The back door of Rob Dello Russo’s Boston Barber and Tattoo shop at 113 Salem St in the North End is similar to his own life story. While painstakingly trying to comply with city and state regulations for having a tattoo and barber shop in one location, he was told he would need to have two main entrances for each part of his shop. He received this news after having spent tens of thousands of dollars on renovations, building extensions and even an elevator for the two story shop. The requirement of having a second main entrance intended for the tattoo section of the store could have been just another money draining extension that he was not in a great position to afford.
It could have contributed to Rob throwing in the towel on trying to get this business going. This was yet another necessity to comply with a health commission that was not too enthusiastic about his store in the first place and was doing what it could to block it from being established. The back entrance is instead one of the highlights of his shop. It’s a place for customers to relax, enjoy each others’ company, hang out with the shop’s mascot Mugsie or just take a coffee break. Rob faced a block in the road and transformed it into a positive: a theme that continues to come up in his story as you will see.
Rob Dello Russo is as authentic as it gets when it comes to the residents of the North End. He was born and raised in the same building on Fleet Street and still lives there now.
“It was not the neighborhood then that it is today. It was a lot of run down buildings. Everyone who lived here knew each other. There were no outsiders. You stuck out like a sore thumb if you didn’t grow up here. I could go into any building in this neighborhood and know every single family on every single floor.”
“People love to talk about the old neighborhood. People know something special happened here. All these families came together, everybody knew each other. It was such a small, tight knit neighborhood. The neighborhood changed and some people were upset about that, but it is what it is. It happened in Charlestown, it happened in South Boston and it happened here.
“You embrace it because you can’t fight it. This neighborhood changed in a positive way. People like myself that grew up here can make a living, raise a family and not struggle, but at the same time I am able to express myself and what I really wanted to do here.”
“I grew up in a funeral home. Our car was a Cadillac hearse. My father is a great guy and my mother is from Sicily. We had a really great upbringing. Lived on the second floor, but half of our apartment was a casket showroom. There was this trap door and a pulley system. Now that place is a restaurant. Growing up, I tried everything. I went to college, but I didn’t finish. I was in the carpenters’ union, I worked for an electrician, I worked for a plumber…
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was always a big dreamer though. My whole life, I wanted to do something special, something different. I’m sure most of us have had this job where your stomach starts to sink as you approach your building, because you’ve got to sit here for eight hours. I didn’t want that.”
“Like a lot of other kids in the neighborhood, I got into a lot of trouble in my early 20’s. It wasn’t easy to come out of prison at around thirty years old. What the hell am I going to do now? I was a mess. I was never on drugs or anything like that, I was just a hustler. That’s how we grew up. We grew up around hustlers. That’s all we really knew. It’s one of those things where you’re either going to do this for the rest of your life or its a wake up call.
“When I got out, I just went to work and tried and succeeded. It’s going to sound crazy, but prison was the best thing that ever happened to me. It snapped me out of it. Going to prison literally saved my life. Who knows what worse things I would have done if I didn’t stop right there and ask myself what the hell I was doing with my life. It made me realize that life is too valuable and too short. Going to work hard everyday and building something has made me happier, grow and gave me self worth.”
“I’m not one of those people that like to blame the neighborhood. When I was younger, growing up in this neighborhood, its like being in a bubble. When you leave, you get shell shocked. You’re so comfortable here and around the people that you know. As I got older, I realized that there is a whole world out there. You’re responsible for everything that you do. There’s plenty of people that grew up here that became great people. There’s no excuse for it. It’s who you follow and who you emulate. As a kid, you want to emulate stupid things.
“Now I want to emulate people like Frank DePasquale, who owns several restaurants around here. He knows what he’s doing and he’s doing it right. That’s what I’m trying to do here now. Anything I do, it has to be special. I didn’t realize then that I could create my world here, where I’m from. I didn’t get caught up in just being a North End kid, but I’m proud of where I come from. People walk in here and get that nostalgic feeling that this is the neighborhood that they grew up in.”
It’s one thing to have a dream, but it’s another to actually go after it. “My drive and ambition far outweigh my intelligence. I know what people want though. I know what people like. I’ve been cutting hair since I was thirteen years old. In prison, I cut hair. To tell you the truth, when I started this place, I was scared to death. My brother came in with me and it was a dump. In ten years we’ve built it up to this, with an extension and a second floor.”
“The zoning board here in the North End has got some sweet little old ladies on it, but they like to say no to new things around here. These are all little old ladies I’ve known since I was a kid and they lined up to support me when it was time to get approval and it was amazing. I could have had a heart attack the first time I went in there. It felt like going in front of congress.
“They’re sitting on what feels like two floors up above you, looking down at you. There was one guy on the board there who would get his haircut here though and he assured them all of this place. The people that grew up here are not necessarily in control, but they have a lot of pull. They want to see neighborhood kids that grew up here, stay here. Now, a lot of the people I grew up with don’t live here, because they can’t afford it. Once I got approved by the zoning board, I had to go through the Boston Public Health Commission.”
“The Boston Public Health Commission beat the shit out of me. It took me almost four years to get the tattoo shop going. The Boston Public Health Commission gives me rules and regulations, I submit a design for approval and then I have to build it and get the health board to approve it after its built. I put everything I had into this idea. No one has ever attached a barber shop to a tattoo shop in Massachusetts before. Because it hadn’t been done before, so there were no rules and regulations in order. The board of health made me separate the two shops and build a second entrance.
“Tattooing only became legal in Massachusetts in 2001, so they weren’t sure how to deal with me, they just knew they didn’t want it. Every couple of months, the board of health would come in and tell me new things I had to do. I did everything they told me to do. I paid rent for four years here with no income. Eventually, they passed me and told me that they just didn’t want everyone to be doing this too. I set the precedent for sanitation. I threw a curveball at them, but I accomplished it. We’re the only tattoo shop in the city of Boston, proper. Where else can you go and watch someone getting a tattoo while you’re getting your haircut?”
“Our customers come from all over the place. The shop is diverse. We had a seventy five year old woman getting her face tattooed here. An eighty year old guy was getting a haircut. A gay guy, a lesbian, Asians, blacks, this and that. To be honest, many barber shops are kind of segregated. I don’t think they do it purposely, but it just happens. I make it a point to welcome everybody here. Why am I not going to cater to everybody? We have children and families come in here.
“We can have locker room talk sometimes, but we are very aware of who is in here at any moment. On a weeknight, we may have up to thirty people in here getting their hair cut or waiting. We have the Boston Bruins come in here to get their hair cut. This is where they shot the centerfold for ESPN magazine with the Bruins after they won the Stanley Cup. I became good friends with Milan Lucic and Andrew Ference. We lived next door to each other. I still talk to Lucic. He was nineteen years old when I met him and now he’s got two children and he’s married. It’s crazy. The fact that these guys come in here, brings other people in here, along with social media. A lot of people feel like, ‘This is my place’, like its their home.”
“That’s what this is all about to me. I don’t even really care about money. I just want to have something that I can look back on and when I’m dead and gone, people will remember their experience of getting a haircut here. People will come and go all the time, but I love the fact that they hold this place close in their heart. Some people are here every week for four or five straight years and they get to know everybody. It’s creating a family, which I love. That’s how I grew up. I recreated the North End in my barbershop.”
If you want to experience being part of this family, head to 113 Salem Street in the North End or visit Boston Barber and Tattoo’s other location at 124 Bowdoin Street on Beacon Hill.