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Dale Grande

Sepideh Nia/MEDILL

Dale Grande started tattooing in 1973. He owns Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Co., Inc., on Belmont Avenue.

Chicago tattooist spills the ink on the science of body art

by Sepideh Nia
Jun 11, 2013

Dale Grande 2

Sepideh Nia/MEDILL

Dale Grande shows a tattoo created by his mentor Cliff Raven.

Dale Grande got his first tattoo at the age of 16 with the help of an 18-year-old friend’s I.D.  The tattoo - two hearts with a ribbon that said, "Mom and Dad," was one of more than 10 tattoos that Grande would get since. And he tattooed several of the designs on himself as well as creating countless tattoos for customers at his store, Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Co., Inc., 1017 W. Belmont Ave. He started his career little more than a block away.     

The Brooklyn native began tattooing in 1973 at age 21.

Grande moved to Chicago on April Fools' Day in 1973 and started an apprenticeship with Cliff Raven and Buddy McFall at Cliff Raven Tattooing, a neighborhood icon, at 900 W. Belmond Ave.

Grande became a partner in the business, renamed Chicago Tattoo, and he later moved down the street. 

How did you get started in tattooing?

Well, I was a customer. Just like many of the other guys started out, as customers. Only, as a kid I was always fascinated with artwork and I was always drawing with anything I could on anything I could.  When I was a little kid growing up in Brooklyn we used to go to Coney Island a lot. One day I saw this storefront and I was looking into this storefront and it had all of these pictures on the walls and I didn’t know what it was. I was really fascinated with it because they were all of these nice colorful pictures.  And then all of a sudden a hand yanked me from behind and told me, ‘don’t you go in there.’  It was my dad.  He kind of hushed me away, I didn’t know what it was, and as I got older I realized it was a tattoo store. I didn’t think about that place until a long time later though.  

How hard was it to get used to the medium of skin?

It was a gradual break in. I apprenticed for Cliff Raven and Buddy McFall for 3-4 months and they kind of eased me into it. They started me off with stenciling and bandaging and then after awhile I would do fill-in, they would do outlines and shading and I would do the fill-in of the color.  So that got me used to the machines and to the skin and eventually I started lining and doing my own tattoos.  

How do you control how deep you penetrate the skin?

You can go really deep, what happens then is it leaves a shadow, it kind of blows out the lines. You just have to get used to that. Most of the first stuff I did I did on myself. I did a couple of small things on myself and a pretty good sized one, it’s what a lot of people do.  And then somebody figured out the thing where you tattoo grapefruit or oranges and stuff like that, because it sort of had the same resilience as skin. And then somebody invented this [artificial] pigskin that you could actually tattoo.  And again it gave you a better idea of what tattooing skin was like.  

How has the tattooing business changed since 1973?

Well now anyone can buy an outfit, anyone can buy a machine and colors online. You can get them off eBay for Christ’s sake. Anyone can pick up a machine and just go to work. That’s not the way to do it.  You really have to learn about it because there are so many other things you can do. You can be spreading germs and diseases, catch things yourself. The popularity is so large and the amount of people that are getting tattooed it’s increased the chances of infection considerably.  

What kind of machines did you learn with?  Did you make it yourself?

They were old machines; I think they were Bill Jones machines, which are very valuable now.  They were given to me by Cliff to start off with, but most of the time we made our own machines or we tuned them up or fixed them. We wound our own coils, we cut our own springs, we made our own needles, tubes-all the parts for the machine. At one point we were selling them so we had the machine frames cast and build all the parts ourselves and sold them. That’s when we incorporated in ’73.  

How have the inks changed since then?

All I know is that they’re brighter, some of them go in very fast, very evenly. But I don’t know what’s in them. They’re certainly a lot nicer than they used to be, you can get any color you want, you can mix them too. But in the old days they were using the reds, greens and yellows-of course black.  Very few other colors were being used, it was quicker to do it that way.  

What are some of the hygienic practices of tattoo artists?

You need to know about blood-born pathogen so you don’t spread diseases. You want to keep everything in the area where you’re working. If someone comes in with something, we don’t want to get it. We don’t want to spread it. We treat everybody as though they were contagious so we don’t spread anything. All of our equipment is disposable; it’s used once and thrown away. That’s just the way it is nowadays. We have medical waste disposals so that the garbage pickers don’t get anything. All of our needles are put in [special] containers and medical waste comes and takes those away. We all wear rubber gloves, we cover every surface we are working on and we disinfect it after we’re done.

Do people get tattoos in different places now than they did back when you first started, for example the eyeball?

Yeah, we don’t do that. I stay away from the eyes. I had a woman who came in here one day, she had just gotten an eyeliner tattoo done with somebody. And she came in and she looked like Groucho Marx.  I don’t know if it was going to stay that way.  She was very concerned about it, as I would be. Yeah, I stay away from anything on the face. It’s just way too obvious, too open, too out there. I used to not tattoo hands and face and feet but they’ve become really popular now. Not so much the face but the hands and the feet are extremely popular.  

Why not?

Because they’re out in the open, they’re there to see. For years, you could hide tattoos, you could wear long-sleeved shirts and nobody would know you had anything. And we used to not put things on the hands so you could cover them if you wanted to. Society has changed now. So now everybody’s doing it.