Six years ago, Mike McNelis became a regular at Three Kings tattoo parlor by playing softball just as much as by getting inked. Originally from Detroit, McNelis works at Benjamin Moore Paints, helping contractors, architects, and designers find the best paint for their needs. The 37-year-old got into the paint game 15 years ago while putting himself through school at the University of Michigan and working for a painting contractor. After getting the itch to move, he bounced from Detroit to New Haven and then over to New York.
Leaving family and jumping ships in such a short span drew Mike toward finally getting a tattoo. Years later, he’s twenty tats deep, all done at Three Kings by seven different artists. “They’re everything from a pinup on my arm,” he says, “to a very realistic looking vacuum tube to skull stuff – all over the board.”
The night he arrived at the Greenpoint shop to get his first tattoo from artist Alex McWatt – a bluebird in stained glass on his arm – was a fateful one. It was during that session that Alex and fellow tattoo artist Matt Marcus discovered that Mike played softball. They eagerly asked him to join their recreational team at McCarren Park on Sunday mornings, so the story goes.
The team was pretty rag-tag: bunch of tattooed dudes, really fat, out of shape guys. They went 1-2-3 in the first inning. One of them struck out, and in softball that doesn’t happen very often. So the next inning comes up, and the first guy gets on in an error. The next guy gets a base hit. The next person walks, and then I come up. Bases loaded. First day at bat with the new team. I was like: all right, here we go. Lo and behold, I fuckin’ jacked one. I run through home, and the whole team runs around me like we just won the World Series. And Matt’s like, “That was awesome, man! That’s our first home run in two years!” And then he’s like, “Can you come again, next Sunday?”
Since that point, Matt has become one of my best friends in the world — Alex, all these guys. I’ve been to their houses, hung out with them and their families. They’re all just friends now. And now I run the Three Kings softball team.
Everyone calls me Motown. It’s softball, everybody’s gotta have a nickname. I tell people, Three Kings was kind of my gateway to the city. When I moved here Three Kings opened it up.
I knew that if I didn’t leave Detroit by the time I was 30, I was probably going to buy a house and live there the rest of my life. So I made the decision to start looking. It was a revelation. I liked it. In a matter of a month, I applied for a job, interviewed and moved.
I’d gone through a lot coming here. And I’d always wanted to get tattoos. You uproot your life twice in a matter of a couple years, you’re down to like: It’s just me, boom, I gotta go get it.
The last one I got done, Alex did it. It’s a Detroit tattoo. It’s the Henry Ford II freighter and then the backdrop of the [Ford Auto] Rouge Plant behind it. It’s just kind of, you know, roots. My family was steelworkers. I take pride in that. I’ve always loved those old ore freighters. We lived right on the Detroit River, so I would see them go by as a young kid. The waves come in and they’re huge because it’s such a monstrous vessel. I just always identified as a Detroit blue-collar kid.
The minute I walked in here, I felt that I was hanging out with my buddies back home. They’re just funny, busting on each other all the time, cracking jokes, laughing. No pretense. Everybody’s just a fucking goof here. They’ll tattoo anybody. They’ll talk to anybody. They’re friends with everybody. The guys that I’ve met through this place, some of them are dudes from Ozone Park; some are Dominican kids from Flushing. Everybody gets along because there’s no pretense. We’re all livin’ life and having fun. I don’t see you any differently than you see me. That’s pretty much how this place is.
I think it’s cool that people are free to do what they want. You want your fucking neck tattooed, fuckin’ A, who am I to stop you? My career path probably wouldn’t let me do that. It doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. More power to you. You got the money and you got the skin, why not?