Lydia Salamon’s favorite tattoo also acts as an identification card.
Bar manager Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Ala., has a sandworm from “Beetlejuice” inked on her upper right arm. The striped and coiled creature is easy to recognize, which makes it easy for customers to start talking. “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.
You Don’t Want to Miss a Drop
You will receive the latest news in beer, wine, or cocktail culture directly to your inbox.
These assumptions tend to downgrade the concept of the tattooed barback to a cliché. This is tragic. This is unfortunate.
A Relationship that has evolved
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.
The Industrial Revolution was a boom time in late 19th-century America, but it created a wealth-driven 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.”
The attitudes towards tattoos have evolved over the years. The bartending industry still has a remnant of this more conservative view. 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 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.”
This reframing is largely influenced by cocktails. 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.”
The Expression of Art
Briggs’s most popular tattoo is one that is wrapped half-way 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. Bartenders often hesitate to label them as individual expressions. However, they can express individuality. Instead, they prefer to see them as symbolisms of creativity. This creates an area of buffering, which allows tattoos to offer some insight into the person without being fully defined.
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 This menu celebrates the synergy of bartender and tattoos. 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 Future and Present 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. Young bartenders who were able to grow up in a generation that was early on the Gen X spectrum probably had fewer stigmatizing thoughts about tattoos.
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. It may be necessary to sacrifice some things, such as a bar director wearing a blazer at a formal presentation. A few minutes of discomfort can seem small in these situations, but it is worth it to be able to freely express your feelings.
Bartenders don’t get inked to be cool or to follow a trend. Because they’re expressive, creative, and have an affinity for the arts, bartenders get inked. The relationship that they have with ink can be compared to the relationships between ingredients in cocktails.
“When it comes to tattoos, the body is the base spirit,” Mayer says. “The ink is the modifier.”