Editor’s Note: The Northside Business Partnership is an association comprised of Northside businesses, property owners, and organizations. It serves as an advocate group for the Northside, strengthening the vitality of the business community by connecting, engaging, and promoting its members. NBP is administrated by NEHDA.
Paul and Gina are the owners of The James Street Parlour, a new tattoo shop on the Northside of Syracuse. While their shop is new, the history of the building is lengthy, built in 1872 and housing a cabinet maker, a Syracuse city mayor, and a funeral home over the years. Read on to learn more about the current owners and what drew them to this beautiful building.
Q: So, the most obvious first question is, how did you end up in Syracuse?
Paul: Well, Gina, my wife, is from Utica, Rome, Syracuse—
Gina: I went to school here, and this is home. I worked for congress for twenty-something years, and congress is not the same congress as it was when I started (laughter). It wasn’t as fun, and I decided I wanted an early retirement. We had spoken to each other a lot over the years about, “Well, do you want to go back to England eventually?” And, he doesn’t. He wanted to live here. He’s been here . . . 26 years?
Paul: 26 years, yeah.
Gina: So this is home for him too. I didn’t want to live in DC anymore. The people here are friendly. It’s beautiful. I know people complain about the traffic here, but there is no traffic here! There is NO commute. So this was a no-brainer for us, really. I wanted to come.
Paul: It feels a lot like England. It really does.
Q: In what way?
Paul: It’s the post-industrial city with giant universities, very much like my hometown. It’s about the same size, the outlying countryside is very similar to England, the climate is really similar to England, not like 110° and 98% humidity in DC.
Gina: Augh, yeah that was another big factor in our decision to move north.
Paul: We literally said every single summer, that’s it. We have to move. We have to move.
Gina: I can’t stand it. You can’t be outside for any length of time! The mosquitos. All of those things.
Paul: We started looking. We went to Little Italy, and looked at buildings there. We had our eye on a building and there was a bidding thing going up on it, so we decided to look at other areas in the city. We looked downtown, we looked on Erie Boulevard, Water Street, there was one in the middle of Hawley-Green, and as we were driving up James Street, our real estate agent said “Have you seen this place?” Yes, yes yes. We saw that one online but it doesn’t look like it’s for sale. He said, “Well actually, it’s for sale. It’s just not listed. Do you want to have a look? Gina, do you want to have a look?”
Gina: I definitely wanted to have a look because I had seen it listed online a couple of times and the history of it attracted me. But also, there were no pictures of the inside. I really wanted to see what was going on in here.
Paul: So we walked in the door, in the back door, and we walked about 25 feet and got into that middle room, and she turns and said “I want this.”
Gina: I did. I did. I stood there and I whispered it actually. I said (whispering) “I want this. I must have this.”
Paul: And that was that. We sold the house in DC.
Q: Are you fascinated by history because you like tattoos or are they separate things that have happily come together?
Paul: I’ve always been fascinated with history. English history as a schoolboy is basically two-thousand years of history. When you think about American history, you’re sitting there in school and learning American history—
Gina: Sweetheart, we don’t only learn American history (laughter), just so you know that.
Paul: We have to learn about empire—
Gina: We do too.
Paul: But you skirt over it.
Gina: No we don’t.
Paul: It’s a whole year for it. Just for the Romans.
Gina: Oh stop.
Paul: Just for the Romans.
Gina: We’ve had this conversation. He’s just a little arrogant about his English history, that’s all.
Paul: Of course. I’m an Englishman (laughter). And after we stopped owning the world—I’m interested in pattern recognition. That’s all I do. That’s all I do. It’s a very simple way to learn a style, is to analyze the code that makes that style that style. Tattooing, the line work, the shading, the density, the color spectrum, the composition, they can fall within certain parameters and it looks like old school American. Change two of those parameters and now you’ve got 1910 European. Thinner lines, slightly less black, slightly muted color scheme, Victorian tattooing. Change the lines a little bit, finer, two, three colors, now go Asian. Now you’re into Japanese influence from when Japan opened up in 1950. . . It’s in the code. You just have to read it.
Gina: The world has changed a lot in your field and your craft. Back when you started, everything was oral. Not everything, but quite a lot of it. So, I think that’s where your desire to seek out more information came from.
Paul: I had to go and sit down with the old man and talk to him.
Gina: Exactly. If you wanted to know something, you had to ask.
Paul: I couldn’t read the guy’s Facebook page.
Gina: ‘Cause they don’t do Facebook and also there was no Facebook then!
Paul: If you suggested that he share it with 100,000 strangers, he’d not only throw you out but he’d make sure your legs were broken before he threw you out. That’s completely changed.
Q: When did you get your first tattoo and what was it of?
Paul: I was 17. It’s a Japanese bat flying out of the rising sun on my chest and it was a symbol of the Kendo Dojo that I was at when I was a teenager. Swordsman, which is where my whole fascination with Japanese art comes from, and the Bushido and the code of honor, which is very chivalrous and ties into the whole British—you know, a gentleman’s word.
Gina: The fellow who did it—
Gina: —Steve, you got to work with him.
Paul: I did. It was weird. That was when I was 17, so I started tattooing when I was 30. A couple of years in, I was on the internet! It’s young and fresh and new and we’re using it to contact. A friend of mine that I went to school with, Grace, she was the only other Goth in the school, so we used to hang out together. She was a year younger than me. And she’s married, and she’s got a kid, and she’s working in this tattoo shop. And I’m like, “Wow, it’s crazy ’cause I’m tattooing now. Where are you working?” “Oh, I’m working with Steve.” “You’re working with Steve?” “Yeah, I’m managing his shop.” “Ok then. Um. Can I come and do a guest spot?” She’s like, “Oh he’d love that.” So I went and I worked for 2 weeks. Did a guest spot with him, he tattooed me. I was 7 years in because I got my laurels for a journeyman (At this point, Paul gestured to the tattooed laurels on his arm). So he tattooed me, I tattooed him, but he tattooed me and then he said, “I’ve got some things for you.” So he went downstairs and he brought up two tattoo machine frames. One is a Davis Burchett from 1915 and the other is a 1927 Milton Zies, just the frame. He said, “This is the machine I tattooed you with when you were 17” and gave it to me. I built it up subsequently, I built the whole thing up and I took it back and I was going to give it to him, and he said “No, no no. It’s your machine.”
Q: Where does your interest in tattooing stem from?
Paul: His shop was around the corner from my school, my high school, and from age 12 to 16, I would press my face up against that glass. I had a paper round and the news agent was three doors down. So I used to throw up at 5 o’clock in the morning on my bicycle. If the news agent had been out drinking the night before, he wasn’t going to be there on time, so I knew I had a few minutes. I would go and literally I would place my face up against the glass and try and see inside and look at the images in the shop, on Burr Street, in the Red Light District.
Gina: Didn’t you also say that one of your uncles had a tattoo that captured your imagination?
Paul: Uncle Ray. My father was royal Airforce, and the royal Airforce do NOT get tattooed. The army do. My Uncle Ray, his brother, was army. And I remember when I was maybe 6 or 7, he said that one of them was a panther and one of them was an eagle and they were just sort of blurs and smudges, but they fascinated me because they were pictures on Uncle Ray! Why didn’t any of my other uncles have pictures on them? Dad, why don’t you have pictures on you? “’Cause I’m Airforce!” Oh, okay.
It’s always been there. It’s always been everywhere, every person is related to a group of people that tattooed and I find that fascinating. It’s a single bond. We are animals that decorate. That’s it. That’s the only thing that separates us. It’s innately human to do this. It’s been driven out of a lot of cultures politically or religiously, but it’s the basic operation of the human mind. I am me, I can make me prettier! Look, ooh, that’s lovely, I want to do that now! Everybody does it.