Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink
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About the author
Jeff Johnson has been tattooing professionally for eighteen years and is the co-owner of the Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, the oldest tattoo shop in Portland, Oregon. This is his first book.
From the Hardcover edition.
As the proprietor of the legendary Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, in Portland, Oregon, Jeff Johnson has inked gangbangers, age-defying moms, and sociopaths; he’s defused brawls and tended delicate egos. In Tattoo Machine, Johnson illuminates a world where art, drama, and commerce come together in highly entertaining theater. A tattoo shop is no longer a den of outcasts and degenerates, but a place where committed and schooled artists who paint on living canvases develop close bonds and bitter rivalries, where tattoo legends and innovators are equally revered, and where the potential for disaster lurks in every corner.
Friday Is Monday
From the outside at 9:00 am the tattoo shop always reminds me of a fun-house curio shack lifted out of an old Eastern European circus. The inside is dark behind the permanently lit neon in the windows. There’s a sort of crouched, architectural discontinuity about the place, like an enormous mechanical bullfrog or a giant that just lumbered out of the fog. It seems truly weird just sitting there.
Like a lot of tattoo artists, I work weekends, so Friday is my Monday. I unlock the back door (the keys to the front were lost in the distant past and for purely superstitious reasons never replaced) and go in, careful not to spill my coffee into my bulging art bag, as I have so many times. After flicking on the overhead lights, I make my initial survey.
I can tell most of what transpired the night before without reading any of the notes left for me or looking through the incident log. The flash on the wall looks slightly out of place. My eyes wander over the surface and gradually focus on two slightly crooked sheets. That would be Neal’s work. I make a mental note to bitch him out later, the first on the day’s list. When the list grows to five, I usually start writing.
It’s a summer Friday, and the morning is already warm and bright, with only a high smear of cloud to give the sky some character. A total bloodbath is imminent. I glance at the clock and then go into the back to check the list Billy Jack no doubt left last night.
Billy generally takes stock at the end of his shift, as does Patrick. No matter how tired they are when they’re finally done, at the end of their shift (often four or five in the morning) they usually glance over the supplies so that I don’t encounter any surprises. I find that we’re well stocked, but there are some long-range-forecast items I need to deal with. Medium ink caps, thermo fax paper, and the hand wipes Patrick prefers. We must have had a run of fat people this week, because Billy has noted that we need to place an order for another two dozen XXL T-shirts. Our current screen-printing guy is good in that he lets me place orders of this size and delivers a quality product, but bad in that it often takes him a long time and many reminders to get him off his ass. Calling him is the first thing I do.
Next is my schedule, a red leather-bound book in my art bag. I fish it out and sit down at the desk to look it over. Booked solid. First up is this cryptic notation: “11:00 two girls, they have art, sm, 20, Kim(?).” Translation: two females between eighteen and twenty-one who already have their designs, which both described as “small,” although people generally have varying definitions of size, so I have to be prepared for anything. One of them left a twenty-dollar deposit at some point, and “Kim” may have had a fresh tongue piercing, a crappy cell phone, or a lisp, because there is some question as to whether it’s actually her name. It’s also possible that they were referred by a customer named Kim.
Next is one-thirty. Good. Time to ram down some food in there somewhere so I can drink when I get home. The one-thirty is Dan, the marine dude with the demolition sleeve. All the hard stuff is done on this one, and I’m just putting in the gray wash in the background. There is a notation, “11,” next to his name: the size of the shader I plan on using. So no huge planes left. So far so good.
Last appointment up, after the three hours slotted for Dan’s arm, is a bummer for two reasons. The day seems a little less bright. Notation: “4:30 Lindsey, finish, pd, rst.” This woman is a real crab cake, as I recall. I’m coloring in something that has already been paid for and can be certain of getting stiffed on the tip. The tattoo is also on her wrist. I try never to book similar body parts back to back, but here I’ve done just that, probably just to get this bitch out of my hair. So four hours plus spent hunched in the same position. Going to be murder on my lower back. Chances are very good the first two girls will be getting theirs in the center of their lower backs. I can only hope.
Out of curiosity I flip the page over to Saturday to make sure all the drawings are done and in place in my art bag’s active file. I notice that my two o’clock tomorrow is the aerobics-sculpted lesbian real estate developer getting the fire filled in on her absolutely bald crotch piece. I guess I’ll have to find time to beat off before that one. Professional detachment and all that. Sigh.
Next I check my supplies. Everything is set, but I decide to toss some extra liners in the ultrasonic cleaner just in case. One of my appointments could cancel and then I could swoop in on the easy walk-ins. I might be able to knock that last one out really fast, as I am already tempted to do, and then help Neal bleed some of the pressure out of the lobby so the night shifters don’t arrive to find themselves utterly buried. I check the supply of the enzyme we add to the ultrasonic fluid as I pour some in with my tubes. Good for another month. I add it to Billy’s long-range-forecast list.
It’s nine thirty. I go out front and light up a cigarette. Across the street there’s a flower-dappled beater of an RV parked in front of the East Bank Lofts. The flowers are the kind you put in the bottom of the bathtub for traction. There’s a woman on the roof of the RV who appears naked at first glance, except for a pink hat with a bright blue feather. I squint to get a better look. She’s dressed in tight tangerine. An interesting omen.
Rick, our crazy guy and my part-time assistant, got stabbed pretty bad in the lobby about three weeks ago. Cops, ambulances, the whole nine yards. He had to have surgery on his arm to reconnect some tendons and is just now coming around the shop again. I’ll have to find something for him to do before he rolls in around noon. Maybe I’ll set him up to spy on the tangerine woman, divine the meaning of the bathtub flowers, and generally discern her place in the cosmos. He loves that kind of thing.
I have the door propped open as I smoke, and the sunlight is streaming into the lobby. I check to see if the vast bloodstain in the gray carpet has dissipated. Amazingly, it appears to be almost gone. I guess our customers have been grinding away at it, tracking minute flecks of Rick’s dried blood around the city. I have no idea what that carpet is made of, but I’m repeatedly amazed at its stain-repelling resilience. We’re all glad Rick’s going to be OK physically. He’s a lunatic the shop has adopted and often believes he’s Batman. The long-term psychological effects of popping his Batman bubble remain to be seen.
At least that mess seems to have resolved itself for now. There are only two other potential crises demanding my attention, two hot topics to keep on my radar screen through the day. I’m sort of on the fence about both of them.
Two days ago I was sitting on my front porch smoking a cigarette when a bald, middle-aged man walked cautiously up the steps. He was wearing a beige jacket in the eighty-degree heat, and there was a kingly glint in his eyes. Cop.
“You Jeff Johnson?”
“Yep.” There was no point in denying it. I was sitting next to my own front door. I cast a mental net over the last few weeks to dredge up the trouble spots. Nothing to attract the attention of the police unless they were here about Rick.
He swept his jacket open to reveal a highly polished badge clipped to his belt.
“Federal marshal. You know Dave?”
Flashing the badge must have been a cue of some kind. Two groups of feds approached from either side. In less than ten seconds there were, count them, seven grim, sweaty, overdressed guys staring down at me. Three more waited at the foot of the stairs. Two more flanked the house.
While Detective Hard-ass interrogated me about Dave, an old friend of mine, the rest of them gave me that cop X-ray look, as though they could read my every thought and did not like what they were seeing. One big jackass kept his hand on his gun holster the entire time, in case I decided to mount an attack with my mechanical pencil. He really seemed eager to go Wyatt Earp, and in fact my mirror neurons were sending me the signal to take him first by jabbing him right in one of his muddy eyeballs.
When was the last time I saw Dave? What was he wearing? Who was he with? Did he have any facial hair? Of course, if I lied I was in “serious trouble.”
Naturally, their ham-fisted interrogation went nowhere. I didn’t have any answers, and I didn’t want to get drawn into any long-winded lines of speculation. Finally, Wyatt Earp chimed in with his bright idea.
“Why don’t you call him on his cell phone and set up a meeting, tell him you have a little something for him?” Like I was a drug dealer.
“Nope.” Man, that guy was fucking stupid. The baron in the beige jacket gave him a “shut up” look. Even high on smack and in full-blown zombie mode (an unfortunately likely scenario), poor Dave would have understood instantly that such a call meant that I was surrounded by an army of feds and that he’d better drop whatever he was doing and blow town. It struck me that these guys probably didn’t have a high success rate.
The head detective gave me his card, a surprisingly elegant Romanesque on textured taupe, and they split with a few parting glares, as if to say they would be back. I went inside and cracked a beer. It was early, but it was my Saturday, after all. In an ongoing attempt to stay off Al Gore’s shit list, I tossed the card into the recycling.
So as I stand in front of the shop on this bright Friday morning, smoking and casually studying bloodstains and the tangerine woman, I wonder if it is time to start burning release forms. It occurred to me last night that these guys might put two and two together and realize that other customers of mine knew Dave. Their addresses and home numbers were on those forms.
I shake my head. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. The second item concerns one of the newer guys, Scott Ramsay. Not a big issue, but one that has to be handled carefully. Not long ago I heard he was back in the market after spending a short time at CalArts finishing an animation degree. He’d been working at Erno’s in San Francisco for years, and I guess Erno’s final, grisly downward spiral had prompted him to return to school and leave the life for a while. He’s good. My latest, and hopefully final, night hog, a part-time hack who knew she was doomed, even though she tried pathetically hard, panicked at the news of his coming and had to be prematurely jettisoned.
Here is the problem. There are nothing but Trojans left. The saintly Billy Jack, who never errs, even in his nightmares; the bloodthirsty Patrick Spatters, a guy we still know very little about even after two plus years, but who has never been late or remiss in any way and is the kind of guy you’d want at your back in the event of an alien invasion; Brian the Kid, an affable boy-man with sharp moves and a reasonably good attitude; and Neal Sterling, the porky little hobbit guy who worked with Scott years ago and was instrumental in luring him back into a tattoo shop with rollicking tales of money and spring beaver. This is a lean staff for a place like the Sea Tramp. Including myself, that’s only six active artists, plus Rick, who answers the phone and does his best to help out, and Don Deaton, my business partner and mentor, who tattoos very rarely these days, now that he’s entered his seventies. We have Wayne Smith, a guy I tattooed with in the mid-nineties, around when we need him, and sometimes another unusual young fellow who does great tattoos but is poorly groomed at times, plus a handful of other stand-ins I won’t hire full time or whom Don boycotts for reasons known only to himself.
All of them picked up slack for a few weeks to cover the night hog’s shifts. None of them said anything, but I knew they felt leaned on. Why couldn’t I have waited a few weeks so they didn’t have to work overtime? They had all known this was coming for months. Hadn’t they done enough already? We’d just won the Best of Citysearch. Was this their reward?
So Scott’s arrival has been greeted with a general sigh of relief. Even with guys coming in from Salem and elsewhere to fill in for a few days, it was a long haul. Scott fit in right away. Everyone liked him, even Patrick, who is a discerning, often almost telepathic judge of character. Month one: good. Month two: smooth as silk. I barely had to run the place. Month three: the shit hits the fan. Scott had an art show in New York. He needed to miss a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Double shifts for everyone.
After a quick powwow, we arrived at a solution. Scott would work like a slave upon his return to restore balance to everyone’s sleep schedule, and while in New York he would venture down to Mott Street and retrieve four gallons of red sauce from Vicente’s.
He agreed to this. The four gallons are now in a freezer at his cousin’s, as they would not let him on the plane with them. Big mistake. Errors of protocol such as this can snowball easily, especially among the current crew of veteran ass kickers. Scott will have to be careful. I will have to watch his back for a while.
It’s time to check the restroom.
The presentation of the restroom is of vital importance. In a business where hospital-grade sanitation is required, a wrecked, mossy, filthy restroom can send the wrong signal. I go in armed with gloves, sprays, and a desire to get this job done fast.
It’s not that bad. I wipe down the sink, tinker with the toilet until I’m convinced some daisy-assed pantsuit could feel safe and secure about rubbing her cheeks all over it, and head back to the front, mission accomplished. I look at the clock: 9:55.
Neal rolls up in his glistening black Acura at 9:59, Ray-Bans shading his bulging eyes, a jumbo Starbucks something-or-other in one hand. He cruises through the door and immediately charges the radio, clipping short my Butthole Surfers CD and cranking NPR. I’ve managed to get him hooked on Science Friday.
“How you doin’?” he says cheerily, slurping coffee and looking over the shop to see what remains to be done.
“I’ll vac. How’s the blood spot?”
Neal shakes his head. “Fuckin’ miracle.”
Neal is the walk-in man today. He will soak up all the random street traffic. He still breaks a sweat sometimes, but he’s hard-core, commando-grade stuff. He talks fast, he draws fast, he works fast, and he leaves like a hurricane at the end of his shift, after which I gather he takes his girlfriend to some nice place for dinner, where he no doubt eats and drinks fast. I like this guy. His drawings are done on time. He takes no shortcuts and is never ill. He shows up at least one minute early and leaves only when the job is done and never before. His workweek can stretch past fifty hours easily, but I’ve never heard a complaint. He’s a pro.
Things pick up almost as soon as he arrives. The phone starts ringing. Neal fields most of the calls while he lays out the portfolios and sets up his station. I transfer my tubes from the ultrasonic to the autoclave and then wander back into the art room, where we house our grinder, the needle-making station, the jumbo light table I built out of a drafting table, and the wall-to-wall bookcases. Like all ancient shops, we have a reference library that contains an uncounted number of books on an endless list of topics. A few years ago we acquired some antique evening chairs and a sofa, period pieces of carved lacquered wood and crushed red velvet. I lined the walls with old framed Horiyoshi prints, weird Buddhist erotica, and peacock feathers. It’s got a nice bordello vibe. This room leads to the sanctum sanctorum, the boob-and-ass room, an entirely self-sufficient shop within the shop, which we use as a fourth and very private station.
I don’t need to make any needles. Normally I have to make some almost every day, a tremendously lazy habit on my part. Most people just sit down and pound out a week’s worth and get it over with. I can’t bear it. But on my Monday I generally have enough stock left over from the week before to get through one day. There are at least a dozen outlets for premade needle configurations these days, but I don’t use them. The product isn’t bad, it just isn’t personal. The curves are off, the mountings not right; it’s just not what I’m used to. I argue that the only thing lazier than making needles every day is buying them premade.
At this point, I honestly have nothing to do. I tinker with my station and wait. No sign of the woman with the RV when I smoke another cigarette. Neal is set up and pacing like a caged cat.
My eleven o’clock appointments arrive with the first walk-ins, so we’re both busy at the same time. Neal took station number two, so he is closer to the door. At a street shop, you absolutely must make contact with the customers as they come in. He does a good job of this as the flow begins. I take up the slack from my more remote location as needed, calling out greetings and inviting questions.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“Tattoo Machine is meticulously observed, savagely funny, and deeply compassionate. It’s a tale of up-from-under redemption through the shadowed art of personal symbolism. Jeff Johnson is a sharp-eyed master tattoo artist and an extraordinary writer.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
"An amazing firsthand account of all things you wondered about tattoo shops. I loved it." —Gus Van Sant
"A wry, tender story about the tribulations of flesh and ink—and funny as hell. I've never understood why people get tattoos, but after reading Jeff's excellent book I may just get one myself.—Steve Dublanica, author of New York Times Bestselling Waiter Rant
"For everyone out there who is as fascinated by skin art as much as I am, Jeff Johnson's memoir is a must read, a gritty, brutally honest account of his life and years in the tattoo business. Equally hilarious, alarming, heartbreaking, rebellious, and philosophical, Tattoo Machine gets inside your head and leaves an impression that goes deeper than any needle, one that will only be wiped away when you, dear customer, are dead and gone."—Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff
From the Hardcover edition.