Lydia Salamon’s favorite tattoo also acts as an identification card.
The bar manager at Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Ala., has a sandworm from “Beetlejuice” inked on her upper right arm. It easily starts conversations with customers who recognize the striped, coiled beast. “We’ll start talking about the movie, and someone will bring up Winona Ryder’s character, who’s also named Lydia,” she says. “It will then dawn on them that I’m a Lydia with a “Beetlejuice” tattoo. It makes it hard for them to forget my name.”
It’s obviously not surprising to hear of a bartender sporting a tattoo. It’s almost expected these days — a bartender under 40 without ink looks slightly out of place. As such, it’s easy to take bartender body art for granted. We may admire the coolness of an ornate sleeve or an elaborate, colorful piece, but even as we appreciate the work, it’s easy to assume that a bartender has tattoos simply because they’re bartenders.
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These assumptions tend to downgrade the concept of the tattooed barback to a cliché. This is unfortunate. While the beauty of a proper tattoo is skin-deep, the intertwined nature of ink and drink culture goes down to the bone.
An Evolved Relationship
To fully appreciate the relationship between tattoos and bartending, it’s important to first understand the evolution of ink’s status in American history — a progression that begins with the military. Tattoos have been the domain of the sailor and soldier since the Civil War, when the American Industrial Revolution’s seeds were being sown, and emerging technology of the era simplified the process.
As the Industrial Revolution reached its bloom in the late 19th century, it also produced a wealth-driven class divide. The era’s deep-pocketed and highly influential American aristocracy deemed tattoos as a crude form of expression, essentially turning ink into the calling card for the military man or shady degenerate. It stands to reason that the gathering place for society’s inked “have-nots” was the neighborhood bar and saloon. These spaces also didn’t have the best reputation at the time, as powerful teetotaling groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League emerged to demonize watering holes and people on either side of the stick. This overlap helped to influence the bar’s reputation for being a haven for hardscrabble tattooed roughnecks, which, despite the rise of drinks movements like pre-Prohibition cocktail culture and the tiki scene, still dogged the industry for decades. Not that such a reputation wasn’t completely unwarranted. “It wasn’t just criminals and sailors that enjoyed bars, but they were a big part of bar culture,” explains Oren Briggs, bar director at Apothecary in Dallas. “Those were the kinds of people that lived life on the edge, for sure.”
Times and attitudes toward tattoos and bars have since changed. However, a reimagined remnant of this buttoned-up perspective remains embedded in the bartending profession. The industry, of course, isn’t populated by a wretched hive of scum and villainy that exists on society’s fringes, but it does tend to attract the creative misfits who have little interest in traditional, linear professional tracks. “The people that fall into this career path tend to think outside the box,” says Megan Abraham Benshalom, beverage manager for the Beacon Grand in San Francisco. “They’re a bit artsy; a bit rebellious. I’d imagine a lot of them would have had tattoos even if they weren’t in the industry.”
Cocktails play a big part in this reframing. Industry types don’t necessarily see a correlation between the rise of craft cocktail movement and the proliferation of imaginative inked-up bartenders, but they do tend to view the drinks as another outlet through which to channel their creative energies. “Bartending can be art, just like cooking can be art,” says Greg Mayer, NYC brand ambassador for Jack Daniel’s. “That’s why the bar industry tends to attract people that are interested in different mediums of art. I know a lot of bartenders that also write, or paint, or play music in their spare time.”
An Expression of Art
The tattoo that gets Briggs the most attention is the one wrapped halfway up his left arm. It’s a rendering of the script etched inside the ring anchoring the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “My co-workers call it my ‘magic’ tattoo,” he says. “They say I drew a lot more attention behind the bar once I got it. It’s a nerdy tat, and that’s fine. All my tats are nerdy.”
Bartenders’ tattoos can indeed be nerdy, or personal, or industry-related, or act as plot points that mark their life’s journeys. They express individuality, but many bartenders tend to be hesitant in calling them individual expressions. Their preference is to instead consider them symbols of creativity. Making this distinction creates a buffer zone of sorts, allowing their tattoos to provide some insight into their personality without fully defining them.
It’s also a differentiation that feels appropriate within the context of drink making. Because of the industry’s nature of making drinks in relatively intimate settings, a bartender’s tattoos can sometimes feel like an extension of the bar and creative process behind the cocktail itself. “When you’re the bartender, you are the bar’s talking point,” Abraham Benshalom explains. “When making a drink, the hands and arms are very visible. In a sense, this makes the bar the stage for your hands and arms as well as the drinks you’re creating.”
In Los Angeles, the Wayfarer Hotel’s subterranean bar Lilly Rose celebrates this synergy between bar, bartender, and tattoos in perhaps the most practical way possible, through a tattoo-themed menu. Inspired by the bar’s massive portrait of Maud Stevens Wagner — the woman considered the country’s first known female tattoo artist — the menu pays homage to different tattoo styles, such as tribal for modern tropical riffs, watercolor for brightly hued beverages, and temporary tats for non-alcoholic creations. According to Lilly Rose’s bar director Abi Nuñez — who, like Mayer and Abraham Benshalom, has multiple tattoos —the menu feels like a logical nexus for the concepts. “Tattoos and bartending go hand in hand with art and creativity, and people love to watch bartenders and ask questions about the creative process, whether it’s about their tattoos or their drinks,” she says. “Because the acceptance of tattoos has grown so much over the years, this type of menu would resonate in any city.”
The Present and Future State of Ink
When Salamon discusses her tattoos, she mentions that her parents were “old punks.” It immediately becomes clear that she doesn’t mean her folks saw The Ramones or The Dead Boys at CBGB. “They were big Sublime fans,” she says.
This ‘90s punk reference being considered old school may make people of a certain age feel, well, old. But it’s worth noting that the ‘90s were around the time tattoos started to become more mainstream and socially acceptable. Bartenders young enough to have parents on the early end of the Gen X spectrum likely grew up with a reduced sense of stigma surrounding ink.
That’s not to say concerns are completely eradicated. Some bartenders refrain from getting tattoos on certain body parts like forearms to keep their career options open; there exists concerns that their tattoos are merely tolerated because bartending isn’t widely perceived as a “real” job.
These concerns tend to dissipate once a person commits to being an industry “lifer,” even if their career path takes them out of bartending and puts them into a more theoretically formal role like an F&B director or brand ambassador. For some, taking the plunge on a tattoo sleeve or a piece that’s hard to hide represents a simultaneous full-blown commitment to both ink and drink, thus binding the two paths together even tighter. This may require the occasional sacrifice, like a bar director donning a blazer in the summertime during a formal presentation. In these scenarios, a few moments of discomfort seem like a small sacrifice for the opportunity to enjoy unfettered self-expression.
Bartenders don’t get inked to be cool or to follow a trend. They do so because they tend to be expressive, iconoclastic people with a penchant for creativity, who work in an industry that embraces their spirit fully. In a way, the relationship they have with ink is not too different from the connections that exist between the ingredients in a cocktail.
“When it comes to tattoos, the body is the base spirit,” Mayer says. “The ink is the modifier.”