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Tattooed Mom on South Street: The art of staying cool

The name doesn't mean much. "We love you all. Tattooed or not," says owner Robert Perry.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them. 

Skateboarders hang out behind the hand-painted circus facade, and poetry clubs gather on the dining room's eclectic couches. A posse of extreme sports athletes is just as likely to be sipping drinks at the sparkly gold counter as are members of a hard-core punk band.

Street artists add regular updates to the colorful second-floor walls, creating a backdrop appreciated by the tech-geek groups that often host events there.

When she launched Tattooed Mom on South Street 18 years ago, Kathy "Mom" Hughes already had a hit with Sugar Mom's, which had opened in Old City in 1993. The below-ground hideaway's zany decor (filled with artifacts from her family's Williams Grove Amusement Park) and creative menu (filled with then-exotic items like falafel and craft beer) pulled in diverse crowds from the beginning. Hughes decided that it was worth porting the vibe to a second, more prominent sister location.

Her Sugar Mom's business partner, Joey Maritato, wasn't interested in another Philly venture, since he was about to cash out of both that and Silk City and leave for New York City. Instead, she pursuaded her bar manager/music producer, Robert Perry, to go in on the deal.

The pair found a vacant space on the 500 block of South Street - most recently a French bistro called Adrienne's - and set about transforming into an fun, eclectic lounge. They opened in April 1997.

A dozen years later, when Hughes' father died, she took the lead role in managing the family business, which had shifted from amusement parks to the Williams Grove Speedway. Commuting back and forth to Central Pennsylvania began to take a toll, and in 2010, she sold her half of the bar to Perry, who assumed full ownership. (Sugar Mom's continued operating until its 20-year lease ran out in 2013).

Although Tattooed Mom had been named after Hughes, Perry was always an integral part. His early embrace of social media helped the watering hole become famous on an international scale – his Instagram account (@Tmoms) has more than 11,000 followers - and his easygoing friendliness helped it become beloved here at home.

Now 53, he hardly considers running the bar to be work, something made obvious by how often he grinned during a recent interview about the last two decades. He enjoys welcoming a wide variety of communities to the place he considers his second home, and loves even more when people contribute art or ideas that help make it their own. His greatest hope is that the bar will continue to evolve while solidifying its place as a South Street icon.

Are you from Philadelphia?

I'm originally from Hawaii - my ancestors were part of the wave of immigrants in the mid- to late-19th century who came over as contract laborers from Portugal. My mom and my dad were both raised there. But I went to college in Boston, and realized I liked the East Coast. I knew a couple of friends from school who were in Philadelphia, and it seemed like a very interesting place to live. So I moved here around 25 years ago. My first job was at [South Street clothing store] Zipperhead.

Do you have a background in hospitality? How did you end up owning a bar?

I worked food-service jobs throughout college, but my degree is in design and advertising. Eventually I got a job here with a small book publisher called Reading Press, and worked my way up to being an art director. I used to hang out at a bar called Silk City, which was new at the time. One of the owners asked me to do some design work for them, and I ended up co-producing several theme nights - we did a Rat Pack night, and a rockabilly night, among others.

As it happened, another person who worked at Silk City was Mom - Kathy Hughes. When she and one of the Silk City partners [Joey Maritato] decided to open up Sugar Mom's, they kind of dragged me along.  It was like, "Quit your job and come work for us - help us out with visuals and things!" I'm like, "But I don't have any money!" They're like, "Quit your job anyway!" So I did. And the bar was a big success.

Were you a partner at Sugar Mom's?

No, I helped them out wherever I could, but I wasn't a partner. Then, after a couple of years, Mom wanted to do something near South Street, because she lived around here. She asked both me and Joey to come on as partners, but he was getting ready to move back to New York, so he declined. We found this space and signed a lease.

Why give this bar a different name?

We wanted it to have a separate identity. Sugar Mom's was a basement cavern that was hard to find, a hidden gem. This was smack in the middle of a really famous street [Church, off Third]. Kathy was covered in tattoos, and there were a lot of tattoo shops around here. So the name made sense.

Do you have tattoos?

Well, I have a few. One is the word "Aloha."  But let me just say this, unequivocally: You do not need one to come here. We love you all. Tattooed or not.

Has the clientele changed, over the years?

It's always changing. That's part of the excitement of it. We've always been a bar of communities. Skateboarders, musicians, street artists, tech people, literary groups, theater people, filmmakers. Everything you can think of. Locally, but also a lot of people traveling through town.

How do those travelers hear about you?

A lot of it just happens organically. In 2001 and 2002, the X Games were in Philly, and they basically just adopted us as their home. Same when the bike messenger world championships were here in 2000. I remember I had 13 bicyclists from Poland sleeping on my living room floor. Because they were in the bar and it was like, "Wait, none of you guys have a place to stay? OK, come home with us."

Those kinds of experiences are the nearest and dearest to my heart. And there have been countless examples. A meeting of screenprinters from all over the world came to Philly one year, and they decided that they wanted to wheat-paste the entire back room because they'd been hanging out here all week. So we did that for a night, and you're stomping around and just slogging through wet wheat paste all over the ground, but there's amazing art going up all around you.

What's your favorite piece of art here?

I can't really single one out! I love all my children. Some of the more unique pieces are a recent addition by Wordsmith, from LA, and Steve Poses word art on the back staircase leading to the basement – that one is seen mostly only by the staff, because he wanted something that was sort of hidden. And the red and black booth up at the front by New York artist L'Amour Supreme. He came in without a sketch, and the whole thing was done freehand in like two afternoons.

Then there's the upstairs, which is filled with art that changes daily. Every day I see something new. I try to document as much as I can on Instagram.

You were a pretty early adopter of social media, right?

We were on Twitter really early on, yeah. I think it was because people who were part of the tech community were hanging out here, and it was a good way to have conversations with them and keep in touch. Funny thing about Twitter is we get lots of mommy bloggers following us, or lots of tattoo supply places following us.

Then Instagram - it just fits this place so perfectly, because it's filled with eye candy. We just have a ton of fun with it. It's brought us followers all over the world, and we've met so many people. People will be like, "I'm coming from Europe and I want to visit because I've seen your posts on Instagram," or "Can I send you art to put up on your walls?"

Do you do any traditional advertising?

I did, once upon a time, some print advertising. But I feel that's not really where my customers are anymore. It's sad, because I love tactile things. I do still do advertising in the Secret Admirer, because I think it's a really awesome little work of love. It's fun, and funky, and harkens back to the old 'zine culture.

Do you do more business in food or in drink?

We sell a ton of food, actually. Mom designed the original menus - she was a cook at Dobb's before she started bartending at Silk City - and they've evolved, but only incrementally. Tater Tots, I don't think will ever go out of style. And Taco Tuesday - I don't know who was the first one to do it in Philly, but we've been doing that for 15 years. Thursday night is pierogies. Meatless Mondays is a new one that we've only done for the past two years or so.

We've always served good beer - our Split Thy Skull barleywine festival just had its 20th anniversary (its first year was at Sugar Mom's) - but a lot of people don't know how good our cocktails are. People who work at other restaurants come in for those after their shifts. They're way cheaper than most places - like $7 to $9, where everywhere else would be like $9 to $13.

Will you still be here 10 years from now?

I really hope so. I hope we'll have like Magic Gardens status upstairs, where people realize the value of the art that's up there. I don't want to be one of those places that keeps the cool walls but turns into a sneaker store or something, like CBGB. There's always going to be young, creative people that want a home for their community, to just hang out and exchange ideas. I hope that part of what we do will never die.

Tattooed Mom

530 South St., 215-238-9880

Hours: noon to 2 a.m. daily