From Albania with ink: These tattooing twins are open for business in Bushwick

by ARKANSAS DIGITAL NEWS

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It’s a Thursday in late January and I’m lying down on my side on a table at Ink Centre Tattoo Shop in Bushwick, which had opened just three months earlier. The shop’s co-owner, Ermir Beka, is busy tattooing a colorful Japanese demon knife onto the side of my left calf when an unexpected customer walks through the shop’s doors.

“He was here yesterday with his grandma,” Beka says with a laugh.

A 6-year-old boy, not even tall enough to see above the reception counter, stops in to inquire — this time with his mom — about a temporary tattoo. Beka’s identical twin brother Elvis walks behind the counter and grabs a handful of them.

“Which one do you like?” Elvis asks.

“SPIDER!” the boy says. “Oooh, scary!” His mom says in approval.

After applying the tattoo to the child’s hand, Elvis returns to his brother’s side to check on the progress of my tattoo.

“In 15 years we’re going to see him,” Elvis says with a grin, moving his hand up and down his arms implying that the child will be covered in tattoos one day.

‘We just got obsessed’
The kid has taken to tattoos a lot earlier than Ermir and Elvis ever did. The two, now 30, didn’t get their first ink until the spring of 2020. Prior to that, the brothers didn’t have any interest in tattoos beyond appreciating the art: Growing up in Italy — where they emigrated from Albania — Ermir and Elvis remember discovering the shows “Miami Ink” and “Ink Masters” as teenagers. Instead of paying attention at school, the brothers doodled designs within outlines of their hands, anime characters and teachers’ faces in the margins of their notebooks.

“We didn’t get compliments in other classes, probably because we were not interested — and the teachers would get mad,” Ermir says. “Drawing was something we got compliments from the [art] teachers and our classmates. It’s something we were like, ‘I’m good at this, so let me push on this.’”

Elvis and Ermir worked odd jobs in the hospitality industry after immigrating to New York in 2013 and 2016 (Elvis moved here for love, Ermir came to be with his brother), but always wanted to make art their full time gig in some capacity. Ermir bought a tattoo gun in 2017 and practiced on fake skin all of one time before leaving it to collect dust.

In the early doldrums of the pandemic with no job to report to, Ermir offered to bust out the machine and tattoo his older brother Elidon, who was crashing on his couch at the time. He said yes and Ermir tatted a fleur de lis on his brother’s bicep. It wasn’t perfect — he’s since gone back and touched it up — but Ermir showed Elvis the final product. Pretty soon, Elvis had a tattoo gun too.

“We just got obsessed,” Ermir says. “Tattoos could actually be the connection between art and our work that we were looking for.”

Ermir and Elvis began tattooing themselves, each other and friends as much as possible. Elvis gravitated toward bold American-traditional style tattoos while Ermir landed on the more technical side of things, practicing colorful fine line and anime tattoos.

The brothers immediately looked for apprenticeships to improve their skills. Ermir ended up doing $50 flash designs at a shop in Bushwick while Elvis found an apprenticeship in Queens. But both brothers had undesirable experiences at their shops — not only was the vibe off, but the pressure of permanently tattooing a stranger was almost too much. Elvis’ first experience tattooing a client was so uncomfortable it almost made him quit altogether; he only lasted two months at the apprenticeship.

“I was so nervous, it was very uncomfortable for me, there were so many people around, they were very young. Man, I didn’t want to do that tattoo,” Elvis says. “In my head I was like, ‘Man, this is my last tattoo, this is not for me.’”

The brothers realized they were more comfortable working together, and teaching themselves. From 2021 onward the twins operated out of numerous private studios as they continued to learn and slowly began amassing a dedicated pool of clients-turned-friends who appreciated their affable personalities and strong work ethic.

Tim Hunt has gotten over 30 tattoos from the Bekas since he first discovered their work in 2021. He’s brought numerous friends in for tattoos and he and his girlfriend regularly hang with the brothers and their spouses.

“For guys who are tall, and they look tough, they’re like the most soft-spoken, well mannered, polite guys,” Hunt recalls from his first appointment with the brothers. “They just immediately put me at ease.”

Ink Centre, which opened in October, is the culmination of the brothers’ work over the past four years. Elvis’ flash designs are starting to attract new clients, walk-ins are becoming more frequent and regulars are happy to book time in the sleek, modern space.

“As kids when we were doing art, what gratified us was people saying, ‘Oh you guys are good,’” Ermir says. “As you grow up that gratitude is when your business works … You tattoo someone and they keep coming back, that’s the gratitude. It feels good but working together is even better. You’re doing it with someone that you love and they have the same passion, that makes it even more special.”

‘A walking poster board’
The brothers make it a special experience for clients too.

The Japanese Oni Knife tattooed by Ermir Beka on the author (Photo by Max Kalnitz)

Back in the shop on that January day, something stood out to me during my appointment. Although Ermir was the one physically tattooing me, it felt like I was being tattooed by both brothers at once; Elvis was just as much a part of the experience as his brother.

If Ermir was the pilot navigating the tattoo gun on its journey up and down my leg, Elvis was his co-pilot, providing a bird’s eye view on the progress of the tattoo. If a line needed to be bolder, he’d say so. If the tattoo could benefit from a colored ink not already picked out, he’d get it. Even before the session started, the brothers deliberated about the initial placement of my tattoo and ultimately decided to wipe away the stencil and place it in an area better suited for building out a sleeve at a later point.

It all made for a unique and reassuring experience. The benefit of their collaboration is apparent in the final product. The lines are crisp and straight while the decision to leave some open skin in the shading formed natural highlights that gave the design more dimension, and ensured it would age better.

After I left the brothers each had sessions with returning customers. One of them, Hunt, was there to add the latest addition to his Beka tattoo collection.

“I’m like a walking poster board for their work,” Hunt says with a laugh.

The post From Albania with ink: These tattooing twins are open for business in Bushwick appeared first on Brooklyn Magazine.



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