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Fresh Hell

I Never Fell for Flaco. So Why Did I Get a Tattoo of Him?

I was just at Flaco Flash Day at Duke Riley's tattoo shop to report. But then...

(Zoë Beery / Hell Gate)

At 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, East River Tattoo had just opened, but the cameras were already rolling. It was Flaco Flash Day, a seven-hour special that offered first-come, first-served renderings of New York's fallen avian hero for just $150. Outside, a signup sheet listed the names of a dozen people; inside, the first two gritted their teeth against the sting of the needle, lights of all sorts illuminating their increasingly irritated skin. There were four times as many reporters as clients, all of us there to wring a bit more coverage out of the carcass of an owl whose story had riveted, uplifted, and broken the hearts of millions of people. 

For a bird subjected constantly to the camera's gaze, this media zoo seemed like an apt tribute. A reporter with Times credentials accompanied a photographer waving around what looked like a tiny pink hair dryer (it was a flash). Another reporter, this one with a WNYC mic, waited with increasing frustration at the counter for her turn. Weaving in between them were a DP with a Steadicam and a sound recordist with a boom mic, who I learned later were shooting a film about Flaco under the direction of the irreverent indie documentarian Penny Lane. 

A quick glance at the signup sheet revealed that almost everyone was there to get tattooed by the artist Duke Riley, the owner of the shop and originator of Flaco Flash Day. Riley usually charges $600 an hour and tattoos only occasionally, spending most of his time on his expansive art practice, so the special had drawn aficionados seeking a rare, affordable audience with a legend. I peered at the designs. Riley's was an angular, American Traditional-style portrait that stripped Flaco down to his essential parts—his piercing gaze, perky tufts, and striking chest and wing feathers—along with his name laid gracefully under the branch on which he perched. Another artist, Aisha Schroeder, had whipped up a larger sheet that included a rendering of Flaco at his most resplendent, which is to say, his fluffiest. 

The tattoos on offer. (Zoë Beery / Hell Gate)

I had already decided I wasn't getting a tattoo—I planned to go surfing the following Tuesday, and needed to ride my bike home from Greenpoint, both no-no's for fresh ink. I was just there to report. And anyway, I wasn't even a Flaco fan. I had been aware of him in the way that I am aware of the Knicks or the Met Gala: an ambient, entertaining presence in New York’s institutional tapestry that occasionally becomes the focal point of civic attention, but is of no particular interest to me. Far more captivating, in my mind, was the tragic 2016 saga of the unwilling cervine victim of then-Mayor de Blasio and then-Governor Cuomo's juvenile power struggle. I'd identified with that deer's subjugation by petty, cruel political forces much more than the way others seemed to identify with Flaco's triumph over the city's many strictures. I didn't get a tattoo of that deer, so there was no reason to get one of Flaco.

Jonathan Hollingsworth was also not there to get a tattoo. He was loitering outside, asking those getting inked for portraits, for an undisclosed Flaco project. "Flaco's story from incarceration to freedom made people look at aspects of their lives that are uncomfortable, that they want to change," he said. I asked what he thought of the Central Park Zoo's ongoing commitment to finding and prosecuting the still-unknown person who tampered with Flaco's enclosure. "I don't think it's useful at all," said Hollingsworth. "I think it's unethical that an owl with one of the largest wingspans lived in that enclosure, and whoever released him did something for the greater good, which you can see from this event today has brought people together."

As I wrapped up with Hollingsworth, a young woman with a pixie cut bounded up to stare at the drawings on the door. Pauline was visiting from Paris and gets a tattoo every time she visits a new place. She hadn't heard of Flaco until she saw the post on the tattoo shop's Instagram. "I read everything about him. It felt like a sign that it should be my New York tattoo, because it's a very New York-y story, this story of freedom," she said. "Coming from France, everything in New York feels like a movie," Pauline added. 

Kari Nicolaisen had arrived at 10 a.m. and was one of the first signups, at 11 a.m. "As a New Yorker, especially in the winter, I feel kind of trapped in my apartment, and I love that he was so free," she said.  

Kari Nicolaisen and her Flaco tattoo. (Zoë Beery / Hell Gate)

In between my interviews, I kept trying and failing to catch Riley. I watched him talk to other reporters with better timing. I couldn't leave without talking to him first, so I kept waiting. After two hours, boredom was creeping in. The wait for Schroeder was still pretty short. Maybe…? No. I had that surfing lesson in California, and given my amiable but mild feelings toward Flaco, it wasn't worth ditching my plans. But those hours of listening to rapturous appraisals of this bird had started to get to me. I paused for just long enough to hear a tiny voice whisper in my head: The tattoo is cute. Owls are nice. Do it.

I went to get a sandwich. I came back. I put my name down. I waited on the couch and watched as Emily Gallagher, the neighborhood's State Assembly representative, came in and signed up for a tattoo—her second (the first is a memorial for a friend who died years ago). Ever the politician, Gallagher immediately connected Flaco's story to her platform. "I've introduced a social housing bill, which I think is an inspiring piece of policy to give people self-determination," she said. "People really pushed back on it, but then you look at Flaco, and he didn't need to be convinced that he had the power to take an opportunity to live more freely."

Assemblymember Emily Gallagher getting prepped for her Flaco tattoo. (Zoë Beery / Hell Gate)

Schroeder called me up and laughed when she saw Gallagher. "That's my upstairs neighbor!" she said. While she prepped her station, I talked to East River's manager, Haley Neal, who had been thrust unwillingly into handling the hordes of press, in addition to her much more important work of enforcing the shop's health and safety protocols. "It's been a little nerve-wracking today," she told me. "It's not really normal to have media at a tattoo shop. I wish my hair looked better." Flaco flash tattoos seemed inevitable to her, though. "As soon as I saw photos of him I thought, oh, he's so tattooable—birds always look great, and we're really a bird shop," Neal noted. As we talked, two more TV crews came in, from NBC and ABC7. They swarmed Riley, who was in between appointments, as they might a politician in the midst of a scandal. 

I laid down on the tattoo table, stripped below the waist for Flaco to land on the inside of my right knee, opposite another piece of East River flash (Star Trek, and I'm proud of it). Suddenly the Steadicam appeared, its wide, unblinking eye examining Schroeder's hands as she began boring into my skin with the needle gun. I hoped the operator was not partially filming my crotch, but the pain of a tattoo's first minutes—it never gets easier—left me unable to form clear requests like, "Please don't show my underwear."

"This is not a normal day at the office," Schroeder said, glancing at the cameras in between gun strokes. For the next 30 minutes, we talked about the bird that had brought us all here. "He was everyone's friend and really inspired us to think about how we might be in captivity," she said. "I think if he'd had the ability to know how many people's lives he touched, that they would get his portrait as a tattoo, I bet he'd feel really good."

As if a reward for my snap decision, the end of my tattooing lined up with one of Riley’s breaks. He was going to get coffee; I invited myself along, and watched him ask the barista to put his iced latte in a paper cup (his 2022 Brooklyn Museum show confronted plastic ocean waste). The flash day, he told me, came out of his own grieving process. "When I heard that he'd died, I was pretty upset and just ended up doing this drawing," he explained. He put it up on his Instagram account on a whim and asked if he should make it into tattoo flash. Dozens of people said yes. "Humans have kind of gone down the wrong path in our attempts to manipulate and control nature, and then there are these moments when those attempts fail, which end up being kind of inspiring," he said. Riley was born in Boston but has lived in New York for decades, building up a relationship with the city's natural world. "It's a struggle to exist in this town, and we really identify with this bird that basically made a jailbreak and is trying to get by, and experience true freedom, by any means possible," Riley said.

The thirtieth and final client left the shop at 9:30 p.m. Neal, the shop manager, said the interest had been much bigger than anyone expected. "But I guess it makes sense—he's a New York icon," she said. 

And I finally get it now. I am at last falling for him, as so many of my neighbors did. I am reading the blogs. I am looking at the photos. I am getting lost in the soft brown checkerboard of his feathers, gazing into his enormous eyes, swooning over his perky tufts. My fever caught on late, too late to meet the owl himself. But he's a part of me now.

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