Availability is the best ability for Keith "Bang Bang" McCurdy.
"I'm waiting all the time for that call, because I know Justin Bieber may call me at three in the morning and I have to tattoo him at six. That has happened," McCurdy says.
Bang Bang is considered one of the most successful tattoo artists in the industry.
The New York-based artist is credited for creating some of the most iconic tattoos on celebrities. Like fashion model Cara Delevingne's simple yet eye-catching lion tattoo that sits on her index finger. And pop star Rihanna's henna design that wraps across her wrist and drips down her fingertips.
In fact, it was Bang Bang's work of art for Rihanna in 2007, when he was just 19 years old, that helped to catapult his career.
Now 29, Bang Bang reflects on his journey from Pottstown, P.A. — a city about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia — to how he got his big break.
Keith McCurdy was born to teenage parents. His mother was a 17-year-old high school dropout who worked at Domino's Pizza, while his dad, who finished high school and went on to college, was scarcely around to father him, McCurdy recalls. This resulted in McCurdy being raised primarily by his mom.
When he was 3 years old, McCurdy moved with his mom from Pennsylvania to a public housing unit in Delaware. There, his mom became an exotic dancer and he says this sometimes exposed him to a somewhat unsavory lifestyle. But the most challenging part, he says, was watching his mom struggle to put food on the table. That early hardship, however, forced McCurdy to grow up fast.
In school, he struggled to keep up and was easily distracted by friends and the occasional recreational drug use. And while his dad was often absent from his life, whenever he did come around, he always stressed to McCurdy the importance of education. Thus, at age 13, tired of failing grades and getting into trouble, McCurdy heeded his dad's advice to be a better student and convinced his parents to send him to boarding school in Connecticut.
Leaving home for the first time
Two years later, McCurdy was thriving in boarding school. By now, he'd gotten his first exposure to tattoos and wanted one. His parents weren't enthusiastic about the idea, but McCurdy struck a deal with them that if he made the honor roll, they'd let him get a tattoo.
"So I made the honor roll and I got a tattoo, and it was a great experience for me because it really fueled my interest more," McCurdy says.
He was 15 years old.
By this time, McCurdy notes, he'd gained more self-confidence and discipline. It appeared that his life was on track. But then he did what he describes as "something stupid."
He was gearing up for college, filling out applications and getting his portfolio together; McCurdy was interested in graphic design. And despite finally getting his act together and excelling in school, McCurdy cheated on a Spanish test. This got him kicked out of boarding school.
He found himself back in Delaware living with his mother and working part-time at Red Lobster, while trying to complete his high school diploma at a public school. Getting kicked out of boarding school was devastating for McCurdy. He'd liked it there, it inspired him and he felt like he was doing something positive with his life. It was also there — after he got his first tattoo — that he realized he wanted more. But with no money to pay for them, McCurdy thought of the next best thing — creating them from scratch. He felt that he could express himself through designing tattoos.
McCurdy ordered a tattoo kit online and when it came in the mail, he walked into his mother's kitchen, sat down and started to tattoo.
"And every day since, it's with that enthusiasm and love, that I continued to tattoo," he says.
After three months of tattooing at home on himself and on everyone he knew, McCurdy landed a job at his dad's friend's tattoo shop outside a nearby trailer park. He quit his job at Red Lobster, dropped out of school and focused solely on tattooing.
"In hindsight it was a terrible decision, I mean it worked out, but man, I dropped out of high school to tattoo outside of a trailer park. And I tattooed guns on [my] neck and I had no choice other than to succeed at it," McCurdy says.
It was from tattooing the guns that McCurdy earned the nickname, "Bang Bang." He says the guns also symbolized that this was what he was going to do for the rest of his life.
New York City has more skin
Still, McCurdy thought he could take his skills further than the trailer park tattoo shop. He wanted more. So he scoped the industry and studied his craft. He knew who the big players were, and he knew that if he wanted to grow he would have to leave his neighborhood. So McCurdy packed up and moved to New York City.
"New York City just has more people," he says. "So it was simply my thought that, well, there's more skin, I'm going to go where the skin is — so if that's my canvas I'm going to go there."
Upon moving to New York City, McCurdy had a hard time finding work. This 19-year-old tattoo artist from Delaware found himself in the Big Apple going from tattoo shop to tattoo shop passing around his portfolio. He says many tattoo shop owners had a hard time believing that it was his work in the book because of how impressive it was to the eye.
He had to find another way to stand out.
"When I moved to NYC I lost that funny little nickname," he says. "I didn't tell people my name was Bang Bang, I told people my name was Keith. And the problem is Keith McCurdy isn't really easy to remember, but nobody forgets Bang Bang. So I started telling people my name was Bang Bang and it was really great for me."
From then on out there was no more Keith McCurdy; there was only Bang Bang.
This is what she came for
After several months, Bang Bang finally landed a job at a grungy, dark basement tattoo shop on the Lower East Side. It was here where he'd meet the girl that would launch his career and forever change his life.
A couple of months after he landed his first gig in New York, Bang Bang was tattooing in the basement when he recalls a group of five or six, tall, beautiful women walking into the shop. They asked the man at the front who was the best tattoo artist, the man said Bang Bang. Bang Bang's coworker then told him that a singer wanted to get a tattoo. That singer was Barbadian then-rising pop star, Rihanna.
Rihanna, then 18, wanted a Sanskrit prayer etched along her thigh.
The next day, Rihanna came into the shop with a reporter. They all sat down in the window of the tattoo shop storefront. Slowly, people began to gather around the window to watch. Bang Bang turned on his machine and started to ink Rihanna's skin as the reporter interviewed her.
"For me, it was very difficult to make that tattoo. Because she's talking and she moves a lot when she talks, and she's speaking with her hands. And I'm like, 'There's this girl who will not sit still, and everyone's watching me, and I'm stressing out,' " Bang Bang says.
In the end, the tattoo turned out great. Rihanna was happy, so all was good in the world.
Word of mouth quickly spread Bang Bang's success on the pop singer's tattoo. This opened the door for more career opportunities, and Bang Bang made sure he was ready. He's created a brand, a tattoo empire. "Bang Bang" is no longer just his nickname, it's the name of the store he opened where he now manages 16 artists.
He's Rihanna's go-to tattoo artist, and has also inked celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Lebron James and Miley Cyrus, just to name a few.
Through it all, Bang Bang falls back on one principle: being available. So much so, that for his first 10 years in New York, he didn't take a vacation — and he's made sure to not repeat the mistakes of his younger years in abusing alcohol or using drugs.
"I may need to fly across the planet because Lebron calls at 9 p.m. and I have to fly on this first flight the next morning," Bang Bang says. "I have to sort out my whole world to get it done, but saying yes and making sure I am able to do it is what really laid the foundation for the opportunities that came."