The Oak Bluffs harbor is largely desolate this time of year, a place of cold winds and empty berths. But even as its bars and restaurants sit shuttered and wait patiently for spring, one business owner has found a year-round home on the harbor.

“It’s such a perfect spot for the Island to have a shop,” said Jeff Gemma, owner of Seaview Tattoo.

Mr. Gemma's tattoo shop is named for local icon Johnny Seaview. — Ray Ewing

Mr. Gemma’s tattoo shop, named after Oak Bluffs icon Johnny Seaview, sits in the small alley that connects Circuit avenue Extension to the harbor. Among a line of brightly-painted buildings, the doors of the only tattoo parlor on the Island open up to a small room bursting with color. Its vibrant green walls are covered in framed sheets of tattoo designs — or flash — mostly depicting bold, nautical symbols and other subjects that evoke the old-school style of American traditional tattooing.

While preparing his station for an upcoming appointment, Mr. Gemma talked about his journey to the Island. He said he got his start tattooing at 27 years old when he took an apprenticeship in Florida, after spending the first of his adult years working, among other places, at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. There, he said he learned he wasn’t suited for watching and rewatching the vicious cycle that faced many at-risk youth. But he found some joy in the job when he drew pictures for the kids he worked with and helped them create their own art.

“I’m not built for the long range of this,” he remembered thinking to himself.

So, after spending some time in Miami, he found himself in a Jacksonville tattoo shop asking for an apprenticeship. Walking in the doors, he said he saw a well-run and professional parlor exemplary of what tattooing can be.

“I walk in, everyone was wearing the same shop shirt, a button-down shirt,” he said. “I was floored by it.”

Upon completing a year and a half apprenticeship under mentor Eric Inksmith, Mr. Gemma moved to a sister location in Philadelphia.

“From there, I really got my feet wet,” he said. “I moved down to Miami and worked with some of the guys who were on the TV shows and whatnot.”

In 2007, he took a guest artist spot in Vineyard Haven at a shop owned by a piercer named Lenny Clark. That brief stint grew into a full summer position in 2009, offering him a chance to build clientele — some of whom followed him to his first shop in Worcester.

Mr. Gemma owned and operated the Worcester shop for about eight years from 2009 to 2017, he said. But repeated flooding, a rough neighborhood and a lifestyle of too many late nights eventually led him to close the shop.

Around then and following a motorcycle crash, he said he grew more spiritual, often asking the universe for signs about what he should do next. In 2019, an opportunity to take over the existing tattoo shop in Oak Bluffs came about.

“Just kind of a perfect transition,” he said. “Served me up a sober plate of new inspiration, I guess.”

A glimpse of the possibilities for body art. — Ray Ewing

The shop came together in late 2019, just before the start of the pandemic, Mr. Gemma said. For some of his first months in business, he got by selling some of his other art, such as drawings and paintings. Now, with pandemic-related restrictions behind him and bustling summers returning, Mr. Gemma said business has been great.

In summer, he said, he books just one appointment per day and spends the rest of the day taking walk-ins — many of whom are looking for a tattoo to commemorate their vacation. Mr. Gemma said the shop’s previous owner was against the idea of tattooing the outline of the Island — but for him, it has become one of the parlor’s most popular requests.

“I’ll [tattoo] that all day,” Mr. Gemma said.

Mr. Gemma said he feels settled in the little shop in the alley these days, taking walk-ins during the summer and adopting an appointment-only model for the off-season. As stigmas around tattooing continue to fade, he said he’s had clientele ranging from international visitors to an 89-year-old grandmother getting tattooed with their grandchildren.

Mr. Gemma brimmed with excitement as he retold the story. “Do you understand how cool your grandma is that she got tattooed with you, dude?” he said to the grandson. “She wanted to go through this ceremony with you.”

Reflecting on his journey to own the one-man shop in Oak Bluffs, Mr. Gemma said he feels things have unfolded just as they should.

“Everything just kind of looked up for me, universe-wise,” he said.