Tattooed Mom, or as it is affectionately known to Philly locals, ‘TMoms’, is a place to eat, a place to drink, and a place to meet. You might think to call it a bar and a restaurant…but it’s actually not, it’s more of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, that just so happens to be fairly permanent. Check it out.
Tmoms has been open and rocking on Philly’s very vivid South Street since 1997. Originally started by Kathy ‘Mom’ Hughes and Robert Perry, this Philly mainstay of oddity is the comfy hangout for skaters, rockers, geeks and freaks of all slants, not to mention the occasional baby shower or leading edge tech meeting.
In 2010 Robert took over full ownership role of this amazing space, and recently he invited me over to do some ‘painting’, as he always does when I’m in Philly, and we had some lunch. From that little lunch I realized just how much I adore him, just how much I love Tmoms and just how overdue this gent was for an interview. What follows are some follow up thoughts on subjects we touched on over cheese fries.
Hyland Mather: In an age when authentic is oft replaced with polished, and pretense equates to quality in the minds of many consumers, Tmoms is as well worn and laid back as it gets. The place just reeks of freedom. First, Robert, introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved with Tattooed Moms, and why you think Tmoms is important to Philly.
Robert Perry: Hello & thanks for the invitation. Tattooed Mom was born in 1997 as the couple of years younger, slightly sassier, punk rock sister of Sugar Mom’s, a since retired bar in Old City, Philadelphia. We lived in the neighborhood and saw the need for a place like TMoms so when the space became available we jumped on it.
TMoms has evolved over the past two decades but it’s heart center has always been the idea of community. I love that we are a place for so many different kinds of celebrations of tribe: from baby showers to benefits, weddings to wakes. We do our best to provide a safe space, a welcoming place and an open mind. I’m so thankful that we’ve been embraced by so many communities over the years: skaters, street artists, cyclists, LGTB groups, writers, activists, performers, creators of every imaginable kind. To be home to such a richly diverse intersection of communities and just saying “YES” any opportunity where they can exchange & share ideas is our proudest achievement.
HM: It’s pretty easy to describe Tmoms as two worlds, the downstairs has its own kind of eclectic design with it’s sparkly gold bar and lime green walls it has a sorta ‘strange and comfortable’ vibe. Love the downstairs, but for sure it’s a world apart from the upstairs area which is just absolutely smashed with street art and graffiti from around the globe. Don’t get me wrong, I groove on the downstairs, but for a traveling maker, nothing says ‘playground’ to me like the upstairs at Tmoms. How did it start up there? How did it become not only accepted but encouraged that graf and street artists were going to do their thing, in force?
RP: The space is quite large and the two floors divides two different but complementary worlds. We had completed the downstairs, with that sweet but psychedelic grandma on acid vibe but still had this even larger and rawer space upstairs to fill. There wasn’t much money left so we went very simple upstairs: it was a bit inspired by a mash up of the old man corner bars I misspent my youth in meets the graffitied band show houses we had lived in. The friends who showed up to support in the early days got that it was OK to tag the upstairs. Respect your acid grandma’s living room downstairs and wild out and make your mark upstairs. The word just spread out from there, at first locally among some of the early Philly graf, sticker and street artists, then to traveler makers from all over the world. We just let it happen & this anarchistic chaos of color & shape formed with each new visit. I believe we all leave impressions of ourselves wherever we go. The upstairs is this collective ectoplasm electrified on every inch of the space. Fast forward two decades and layers upon layers upon layers of graffiti, stickers, wheatpastes & installs and we have the playground nirvana of Tattooed Mom today.
HM: From time to time it must happen up there that ‘artists’ put up work that is just straight mean or obscene. Do you ever have to tell anyone, ‘Hey You, no way, stop that!’ ?
RP: Obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. We don’t censor. Some of it may err on the side of NSFW (Unless You Work Here). It’s very rare that art goes up that is mean spirited or hateful. But when it does it’s pretty quickly subverted, gone over or remixed. The artists that share their work here are very protective of the space and will be the first to tell someone with bad intentions to chill & respect or leave.
HM: Pretty much, whenever I’m there, I’m getting my hands dirty and doing some loose version of ‘art’ in the upstairs. I have to tell you, everyone that’s there and working is pretty wonderful. Feels very ‘family’. Tell me, is it way different up close, or do you guys really exist there in a familial ‘all for one, one for all’ way that it feels like on the surface?
RP: Thanks for the very kind observation. We are a family. I’m so thankful to have the greatest friends to work with every day. We have each other’s backs 100%. Everyone who works here is creative in some way – musicians, artists, writers, designers – so they really embrace the spirit of the ever changing visual world here. The greatest compliment anyone can give about Mom’s is “I feel at home here.” We all feel it and try our best to do everything we can to make sure everyone who comes here, whether it be a guest who’s been coming here since day one or a visitor here for the first time, feels at home too.
HM: Right down the street from Tmoms is one of Philly’s most odd and cool attractions, the living museum of mosaic artist, Isaiah Zagar, called ‘Magic Gardens’ . You and I were talking about this when last I saw you, but I don’t think we dived in as deep as we should have. Talk to me about the inspiration ‘Magic Gardens’ has been for you personally, for the neighborhood in general and for Tmoms as well.
RP: Magic Gardens is a gem. If you’re in Philly, do not miss the chance to experience it in person. I’ve seen Isaiah’s work all over the city, but particularly in our South Street neighborhood, for as long as I’ve lived here. He’s been a “street artist” in the most literal sense of the word, since the 60’s. He’s one of the ancestral fairy godfathers of the sticker kids, the crazy install artists, the wild wheat pasters. The Magic Gardens is a cultural anchor for the neighborhood and for the city. In addition to providing a home for his work, they do great programming in their gallery space. Their staff is part of our extended Mom’s family. We turn up at each other’s events. It’s a place we always tell folks to check out when they are visiting.
HM: Because Tmoms doesn’t really cater to any single culture, but to many subcultures, I’d like to touch on a few in specific subcultures. Mining for stories here, Robert.
RP: Mine away, we’re really proud of our diverse history / herstory!
HM: Why do you think Tech people like Tmoms?
RP: I think the Tech community likes TMoms because they are creators. They may not do graffiti or wheat pastes, but they are helping to create a new and different culture and way of looking at the world. We’ve been early adopters of new social media, so many of our tech friends first found us in the dawning days of Twitter. And with Instagram we are now able to share the constantly evolving (often by the minute) visual landscape here with friends all over the world.
HM: As a self admitted designer, you’ve got your own personal interest and history in sticker and zine culture. What are some of the highlight moments for you with those communities?
RP: For me it’s a thrill to see how different artists evolve over time while getting to know them and their stories. There might be an ancient Bob Will Reign or Under Water Pirates riding from 15 years ago next to something they did last week. It’s really cool to see artists using the space as a place to play and test out ideas & materials. And to be able to do that without having to look over your shoulder or hit and run! A new piece or series might dry run here before making it’s way to the street. And I love seeing how artists interact with the space. How they use the layers and layers already there, how they choose placement and how their piece evolves over time when left to fend for itself in the un-curated frenzy of these walls.
RP: An international printmaking conference was in town several years ago and a bunch of the artists discovered the upstairs and came to hang out every night after the day’s events. They asked if they could do a little pop up at the end of the week to share and show the stuff they’d been working on. So instead of neatly hanging prints in a white box gallery they took over the upstairs and partied and pasted all night. And that was the show: one crazy night, slogging through floors covered in wet paste while seeing incredible prints from all over the world going up on the walls, doors & ceilings.
RP: We’re really proud of our annual Characters Welcome sticker art show. Now in its 5th year (show dates November 11 & 12) we get really great work from all over the world (US, EU, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Indonesia to name a few) with 100% of all proceeds going to local youth arts organizations. Since many of the artists are under 21 we make sure to do an all ages date so they can see the show, eat some free pizza, meet some of their sticker god idols and collaborate on the spot.
HM: Another subculture that has made Tmoms it’s second home is the sorta alternative sports peeps: Skaters and other Xgamers, Bicycle racing culture … etc. Same as before, share a story or two about these folks.
RP: Many of the crew and friends here are skaters & cyclists. They’ve been so supportive of us over the years. We’ve been a stop on countless alley cats & host an annual Cranksgiving ride that collects goods for Philabundance, a local food bank. Last year’s ride was so epic: over 5,000 pounds of food collected in an afternoon. At one point I wasn’t sure how we could fit both the riders and the crates and crates of food they were bringing in the bar! The Cycle Messenger World Championships were in Philadelphia in 2000 and they just sort of adopted us as home base. There were 11 cyclists from Poland sleeping at my house; it was nuts! We’ve done countless skate video premieres and fundraised for FDR park many times (check out the “Mom’s Bowl” at this must see for both skating and art). The X Games came to Philadelphia in 2001 & 2002 and we became a de facto party outpost for the competing skaters, bmx riders & their crews. When Tony Hawk says, “hey man, rad place!” the 13 year old skater in you freaks out a little.
HM: With 20 years behind you at Tmoms, what do you expect from the next 20 years?
RP: I’m so thankful for these two decades of love & good times and would be happy to keep going for another two decades and another two and another two. I hope we can continue to be a home for the misfits, dreamers, schemers & lovers. Who we’ve been, who we are and who we will become is a huge collaboration created by every person who walks through these doors. That is part of the magic of Mom’s: it is a blank canvas full of the riotous marks of everyone who’s come before with the freedom to add your own story and make it part of ours. I’d love to continue to explore that etheric middle ground between the street and the gallery & to invite the alchemy that the liberty of expression here brings. I hope the culture continues to embrace playgrounds like ours and we can, like the Magic Gardens, become a living, ever changing museum & an anchor for every stripe of community.
HM: Knowing you now for several years Robert, I feel like you’ve got some wisdom behind your friendly eyes. You got any advice for me, my friend?
RP: Let if flow, trust yourself first and always. And try not to be as excitedly long winded in interviews as I am.
HM: Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview Robert, and thanks also on behalf of myself and other traveling artists for making Tmoms such a glorious playground.
RP: Thank you, Hyland, for taking the time to talk with me & for always stopping in at TMom’s to visit and add another layer of beauty here. Aloha & Mahalo!
HM: You couldn’t keep me away my man.