Keith McCurdy has inked Justin Bieber on a private jet, Cara Delevingne at the Gansevoort hotel, and Katy Perry while traveling with her on tour. He gave Rihanna the tiny handgun tattoo that some speculated was a message to Chris Brown, her ex whom she’d accused of assault. Vogue has heralded the 37-year-old as “the best in the biz,” and The New York Times has described him as having “transformed the body-art industry.”
McCurdy’s signature style — hyperrealistic black-and-gray micro tattoos that require expert precision — has been widely replicated. Clients wait up to two months for an appointment at one of his two New York City shops, where tattoos can cost into the thousands of dollars. At Bang Bang Tattoo, “You’re not paying for the tattoo,” a former artist’s assistant said. “You’re paying for the brand.”
In an industry known for bold ink, edgy imagery, and an anarchist streak, McCurdy has branded himself as someone who does things differently — what he calls the “right way.” He offers his staff mental-health support. He’s a self-professed “protector of women” who describes his business as a feminist utopia. His shops are bare, modern, and luxurious. In McCurdy’s view, he’s setting the bar for the industry. “I challenge people out there to do a better job than me,” he said. “I’m waiting for who’s competing with us. I don’t see it.”
Yet some former Bang Bang employees said that McCurdy’s meticulously curated image as a thoughtful progressive in a rough-and-tumble industry wasn’t much more than good PR. At Bang Bang, “they just woke-wash everything,” one former employee said.
McCurdy’s shops were rife with old-school issues, ex-employees said — and some new ones, too. Multiple people said it wasn’t unusual to hear higher-ups tell inappropriate jokes or share stories about sexual encounters. Several staffers said McCurdy — better known to them as Bang — could be obsessively controlling, monitoring workers through 15 cameras between his two shops, and pressuring them to speak with his “business manager,” who also happened to be his former therapist, about their personal problems.
Tattoo artists said McCurdy turned cruel and vindictive when they left Bang Bang. One artist who left to start his own shop said McCurdy and a friend shoved him in the street while screaming profanities. In another case, McCurdy went so far as to sue an artist and threaten her immigration status over claims she’d stolen his clients, court documents show. (Many people who spoke with Insider asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from McCurdy.)
In a niche industry like tattooing, it’s impressive that McCurdy was able to go mainstream. He’s name-checked everywhere from GQ to US Weekly. After Rihanna’s gun tattoo took off, “I could kind of control what the press would write,” he said.
But McCurdy’s media savvy has camouflaged a different side to the artist and the business he runs, ex-staffers say. If you cross him, “he’ll do anything to come for you,” the former Bang Bang artist Joice Wang said, adding, “He’s actually a monster.”
For a guy with guns tattooed on each side of his neck (hence the name), McCurdy has a remarkably warm presence. He speaks like a preacher delivering a sermon, ending every story with a moral. He has a red beard and a sturdy frame and likes to wear backward baseball hats and thick-rimmed glasses. He is, by his own admission, “not hip.”
“I like focusing on me and the tasks I have,” he told me at his Grand Street shop in February. “I like answering to the person in the mirror. I like competing with my expectations. It makes me happy.”
McCurdy worked his way up from a tattoo shop outside a trailer park in tiny-town Delaware to a “super grimy” spot near Washington Square Park when he was 19 to New York City institutions like Last Rites Tattoo Theatre and East Side Ink. Along the way he met Rihanna, who wandered into the shop where he was working in 2007 to get a nipple pierced. McCurdy said the singer asked the piercer, Joe Snake, who the best person for a tattoo was, and Snake walked her over to him. McCurdy gave her a line of Sanskrit on her hip, and the two hit it off.
His celebrity roster only grew from there: Swizz Beatz’s ex-wife’s hairstylist introduced him to Beatz; Beatz introduced him to the soccer star Thierry Henry; Henry introduced him to a whole list of New York Knicks players. And Rihanna hooked him up with her famous friends, including Perry and Delevingne. “He was very intelligent,” East Side Ink’s owner, Josh Lord, said. “He met Rihanna at the street shop, and that was just luck. And then he rode that as far as he could.”
Meanwhile, McCurdy kept refining his style, cutting his ink with water to give his tattoos a softer, more delicate look. His work appealed to people intimidated by the bold American-traditional designs at some shops. He posted his tattoos on Myspace, Facebook, and eventually Instagram — a novel thing for tattoo artists, who had typically relied on word of mouth. After Delevingne tagged him in a 2013 photo of the lion tattoo he’d done on her index finger, his Instagram following grew to about 200,000.
“I didn’t want to sit in a tattoo shop and goof around and wait for walk-ins,” McCurdy said. “I wanted to hustle. I wanted to be proactive.” He landed a book deal with HarperCollins for his autobiography, which was published in 2015.
The year before his book came out, McCurdy opened Bang Bang on Broome Street. He hired a creative director to design a minimalist space: blank white walls, poured-concrete floors, and flat-screen TVs. McCurdy made it a point not to hang art (tattoo shops are typically covered in flash sheets, or examples of artists’ work).”I wanted it to be about the art we’re making, not the art that’s been made,” he said. “The space is a reflection of our brand.”
Four years later, McCurdy opened another, even more grandiose shop on Grand Street, with a white marble lobby, a 7-foot-long aquarium, and free Fiji water bottles for every client. The renovation, McCurdy estimated, cost close to $1.8 million.
Bang Bang’s prices matched McCurdy’s expensive taste. Even in the early days, some of its artists’ rates were double, if not triple, those of most shops in the city, where a custom 4-by-4 inch black-and-gray tattoo ran about $300. Prices went up as McCurdy’s A-list clients multiplied: Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, LeBron James. Today, a tattoo by McCurdy starts at about $10,000 for a daylong session and can cost $100,000 for a full sleeve.
Several tattoo artists said Bang Bang used its celebrity clientele to price-gouge average customers, some of whom didn’t know better than to spend hundreds on a simple design. Paul Booth, who owns Last Rites, said that when McCurdy worked for him, he “was more concerned about making a buck than treating his clients right,” and that he ultimately fired McCurdy. (McCurdy said he left on good terms and Booth did not fire him.) Lord, the East Side Ink owner, called McCurdy “the Donald Trump of tattoos,” saying he’s “only interested in his own tacky brand and making money, no matter who else it hurts.”
McCurdy ran his business like a corporation, complete with performance reviews, a mandatory sexual-harassment course, and blood-borne-pathogen training, which included teaching artists how to properly clean their equipment and change out needles. In its 2018 article, the Times wrote that McCurdy “made hiring women a priority and was clear with his staff that tattoo-world misogyny would not be tolerated beneath his roof.”
“My daughter is 9,” he told the outlet. “She has a feminist button on her backpack and she doesn’t really know what it means, but I want her to have the sense that she can do anything she wants with her life.”
Wang, who was hired full time in 2016 and became one of Bang Bang’s most in-demand artists, said McCurdy asked her to sign an artist’s agreement, which included a noncompete clause and an NDA — both anomalies in the tattoo world. The most recent version of the agreement, which is dated 2023 and which McCurdy shared with Insider, includes a clause stating that artists cannot speak negatively about the company, or McCurdy, even anonymously.
Sara Fabel, who worked at Bang Bang as a guest artist for about a week around 2018, said being asked to sign an NDA would be a “huge red flag” because artists should be able to talk about their negative experiences. That McCurdy “has dozens of artists willing to sign shows the power he has in the industry,” she said.
Being tapped to work at Bang Bang can make an artist’s career, turning them into a minor celebrity and bringing in floods of clients. McCurdy picks his staff meticulously, often trawling Instagram for flawless line work or promising beginners.
Wang was an inexperienced 22-year-old tattooer in 2015, when McCurdy first reached out to talk about her work. She was thrilled. At the time, Bang Bang was the “pinnacle” of tattooing, Wang said: “It was a group of eight artists. They ruled the industry.”
Bang Bang staffers spent much of their time together. McCurdy organized Christmas parties, trips to Disney World, and things like paintballing excursions. He even built a designated room in the shop for staffers and clients to smoke weed. “We all became kind of like family,” said Johnny Perez, who worked as an artist’s assistant from 2014 to 2016. “Everybody really got along. You felt kind of special.”
But as they settled in, some former employees said, they started to chafe at the way McCurdy ran things. For instance, if a new hire, like Wang, has fewer than 100,000 Instagram followers, they’re required to let Bang Bang make them a separate work account — that McCurdy and managers then run. “We create the page, we take their photography, we post for them,” McCurdy said, explaining that they “haven’t earned” access to Bang Bang’s 2.4 million followers.
Wang said not being able to run her own work account made her feel muzzled and resulted in fewer dark-skinned clients being showcased on her page, because Bang Bang’s managers thought colored ink didn’t look as good on deep skin tones. McCurdy said that while he wanted to showcase diversity, “the fact of the matter is that more people with lighter skin get tattooed than people with very dark skin.”
McCurdy didn’t just oversee employees’ online presence — he also kept close tabs on them at his shops. Eleven cameras monitor the Grand Street shop, McCurdy said, and four are installed at Broome Street. McCurdy accesses the footage through an app on his phone. “Every zone is filmed,” he said, later adding that the cameras were meant to ensure people were staying on task and to protect his business: “No one’s going to be able to say we mistreated them.”
One former artist’s assistant who worked the front desk from 2015 to 2016 said there was a camera pointed directly at her computer screen. “If I wasn’t working hard enough, or it looked like I wasn’t answering email, or if I looked at my phone for a second, he would yell at me through the camera and say, ‘Get back to work,'” she said of McCurdy, adding that this happened at least five times.
Perez had similar experiences when he was opening the shop. All of a sudden, he would hear McCurdy’s voice coming from a camera near the front desk. “It wasn’t in a serious way,” Perez said, but “it was like, ‘Oh, I’m watching you. Just know that I’m watching.'”
A third former assistant, who worked at Bang Bang for about six months in 2018, said that “there were cameras on us at all times” and that she had told managers she felt as if she were living in the dystopian novel “1984.” At one point she was pulled into a meeting with McCurdy in which he showed her a video clip of her giggling with another employee. She said McCurdy reprimanded her for not staying on task and fired her. “It was just a really bizarre work environment,” she said, adding that McCurdy acted as if she had “done something atrocious.”
McCurdy was an intense boss, but he looked out for his employees, people said. Gladys Ko, a former Bang Bang artist who goes by the moniker Ghinko, said McCurdy was “very fatherly” and “protective” after she came to work one day with a black eye, immediately taking her aside to talk about it.
After that, Ko said, McCurdy would sometimes “pull me into a meeting to check up on me,” or “hang out with me for the entire day just to make sure I was OK.” She credits McCurdy with being “her rock” during a hard time.
McCurdy has spoken openly about his own emotional struggles. He went through an especially difficult time in 2013, when he opened the first Bang Bang shop on the Lower East Side with his now-estranged father, Vincent Lacava. (McCurdy was raised mostly by his mother, Susan McCurdy, and grandparents in Claymont, Delaware; his parents had him as teenagers and separated when he was young.) Lacava, a video game designer, invested $50,000 in the shop, but McCurdy says he was an “abusive” boss who cursed at employees and drank on the job. McCurdy said he offered to buy Lacava out. “His response was: ‘Fuck you. I own your name. I’ll run it without you,'” McCurdy recalled. The two took their fight to the trademark office, and McCurdy won. His dad shuttered the shop. (Lacava said he and McCurdy “clashed” over the business and eventually parted ways but had “very different views on what happened at the shop.”)
Despite the win, McCurdy spiraled. He was tattooing out of his Brooklyn apartment, and his marriage was falling apart. That’s when his wife introduced him to Karen Bridbord, a psychologist and former in-house coach for JPMorgan Chase. She helped the couple with their marriage and began working with McCurdy separately as his executive coach. “He’s a thought leader,” Bridbord said. “That’s one of the things that drew me to him.”
McCurdy ended up hiring Bridbord as Bang Bang’s de facto head of HR; he refers to her as his “business manager.” She’s still his executive coach but is no longer his therapist. Bridbord said she’s employed as a consultant and wasn’t present at the shops every day.
Bridbord said that staffers exhibiting a change in behavior, like showing up late or “looking disheveled,” would be flagged and sent her way. After talking to them, she would determine the best course of action, whether that be referring them to an outside therapist or recommending they attend rehab.
Bridbord said these one-on-one conversations were confidential. However, three people said a camera monitored the back room where they took place. “Bang has access to these cameras, and something that’s supposed to be between me and you can easily be seen by him,” Perez said. “So there was no real sense of security.”
McCurdy confirmed that he could access footage of his employees’ conversations with Bridbord. He said he’d sometimes “demand” that people speak with Bridbord, adding that her “recommendation has to be followed through if you want to keep your job.”
Some staffers felt as though McCurdy foisted Bridbord on them. Georgia Grey, a Bang Bang tattoo artist who’s worked there for eight years, said she thought it was smart for McCurdy to have Bridbord available, especially for immigrants adjusting to a new place. But when he and managers “sicced” Bridbord on Grey after learning Grey was pregnant, she said, she felt overwhelmed and upset because she hadn’t been ready to share the news.
During Wang’s annual performance review in 2017, she told McCurdy she was struggling with her dad’s imprisonment and having to support her family financially. He insisted she talk to Bridbord six separate times. “I don’t know if you realize this, but we aren’t just your bosses. We’re your family,” McCurdy told Wang, according to a transcript of the review he read aloud. “I can see you’re sad. I want to help you. So let me, please, and let Karen.”
Wang pushed back, according to the transcript, telling McCurdy that Bridbord was “a stranger.”
“No she’s not, Joice,” McCurdy replied. “She’s not trying to figure out what drug to put you on. She’s trying to figure out how to help.”
Several staffers said they were uncomfortable speaking with Bridbord because she’d been McCurdy’s therapist and still worked closely with him as his executive coach.
When staffers did hear lewd jokes or comments about sex at the shops, there was no formal way for them to address it. Four female ex-employees, who worked at Bang Bang from 2015 to 2017, said that while McCurdy was known for his sarcastic sense of humor, he sometimes went overboard.
One of these women, a former artist’s assistant, said that on several occasions McCurdy taped a printout of a penis to her back without her knowledge, photos of which were obtained by Insider. He’d “be like, ‘Good job,’ and pat me on the back, and then I would walk around for however long with that on my back,” she said, adding that this happened when the shop was full of clients. Another time, she said, McCurdy taped a penis to her headset “so it looked like a dick was pointing into my mouth.” The pranks made the assistant feel belittled and humiliated. (McCurdy said that he had no memory of the first incident and that the second would never happen.)
Another artist’s assistant, who was 19 when she was hired, said McCurdy once commented that her breasts were “distracting” and said she needed to “put a bra on” under her sweater dress. The remark made her feel distraught and “disgusting,” she said. “Looking back, I’m like, ‘That is so incredibly wrong.'” Another employee said the assistant told them about the incident right after it happened. (“There is no history or evidence to support this accusation,” McCurdy said.)
McCurdy spoke openly about his sexual encounters, the women recalled. One said he told her about how a woman’s breasts were so big that they were “basically bouncing on top of him” during sex. McCurdy said it was “possible” he’d had a conversation about sex in Bang Bang’s early days but had no memory of doing so.
This kind of behavior extended to other Bang Bang employees. Three women said that Edward Borew, a Bang Bang manager who’s McCurdy’s cousin, talked publicly about sleeping with sex workers and made sexual comments at work. (Borew said the statement was “false” and all three women were “disgruntled ex-employees.”)
Two of the female employees said a Bang Bang tattoo artist known as JonBoy flashed his penis at them while they were working. (McCurdy fired JonBoy in 2016 for doing something he called “egregious and unacceptable” but rehired him about a year later after JonBoy started seeing a therapist, as recommended by Bridbord. JonBoy left the shop permanently in 2018.)
One former assistant said that a manager, Matthew Ganser, made her clean up a condom he said he’d used and left on the couch. She said the incident earned Ganser the nickname Magnum Mac. Wang recalled the incident and said Ganser would frequently talk about hooking up with women at the shop. (Both McCurdy and Ganser said the nickname came from a meme, and McCurdy said he has no memory of a condom-cleaning incident, which Ganser called a “fabricated lie.” Ganser added that he never spoke about hooking up with women at the shop.)
Three of the women said they didn’t speak up about the behavior at the time because they were young and because crude humor was a given in the industry — to the point that putting up with it became a rite of passage. “I don’t think he fully understands what it means to respect women,” Wang said of McCurdy. “I believe he believes he’s an advocate for women. But only because he’s so misinformed.”
Inevitably, artists leave the Bang Bang family. But if they don’t do it on McCurdy’s terms, there can be consequences. “I’m a carer of people,” McCurdy said. “I just am authentically. I give a shit until I don’t — until someone crosses the line.”
Two former employees said McCurdy was known to use a burner Instagram account to troll tattooers, which he denies. Some former employees said they were afraid to speak out against McCurdy, saying it wasn’t worth risking their finances or mental health.
I believe he believes he’s an advocate for women. But only because he’s so misinformed.Joice WangIn 2017, Wang asked McCurdy for a raise. He turned her down, she said, so she quit. Soon after, she noticed that every photo on her work Instagram account, which had more than 110,000 followers, had been wiped without her knowledge. Bang Bang then gave the account, with Wang’s followers intact, to a different artist. (McCurdy confirmed this practice.)
For Wang, losing her followers and her entire body of work was like losing her livelihood. “I felt like the floor had fallen beneath me,” she said. “There was no way for these people to find me again.”
Wang said she took to her personal Instagram — which had some 2,000 followers — to vent her frustrations and ask people to report the work account. McCurdy then sent her a text threatening legal action. “I will remind you that we have a legally binding NDA signed by you that forbids you from speaking negatively about my company,” reads the text, which Insider viewed.
Wang thought it was fair to honor the appointments clients had booked with her at Bang Bang, offering to tattoo them elsewhere. But McCurdy didn’t see it that way. He called a shop in Sweden where Wang was planning to work as a guest artist and told them she was a thief and to cancel her booking. (The Swedish shop owner ultimately allowed Wang to tattoo there.)
Ganser, the Bang Bang manager, also sent Wang a text comparing her behavior to her father’s, who was in prison. “Just like your dad,” he wrote. “Look where he’s at.”
Another artist left Bang Bang in 2016 to open his own shop and offered his coworkers a chance to join him. When McCurdy discovered this, he called the artist and told him to watch his back.
“I threatened to come and smack him in front of all his employees,” McCurdy confirmed to Insider.
A few months later, the artist was walking to his new shop, which was near Bang Bang, when someone shoved him from behind. When he turned around, the artist said, he saw McCurdy “screaming at me being like, ‘Hey, fuck you, you little piece of shit!'” McCurdy confirmed the run-in but said he “never put my hands on him.”
In 2019, one of Bang Bang’s most sought-after artists, the Turkish tattooer Eva Karabudak, left to start her own shop in Brooklyn. A few days later, McCurdy sued Karabudak, calling her “disloyal” and “dishonest” and accusing her of “surreptitiously” stealing his clients, the suit says. He asked for a minimum of almost $154,000 in damages.
McCurdy had hired Karabudak in 2017 and paid nearly $30,000 for her visa and health-insurance costs, according to the complaint. In return, McCurdy alleged, Karabudak signed an agreement to work for him for at least three years. In an affidavit dated May 2019, Karabudak said she’d made no such promise and McCurdy had retaliated against her for not signing an artist’s agreement that included a noncompete clause. He “got extremely angry, and in an unprofessional manner, raised his voice, used profanity, threatened to terminate my employment and cancel my Visa,” the suit says. “Although I felt intimidated and pressured by him, I did not sign.” The case was dismissed in February 2020.
Even tattoo artists who’ve never worked with McCurdy have landed in his crosshairs. In March 2019, a prominent New York City tattooer commented on a meme making fun of Bang Bang’s extravagant pricing. McCurdy, through Bang Bang’s official account, fired back in the comments, calling her a “bitch” and saying she was a bad tattooer with “shit lines.” He also DM’d her, writing, “Holler at me when you learn how to tattoo bitch.”
“I already knew he was very fragile and had a pretty disturbed ego, but that whole situation proved it,” the New York City tattooer said. “I felt like he exposed himself in the most wonderful way.”
Nearly a decade after opening the first Bang Bang shop, McCurdy still sees himself as a trailblazer. Most recently, he launched a formula called Magic Ink that can turn tattoos “on” and “off.” He debuted the ink last September in GQ, where he gushed about the marvels of “tech tattoos.” The first vial sold as an NFT for roughly $164,000, according to the magazine.
McCurdy is vigilant about maintaining his reputation, as well as that of his business. In a March 20 Instagram post, he addressed complaints that his famous micro tattoos fade and blur too quickly, packing the caption with phrases like “macrophages” and “particle density” and ending it with a cheeky, “thanks for playing.” When I met him in February, he came armed with hundreds of pages of documents — “evidence,” he called it — all highlighted and color-coded. I gestured at the pile, wondering aloud what made him so quick to be defensive.
“I don’t know, man,” he replied. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown, I guess.”
The truth is, guys like McCurdy are the norm in tattooing. Because mainstream US tattoo culture largely stems from male-dominated fringe groups like bikers, sailors, and gang members, the industry has been slow to evolve, clinging to the crudeness and bravado that defined it in the first place. “A lot of artists feel concerned about tattooing losing a sense of edginess,” a well-known New York City artist said. “I see that being responsible for excusing a lot of bad behavior because it gets written off as being authentic or being tough or being true to some imagined original spirit of tattooing.”
The difference is that McCurdy says all the right things — at least in public. From his perspective, he’s a feminist who cares deeply about his employees’ mental health. In a January email to Insider, he told me he respected and safeguarded women. He’s doing new things — creating structures, setting rules — that are supposed to protect people.
After spending close to eight hours with McCurdy myself, it’s clear he believes in his mission. “The background of me being screwed by family, which is something no one ever expects to go through, is why everything here is done the right way,” he told me. But even as I spoke with him, it felt as if he was talking to an audience. I could hear him crafting the narrative he wanted to see on the page — a narrative that he’s been telling himself, and the world, for at least a decade.
McCurdy isn’t wrong to believe that tattooing as a whole should evolve. Yet in trying to push things in the right direction, he may have created as many problems as he’s solved. That, and he’s not exactly open to feedback, despite modeling his business after his own funhouse mirror version of corporate America.
“I know God picked me to do this job, so I do it,” he told me. “I know who we are, I know where we’re going. I know what we’re doing. And there’s nothing anybody can say in the world that’s going to stop our progress.”