Trim or Tattoo? A New Elvis Aesthetic in Williamsburg

Home Arts & Culture Trim or Tattoo? A New Elvis Aesthetic in Williamsburg

By Joseph Alexiou

It is only in a neighborhood like Williamsburg, in a borough like Brooklyn, that a group of creative young folks can open an Elvis-themed hair salon-cum-tattoo parlor without raising many eyebrows.

Graceland is housed in a renovated former three-car garage at the corner of Lorimer and Withers streets. Embedded in the smooth cement floor are a pair of styling scissors and a horseshoe, while a tuned guitar and upright piano, the latter covered in candles, rest in the center of the room. A portrait of Elvis hangs on the dark wood paneling to greet customers, and Elvis-themed books rest on open surfaces, including a bar-like front desk complete with red barstools bolted to the floor. On the right side of the room are vintage and antique barber chairs, benefitting from the natural sunlight of garage door-shaped windows, and on the left side are workstations and florescent lamps where Graceland’s tattoo artists work.

But more than a kitschy homage to the King, Graceland is a sort-of homecoming for this hodgepodge group of urban fringe kids—it’s the idealized workspace that they dreamt about back when they were still paying their dues and sharpening their styling skills.

Bethany Paul, a Graceland stylist and co-owner, arrived from Dallas seven years ago with a talent for hair and love of music and tattoos. Her first job in the city was at Mudhoney, a legendary downtown salon with no rules, an edgy, punk-inspired aesthetic and cutting-edge styling. Mudhoney brought together the talented folks that would eventually create Graceland. Paul’s upper body is covered in brightly colored references to music (including a massive Elvis visage on her back) and fauna of various kinds. “Just a couple of days after landing in New York,” Paul said, “I met a girl from Mudhoney, who gave me one look and told me I have to work there.”

A decade ago, Mudhoney owner Michael Matula and his partner, Alicia Trani, were well-known figures in New York’s mixed mega club and gay nightlife scenes of the ‘90s because of their uniquely fringe business with inspired, underground aesthetics. The popularity of Mudhoney landed them a New York Times profile in 1999, and now they boast three locations. Corvette Hunt, another Graceland stylist and a retired drag queen, also landed at Mudhoney approximately seven years ago. “I was shampoo girl,” he says, grinning and flexing a pair of scissors in his right hand.

Standing at around six foot two and sporting a thin beard and tattoos on his arms, Hunt’s entrance into hairstyling came from working his own wigs into sculpture, for himself and at the Pat Fields boutique (a talent that once got him a whirlwind job styling mohawks for Madonna dancers on a national tour). Upon his return to New York, Hunt went to styling school with one goal in mind.

“Mudhoney was the only I ever thought to work,” he said, remarking about its reputation among the clubgoers. Around the same time Graceland stylist Josh DeMatteo also arrived at the salon via the same nightlife scene as Hunt. All of three of Graceland’s stylists attribute their expert skills with hair to the guidance they received from Matula and Trani.

After work, DeMatteo, Hunt and Paul would grab drinks down the street at the Dove Parlour, a West Village bar. They befriended the owners, Henrietta Paris and Jennifer Armstrong, and became regulars alongside tattoo artists and future Graceland co-owners Josh Lord and Yadira Mendez-Firvida, who also own the East Side Ink, a well-known tattoo parlor. United by a love of aesthetics and visual culture, these downtown characters began getting together post-work at Mudhoney to drink, listen to music and “have these amazingly creative styling sessions,” said Hunt, emphatically. They often fantasized about the ideal space where they all could hang out, work and continue listening to music at the same time.

They found it. While scouting locations for a new Williamsburg restaurant, Paris and Armstrong found the space at Lorimer and Withers, and a lease that included an attached car garage with a leaky roof and a busted floor. Suddenly their collective dream of working shoulder-to-shoulder became a reality—tattoo artists and hairstylists decided that sharing a large room would be the best way to maximize the space.

Lord and Mendez-Firvida—who had business experience with East Side Ink—led the way. Along with Paul and Hunt, the four retrofitted the space to their liking, with every visual detail lovingly taken into account, from the garage-door windows to the bathroom sink. “At this point we’re more than just friends,” said Hunt. “It’s a family.” Graceland opened January 22.

Alex Stoler, a 21 year-old NYU student and resident of the Lower East Side, with a thick head of hair and a Burberry scarf, traveled to Williamsburg specifically for an appointment with DeMatteo, “Yeah, some of my friends were laughing at me for coming to Brooklyn just for a haircut,” he said, his chic outfit looking out of place in a neighborhood that worships vintage clothing. “But once I find someone I like, I stick with them. I don’t mess around with my hair.”

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