Third Eye Open to the Tattoo Nation

In Indian tradition, the third eye, or gyananakashu, represents the center of knowledge. It signifies wisdom, or enlightenment.

As a researcher, it is that moment when your efforts work independently of your actions. It’s like shaking the snow globe and then standing at its center as flakes of information fall upon your shoulders. It’s all you can do to collect the snow piling up around you and appreciate the beauty of the process.

I have been overwhelmed with the amount of cooperation, enthusiasm, passion and commitment that I have found in my research so far. The people I have interviewed have provided me with more information than I could have hoped to acquire and yet, stand ready to offer more should I need it. The purpose of this blog is to not only thank them, but to illustrate the point that those involved in the tattoo industry are proud, dedicated and supportive of their art. This is no loosely associated fraternity of like-minded individuals.

This is the Tattoo Nation.

Brandee Gordon

Brandee Gordon, of Native Ink Tattoo, has gone out of her way to answer my questions, provide me with pictures upon request, and share her time with me, despite the fact that she lives half her life on a plane, traveling from one client to another. She has taken new pictures upon request and agreed to let me use photos for my Harper’s Magazine annotation and film footage of her work, if needed. I have been in almost daily communication with her via BlackBerry messenger.

Christine O’Donnell, Mean Street Tattoo, spent hours answering questions, after a busy night at work, using her cell phone because her laptop was broken. She was determined that I understood what her craft means to her and that I knew how important her mentors are. She was excited to help promote an art and industry that she is proud to be a part of. In fact, she went on to send me a lengthy follow-up email (thank you) and has since been pursuing me to conduct a follow-up interview. Christine and I swap emails a few times a week, usually trying to chase down a time to talk in our mutually busy schedules.

Eric Foemmel volunteered to help me from the onset after hearing what I was doing. He’d been in a similar situation and was eager to help. He took time out of a busy road schedule, foregoing coffee (in the middle of his trip to get some), on one of his few days “off”, to spend 45 minutes on the phone with me. He was pleased to talk, filling pages with great information and opening up to me as if we’d known each other for ten years. He’s made it clear that if I need anything, any help, I just need to pick up the phone and call.

Brad Kingett, Risen Industries, sat for over an hour with me and talked. He’d had an entire weekend of filming and we did not know each other any more than a few emails. Our conversation was as genuine and informative as if we were not absolute strangers and I like to think that, upon leaving, we’d both expanded our circle of “friends”. He has agreed to invite me to his next film weekend for a tattoo reality television show he is spearheading.

Besides that, I have been at lunch and realized that everywhere I turned there were tattoos, and tattooed women and tattoos sneaking out from under sleeves to wink at me. People walk by engaging in conversations about tattoos. I’ve received Sunday comics about tattoos. I think I even saw that guy “Tattoo” from Fantasy Island pass me on the street the other day.

Tattoo of "Tattoo". Yep.

In other words, my research is everywhere, inundating me with resources. My Third Eye has opened to my research, and that is what we hope to accomplish as writer/researchers.

And the accumulation does not just stop with this project. It doesn’t stop with the story and the Harper’s annotation. I have at least eight other story ideas from this. I have intentions to travel to Indiana, Queens, and the remote part of Western Pennsylvania to get tattooed. Now, if only I could hit that Megamillions to support my ink desire.

I think it is important to understand that all of this does not happen unless you, the researcher, does not commit yourself fully to the process. If you are writing about miniature golf, you need to live, eat and breathe miniature golfing. Word of advice, never try to make it under the windmill. You need to blend active interviewing with ethnographic research, with intuitive creativity.

And when that third eye opens, and the snow starts falling, just spread your arms, ingest it, and be thankful for those who elect to share their world with you.

Thank you, now let’s get inking.

Incidentally, as I prepare to publish this blog tonight, Brandee Gordon is tweet connecting me to three other gentlemen with whom she believes I could learn more about the tattoo subculture from.

It’s still snowing here.

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Pre-interview for Christine O’Donnell, Mean Street Tattoo

So, tomorrow night the whirlwind of interviews continues. Interview number three in three days. Christine O’Donnell is an apprentice tattoo artist

Christine doing her first tattoo, 2009

at Mean Street Tattoo in Queens, NY. She has been kind enough to agree to talk with me tomorrow night, via Facebook chat at approximately 9:30.

In the course of my research for this project/story, I have found Twitter to be an excellent resource. If used properly, like-minded individuals, or those exhibiting an interest in a common topic, can connect regardless of time and distance. Twitter is how I “met” the artists and creative minds behind Mean Street Tattoos, to include Christine.

I am very interested in interviewing Christine for a number of reasons. To begin with, I find the tattoo apprenticeship fascinating. I chose to research tattoos, tattooing, and the artists because I find not only their craft to be powerful and beautiful, but also their very lifestyle and mindset to be liberating. So, how does the tattoo artist reach their journeyman status? What does it entail and how does it mold them? This is a very intriguing calling, and I am excited to hear what Christine has to say about it.

Christine also comes from a tattoo background. Her father is a veteran artist and has a hand in her training. So here we see a lineage of artists/craftsmen. This is an other interesting angle to explore. I wonder how often this happens? Is this a trade or craft that continues through families like so many other trades or professions (i.e. electricians, plumbers, musicians, teachers, police officers)?

I would be remiss if I did not point out that I will be looking at Christine’s gender. There are many, many more men in the tattoo industry than women. However, that is quickly changing as the number of women tattoo artists continue to enter and prosper in the trade. Kat Von D may be, perhaps, the most known or notable in the industry, but there are a lot more following suit. This is not in any way a gender issue or women in the workplace slant, but it is a subject worth noting.

Lastly, I instantly admired Christine’s honesty and forthright attitude, something that became instantly apparent in the few tweets, emails and brief phone conversation we had. She was quick to point out to me (for which I am grateful, keep teaching me, Chris) that it is NOT a tattoo gun. It is a machine.

"Guns kill. Machines create."

Guns kill, machines create. We discussed some possible ink work on me and she flat out told me that there are things she can do and things she cannot and she knows her current limits or capabilities. Furthermore, she was eager to help me with my research because she is “more than happy to help and spread the word about tattoos” and that there was “no need for thanks. It’s great to see so many people in and outside the business as passionate about tattooing as [she is].”

Christine is a young (24), refreshing and promising young talent in the art of tattooing. I look forward to speaking with her tomorrow and sharing her insight.

Though I do wish that I could sit down with her for a face to face interview, time and distance again play a factor. Facebook chat will allow for a real-time exchange and the ability to follow newly presented paths of thought (something email would not allow for). Also, I am happy that the interviews have fallen so close together. There have been ideas introduced and information presented in the previous interviews that spark new questions and branches for Christine, and Brandee Gordon on Wednesday.

Check back here as I post my follow-up, post interview blog before the end of the week.