“Hey! Do you want to come over on Wednesday,” asked my friend Shelby. She is my neighbor that lives on the 9th floor; I live on the 10th. “I am making lasagna and Jozlin is getting his tattoo worked on.”
“Um, yeah! Do you think the tattooer will want to tattoo me? And then, let me interview him at the same time?”
“I can ask.”
“That’d be sweet. I was going to go do that this week.”
“Do what? Get tattooed?”
“Yeah. And if I don’t have to leave the building to do it, even better.”
“I don’t see why he couldn’t. I’ll call you.”
Before Shelby had stopped me at the pool over the weekend, I was narrowing down tattoo shops to visit. I felt I needed more ink, but mostly I wanted to interview a tattooer while he tattooed me. Thanks to her, I no longer have to leave my building for this to happen. She’s having a tattooer come over to her house, just a present for her boyfriend that I’m totally going to invade on.
There is lasagna in the oven. Everyone is chatting around the kitchen bar while Shelby pours wine. There are moments in life that feel scripted. As soon as the doorbell rings, I know it’s Joe and I feel like I am in a movie.
Joe is skinny and smells like Marlboro Reds. He has longer brown hair that is pulled back into a ponytail, but not pulled all the way through. He is no stranger to wearing ponies. He is wearing jeans, a black T-shirt (that he later tells me is from his favorite tattoo shop), cowboy boots and a short, scruffy mustache that is holding dearly to a beard. It appears that his body has tattoos on top of tattoos, probably because he has no where else on his body to put them. His body is covered in ink.
“Hi, I am Joe.”
“I’m Jana, nice to meet you.” We shake hands and I look nervously around the room. “So you’re cool with me interviewing you while you work.”
“Yeah. It’s cool.”
“What kind of tattoo are you thinking of getting?”
I show Joe pictures of a small bird that I’ve envisioned on my wrist for the past few months. As I explain the details, I cannot believe the words that are coming out of my mouth. There was one point in my life that I shunned tattoos; I’ve also never been a big fan of birds. Yet, today it feels right. So I am convincing a stranger to make it permenant on my body.
“So what do you think?”
“How about I draw something up for you? I prefer to free-hand everything.”
“Um, sure. You’re the expert.” The idea that I cannot see exactly what will be tattooed on my body before it is makes me uncomfortable, and yet confident that I am making the right decision. I don’t even recognize myself anymore.
“I’ll take care of you, don’t worry. I’m going to go set-up and smoke a cigarette. And then after that, we’ll get started.”
I watch him walk out onto the balcony. He pulls out his cigarettes, lights one and takes a long drag. “I can still run,” I think. But I don’t; I drink wine instead.
Jana: What am I nervous about? Um, just that it looks nice.
Joe: [Laughs] I have my portfolio in the car that I can go get for you.
No, it’s cool.
Just because you’ve seen a couple of my tattoos, doesn’t mean anything. Do you want me to go get my portfolio?
Are you sure?
Positive. It’s just that it’s forever …
You could have this gone in a month if you wanted.
I heard that is terribly painful.
[Laughs] I didn’t say it was going to be easy; I said it was going to be possible.
Once I’m ready to commit, I can commit … I think.
You know, I’ve been tattooing since ’95. And there is something to be said about the experience—as you see it happening. Even if you want a little tattoo, it’s yours. I like to draw them on personally, but that’s just me. It took me a long time to be comfortable with my artistic ability. So where were you thinking about getting it?
Right here. [I point to my wrist.]
So, I’m gonna start drawing it as big as I think we should go, and then I’ll let you tell me when to go smaller. [He begins to draw.] How’s that?
I like it.
Which way do you want to fly?
I want to fly towards the inside, like this. I’ve left the picture there on the floor for you.
Oh good. It’s like you’ve done this before.
Not like this, this is my first in-house experience.
Is that what’s making you nervous?
No, but what are the benefits of tattooing in someone’s home? Besides the obvious—comfort.
That is the No. 1 thing … and it’s more personal. You know? I personally have been conflicted the whole time I’ve been doing it because fundamentally, I was taught this is not what you’re suppose to do. You’re supposed to tattoo in a shop. But when you consider how many shops there are and the experience you get as a human being going into them, I think this is a more positive experience.
So is it going to hurt?
Yeah. [Laughs] Do you want me to lie to you and say no?
I didn’t think so. There would go the initial part of our trust right there.
True. Is there any spot on the body that is more sensitive than others?
There are a lot of places that are sensitive—your wrist is a good one. The wrist is tricky but it won’t be any different than this one. [He points to my other tattoo.]
Great. So I choose sensitive areas?
So far, you’re picking good ones. However, there are more sensitive places than those—that I can assure you.
It’s probably not cool to talk about the pain of tattooing, huh?
That was the funny thing about working with the old guys in tattooing—and I have worked with a lot of old guys. [They would say] in the old days, a lot of times the people they were tattooing were going off to war. And hell, they might not even come home. So what was a tattoo? Not pain. And were they going to lose face to all those sailors? No.
You are going to be extra careful when using that needle, right? It’s permanent.
Um yeah, that’s the idea.
[Laughs] These must be the questions everyone asks right before they get tattooed?
Yes and no.
What is the most frequently asked question?
Will it hurt? So I guess yeah. Or where is the worst place to get it? My favorite answer to that has always been “prison.”
[Laughs] Yes, I can imagine how that could be bad. What is the most frequently requested tattoo?
It changes over the years.
What part of the body is best for ink?
The skin. [Laughs]
Well then what place do you enjoy tattooing the most?
That’s a hard question. There are places that are tricky. But what’s my favorite place to tattoo? [Pauses] That’s a tough question, maybe the outside of a calf or the outside of an arm. The inside of the arm can be fun because the person can lie down and get comfortable. Then, it’s like I’m not even working on a human being—but of course I am and I know that.
What is the strangest tattoo you’ve ever done?
That’s another question I get. First, you have to ask: what is strange? By request, I’ve tattooed a body suit [this is from the chest and below] on this guy of humans with horse heads having sex. They were like centaurs but reversed—very graphic images, a super colorful fantasy. He is still having more work done to it.
Doesn’t that make you wonder about his personal life?
Yeah, he told me where it came from. You learn a lot about people’s personalities with tattooing, even if you don’t want to. It’s like I am a keeper of the secrets. The cool part is you get to hear this stuff. The uncool part is that I have to keep that secret; I have to hold on to that weird-ass stuff.
[Laughs] That’s totally valid.
[He finishes drawing on my arm.] OK, you are going to have to trust me. I know you can’t see the details but this is what it’s going to look like. The marker is much thicker than it will be.
OK. I just want it to be dainty and cute—anything but hardcore.
You got it. I promise.
It’s just that I’m not hardcore.
I picked up on that. Stars … stars are the most requested tattoo. You had asked earlier.
Right, I have some of those. Does it feel powerful to permeate your art onto someone’s body?
It’s gratifying, but a fleeting gratification. Sometimes, people don’t realize what I go through to tattoo them. The art—nine times out of ten—isn’t ever really appreciated.
Like they don’t know what you’re capable of?
That’s a great way to put it. But the average person doesn’t appreciate art, that’s where it is fleeting. It’s wonderful when you can help people. You know what I mean? There is that aspect; you can see it on television. Fundamentally, I absolutely hate that they are putting tattooing on television because they portray it as something it is not; they marginalize it.
What is tattooing to you then?
It’s my life. It’ everything; it’s my history; it’s something I want to be a part of. I get joy from putting tattoos on people, whether it be a little baby sparrow or a whole front. I think it deserves the same amount of energy and appreciation from me. If not, then I’m not going to sell you short … for forever. If I don’t like it, then I won’t do it. That’s another advantage to this kind of environment for tattooing. I have more—and less—control. I have less control over the environment, but I have more control over the tattooing. I can walk away. When you work for somebody, you don’t have that option. And I don’t necessarily mean walk away but rather guide you to a better tattoo. Ultimately, it’s my job to make sure you have a tattoo that looks good today, tomorrow and 20-years from now. There shouldn’t be any regrets. And if there is, it isn’t because I didn’t give you 100% of me.
So have you turned down people?
Yeah, it’s the luxury of what I do. And if it’s something I can’t turn down, then it’s more money. The price of your tattoo is easily determined by your attitude. People seem to forget that and I don’t understand why—I can charge whatever I want. [He starts the gun.]
Some people won’t do little tattoos.
Some people have big egos don’t they? [He starts tattooing.]
How did you first get involved with tattooing?
Getting tattooed; and then being at the right place at the right time. I think being nice helps. I got involved in tattooing through photography, another art form I truly love. I took pictures of someone being tattooed once—I was doing mostly photography at that point in my life—and I brought the tattooer some pictures. He didn’t work a camera very well. So he asked me to do it and in exchange he taught me how to tattoo. Looking back, he mostly taught me what not to do because he gave me a lot of ugly tattoos.
What should people be weary of when getting tattooed?
Obviously, there is the sanitation aspect of tattooing. But in today’s world, honestly, everything I do with regards to sanitation is a lot more for me than you. I know that sounds like a shitty thing for me to say, but it’s what I have to do everyday. I have to act like everybody I tattoo has Hepatitis. I get tested every year to make sure I don’t.
You know? Do your research and find a tattooer that you trust. If for any reason you don’t feel comfortable, walk the hell away. You are the one in control. You have the ultimate veto over your body, not me.
What did you practice on when you first started?
Friends I don’t talk to anymore … and myself. I tattooed myself first.
Where do tattooers go to get tattoos?
Other tattooers they respect. I’ve gotten tattooed all over the country. How are you doing?
I’m good. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. I don’t feel a thing. [Laughs] Are you doing OK really? I feel bad now.
[Laughs] I’m good. How can you tell a tattoo artist may be inexperienced?
That’s a hard one. They all think they are the biggest, baddest thing out there. An old-timer told me, “People are going to tell you that you are a legend and that you are the best tattooer … blah, blah, blah … but the second you believe that shit you need to put your machine down and go home.”
Are you a saran wrap and Vaseline kind of guy or …
Yes. That’s a weird-ass question to ask. [Laughs] But an honest question for a tattooer.
Why Saran wrap?
Saran wrap creates its own environment. You’re leaving with a sterile wound and [by wrapping it in saran wrap] I trap it in its own sterile environment. Your white blood cells rush to the surface of the skin and so they are trapped there; and it’s healing in its own environment. When you clean that off 4-5 hours later, you’re cleaning off what mostly would have formed a scab. And so your body heals easier. If you take care of it after that your usually good to go.
What wrecks tattoo?
What about the sun?
Yeah the sun. It’s all how you take care of yourself.
How many dollars of ink do you have on your body?
Dollars? Oh boy, that’s a good one—and tricky. I’ve traded a lot of tattoos with friends. I’d say more than $10,000 and less than $30,000. But that doesn’t count travel time, travel cost, friendships and relationships lost …
Yeah. It’s all or nothing.
What could break up a friendship?
Money and women—the same things that breaks up most friendships.
How long will you tattoo?
Until they take the tattoo machine out of my dead hand. [The tattoo session has ended.] So what do you think?
[I shake my head yes.]
Pretty, isn’t it? Now, we can keep going with him all the way around like this …
No-no! [Laughs] At least not yet.
* Interview Date: 5/28/08