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.

On the Road With Eric Foemmel (Post Interview)

It’s Sunday afternoon and Eric calls me back. He’s home, in Sacramento, and on his way to get a cup of coffee. He sounds incredibly upbeat and eager to chat, despite the fact that he has not yet had his coffee. Maybe living in California does that to you. I wouldn’t know, I’m suffering through March in New Jersey. Tomorrow he flies out to Orlando to meet with Eddie Funk, aka Crazy Philadelphia Eddie. Eric is traveling with Eddie, hitting the tattoo conventions across the country and selling their new book, Tattooing: The Life and Times of Crazy Philadelphia Eddie (vol. 1 & 2). Eric tells me that they just did Vancouver and Santa Rosa. Louisville, Tampa and Baltimore are up next.

The conversation slides across the next thirty minutes like a cannonball across the deck of a listing ship. Eric tells me he was just looking at my pre-interview blog, specifically the pages of notes I uploaded from my read of their book. “Wow, you really read the book pretty thoroughly.” Unfortunately, I only had vol. 1. Vol. 2 will be on the way and Eric is going to have Eddie autograph that one for me as well.

Vol. 1 autographed for me at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention

I start by asking him how the trip is going, how Eddie’s holding up and how the book has been received. At 74, Eddie is “unstoppable.” Still driving forward, still a ladies man, well dressed and charming, and fond of his screwdrivers and bloody Marys. Eric tells me how people genuinely enjoy Eddie’s company, how his sense of humor is endearing. I can see that. I met the man briefly. His smile was sincere, his handshake was firm and his words were chosen carefully and delivered with intent and honesty. Eddie Funk seems to be a genuine person. You know what you are getting, whether you like it or not. However, Eric laughs, the old tattooer is till there. Not everything is sugar and spice. Cross him, annoy him, or generally piss him off and he still has his teeth.

Eric tells me how they first met. At the time, Eric was working on his PhD and conducting ethnographic research on the American tattoo culture, mostly in California, at Traditional Ink Tattoo. Eric flew back to help another friend, a tattoo artist Timmy (Tatts) Sellers, shoot an industry related video “From the Horses Mouth”. Eddie was involved in the project. They were having bloody Marys and Eddie tells Eric that he believes he was a pirate in his past life, that he had vivid dreams as a young boy. After reading Eddie’s book and getting a glimpse of his life, I can believe that. Incidentally, his very first tattoo in 1952 was a skull and crossbones.

“Where’s the treasure buried?” Eric said.

“That’s the part I can’t remember,” said Eddie.

Pondering as to the whereabouts of the treasure

The two hit it off and Eric went on to ghostwrite his book, act as a publicist and promoter. In short, Eric crosses over from researcher. Eric “goes native.” [insert audible gasp here].  We talk about this a bit. It’s something Eric completely understands, considering his background in anthropology and ethnography. However it is something he also completely embraces. Eric said that on the road, he and Eddie share a room and that it just happened without him knowing it. “They are just great people,” Eric says, referring to Eddie and his circle of friends and family.

“You fit in perfectly with us,” Eddie told him. “Your reputation precedes you, Eric. You might not know who they are, but they know who you are. My friends are your friends and my enemies are your enemies.” Eric understands and embraces his new role. He has several new projects in the works and on the horizon, involving or at the direction of more of the venerated tattooers of Eddie’s heyday.

We get into the book a bit and Eric’s observations on how Eddie and the other “founding fathers” view the evolution of the tattoo industry. We talk about the skewed reality of media and tattoo television shows, about the flooded industry and its change from its true tattoo nature to entrepreneurs using tattooing to promote their stage. We talked about the concept of the art itself and the idea that there were true tattooers, whose idea of tattooing was to get the ink on the skin “quickly and as smooth as velvet” (Crazy Eddie) versus fine artists whose medium happened to be tattooing. We discussed the growing lack of appreciation in the roots of the art, of those who came before them, of the shops today and Eddie’s concern that there will not be enough work for the young artists.

Eddie told Eric on one of their travels up I95 that there used to be like 35 tattoo artists on the whole East coast. Eddie could point out where each of them lived. Not worked, lived. They had a camaraderie then, sure there was competition, but it was good-natured competition. Now, as they passed a town in North Carolina, Eddie said that there were 35 just in that one town. “He worries about the young tattooers,” Eric says.

Eric shared personal stories and experiences he’s had with Eddie, things not found in the book. Like, the time that they were in “Forever Tattoo” in Sacramento,

Forever Tattoo, Sacramento, California

hanging out until 4 a.m. Timmy Sellers was doing some work and Eddie was swaying to the music in the shop. “This is what a [tattoo] shop should be like,” Eddie said. Eric asked him if he was feeling 21 again. Eddie was alive. “If you want to do some work,” said Eric, “I’ve never asked, out of respect. But, I have some open skin and I’d love to have work done by you.” Eddie declined, he was completely retired. He’d done one tattoo out of retirement. A man had come in and wanted work done on his chest, one half by Eddie’s grandson and the other half by Eddie. Eddie couldn’t refuse that request, he said, but it just didn’t feel the same anymore.

Another time, Eric and Eddie were in Vegas. Eric asked Eddie to draw up a skull and crossbones design for him, similar to Eddie’s first tattoo. Eric figured to have his friend, Timmy, tattoo it on his arm in the same spot that Eddie originally had his (a tattoo that he has, surprisingly, since had covered up by Red Cloud, another “old-timer”). Timmy told him that he would not put it on his arm. Somewhere else, sure, but “if you haven’t had anything put on your arms by the time you are 40, there’s a reason.”

Eric tells me his story and the strange trip from doctorate in leisure studies and background in parks and leisure, to his immersion in the tattoo subculture, where he tells me that Eddie “is [his] boss.”

“I’m just sweeping the peanut shells off the deck,” he says. “Eddie is the captain of the ship.”

We speak as researchers for a while, a role that I am careful to keep in the forefront, not wanting to speak with Eric merely as Eddie’s writer. We discuss his research and my research and the magic that happens when you set out to sail on your project, coordinates at hand.

“You begin to discover what is not normally apparent,” Eric says. He talks about two types of information: that from the outside, looking in and the knowledge that one gets when on the inside, from the subculture. “You get privileged information when you are on the inside,” he says, “although it doesn’t happen easily or overnight.”

Eric tells me that he loves ethnographic research because it gives “validity of conclusions.” The information is “debatable but not irrefutable.”

Eric lets me know that if he can help me in any way, I need just pick up the phone. He wishes me luck and encourages me to fully enjoy the research process.

“The research changes us (the researcher)”, he says, “more than the people who read it. Your journey is just beginning, Joe. You never know where it is going to take you.”

REFLECTIONS:

  • The interview went as I had hoped, as far as the focus and the information explored. However, the ease and casual nature of our conversation was even more rewarding than I had hoped it to be. I’d only had a few short conversations prior (and only one of them face to face) with Eric, but we talked as if we had been friends for years. I am extremely grateful for the time and information he has given me, and I know that I can now count him as a friend. Again, you never know where your research is going to take you. The next time he and Eddie, or Eric alone, come up this way, I hope to have them/him over for a nice home cooked meal.
  • I learned a lot about the research process here, and the depth and complexity of information. Speaking with Eric, I was able to get the insider voice behind the story presented in the book. I didn’t just get objective illustrations, I got more of the inner workings of the machine. Eric spoke to me from inside the circle and shared a slice of life of the subculture that has embraced him. Our interview prompted a whole series of topics I wished to explore in the interviews I would have in the next couple of days
  • I think the fact that we were able to talk as peers (sharing the bond of research and ethnography) made for a very productive and comfortable discussion. Also, in the light of our “active interview”, I allowed for Eric to “shift positions in the interview so as to explore alternate perspectives and stocks of knowledge” (Postmodern Interviewing, p. 77).
  • I’m not sure I have many other questions for Eric right now. I read the book and spoke with him at length. There may be other ideas I wish to explore after completing my other interviews. It seems as if they have fed each other, as I am approaching some similar themes with different perspectives and roles in the industry.

Pre-interview prep for Eric Foemmel (Author/Ethnographer)

I had the pleasure of meeting Eric in Philadelphia, at the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention. Eric is the man responsible for putting the wild and crazy life experiences of Crazy Philadelphia Eddie (an icon in the tattoo industry) into words. It is Eric’s words that breathe life into Eddie’s life story.

Eric conducted his graduate studies at Penn State University, with his primary interest in the American tattoo culture. In fact, Eric spent some time in Los Angeles, conducting ethnographic field research at Traditional Ink Tattoo. His interest and immersion in the field eventually led him to Eddie, and their two-volume book length project “Tattooing, The Life and Times of Crazy Philadelphia Eddie”. When Eric heard I was conducting research on a shared topic, he was instantly supportive and eagerly offered me advice and support in my endeavors. For this, I am greatly appreciative.

After posting some recent blogs on my research and the themes I am exploring, Eric contacted me to weigh in on the subject matter. As it stands, he is touring the country with Eddie,

Crazy Philadelphia Eddie

attending tattoo conventions and promoting their new book. Their travels incorporate friends of Eddies, old and new, of which he has no shortage of.  One of which is Lyle Tuttle, another icon in the industry. Lyle has graced the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, tattooed Janis Joplin and Cher’s behind, and angered the iconic Sailor Jerry enough that the Rolling Stone cover ended up in SJ’s toilet bowl for a bit. After breakfast with both Lyle and Eddie, and having read my blog, Eric contacted me to offer some thoughts on my research.

Since then, we have been in contact and Eric has invited me to pick his brain a bit, an opportunity that I will most assuredly seize. So, in preparation for our phone interview, I did some more research on Eric, on his company ( Uptown Research, LLC), on his travel blog, and in his book, of which I read and thoroughly enjoyed. However, I wanted to approach Eric as an ethnographer, not merely as Eddie’s ghostwriter. Obviously, his experiences with Eddie on the road have provided him with incredible insight into the mind of a man who has been tattooing since 1952. Sure, he can speak a bit for the man, but I wanted to get his objective insight as a learned researcher. And so, as I prepared my interview bullets and topics to explore, I kept that in the forefront of my thoughts.

The first thing I did was to compose a document that listed what I knew about Eric. I reviewed his listed influences (other ethnographers and authors in the field of the tattoo culture), his studies, his business. I looked at his comments on my research and thoughts of the men with whom he was traveling with. Then, I created a document that organized the themes I am interested in pursuing as I further develop my research project. Between what I knew or had shared with Eric, and the extensive notes I compiled while reading his book, I created a final document that outlined the direction I hoped our phone interview would take.

Notes from Book p.1

Notes from Book p.2

Notes from Book p.3

I am interviewing Eric for his experiences, thoughts, research into the tattoo culture. Although he may be influenced by his time with Eddie and other artists he has enjoyed meeting along the way, it is his information that I hope to gain some insight into. Eric is traveling around the country, sharing the memories and experiences of a man who has walked a most colorful life, a man I was fortunate enough to meet for a few moments one Saturday afternoon.

Crazy Eddie & Eric Foemmel

I look forward to my conversation with Eric and, who knows, the next time he and Eddie come back this way, I might just have them over for dinner. Eric, Eddie, my wife’s a hell of a cook, so here’s the invite…