When Pete Zebley was a kid, he and his friends would head down to Dave's Artistic Tattoo at 63rd and Market to gawk in the shop's window, unable to take their eyes off what was, at that point, some of the most interesting artwork they'd ever seen.
"We were fascinated by it," Zebley says. "We'd see these guys making what we thought was awesome art at the time in this kind of wild neighborhood under the El."
Dave's is still open today, throwing down those familiar tattoos that Zebley loved as a child and later came to get as an adult. But with advancements in both tattooing's technology and stylistic scope, the form has changed drastically since one local boy snuck peeks at hot ink in Haddington.
Zebley, now 38, has similarly evolved. A tattoo artist himself these days with a focus in "watercolor" style tattoos, Zebley recently opened his own shop with Central Tattoo Studio at 171 W. Girard Avenue. But as a 2008 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts graduate and painter, the focus for Zebley isn't on the tattoos the artist ogled as a youngster, but rather something a little closer to fine art.
"The industry is changing," Zebley says. "It's playing into what I focused on in art school, so it's really taking a practical approach to tattooing with that education."
For Zebley, tattoos came before traditional art — at least professionally. After beginning to tattoo friends out of his Old City loft in 1998, he snagged an apprenticeship at Tattoos By R.C. under "Mr. Jim" Cacciatore. Today, he credits his time there with how comfortable he was jumping into the traditional art world.
"They were tough guys to be around," he says of his apprenticeship. "You have to be competent to work around them, and that helps with painting because you're not afraid to mess up a canvas if you're not afraid to mess up a body."
He later began attending PAFA fulltime, initially with plans to "go after the New York painting and gallery scene," as Zebley puts it. However, the draw of the tattoo world was strong, and he took positions at shops like the now-closed Poison Apple Tattoo — which was formerly housed in the building where Central Tattoo is currently located — and Bill Funk's Body Graphics Tattoo in 2010.
During his time at Body Graphics, Zebley came to develop his own interpretation of the increasingly popular watercolor style that's emerged over the last few years, which visually mimics on skin what the artform does on paper. As a result, it is stylistically worlds away from the tattoos the artist fell in love with as a child — and still pretty rare here in Philly, with Body Graphics' Carla Hopkins, Johnny Kelly at Moo Tattoo, and Dakini Collective's own PAFA grad, Masami Inagaki, being some notable exceptions.
"I tend to put the tattoo together more like a painting rather than a traditional tattoo," Zebley says of his style. "I start with forms and colors and after I establish a color family, I start to respond to the tattoo as it builds."
Traditional tattoos, meanwhile, are typically laid down or sketched in an outline of an image, which is then traced and filled in with color and shading to flesh out the design. By contrast, Zebley's layouts sometimes use no final outline at all, opting instead for a more free-form, weightless representation of the desired design that focuses on color and abstract form.
His emphasis on those elements was ultimately rewarded, with Zebley taking home a second-place trophy for Best Sleeve Tattoo at the 2012 New York City Tattoo Convention, as well as second and third-place awards for Best Color Tattoo and Best Sleeve in 2013, respectively.
With Central Tattoo now open, that effort appears to have been well founded — though the shop's concentration isn't in tattoos alone. The front area of the storefront serves as a fully curated gallery, thanks to Zebley's wife and business partner, Melissa Montiel, 33, who previously worked at Old City's Wexler Gallery. Currently, Central's gallery features Zebley's own paintings through October 31.
The pair plans to bring in both visual artists and tattoo artists for gallery showings and residencies, which they hope will help establish Central Tattoo as not only a solid tattoo shop, but also an overall artistic experience. To that end, elements like Central's clean, striking design and gallery both contribute to Zebley's approach to interjecting some fine art into the tattoo world.
"The client gets to come in and have this fine art experience, and that leads into the tattoo," he says of the shop's goal. "It sets the precedent, almost like an overture, to what we're doing here. The idea was to provide the best atmosphere for that kind of work, and to cut away as many distractions as possible."
In that sense, Zebley is still that little boy hanging out in front of Dave's on 63rd, singularly enamored with the coolest art he'd ever seen. With Central Tattoo currently open for business, some kid on Girard may be just as inspired as the now-Central Tattoo owner once was. After all, the popularity of tattoos certainly hasn't waned since Zebley was hanging out under the El.
"There are people turning 18 every day," he says. "It just gets bigger and bigger."