Tattoos with a view

New Oak Bluffs studio brings bold art to the Island, and pays homage to Johnny Seaview.


A new tattoo studio on Oak Bluffs is ready to fill the Island’s tattoo needs, and seeks to bolster the already substantial arts community we enjoy here.

The new shop, named Seaview Tattoo after venerable Vineyard character Johnny Seaview, is helmed by artist Jeff Gemma.

Down along the picturesque Oak Bluffs Harbor, the quaint yet comfortable studio is tucked into a tiny alleyway, and is packed with impressive art of all kinds.

After getting my first-ever tattoo at Seaview, I was able to speak with Gemma about his time as an artist, and how he found his way to Martha’s Vineyard to open a studio.

It started when Gemma was a kid — he was always drawing and, he said, got grounded a lot.

“I had a stepfather who really liked to drop the hammer, so being in my room with nothing to do really set a fire for me,” Gemma said. “I got to express my emotions artistically, and it was really the therapy I needed.”

Initially, Gemma said, he was planning on going to vocational school after high school to become a sign painter, but that was in the mid ’80s, when screenprinting was becoming automated and letters were being cut using computer software. “I realized there wasn’t much of a demand for hand-painted signs,” he said.

After having a few art-related jobs following high school, Gemma began working with the Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts, then moved to Florida and took a job with the Down Syndrome Foundation.

After some time in that role, Gemma said he felt lost, and wanted to find a career in the art sphere. “I was on this confused sort of path, like, What do I do with my life journey?” he said.

At the age of 26, when Gemma was visiting a friend in Florida while on his way to Massachusetts, he decided to check out some tattoo shops in the Jacksonville area, where he was staying.

At first, he went into a few biker shops, but didn’t initially find the degree of professionalism and passion he was looking for, where he could learn as much as possible about tattooing. “They weren’t really true artists of the trade. But then, one shop I walked into and the artwork on the wall was just mind-blowing,” Gemma said. “I told the guy, ‘I want to learn how to make tattoos like you do.’”

Just as Gemma was about to continue on his journey, he got a call from the tattoo shop owner, who offered him an apprenticeship — his very first tattooing experience.

“It was kind of weird being the new guy, because no one really wants new artists in this business,” Gemma said. “You are basically taking money out of their pockets in their eyes, if you aren’t committing yourself undyingly to the trade.”

Gemma was then transferred to a sister studio in Philadelphia after several years of working in Florida. After tattooing in a rough neighborhood of Philadelphia for some time, Gemma moved to Worcester, and started his own tattoo shop in 2009.

He tattooed at his shop for nine years, but the stresses of maintaining a business in a historical building and looking after his employees made it so that “art was no longer fun, it was work,” he said.

Gemma said he realized at that point that he needed a change, so he moved to San Diego and did a little “soul searching,” after a motorcycle accident put him out of work for several years.

“One thing led to another — I had a couple Island friends who told me about the place in Oak Bluffs. Everything just seemed to click into place from the day I checked it out,” Gemma said.

After working hard to get the studio shipshape and accommodate the health and building department requirements, Gemma said he built a “good rapport” with town officials, especially once they saw the inside. “They finally came to check out the shop, and right when they looked at the place, they told me how beautiful it was,” Gemma said.

The shop is named after Oliver Perry, better known by his moniker Johnny Seaview. Perry was a beloved Island salt who tended bar at the old Seaview Hotel in Oak Bluffs, long before my time.

Gemma said he first met Seaview in 2009, and his entire outlook on life changed. The zest for life shown by Seaview’s rip-roaring punchlines and spontaneous philosophical orations inspired Gemma so much that he decided to pay respect to him. “It’s Seaview property, and pays homage to the incredible character that was Johnny Seaview,” Gemma said.

Although he experiments with all sorts of stylistic elements and tattooing methods, Gemma said he wants his tattoos to be bold and distinctive.

“I am not much of a photorealism guy. I think outlines and clean shapes make for distinct goodness,” he said, and added, “You can tell a tattoo is done properly from 20 feet away, and it looks better the closer you get to it — that’s how tattoos should be.”

Once Gemma gets more embedded in the Island art community (and COVID restrictions loosen up), he said, he is hoping to have world-class artists from all around come to his studio to collaborate and create art.

“If someone is waiting for a super-traditional Japanese-style tattoo, I would have someone come in and do a guest spot for a week or two,” he said.

With such a variety of clientele on-Island, Gemma said he has enjoyed working with different styles and with different client preferences.

“If you do a tattoo the right way, you will always love it,” Gemma said. “And when tattoo shops are done the right way, they boost the economy and strengthen the art community. I can’t wait to be a landmark on the Island, and keep putting out good tattoos.”