Under their skin: Recalling Billings’ tattoo pioneers

This is the story of the oldest tattoo shop in Montana.

No, wait. This is the story of the two oldest tattoo shops in Montana, whose roots are so intertwined that they both have a fair claim to that title.

One is Eagle Tattoo, at 2323 Belknap Ave., just north of Garden Avenue where Belknap dead-ends at Interstate 90. The other is Tattoo Art, at 16 N. 35th St., just off Division Street a block from Billings Central High School.

Eagle Tattoo has a sign out front identifying itself as “Montana’s oldest tattoo parlor.” There has indeed been a tattoo shop at that location continuously since 1978, when Gary “Deacon” Raty took up tattooing and opened it as a sideline to his motorcycle and body shop business.

Deacon

Gary “Deacon” Raty

But the place was originally called Tattoo Art, and Deacon’s friend Buzz Bailey was his tattooing partner from the start. When Buzz branched off and opened his own parlor, he took the name with him, and he still calls his business “Montana’s first and finest tattoo parlor.”

We won’t attempt to determine which party has a greater claim to being first. We’ll just tell both their stories.

Deacon died of cancer in 1999 at the age 55. His wife Elaine, who still owns Eagle Tattoo and lives above the shop, said Deacon acquired his nickname during a spell when he started going to church and then distributing Bibles door to door. Some friends called him “Preacher Man,” but it was “Deacon” that stuck, though his religious zealotry did not.

Deacon and Elaine, who both grew up in Great Falls, moved to Billings in 1969 and Deacon had a motorcycle shop downtown. In 1971, Elaine said, her husband bought the property on Belknap, which included a little garage that became his motorcycle shop.

Elaine said Deacon could build or repair just about anything and was a good carpenter. Over the years, as his business grew, he expanded the garage and then kept building additions for his new ventures, including their second-story living quarters.

Then, to avoid the necessity of sending motorcycles out to be painted, he opened his own body shop. Next up was a business that involved chopping old VW Bugs down and making three-wheel motorcycles out of them. He also started the first large-scale cardboard recycling business in town later opened a huge auto junkyard out near Huntley.

He offered to tow away junk vehicles for free, then sold parts at the junkyard. Elaine, pointing to hundreds of cars shown in a panoramic photo of the old junkyard (made by taping four or five photos together), said, “probably every one of those were free cars we pulled out of Billings, Huntley and Shepherd.”

And into that mix he introduced tattoos.

Buzz

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Buzz Bailey, right, and his protege Dustyn Owen, at Tattoo Art.

“It kind of fell into place with that crowd,” Elaine said, referring to her husband’s biker clients. “And there was nothing else in Montana then,” she said, meaning no other tattoo parlors. She thought Deacon opened Tattoo Art in the early ’70s, but Buzz said he was sure it was 1978.

Buzz knew Deacon because Deacon was building a car for him. Deacon also knew that Buzz had artistic talent and had studied art in college. And one day Deacon said to him, “You know, I think we ought to go into tattooing.”

So they did, both starting from scratch and teaching themselves as they went. Buzz’s first tattoo was a small mushroom he applied to his own ankle. Elaine said Deacon, for his part, already had a few tattoos he’d picked up in California.

Buzz said he took to tattooing immediately. Because of his affinity for it and because Deacon had so many irons in the fire, he said, “I ended up working the shop probably 75 to 80 percent of the time by myself.” He enjoyed it so much and did so well that he soon quit his job with the Bureau of Land Management and never looked back.

Elaine

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Elain Raty has owned Eagle Tattoo since her busband’s death in 1999.

It helped that the Billings Gazette came down and did a big feature on the shop, complete with color photos and a two-page spread, followed by a profile on KULR-8 television.

“It was just like lighting a bomb,” Buzz said. There was so much business he was working six days a week and up to 14 hours a day. He said he could work that long because he always had a rock-steady hand.

“Tell people, if your hand shakes, don’t become a tattoo artist,” he said. “Go work heavy equipment.”

In 1991, Buzz bought the Tattoo Art name from Deacon and opened his own shop near Pug Mahon’s on First Avenue North.

Deacon went back to doing all the tattoos in his newly named Eagle Tattoo for a while, Elaine said, then over the years took on a number of tattoo artists who followed the pattern of learning enough to open their own businesses. Deacon later opened a second parlor on Grand Avenue, which has since closed.

The tattoo artist working for Elaine these days is Josh Degele, who knows of Deacon only by reputation and clearly admires his get-up-and-go attitude.

“First and foremost, he was a businessman,” Josh said. “If something made money, he was on it.”

Josh again

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Josh Degele has been a tattoo artist since 2008.

Or, as Elaine put it, “He was one of those guys, if he seen something he’d say, ‘I could do that,’ and he did. He was quite the entrepreneur. He went from one business right into another one.”

Buzz and his partner Darcy (he declined to give her last name), later his wife and still later his ex, moved the Tattoo Art shop from First Avenue to its current location in 1995. Buzz retired from tattooing three years ago, turning the work over to Dustyn Owen, whom he thinks of as his son.

“Dustyn Owen is going to carry on the tradition,” he said. “He’s an excellent artist, an excellent businessman.”

Buzz, who figures he’s done at least 100,000 tattoos in his life, said he and other early tattoo artists were up in Helena when the Legislature crafted laws and regulations governing the industry.

“We were the pioneers of the tattoo industry in Montana,” he said.

Josh said the industry was dramatically affected by the Internet. It used to be that most clients would choose a tattoo from drawings, known as “flash,” that tattoo shops kept on file or displayed, as they still do, on their walls.

Now, clients choose images they see on Facebook, Pinterest or other social media. Sayings and quotations also became more popular, as did pretty, brightly colored images. Josh said people also started getting tattoos to commemorate an important occasion or milestone.

“It wasn’t just, ‘I killed a dude in prison, so I got this tattoo,’” he said.

Tats

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

One of Josh’s favorite examples of “flash,” or tattoo art, are these old-school tats from California.

Buzz, though, said his clientele, right from the start, was not limited to the bikers and toughs of tattoo legend.

“I tattooed a preacher,” he said. “I tattooed business people.”

Josh said younger clients in particular don’t consult the flash and they don’t have something unique in mind. Lots of them want whatever some celebrity like Rihanna is wearing on her skin. And both shops still see clients older than some people might imagine.

Dustyn said Tattoo Art has one client, a woman from Miles City now living in a nursing home in Billings, who has her daughter bring her in for new tattoos every now and then. At Eagle Tattoo, Josh said, “People in their 60s come in and say, ‘I got my first tattoo here.’”

That’s another thing about tattoos, Josh and Buzz agreed. People rarely stop with just one.

“One isn’t enough and there ain’t too many,” Buzz said “And you’re never too old.”

Leave a Reply