More than skin deep: Tattoo shop hosts art exhibit

  • “Untitled,” oil painting by Ben Licata. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Untimely Beginning,” oil painting by Maximilian Rothert. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nicole Laabs, of Holyoke, creates a rose tattoo on the thigh of Kate Churco, of Southampton, at Off the Map Tattoo in Easthampton. Laabs has organized a show of work by the shop’s tattoo artists. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Star Stuff,” oil painting by Nicole Laabs. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Off the Map Tattoo shop in located in downtown Easthampton in the old Majestic Theater building. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • ">

    Nicole Laabs hangs “Alfred’s Last Evening,” a fabric work by Jo O'Lone-Hahn of Northampton, for "Thaw," an exhibit of art by resident artists and staff from Off the Map Tattoo in Easthampton.  GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • ">

    Nicole Laabs hangs illustrations by Natalie Kassirer of Amherst for “Thaw,” an exhibit by resident artists and staff at Off the Map Tattoo in Easthampton. At left is “Steambreather” and at right "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A tattoo designed by Nicole Laabs, a resident artist at Off the Map Tattoo in Easthampton who’s organized a show at the shop of paintings, drawing and other work by staff. Image courtesy Off the Map Tattoo

  • ”a “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,” pen and ink drawing by Natalie Kassirer. Image courtesy of Off the Map Tattoo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2018 4:31:40 PM

Few acts are more intimate than tattooing an image on someone else’s skin, but it’s often an act that’s done in private — in a tattoo parlor.

A new exhibit at Easthampton’s Off the Map Tattoo aims to introduce the public to the artists behind the scenes, many of whom bring considerable training to their work. When they aren’t crafting designs on someone’s skin, they’re often working on paper or canvas with a paintbrush, pencil, or pen and ink.

“Thaw,” which is on display at Off The Map through early April, offers a range of paintings, prints, drawings and other work by the parlor’s resident artists and support staff. Thematically, it’s work that’s been inspired by winter, with a little hint of early spring thrown in for good measure.

It’s the kind of show Off the Map likes to stage on a periodic basis, shop owner Gabriel Ripley says, both to give staff a chance to display their “outside” art and to remind customers and the public that tattoo artists are just that: artists.

A fine arts background of some sort, says Ripley, “is pretty important in this kind of work.” If the shop isn’t necessarily looking for people with art degrees, he notes, “we like to see some kind of equivalency.”

Consider Nicole Laabs, who organized the new exhibit and has contributed work to it. The tattoo artist, who’s originally from Arizona, says she’s been drawing “ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil.”

She later took up oil painting and block printing, and though she didn’t earn a college degree in art, she’s continued over the years to take art workshops and to study on her own.

“My goal is to integrate more of the fine arts into my tattooing, to look at things like contrast, light, and perspective,” Laabs said. “We paint on skin — my needles are basically my brushes.”

One of her contributions to “Thaw” is the Goth-inspired oil painting “Star Stuff,” an image, in part, of a skull whose eye sockets are filled with glittering celestial colors and light. But Laabs’ portfolio also includes formal portraits, still lifes, and paintings of animals, insects and fantasy creatures.

Another shop artist, Gao Feng, is originally from China, where he attended Nanjing University of the Arts and later apprenticed with Shao Gang, a leading Chinese tattooist; he does pencil drawing and watercolor painting on his own.

Maximillian Rothbert, who specializes in gray and black tattoos, adds a more colorful oil painting to the show, though one with somber colors: “Untimely Beginning,” a look at two translucent looking chicks tied together with a piece of frayed rope. 

And Natalie Kassirer, a member of Off the Map’s support staff as well as a freelance illustrator, has a degree from Rhode Island School of Design; she specializes in pen and ink illustrations.

Her drawing “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,” based on the Emily Dickinson poem of the same name, is a sort of pastoral-mystical mashup, as a partly clothed woman, her head clutched in her hands, sits on a tree stump as several birds cluster around her head.


Meeting the challenge

The focus on art at the Easthampton shop, which opened in 2005, is not confined to periodic exhibits. Ripley said Off the Map hosts regular drop-in art workshops for the public, and for years it has also hosted visiting tattoo artists, who lead workshops for the resident ones and also work with customers.

Some of those guest artists — Ripley ticks off names such as such as Paul Booth, Guy Aitchison and Chet Zar — have also contributed paintings and other more conventional artworks to the Easthampton shop; they’re displayed in the spacious main tattoo room (the business is located in the old Majestic Theater).

In addition, Off the Map produces the weekly show “Off the Map LIVE” — featuring interviews with tattoo artists and other programs — on their Youtube channel, with additional links to past shows on the shop’s website.

That kind of visibility has led Laabs, for one, to the work she’s doing for a customer who has come all the way from West Virginia. “She said she wanted an art nouveau tiger,” said Laabs, who on her cell phone showed a picture of the work in progress.

It’s a rich, colorful design, one that Laabs says has gone well so far but that, like any tattoo, faces the challenge of being made not on a flat surface like paper, wood or canvas but the soft, pliable one of human skin. 

“But that’s the kind of challenge I like,” said Laabs. “I like being able to bring my background in art to the work I do with customers.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

For more information on Off the Map Tattoo and the “Thaw” exhibit, visit The company also has tattoo parlors in Oregon and Italy.










Sign up for our free email updates
Daily Hampshire Gazette Headlines
Daily Hampshire Gazette Contests & Promotions
Daily Hampshire Gazette Evening Top Reads
Daily Hampshire Gazette Breaking News
Daily Hampshire Gazette Obits
Daily Hampshire Gazette Sports
Daily Hampshire Gazette PM Updates
Daily Hampshire Gazette Weekly Top Stories
Valley Advocate Newsletter
Daily Hampshire Gazette Dining & Entertainment


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

23 Service Center Road
Northampton, MA 01060


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy