Joe Bascetta likes to go with the flow. It’s what brought him from Hartford to the Bowery in New York City and back again; from fashion designer to tattoos and piercings. Today, you can’t miss his shop on Park Street in a building with a huge fluorescent mural, and a bright pink sign that reads, Pelican Tattoo.
Bascetta’s original Pelican Footwear shop in the Bowery was all about fashion. Bascetta’s wife was a sculptor, and he was an artist. “We had this idea,” he said. “Maybe we could do a Carmen Miranda shoe, like really high.” His wife hand carved the original prototypes, which evolved into the platform shoe. The Village Voice did an article on them. They were featured in Life magazine and Vogue. Within a few months, their shoes were on the feet of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at Radio City Music Hall, as well as Debbie Harry and the New York Dolls (David Johansen was the best man at Bascetta’s wedding).
Bascetta and his wife moved back to Hartford to start a family. He was born in the city, a graduate of Bulkeley High School. His grandparents immigrated from Sicily and ran a fruit stand on Front Street. There, he opened his second Pelican store in the 1970s. “At the time, it was considered a dangerous area,” he said of Park Street. In their first year there, they had 38 burglaries, he said. “A couple of times, they took everything.”
At the time, Pelican still primarily sold punk- and new wave-inspired clothes. But that wasn’t where the demand was. “I’m bringing in great fashions, and people are like, what’s that?'” Bascetta said. “It was really hard making a dollar in Hartford. In New York, I always did really well.” The business shifted to body art and piercing. “Eventually, it just took over, and the clothes got less and less,” he said. He went to New York to get trained, and his was the first licensed shop of its kind in the state.
Bascetta has a love-hate relationship with Hartford and Park Street. “I really love it down here, it’s always exciting,” he said. “And the next minute, like, what am I doing here; I hate it. But I’m still here.” He loves sitting out in front of his shop, talking to people. “It has the potential to be a great artists’ community down here. We just have to get jobs for people and get people working.”
Bascetta was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2001, and has been struggling through treatments that have affected his work schedule. “Now I look forward to coming into work. I really appreciate it,” he said. Friends and family try to get him to go on vacation, but he’s not interested. “I just don’t know how to make that transition. I just take it day by day. I get up, I go to work. I take care of my family and my kids. And that’s what I do.”