How A Legend Built His Legacy
Big Joel MacDonald is Long Island prominence. With over a 15-year career span working with the greats and tattooing icons like 50 Cent, he is the epitome of the grind. But in the past, he wasn‘t certain if he’d ever get to this point. And now he’s using his good fortune to uplift the community that he holds dear…
Text message signatures are no longer a thing. But for Big Joel MacDonald, none of that matters. At the end of each blue bubble (or green for you non-conforming degenerates) the Long Island tattoo artists signs off each message all the same.
“WFF.” World Famous Forever.
Not to come for any other form of what today could only be translated as a “fandom” but there’s a soulful reason why Big Joel goes so hard for a loveable group of personalities that is World Famous. And that reason is gratitude.
This passion is skin-deep For Big Joel, whose “forever” seemed a naive dream when in the past, he wasn’t certain he would even make it out of his youth.
Tying Dead Ends
It’s called 2-10. A psychological warfare that’s supposed to help keep you on your toes by actually having your back against the wall – or a car or fence, anything.
The neighborhood “game” was a trial among friends whose goal was to make sure that you remained vigilant. If you weren’t, well…
“If you weren’t paying attention to what was going on around you, [they] were allowed to punch you in the chest,” Big Joel said.
While the organized roughness was intended to teach him to be aware of his surroundings, it’s also a scenic projection of the reality Big Joel faced on what he describes as the "dead end street in Long Island."
His father died when he was only seven. Poverty. Gangs. So much exposure and adult-like pain to a young boy who grew up on a strip of land connected by bridges and tunnels to the mainland. Until age 27, each day was solely about doing what you must to thrive. That is until he literally took his future into his own hands.
Big Joel knew that he liked art. At 27, he already had so many different jobs and even owned a chimney company, but just never had the passion for it. But something he’d been doing for a while helped him discover a medium to mend his passion with purpose. “I had a guy that I’d been getting tattoos from for a couple of years, and he asked if I was interested,” he said. “And I said, ‘yeah, I would love to.’”
Getting into the world of tattooing often means going through an apprenticeship, where you learn the ropes from a seasoned tattoo artist. In most cases, artists often start by observing their mentor, assisting in the studio, deal with clients, and gradually progress to hands-on practice with tattoo machines and techniques. It’s the break of a lifetime for most people, and Big Joel was no different. It’s what makes his next move ill advised, but totally stellar.
“During our session [my mentor] went to the bathroom and when he came back, I was tattooing myself,” he recalls. It went over ‘bout as well as Edward Scissorhands crashing a balloon animal-making course.
"He was very upset with me and kicked me out of the store,” Big Joel said.
Still, there must have been something within Big Joel because he received a call from his friend and mentor the very next day. “He called me and said, ‘obviously this is something you want to do,’” he remembers. Big Joel wasted no time.
"I sold everything I had, got some tattoo stuff and I was on my way.”
Cosigned by a Fellow Legend
And Big Joel soared. As he puts it, he went from somebody doing very negative things in his neighborhood to being a positive influence. He would go on to build a strong bond with his mentor, work in many shops and learn a ton. But ultimately, it was a prominent shop in Long Island, with nine locations to boot, that would completely transform his career.
“I always knew of Tattoo Lou’s,” he said. “Somebody from [the shop] reached out to me, and from day one they treated me with respect.”
World Famous crash course –
Tattoo Lou’s is where ink all began. And Big Joel was with the larger-than-life personality to make it happen. Big Joel worked for Lou roughly six years before World Famous came to fruition.
“Working for [Lou Rubino] as the [founder] of World Famous ink, I had a lot of exposure to his research and development. During that process, he would bring me and other people that I worked with pigments and asked what we thought of it.”
Lou, by then a well-known figure throughout the tattooing community on the east, treated him as an equal. Exposed to the legacy created by him and his father, Lou Sr., Lou wound up being the guiding light to steer Big Joel to Long Island prominence. But it wasn’t just Lou’s position. It was the level of respect he showed to everyone.
“He became my new mentor, in tattoo and in life. I look up to him in every way,” he says of Lou. “Any time I’m presented with an issue, the first thing I think is what would Lou do? I follow that pretty closely and its done me very well thus far.
”So, what exactly did Lou do?
He made Big Joel one of the first Pro Team members of his new tattoo ink company, World Famous.
He and Big Joel developed an ink set called Blood Works, a way to encapsulate Big Joels signature red-tinted style.
And finally, he’d provide Big Joel with the resources to purchase one of Tattoo Lou’s, the shop where he apprenticed and only a few blocks from where he grew up, and rebrand it as his own shop named Notorious Tattoo.
“I never actually wanted to own my own shop,” Big Joel admits. But with the take-off of World Famous, and the need to hold down the fort while Lou dedicated his efforts to enhancing the brand, Big Joel decided that no one can rep Lou’s legacy more than himself.
“I went to Lou and was like, ‘listen man, I’d like to inquire more about buying one of your shops,’” he recalls. Not only did the ink mogul agree – he helped him get a loan and guided him in his new role as an entrepreneur.
“No one’s ever believed in me like that. I don’t think he’ll ever understand I’m literally living my dream because of him.”
Now, the little boy with his back against the wall has the world at his fingertips and is fully respected as a Long Island hero.
“I was given an opportunity. And instead of slinging drugs, I was slinging inks.”
Big Joel’s humility is so poignant, his charity so vast, that is seems futile to list it all the ways he continues to pay it forward. From hosting a food bank for Thanksgiving and another in April – because hunger knows no season – to distributing 2,000 toys and 6,000 games from GameStop during the holidays and paying heating and electric bills for those facing financial hardships. Big Joel's commitment to his community is unwavering. Notorious is not merely a space for tattoos; it's a beacon where the community knows they can find support.
According to Big Joel, when it comes to opportunity all that matters is taking the first step, like purchasing Tattoo Lou’s. It was up to him to do the rest. “The best way [to be successful] is to be selfless. Being grateful means more than anything. I don’t need the best of everything. Being blessed today requires you to be a blessing to others.”
In the heart of Long Island, Big Joel MacDonald's transformation from a troubled past to a legendary talent is evident not just in his skills and the respect he generates, but also in the indelible mark he leaves on the lives of those around him. And he couldn’t be more grateful to those that opened that door and supported him along the way; people not only like his beloved mother, but his biggest cheerleader and amazing wife of 20 years, Heidi. He says that without her, none of this would be possible.
“She is the one true person on this earth that truly has my back no matter what. [She is] my strength when I’m weak and vice versa.”
For Big Joel, family and community helped build his legacy, and that’s how it’s going to stay.
“I’ve been with World Famous since day one and I’m going to be there forever. There’s no substitute for me.”
Passion. Family. Forever.
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