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From White Collar to Tattooed Sleeves: Thoroughly Modern Marisa DiMattia

by Andrea Calabretta

Marisa DiMattia
 Universities: NYU, BA; Brooklyn Law School, JD; Columbia  Graduate School of Journalism, MS
 Major: Political Science

 Company: Needled.com
 Title: Managing Editor & Creative Consultant
 Industry: Online Media
 Year founded: 2005 with Josh Rubin, Coolhunting.com
 Location: New York, NY
 Website: www.needled.com


The Beginning

How many business plans get hatched on the table at a tattoo parlor? Marisa DiMattia laughs as she recounts the story: Josh Rubin was literally being tattooed when he happened to mention his interest in starting a blog. The tattoo artist, who happened to be Marisa's husband, Daniel DiMattia, said, "You should talk to my wife--she's a writer." Daniel called Marisa, a licensed New York attorney with a passion for tattoo art, and she and Josh Rubin quickly hit it off. Both of them were "tattoo snobs," Marisa says, and they decided to start a site using a standard blog format that would be focused on "tattoo couture."

"I suddenly understood the gravity of the choosing the right design--not just picking flash off the wall."

A year later, Needled.com was bought by RIVR Media Interactive (RMI), which allowed them to re-launch the site with stunning visual imagery--including video interviews with artists and short broadband films that cover tattoo conventions and other topics relevant to the community. Though Josh Rubin is no longer involved with the site, Marisa is now managing editor as well as creative consultant to RMI.

Her mission is to advance the idea that tattooing can be a fine art--not just a mistake made on Spring Break. She promotes the process of choosing a tattoo artist to create a unique and personal work of art as a very serious undertaking, and a big responsibility for the tattooed person. Marisa's blog covers photo exhibits, book releases, community events, as well as the largely under-appreciated history of tattooing, an "art form that dates back at least 5,000 years."

The Inspiration

You might say the inspiration for her work goes way back--to her first visit to a tattoo parlor at the age of sixteen. "I was kind of nerdy," Marisa says. "But I loved tattooed boys." Her boyfriend at the time took her to an underground tattoo parlor in the East Village, at a time when tattooing was still illegal in New York City (the ban was not lifted until 1997).

Marisa was impressed by the ambience--it wasn't at all what she expected: "A woman was sketching a tattoo on an easel, there were all these art books lying around, and everything was really, really clean...I thought, 'wow, this is about wearing a work of art on your body.' I suddenly understood the gravity of the choosing the right design--not just picking flash off the wall."

"I have no patience for people who force their tattoos on [others]."

Still, her first tattoo did not come until years later--in her first week at law school. Everyone seemed so aggressive, and the environment was so competitive, says Marisa, that she wanted to do something that would remind her to stay true to herself. She got a crest from Alexander the Great ("because I'm Greek"). Her second tattoo came three years later, when she passed the bar exam.

Her third tattoo was rather monumental: a small black design on her right hand that was etched there by the tattoo artist who would later become her husband. It also marked her decision to give up practicing law. "I swore I'd never work in a corporate environment again," she says. "So much for that!"

A Creative Balance

Now, Marisa divides her time between working in legal consulting and communications at big American law firms, and writing for Needled.com, which is where her real passion lies. "It's kind of like living a double life," she says. "At home, I'm a jeans and t-shirt girl with wild red hair and Converse sneakers, but at work I'm much more polished and conservative."

At the office, her tattoos are covered, and she wears a band-aid or makeup to conceal the small piece on her hand. "I have no patience for people who force their tattoos on [others]," she said. "You can't walk into a corporate job interview with your tattoos showing and expect to be hired. Just like you wouldn't wear a bikini to the office. It doesn't change who you are to cover up your tattoos."

Changing Minds

Marisa's attitude appeals to the millions of American doctors, lawyers, soccer moms, and CEOs whose tattoos remain under wraps in their day-to-day lives. As a professional and an intellectual (or a "tattoo geek," as she calls herself), DiMattia hopes to break down assumptions about tattoos--especially in traditionally conservative environments--by letting people get to know and trust her before revealing her ink.

This is the way, Marisa is convinced, to change misconceptions about tattoos. A subtle, educated approach puts people at ease. However, her parents have been less than gung-ho about her enthusiasm for the art form. "I have an extremely conservative mother. She practically wears a suit to bed," said Marisa. And her father, a Greek immigrant, thinks "[she's] going to be homeless." In Greece, tattooing is still quite taboo, Marisa says, and her dad, a former naval officer, associates tattoos with the lower-class sailors who were below him in rank.

"They worry about how society will see me," she says.

Granted, Marisa asserts, a lot of prejudice still exists. But she believes that Needled.com is a step in the right direction. Recently, many states have overturned their bans on tattooing, and Marisa sees hope in the tattoo conventions she regularly visits--where bikers, corporate types, gays and lesbians, soccer moms, and even grandmothers coexist peacefully in the pursuit of an art form that makes them feel beautiful.

"It's like utopia," she says.

The Future

Following the addition of photos, video and histories of each tattoo genre (you can search by Americana, BioMechanical, Southeast Asian, among others) at Needled.com, a second phase of the re-launch will open the site to the larger community. New interactive features will include personal pages for users, photo uploading, and other user-generated content. A third phase will bring a marketplace, still in development.

"I really want to spread the word about fine-art tattooing."

In the meantime, Marisa is writing a book called Tattoo Law that covers everything from free speech to copyright for tattoo art, to employment discrimination, to insurance for tattoo artists. She divides her time between New York and Belgium, where her husband's tattoo studio is headquartered, and enjoys the "intellectual challenge" of legal consulting as a companion profession to her entrepreneurial venture.

Will she one day make her living at Needled? "I'm open to seeing how it goes," Marisa says. "I really want to spread the word about fine-art tattooing."
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Marisa DiMattia

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