Oak Bluffs harbor is often deserted at this time of the year. It’s a place with cold winds and empty berths. However, the harbor’s bars and restaurants are shuttered as they wait for spring to arrive. One business owner however has found a place that is open year round.
“It’s such a perfect spot for the Island to have a shop,” said Jeff Gemma, owner of Seaview Tattoo.
Mr. Gemma’s tattoo shop, named after Oak Bluffs icon Johnny Seaview, sits in the small alley that connects Circuit avenue Extension to the harbor. The doors to the island’s only tattoo parlor are hidden among brightly painted buildings. They open into a small, vibrant room. Its vibrant green walls are covered in framed sheets of tattoo designs — or flash — mostly depicting bold, nautical symbols and other subjects that evoke the old-school style of American traditional tattooing.
As he was preparing for his next appointment, Mr. Gemma spoke about his journey to the island. After working at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services for the first part of his adult life, Gemma stated that he began tattooing when he was 27 years old. There, he said he learned he wasn’t suited for watching and rewatching the vicious cycle that faced many at-risk youth. He found joy in his job drawing pictures for the children he worked with, and helping them to create their art.
“I’m not built for the long range of this,” he remembered thinking to himself.
After spending some time in Miami he ended up in Jacksonville asking for an apprenticeship. As he walked in, he stated that he had seen a professional parlor that was well-run and a good example of what tattooing can look like.
“I walk in, everyone was wearing the same shop shirt, a button-down shirt,” he said. “I was floored by it.”
After completing an apprenticeship with mentor Eric Inksmith for a year, Mr. Gemma moved into a sister office in Philadelphia.
“From there, I really got my feet wet,” he said. “I moved down to Miami and worked with some of the guys who were on the TV shows and whatnot.”
In 2007, he was offered a spot as a guest artist at Vineyard Haven’s Lenny Clark’s shop. That brief stint grew into a full summer position in 2009, offering him a chance to build clientele — some of whom followed him to his first shop in Worcester.
He said that Mr. Gemma was the owner and operator of the Worcester shop for eight years, from 2009 to 2017. He eventually closed the shop due to repeated flooding, rough neighborhoods and too many late nights.
After a motorcycle crash in which he was injured, he says he began to feel more spiritual and would ask the universe for help. In 2019, Oak Bluffs’s existing tattoo shop was available for purchase.
“Just kind of a perfect transition,” he said. “Served me up a sober plate of new inspiration, I guess.”
Mr. Gemma explained that the shop was set up in late 2019, right before the pandemic. He sold some of his other artwork, including drawings and paintings, for the first few months of his business. With the pandemic-related restrictions over and the bustling summers back, Mr. Gemma says business is great.
In summer, he said, he books just one appointment per day and spends the rest of the day taking walk-ins — many of whom are looking for a tattoo to commemorate their vacation. Mr. Gemma said the shop’s previous owner was against the idea of tattooing the outline of the Island — but for him, it has become one of the parlor’s most popular requests.
“I’ll [tattoo] that all day,” Mr. Gemma said.
Mr. Gemma stated that he feels at home in the small shop, which is located in an alleyway. He takes walk-ins during summer and uses an appointment-only model in the off-season. As stigmas around tattooing continue to fade, he said he’s had clientele ranging from international visitors to an 89-year-old grandmother getting tattooed with their grandchildren.
Mr. Gemma was elated as he recounted the tale. “Do you understand how cool your grandma is that she got tattooed with you, dude?” he said to the grandson. “She wanted to go through this ceremony with you.”
Mister Gemma reflected on the journey to Oak Bluffs and said that he believes things have turned out exactly as they should.
“Everything just kind of looked up for me, universe-wise,” he said.