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Hartford's Pelican Tattoo: a Park Street Institution

Shana Sureck
Joe Bascetta with tattoo artists Brandon and Pete.
The original Pelican shop sold footwear in New York City, and designed shoes for David Bowie.

Right near the intersection of Park and Broad Streets in Hartford, there’s a building covered in an enormous fluorescent mural. Below it is the giant pink banner for Pelican Tattoo.

The shop has been a Park Street fixture for decades. The original Pelican shop sold footwear on the Bowery in New York City. Joe Bascetta ran it with his girlfriend at the time -- now his wife -- who was a sculptor.

“We had a big loft on the bowery. We had this idea,” he said. “Maybe we can do a Carmen Miranda shoe -- like, really high.”

His wife hand carved the original prototypes for what became the platform shoe. It took off, and Pelican got written up in The Village Voice as well as Life magazine and Vogue. Bascetta said that other shoe manufacturers in the city had started copying them within a few months, but their shoes were the ones on David Bowie’s feet when he performed as Ziggy Stardust.

Orders came in from around the world, and all the shoes were made in their Bowery loft.

All of Bascetta’s grandparents had come off the boat from Sicily, and landed on Hartford's Front Street. “They came over here with nothing,” he said. “On my father’s side, he had a little fruit stand and vegetables on Front Street. They lived upstairs. In prohibition, he had a couple tables in back, and did a little bootlegging.”

He and his wife did well with the New York store. He opened a second shop on Park Street in Hartford so he could be close to his family. And when they wanted to start their own family, they made the decision to close down the New York store, pack up, and move back to Hartford, where Bascetta was born.

“You can’t raise kids on the Bowery. At least, that’s what I thought,” He said.

Bascetta never imagined himself as a body piercer, but he's proud of how the business has enabled him to take care of his family.

But Hartford had its own problems. At the time, the Park Street neighborhood was considered dangerous. Bascetta said in their first year, Pelican had 38 burglaries. “A couple of times, they took everything,” he said.

In time, the burglaries stopped, and Bascetta and Pelican settled into the neighborhood. Back then, there were no tattoos. “It was always about fashion,” he said. “It was punk and new wave.”

Over time, the business shifted. He started piercing ears with a gun -- like you’d find at fashion stores at a mall -- and in the late '80s and early '90s, he started getting calls from people who wanted to pierce eyebrows and tongues. Enough customers were asking that he went down to New York to get trained.

“Eventually, it kinda just took over, and the clothes got less,” Bascetta said. “I still got remnants -- you know, accessories, things like that, you know, what you see out front -- but basically, it just kinda disappeared, and it’s mainly tattoo and piercing.”

He said he never imagined himself as a body piercer, but he’s proud of how the business has enabled him to take care of his family, and provide opportunities for his employees -- like Joshua August, now a senior tattoo artist at Pelican.

“I used to lay bricks, paint houses, work at gas stations, pretty much anything,” August said. “I started when I was 15, tattooing myself, [and] one or two of my friends.”

Like many tattoo artists, August's legs are covered with his own work. After hanging out at Pelican as a young kid and becoming friends with the employees at the shop, he showed them photos of some of his work, and got a job. He’s been there for eight years.

August said he’s worked at other shops, too, over the years, but after a week or two, he’s always come right back to Pelican. He said this place is unique.

“We have our owner, Joe, who’s famous on his own,” August said. “Everyone who comes in says the shop -- they’ve never seen anything like it before.”

August said people like the outside environment, the odd merchandise, and people. “It’s a great environment to work. It’s home,” he said. “So that’s why I come here every day.”

That feeling has a lot to do with why Bascetta comes to work every day, too. He joked that he spends more time with these guys than he does with his wife, so he better enjoy their company. But in recent years, he’s been battling cancer, and last winter was pretty much taken over by chemo.

“I’m getting better. I feel strong,” Bascetta said. “Now I look forward to coming in to work. I mean, I didn’t work all winter, and it’s pretty bad, so now I really appreciate it. I just take it day by day. I get up, I go to work. I take care of my family and my kids. And that’s what I do.”

For related stories and photos, visit WNPR's Radius Project.

J studied documentary radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, in Portland, Maine, and returned to his home state of Connecticut to intern with the production team at Connecticut Public. After that, he stuck around.

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