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FBI probing threats against Rotterdam tattoo school

Training shown in TLC documentary stirs controversy

Lisa Fasulo, left, and her partner Jeff Looman, right, with a student tattooing a customer at their Tattoo Learning Center in Rotterdam on Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Lisa Fasulo, left, and her partner Jeff Looman, right, with a student tattooing a customer at their Tattoo Learning Center in Rotterdam on Thursday, July 21, 2011.
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— Lisa Fasulo’s opening line in TLC’s recent documentary on her Tattoo Learning Center says it all.

“I’m Lisa Fasulo of the Tattoo Learning Center,” she says in the first minutes of the program, “and the tattoo world hates me.”

Since starting the school in 2003, Fasulo has become used to the flak she’s caught from fellow artists for allowing her students to give real tattoos during their two weeks of training. That’s why she decided to start the hourlong documentary by adding the succinct statement.

At the time, Fasulo and fellow owner center Jeff Looman chuckled about the line because it seemed kind of melodramatic. But they never expected the firestorm of hatred and outrage that would be generated from the documentary after TLC posted a synopsis of the program on its website several weeks before it aired nationally on July 14.

Within hours of the posting, Facebook pages cropped up decrying TLC and the school on Curry Road. An online petition objecting to the learning center was posted on July 8 and garnered nearly 5,000 signatures in less than a day.

“Not only do we need to protest the show, but we need to blacklist the dumb [expletive] who’s on the show telling people its acceptable,” wrote one poster identified as Tattooalix. “Who the [expletive] does she think she is!? Any respectable tattoo artist would have immediately declined an offer to make such a mockery of our lives and industry.”

Then came the threats via email and phone, death threats and other threats of violence — both in copious amounts, Fasulo said.

The hatred reached enough of a fever pitch that Fasulo decided to contact Rotterdam Police. Investigators referred some of the threats to the FBI, which is now probing them.

“All that little paragraph did was launch an entire viral hate campaign among the tattoo community,” she said Thursday.

Rotterdam Police Lt. Jason Murphy characterized the threats as “open-ended,” with many of them left on Facebook. He said no arrests are forthcoming, but police continue to investigate.

One Capital Region tattoo artist contacted Thursday about the learning center and the TLC program offered support for both. But the artist refused to go on the record about either out of fear the outrage could rub off on his own business.

The outrage also prompted TLC to release its own statement defending the program, which is scheduled to air again on Aug. 4. Spokeswoman Joanna Brahim defended the documentary on the learning center and pointed to TLC’s history of showing different aspects of the tattoo community in its programing.

“While this method is considered controversial by some tattoo artists, including some on our air, it does exist and we chose to document it,” she said in the statement. “People can come to their own conclusions.”

The show chronicles the stories of four tattoo artists as they work through Fasulo’s school. She said the documentary is an accurate portrayal of how the school shows aspiring artists — some more talented than others — the basics of tattooing.

Fasulo said the school isn’t intended to produce seasoned veterans. Rather, it’s a starting point for those who want to get into a business that often seems exclusive.

Normally, aspiring artists must find an apprenticeship under an established professional. This period of training can last from six months to more than a year, during which time the apprentice isn’t allowed to tattoo on skin.

In contrast, the learning center gives its students a day of training before giving them a chance to apply what they’ve learned. By the second day, they’re inking permanent tattoos on real people, who pay greatly discounted prices for the amateur work.

“We are giving people the tattoo fundamentals,” Fasulo said. “We’re only saying we’re going to help you begin your journey.”

The learning center remains the only state Department of Education-licensed tattoo training facility in New York and among only a handful of schools in the country. It’s rare enough that it regularly draws students from around the country and around the globe.

“Never in a million years did I think people would form kind of a mob mentality, nor did the production company,” Fasulo said. “Honestly, nobody had seen anything like this.”

But the fervor was no surprise to Devlin Baird at A Lectric City Tattoo in Schenectady, who wrote TLC in protest of the show. The eight-year veteran of the craft said he’s had to repair some of the poor tattoos produced through the learning center and found it unconscionable that the school allows its students to practice on people.

“I don’t know what she can cover in two weeks’ time,” he said. “It kind of downgrades what is normally being accepted in this business.”



July 22, 2011
10:34 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

As a responsible adult, which I'm sure all those receiving discounted tattoos are, I accept that "ya get what ya pay for". I don't need other tattoo shops worried about me. If I was not pleased with a tattoo from TLC, I'd probably go to a dermatologist for advice first - and then I'd very likely be at Baird's shop, providing income for him .. so what's his beef, that some of TLC's students might actually do good work, cutting into other shops' profits?

July 22, 2011
12:23 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

I have to agree with robbump, but I also don't understand the threats. I am 58 years old and have no tattoos. I have been thinking long and hard about getting one though. (I think I am having a midlife crisis) Anyway, it is this kind of mob mentality of the "professionals" that makes me think twice. It makes me think that these folks are not stable and the stigma that goes along with tattoos may be more fact than fiction.

July 22, 2011
3:22 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

I just went there back in June and got a tattoo done! Lisa also had said before anyone went in to get their Tattoos done that it is a learning school and asked if anyone did or did not know this!! I am very happy with the tattoo I got done there by one of the students! The Student did a great job and the staff did a great job guiding the student doing my tattoo! I have 3 others I got at a professional tattoo studio and they look no different then the one from the Tattoo school! TLC has produced some excellent Tattoo artists who have opened their own shops!! I do not understand why others have to stick their noses where they do not belong! I will go back to TLC for another Tattoo and not worry because I like how friendly they are and they are always checking the student's work!

July 22, 2011
8:45 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Maybe I'm missing something here. I will freely admit that I have no tattoos myself, and know absolutely nothing about the tattoo business, so maybe I just don't understand some "inner circle" grudge or something.

Ok, here's what I'm seeing: This TLC parlor is letting their students, after a very small amount of training, practice by working on actual clients. Said clients are told that this will be a student working on them, and that they have minimal apprentice experience, before any actual work is done. In return, they pay a discounted price.

So...where's the problem? While I personally would probably not want someone with only a day or two of training permanently inking my skin, these clients go in with the full knowledge of what the stakes are, and are quite free to say no. Last I checked, tattoo parlors were not putting guns to people's heads and forcing them to get a tattoo against their will. Now, if you say yes, and then are shocked that a person that you knew full well did not have years, or even months, of training under their belts then proceeded to not give you a masterpiece of a tattoo, you have to live with it, or pay to have it fixed. It was your decision, you knew the risks, you have to face the consequences. Let's say I take my car to a body shop to have bodywork done, and they tell me in advance that the guy working on it has only been doing this for a day, but they'll give me a discount, and I still say, "Hey, that's cool - go ahead!" Then he doesn't do the bodywork real well, and I need to get it fixed at another shop. Who pays for it? I do, because I knew the risks and said "screw it, go for it" so I might save a few bucks. This is no different.

As for the other parlor getting all whiny about it, sounds like professional jealousy to me. Or fear, as robbump said - maybe they're afraid a novice is going to show them up!

At any rate, there's no excuse EVER for death threats, especially on something like this. Levying death threats against an individual or group is a felony, and carries with it some stiff jail time - not to mention being incredibly immature. Why not just go pee in their supply of ink? It would be about as mature.