Belmont: Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Co. the Grandfather of City's Tattoo Parlors

Belmont Stop LogoBy Jill MIskevics and Katherine Harry
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, June 4, 2012

Belmont Avenue in Lakeview is known for housing quirky shops, vintage stores, and the historical Chicago Tattooing Company.  Chicago Tattoo has been around for 39 years and owns the title of Illinois’ oldest tattoo studio.

Both the locals and Chicago tourists pay visits to the Chicago Tattooing Company to experience the history, art and body modification specialties that the shop is known for providing.

“Tattoos are a way for me to get something permanent on me that means something, that tells a story and then I just keep on telling the story, you know, keep on expressing myself through it,” said Robert Perez, 26-year-old United States Marine.

Perez and fellow marine, Leonardo Fortolis, came to Chicago from Washington D.C. for work-related business at the May 20-21 NATO summit and spent the following Tuesday evening at Chicago Tattoo.  Fortolis has visited Chicago Tattoo on a previous trip to the city and had his daughter’s name tattooed on his arm.

“We were here for the whole NATO summit and working that.  It’s done now so [operations and management] were like go explore, take some pictures . . .” said Perez.

Both Perez and Fortolis have tattoos that represent family, spirituality and their own personal histories with the US Marines. Stationed for the weekend at the Naval Station Great Lakes, they knew to come to Belmont to continue telling their respective stories in the form of tattoo art.

Chicago Tattoo offers a variety of services ranging from body piercings to intricate body art.  Visiting the shop on a Tuesday night, business was booming, keeping the tattoo artists busy drawing up tattoo designs or piercing customer’s bodies.

Before The Chicago Tattooing Company opened its doors at 1017 W. Belmont Ave., a Chicago tattoo shop already existed down the street at 900 W. Belmont called Cliff Raven Tattooing.

Cliff Raven Tattooing opened in 1963, competing against the many tattoo shops already existing on South State Street.  Shortly after the opening, Illinois changed the legal age to get a tattoo from 18 to 21 which drove away most of State Street’s clientele.  After many closings and relocations, the only tattoo shop remaining was Cliff Raven’s Tattooing.

Tattoo on Leonardo Fortolis/Photo by Katherine Harry

Leonardo Fortolis getting his tattoo at Chicago Tattoo Company. 
He is starting an arm sleeve. (Photo by Katherine Harry)

In 1972, Dale Grande moved to Chicago after graduating from the State University of NY. Grande spoke with Cliff Raven himself regarding employment and in the year 1973, they became business partners.

“We were still the only tattoo shop in the city,” Grande said. “We thought about expanding the business and we bought Lyle Tuttle’s Hollywood shop on Sunset Strip.”

Under the new partnership, the Chicago Tattooing Company was born.  Chicago Tattoo was still the only tattoo shop in the city of Chicago and Grande eventually became the sole owner after Raven moved to Hollywood.

Throughout the 1980’s, Grande moved the shop to 922 W. Belmont Ave. and hired two new employees, David McNair and Nick Colella, both of whom still work at the shop today.

Fast-forwarding to the year 2005, Grande’s building was bought out and he moved the shop to 1017 W. Belmont, the present address of operation.  There were now about 25 tattoo shops in the Chicagoland area and the tattoo shop expansion still continues today.

Chicago Tattoo also played a large role in shaping the demographic of tattoo eligibility from 21 years of age back down to 18. The first time that the tattoo age-lowering bill was drawn up, the Senate shot it down.

“I knew nothing of politics preferring to live and let live,” Grande said.  “However, the following year the bill was again introduced into the House.  This time I was determined to do what I could to get it passed.”

Grande accepted all of the help that people were willing to offer, writing personal letters to each member of the House and starting an online petition.  The bill eventually passed through the Senate but was then vetoed by the Governor.

Rejection did not stop Grande and his team but rather triggered more emails and letters addressed to every Senator in Illinois asking them to override the veto.  The efforts paid off and today, any person at least 18 years of age may be tattooed in the state of Illinois.

The Chicago Tattooing Company helped shape the Chicago tattooing industry.  The shop still functions on the same street and under the same principles as it has since 1963.

“I like to use my body as a canvas to tell my story,” said Perez.  “I have a lot more living to do and a lot more skin to fill.”

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