl, had been working on Fields since a half-hour before the game started. Fields had not seen any of the game live, but he said he was having as much fun as if he were in the seats. He was, after all, a part of the action.
“I’m actually a Flyers fan – keep that low,” Fields said.
He grimaced and said, “We’re going to have to put up a wall so they don’t throw stuff at me.”