On Tattooing and Trends

I began tattooing in 1998; a lot has changed since then. For the newcomers, these changes will never be self evident. The world is interconnected in a way that must have been hard to imagine for  Ed Hardy, or Sailor Jerry. When they made contact with Japan, could they have ever imagined this world in which we have instant access to the photos and information they had to work so hard to get? 

Access to this information required great dedication and ingenuity. Prettyecious material and knowledge was passed on with secrecy and obtained with effort. Tattooers didn’t want the competition to see what they were working with. What they held close to their chest gave them power, that purple pigment of Sailor Jerry’s, that book of Chinese dragon scrolls or acetate rubbings from Brooklyn Joe Lieber were objects of power, they had the advantage, putting their competition at a disadvantage. 

Before the digital age I would take a photo of a tattoo that I’d finished and then I wouldn’t see it again until I got my film developed. When the tattoo was done it left the shop, if it was on locals or regulars I’d get to see the tattoo in their skin, I’d see if I put the color in solid or if my lines blew out. In those first years I’d see people come back with red, yellow and crusty skin that was so irritated at my lack of knowledge and craftsmanship. I would do the work and it would go out into the world, not to be critiqued until the film got developed. 

Once I got it developed, if I liked what I saw, I would make prints and write my name and shop info on the back of it, then send it into the magazines, and check over the next couple of months to see if it got published. If it did, there was a chance that other tattooers all over the country would look through and judge my work. Maybe they’d see the reference I used, or maybe they liked the way I approached a certain idea, or the color scheme. Then again they might have declared it all a pile of fat steaming horse shit. It wasn’t possible to know what people were thinking or talking about behind the closed doors of their shops. Maybe they didn’t notice at all. 

Today, with an interconnected world, we can see work from all over the world. Great tattoos being made in Buenos Aires or South Africa aren’t invisible because of their remote locations. We can communicate with other tattooers or potential clients in other towns or countries with minimal effort or cost. We can buy reference material on Amazon, Ebay, or through numerous supply companies. I used to spend hours at Barnes and Noble, when I was back in Pennsylvania, using their books, sitting in the cafe and drawing for upcoming appointments. How much easier it is now to find the treasures of the craft, and what an advantage younger tattooers have now, with easy access to great books, documentaries, and great machines being built and sold with the click of a mouse. The need to struggle has been diminished. This explains why the learning curve has changed, why we see kids that have been tattooing for five years that are better than we ever were at ten or fifteen years. 

Will Durant, a philosopher and historian said: “If progress is real, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.” We have the luxury now, of building upon a great wealth of information pertaining to our craft. The vast majority of this information is easily accessible and the potential is there for us all to be better because of it. Most of the work has been done by our predecessors. We are higher up on the pedestal than our forefathers and the newcomers are higher up still. This is the advantage of the young, they inherit the knowledge and work of those who came before. 

It’s almost a necessity of humanity that we have to learn from our own mistakes rather than the mistakes of others, which leads me to thoughts on trends. It’s easy to look at the past and see that trends come and go. Tribal tramp stamps, arm bands and twisted chrome bodies with no faces… are rarely tattooed today. Now, it’s easy to get a gauge on what people like and what they don’t like. But our ability to see what’s popular has greatly increased, by paying attention to the numbers of likes or the amount of comments a post receives, we can gauge what’s hot and what’s not. 

What’s trending now, will certainly look dated in ten years. It will be possible to look at a tattoo and say “ah, thats from the 2010’s”. These crude line drawings that are so popular with the hipsters, watercolor style tattoos with no black that are destined to turn to shit, and traditional tattoos with outlines as thick as sharpies will look as dated as that tramp stamp on the old lady in leopard print, with her bleached hair, and leathered skin. The tribal arm bands and dolphin tattoos of the past are todays bird silhouettes and infinity symbols. 

I look back on what I was obsessed with and what was popular in the late 90’s and it looks so outdated. Joe Capobianco is a prime example, he was my idol when I was starting out, and highly respected, but he never changed his style, never seemed to progress at all or dip his toes into the stream of the past, and his work looks decidedly 90’s. He has, however, maintained his vision, his indiviuality, and has not veered away from his natural tendencies. Some people like what he does and I’m sure he does as well. After all, it pays his bills. 

Social media has popularized trends on a worldwide scale, therefore we get someone in Australia doing the same style as someone in Brooklyn or someone in Manhattan mimicking someone in Sao Paulo. The craft has turned into a giant circle jerk. It would be hard for it to be any different since everyone is using the same reference materials and referencing one another, with no idea that the ideas do not come from the one they are referencing but from something that person is referencing ad infinitum. If we were to seek the roots and not the fruit we would find it’s possible to leave the orgy of popular thought and find our own way. Indpendent and built on a solid foundation. It might help to reflect on the words of Mark Twain, who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” 

It’s helpful to think of it in terms of the ocean: trends are the top layer of the ocean where the waves are in constant motion, crashing into one another, and swelling towards shore, a never ceasing flow of energy. This is where the trends and current culture move about.  As you dive deeper though, under the current, the water gets still and peaceful, it gets cool and serene, this is where the history of the craft is, this is where I believe it’s important to focus, in the stillness of time and history. In these still waters, in this depth things have had time to settle. It’s where the spirit of our forefathers lie, with their struggle and strife. It’s where we find the timeless approach. Which I believe to be the goal, creating work that is not stamped with a specific time. This is where a craftsman discovers how to use _all_the tools of the trade rather than just sharpie sized liners and Swedish made rotary machines. 

What we do comes from history and becomes history. There is great joy in becoming a small part of something bigger than ourselves, of learning from the souls who struggled through the muck before us, and fulfillment in disappearing into the abyss and becoming part of history. After all, we are destined to float along and settle in with the likes of Greg Irons, Cap Coleman and Paul Rogers. Sometime down the line, others will be standing on our shoulders and our names will turn to dust. The likes we recieved on our latest posts, or the money we made won’t amount to anything at all. The tattoos we carved into once living breathing flesh, whether on trend or timeless, will be consumed by the earth and disappear into the void. 

 

 

Via De Leche

##Via De Leche revision

 

 

I was on a riverboat heading to Iquitos, an Amazonian city in Northern Peru, with two Argentines I had met on a bus in the middle of nowhere. I was on a mission to try ayahuasca. The boat would take four days to get to the mysterious city I had heard so much about on my travels. We slept in hammocks, out in the open, along with thirty or forty other people on the upper deck. Down below, in the main cabin, there must have been two hundred hammocks hung up closely together. So many vibrant colors and skin tones filled the room. Families of every generation, lounged around, children ran around like wild animals through the maze of textiles and flesh. It was cramped and humid downstairs, it felt claustrophobic compared to the upper deck, but it offered a barrier from the sun.

 

I’d go down to get food three times a day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all included with the price of my ticket, I just needed my own bowl and fork. When it was time to eat, a cook would bang on the steel pipes and the sound would reverberate through the boat. Everyone would line up, all of us with our bowls in our hands. There was a transvestite working in the kitchen and when I’d get to the front of the line, he would smile at me and say some shit in Spanish that I couldn’t understand. The cooks behind him would snicker in the background. Then a sweaty, heavy dude behind the pot of food would plunge his hand in, grab a serving and slop it in my bowl. I thought of being in prison, lines of people waiting to be served their daily ration, in tight quarters … and there was a tranny.

 

Every couple of hours the boat would put in at small villages along the way to Iquitos. All of the villages had people waiting to get supplies. The villages were just small clearings in the jungle, a break in the tropical flora. I had learned that the town I was headed to was like these, they had only four hours of electricity a day and just a few houses, in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. When they started to load and unload cargo it was like watching an army of ants. They carried blocks of ice in burlap sacks on their backs, men and women alike, through the mud and up the hill into the village. The women were so strong, I had seen it in Ecuador as well, women carrying significant weight on their backs, like sherpas. Old men in old clothes would work along with everyone else, as if age held no chains on their actions. They would climb the hill that led up into their village, as others made their way down to get more supplies, like a snake eating its own tail.

 

It was so foreign to me. I had never thought about living with only four hours of electricity a day or of using an icebox instead of a refrigerator. There were cattle at the head of the ship, sectioned off in a pen. All day and most of the night, passengers would watch them to pass the time. Being a part of that scene, a heavily tattooed gringo standing there watching cows on a boat with some Peruvians in the middle of the night was one of the things that made me happy that I was traveling. On my last day, one of the cows had been trampled in the night, the others just stood on top of him as if he was already dirt. It felt important for me to see things like this, to experience these moments of boredom and discomfort. How else can you find out how privileged you really are? Go out and see how the rest of the world lives and it puts a lot in perspective.

 

At this point, I had been traveling for about six months. When I left Colombia, a girl from the hostel asked if I wanted some acid, she was leaving and didn’t want to take it with her. On principal, I never turned down drugs, so she gave me her thirteen tabs. The boat seemed like the perfect place to take some (a lot of places felt like the perfect place to take some). I offered some to the Argentines who on principal, also never turned down drugs. We each took a tab and waited for it to kick in while we smoked a spliff. I held the tab under my upper lip and I could feel my lip quiver. The Argentine who spoke the least English had a bongo with him, he drummed us along as we slowly floated down the river.

 

The water under us was the color of chocolate milk and it moved in ripples along the edge of the boat. The shoreline was much higher than the water level, crumbling cliffs of red mud, with roots breaking the surface, looking for water. There were people sitting up there watching the boat float by in the same way that I watched the cattle. With no electricity, the action on the river served as a distraction. I kept an eye out for the pink dolphins that were famous for living in the Amazon River. I had read that these pink dolphins had female genitalia similar to a woman and that men would fuck them;  then kill them to get their dick out because the dolphins muscles would not let go once homeboy was done. I saw them, but they were grayer than they were pink.

 

When I lived in San Francisco I was interested in trying acid. I was attracted to psychedelics and was intrigued as an artist… would it make a difference in terms of what I created? There were so many great examples of artists opening the doors to their subconscious using acid, with great results. I often thought about how Steve Jobs said Bill Gates would have been much more interesting had he dropped acid. I was too fucked up to try it though, I had too many demons and the fear outweighed the answers. Sitting on that boat, with no phone, no technology, minimal grasp of the Spanish language, floating along the Amazon River with a couple hundred Peruvians on a boat that I couldn’t get off of, I was filled with pride. I had made it. I had made it out of the scary, shameful places of my mind and into a world of wonder and faith. The acid started to kick in around sunset. I lounged in my hammock and watched the chocolate water, in awe of the change of light, the shades of jungle green morphed into layers upon layers, it was as if I could see each individual leaf independent of one another. Eventually, it all disappeared into the darkness.

 

My friends were in their hammocks next to me. We looked at each other in agreement; it was kicking in. My body tingled, my palms sweaty. We walked to the back of the boat, the Milky Way unveiled overhead, it was impossible not to get lost in it. We laid down on the deck and shared a spliff, the color of the cherry made my hand glow as I inhaled. The Argentine played the bongo and we were having a great time. Some gringo kids came over to listen to the music and I talked with a boy, it was his birthday and he was on a missionary trip with a church group. I asked about his trip and how his birthday was going, I told him how I had been a Christian but saw the light and realized it was all bullshit. I wished that someone had that talk with me when I was his age, or that I would have listened when they had. I asked if he had ever smoked weed before, he said no. It was with great joy that I offered him the spliff. “Tonight seems like a pretty great first time” I said. He took the spliff and took a drag, blowing the smoke out into the night and into the Milky Way.

 

The night rolled on slowly, the kids went away and I laid on the deck, looking up at the millions of stars, into eternity. That up there, that’s what I’m made of, I thought. I was filled with incredible gratitude; gratitude that I was away from everyone and everything that made me feel safe, that I was without a phone or a computer, that I was alone and anonymous. Completely free from responsibilities; I had no bills, I had no job, I had nothing and it felt so good. I never felt so alone or alive. My past seemed to drift into the humidity and the wind, I looked forward to the mystery of what laid ahead, I was excited and curious about the future. I had been left alone at the bow of the boat, laying on that steel deck, which had carried so many souls along the river. I had my flashlight with me and I pointed it towards the end of the night, into the infinite abyss. I thought about how light travels on and I pictured that flashlight going on forever and ever and with that light, I wrote thank you into the sky.

 

On The Importance of Boredom and Solitude

Some thoughts on Tech, Boredom, and Solitude:

All of our cultural references, our greatest literature, films, plays, paintings, inventions, the greatest gifts of humanity, exist because people had the time to think. Because great minds had time to wrestle with an idea, taking unknown shapes, forms, and ideas; forming them into something real and tangible. I talk about this sometimes with younger people that I tattoo, I ask them to think about it … I remind them that life wasn’t always like this; there is mystery outside of that piece of technology in their pocket.

When can you get any solitude? When do you have time to let your mind settle if it’s constantly reacting to fast twitch stimulation? React. Repeat. React. Repeat. Bertrand Russell, one of my favorite philosophers said, “Constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in the mind if you are living a life of distraction and dissipation, for in that case, your thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than the distant achievement.” 
As a creator, I understand that it is important to allow my mind time to settle so that I can work towards that “distant achievement”. 

We seem to believe that boredom is not a part of modern day life even though it is a distinctively human emotion. Wild animals do not experience boredom, they are too busy mating or looking for food, shelter, or predators. We experience boredom because we have minds that can compare the present moment with another potentially better moment. It’s a desire for our days to be something more than what they are, to be different from yesterday, to stand out from one another. We are on the hunt for excitement, which is being marketed to us as we surf the web. All of those ads, ads completely relevant to something you searched for earlier, pop up showing you how easily you can change your state; you can make today different from yesterday by buying something you really want but barely need. We have become the hunted, those ads are the marketers arrows and they are aimed directly at your head. 

It’s easy to forget that we are linked to our past, that we are just part of a long line that stretches back to the beginning of time. That history was full of boredom and the pursuit of keeping it at bay. It’s the reason for books, magazines, pubs, theaters, parties, churches, sports, drugs, alcohol and witch hunts. Bertrand Russell also said, “We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom.” 

Today, we live as if we should never be bored, God forbid your phone dies, and you may actually have to sit with your own thoughts, if you have any at all. Thoughts which come from time, not from fast twitch click bait, thoughts that connect you to a time outside of the moment you exist in now. Thoughts outside of those sunglasses you want, or that book or the new Ipad Pro, thoughts that connect you to the startdust of which we are made, thoughts that put you in to the stream of life. What are you missing out on by living inside of a screen?