On a sweltering summer afternoon, Steven Millington, a 29-year-old mathematics student from Long Island, lay shirtless atop a raised wooden platform in the far corner of a dimly lit Brooklyn shop.
Mr. Millington dug his fingertips into the mat beneath him with a grimace as the owner of the shop knelt over him, rapidly jabbing a needle-tipped stainless-steel rod into the tattooed outline of a toad on his chest.
“It’s about recognizing that life has its ugly moments,” Mr. Millington said of the toad draped in ribbon and coin on his right breast. “But it has its beauty too.”
The man crouched over him was Takashi Matsuba, 36, an owner of Behind the Circle tattoo shop, which sits beneath the elevated subway tracks on the corner of Broadway and Willoughby Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Mr. Matsuba, one of the three artists working at the shop, practices tebori-style tattooing, the century-old traditional Japanese method of tattooing by hand with a needled rod.
The front door is emblazoned with the phrase “praise for tattoo” in golden Japanese characters; inside, scattered across the walls, are more than 100 picture frames, each with an image, of everything from samurai to dragons to a maddening depiction of the iconic Coney Island freak-show face.
The shop was vacant space just two years ago, before Mr. Matsuba and his business partner, Manneh Roman, converted it into a tattoo parlor. Before having a permanent work space, Mr. Matsuba, who came to Bushwick 10 years ago, bounced around, working in a nomadic, freelance fashion.
Nag champa incense smoke filled the room. The sound of experimental alternative jams accompanied the clipper-like buzzing of the other artist’s tattoo gun.
Phillip DeAngulo, 29, a Bushwick resident whose style is geared toward traditional tattooing, has worked at Behind the Circle for a year.
“There’s so many tattooers, New York is a shark tank,” Mr. DeAngulo said. He sketched out a grim reaper and coffin on an iPad for his next client, who was waiting patiently on a leather couch by the door. Just under the coffin was the word “tranquilo,” Spanish for “calm.”
Despite the explosion of tattoo shops in Bushwick, the growth of community and influx of younger residents over the past year has been good for business, he said.
Ryan Miller, 24, the shop’s third artist, also specializes in American traditional. Before being hired, he interviewed with Mr. Matsuba and had to tattoo in front of him. When he has no appointments, Mr. Miller drags a sign reading “WALK-INS are WELCOME” out onto the sidewalk.
Each artist averages about two or three tattoos a day, except Mr. Matsuba, who will do only one or two. For each tattoo, Mr. Matsuba must assemble the rods and prepare the ink.
He began tattooing at an early age on himself and friends in Gifu, Japan, where he grew up, jury-rigging needles to fit on chopsticks or bamboo. Once the skill was honed, he decided to take the craft abroad as a career.
A tebori tattoo can take anywhere from one two-hour long session, to a year of twice-a-month sessions depending on the size of the piece and physical endurance of the client. The cost can range anywhere from $200 to $10,000.
Contrary to the volume of the atmosphere and the slight violence of the art, there is a serenity to the shop.
Subway tracks rumbled outside as Mr. DeAngulo tattooed a client. Mr. Miller colored a vibrant yellow-orange tiger head on heavy-duty watercolor paper, a material he uses to sketch designs. Michael Evangelista, the 25-year-old shop apprentice, cleaned and readied the vacant stations.
Mr. Matsuba wore a single black latex glove, which became stained with color as the tattoo progressed. As Mr. Millington winced and drew in sharp breaths, Mr. Matsuba jabbed the needled-rod close to 140 times a minute, sparing the few seconds when he would re-dip the needle and wipe away excess red ink or speckles of blood from the slowly emerging toad on Mr. Millington’s chest.
“It’s lighter than the vibrating gun, but I could feel every movement of his hand,” Mr. Millington said of the pain as he leaned up to take a breather. He lay back down.
“You need to try to stop moving,” Mr. Matsuba said as he began to tattoo again.