I started this project because I have a visceral reaction every time I see a "tramp stamp". I think the female form in all of it's variations is breath taking on it's own. So whenever I see a woman with some black blob permanently attached to her thigh I want to know why she thought disfiguring her body like that was a good idea.. I think Lady Gaga is beautiful but, the tattoos are ugly as hell and detract from her natural beauty. I have always felt this way. I wanted to find out why.
So, one day while walking past one of the two tattoo shops in my town, I considered going in. And I stood there imagining how that would go. They were probably bikers who sold Meth and would beat me with a motorcycle chain if they saw my camera. I kid, I've learned that nothing is ever as bad or as good as you think it will be. So I forced myself to walk in not knowing then what I hoped to accomplish. I had a lovely conversation with the woman who runs the front of the shop. Every available patch of skin that I could see of her had ink on it. The skulls on her arm though I thought were kind of beautiful. So I made nice chit chat, she didn't offer me any meth or threatened to chain me. Then I had an idea. I asked if there was someone I could talk to about making some images. "Oh yeah, Ox, he's the owner" she said. A few moments later the guy who was obviously Ox walked past and out the door. "Is he coming back?" I asked. "He's taking a cigarette break, you can talk to him." I headed back outside and there he was sitting on a bench lighting a cigarette. Ox is rather large, covered with tattoos and just looking at him I could tell he didn't suffer fools pleasantly. I introduced myself and said "I know nothing about tattoos, only that I grew up not liking them. I want to explore through making images basically, your world in order to find out why." I was expecting and maybe a little hoping to get shot down. Instead, he was charming and pleasant and gave his approval immediately. We decided I would come to the shop for an hour or two every couple of days. I volunteered that if I was in the way, I would leave. He said "Don't worry about it, I'll tell you when to leave."
And on my visits he would answer my many questions and never seemed annoyed.. He said I could borrow any book from his library about tattooing. I learned about the history and how different cultures think about tattooing. I learned to appreciate the large scale and intricate tattoos watching them go from paper to ink on skin over weeks and months. But mostly on the guys. I never saw a tattoo on a woman that made me say "Wow".
It took several weeks before the other artists would even say hello to me. But gradually they accepted me. I liked these people. And, they all thought that the democratization of ink was not the best thing for their art. It was no longer the unique outsider who was waving his freak flag but Barbie and Ken following all of the other sheep. Good for business, bad for art.
After six months, someone said that the conclusion of my project should be me getting a tattoo. And then it became a thing. And after that, every time I stopped by, I was teased and asked if I was going to do it. The very fact that they would trash talk me made me feel part of their tribe. One of them said to me that I would always be an outsider and never really know about the experience if I didn't get one tattoo.
Ox said he would do an original design for the "family" price. How could I say no?.So, I decided on a 1/4 sleeve in a Japanese cod motif. In for a penny, in for a pound, right?
Ox said he would have some drawings for me in a couple of days.
My sister has a dragon tattoo that goes from the base of her neck and down both legs to her ankles. She has been working on it for years. My father who was a sailor in WW2 had a couple on his arms. Both my brothers have tattoos. My older brother has one that was done by Brooklyn Blackie. I had no idea who that was but when the guys in the shop heard that, I was bathed in reflected glory. They asked me to ask my brother for a picture which they put on their website.
So, I who had told my sons to never get a tattoo, was going to get one. And a big one at that.
In the days leading up to my first session with Ox, I began to notice how many 1/4, half and full sleeves guys had. And of course my enthusiasm began to waiver. How different would I be from anybody, if I were just another guy with a fish tattoo? Why was that important to me? What would my mother say? Or my sons? A project that had started out with my wanting to know why I thought tattoos were distasteful had turned into me questioning a position I had maintained my whole life.
I did the project that I wanted to do. I made the images and learned about my prejudice. I found respect for the people who have made the art of the tattoo the center of their life. They are unique. I didn't need to counter something I had believed for good reason just so my new friends would like me more.
I decided that it wasn't for me. I was expecting a backlash when I went to the shop and told them. Instead I got a "That's cool" and "We knew you were a pussy." They continued to razz me the next few visits, but it was in fact "Cool". Ox had no problem with it but I felt bad that he had spent so much time creating the design.
When I am in the neighborhood I sometimes stop in to say hello and give Ox prints.. On one of these visits Ox told me that he was kind of glad I didn't do it. "Why?" He said "Because it's not you. You weren't afraid to question yourself. You can see it in the pictures. You getting ink would have no meaning."
I think Ox is a wise man.
Should you have the interest, the link below is to a NY Times article about the resurgence of the art form and tattooist Brooklyn Blackie.