Yesterday, I went to Metro Mutts on H Street NE to find out more about the hateful graffiti which some vandal had spray painted on “their” door this weekend. I was surprised to discover two things:
- Metro Mutts has never encountered any negativity or hostility before this
- Metro Mutts shares the vandalized door with upstairs neighbor, British Ink.
In fact, the “door” which was tagged is really an outer door which doesn’t even have the six-month old pet shop’s name on it yet– there is merely a round, Metro Mutts sticker. It seems inaccurate to declare that Metro Mutts was the target of racist, anti-Gay, anti-gentrification graffiti but the mistake is wholly understandable; the first floor store front belongs to them. Anna Collins, one of the co-owners of the cleanest pet store I’ve ever been to, said that she didn’t think the ugly message was aimed at Metro Mutts– and that I should speak to Paul Roe, of British Ink about the incident. I did, this morning, for an hour.
Roe’s unique, by-appointment-only, couture tattoo studio has been open for four years. I asked him why he chose H Street.
“I had lived in Capitol Hill for seven to eight years, then I lived in NE for the last ten years. I’ve traveled that route six days a week for 18 years and passed through that neighborhood every single day. I would always stop at the light at 6th and H st and I’d look to my left and see these storefronts and think, ‘I need to own a business’. One day, I saw a “For Lease” sign and it was a foregone conclusion. I didn’t know about the trolley or “gentrification”, it just was calmer and I had to be there.”
Had he experienced any negativity with regards to gentrification and that street?
“We get on very well with the whole community. There’s more of a reaction to the tattoos than the color of the skin they’re on. Everyone who works here is heavily tattooed”, he explained. He continued: “I’m British but my mother is Spanish, so I’m brown trash, not white trash”. I had to stifle laughter. He’s funny. He told me about each member of his staff, adding, “We have four continents represented in one store. It’s not a racial issue to me. It’s an issue of decoration on our skin. That’s the first thing they see.”
“And it’s not necessarily a negative response. Some of the older local residents were initially a bit taken aback by a heavily tattooed man walking down their street every day…but I’ve always been a person who smiles and says ‘hello’. I’m aware that this is a community and that I am coming in to a mixed residential/business district and that’s where I draw the division– there are people who live here and people who work here and essentially, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s never mattered to me.”
Did he think the hate graffiti (“Cracker -drawing of penis- get out my city fag”) was meant for him?
“Yes, absolutely, it was aimed at me, and not Metro Mutts.”
How did he know?
“On Saturday afternoon, a man arrived without an appointment and asked to speak with me. Well, I was busy with a client, but I went out to the lobby. A young man, in his early 20s was standing there, trying to impress me, in order to get a job. I was frustrated, annoyed and a little bit offended that he thought it was okay to walk in, wanting attention when our attention is focused on our client. So I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t have time. I have a client who is paying for my time.’ He had brought a portfolio of photos to look at, of his “work” but I was busy. I said that he could take a card and email me but he was insistent. He wanted to know what I thought. He mentioned he had worked at a couple of local parlors, neither of which would actually employ him because I know the owners and the quality of their work…but he just thrust his portfolio in my hand and so I went through it to get rid of him. I gave him a critique he wasn’t happy about. Then he realized me standing there was a sign for him to leave so he left. In a huff.”
So this was really about someone who was offended that you didn’t like their work?
I mentioned that the “anti-gentrification” narrative was seized upon because it’s such a controversial and divisive issue– that and it’s much more interesting than a spurned job applicant.
“It’s so much more inflammatory, is what it is.”
He continued: “By placing ‘gentrification’ on the system that is in progress on H street, you are implying that this is a street where a tattoo parlor typically does not belong. So remove the word “gentrification”. It doesn’t apply. You are not gentrifying the area in the traditional social sense.”
Fair point. A custom tattoo parlor isn’t a dog park or latte shop.
“It’s not about race, it’s about the tattoos. It’s about my work vs the guy that came in. Or look at the work of my apprentice, who has been working for a year and is infinitely better than that guy, who claimed to have five years experience. But, she has an MFA. She spent years with classical art training and I’m not going to take on anybody who is not an artist, first and foremost. Tattoo is another media, what we do is not an ‘I’ll have a #53 please’.
“Think of the definition of the word parlor; you open the door to a house and the front room is a parlor. If you walk in to a tattoo parlor, you make a selection, go and get tattooed. We are not a parlor. We are a studio. We make every single piece custom-made. It fits one person and is never repeated. Haute tattoo-age. I went to school for fashion. I’m a dressmaker and essentially, what I’m doing now is stitching skin, to change the way a viewer sees that body part or the body as a whole.”
“And this guy showing me his portfolio, who was big swinging his work in my face…honestly, it was horrendous, and I really didn’t want to tell him that until he said, ‘I just really want to know what you think”, he said that to me three times! Okay, I’ll tell you. ‘Get out of my shop it’s crap, just look at it.’
“Now if someone said that to me, I’d go away, brood, analyze and try and make it better, but that’s me, that’s not him. What does he want to do? He wants to hurt me. Well guess what? I’m not a cracker, I’m brown. I’m not a fag, I’m English. And I own a piece of this city, so it’s my city, too. I own my idea. I’ve lived here for a couple of decades. I consider it my city, too. I don’t think this is an issue of race. I think it’s about tattoos. This was an issue of skill, not race. When someone shows me work which defames my craft, I’m going to tell him so.”
Was the portfolio that bad?
“The quality of the portfolio was reflected in the quality of the graffiti he lashed out with”.
Ouch. The drawing which had been spray painted on the door at 508 H Street NE barely resembled male genitalia.
But hey, at least this wasn’t about racism, homophobia or gentrification.