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.
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To Write or Not to Write…(the Field Quandry)

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the ethnographic researcher is knowing when to open the notebook and when to keep it shut. If you commit yourself to putting pen to paper while in the field, you risk two things. First, your note taking immediately takes you out of the involvement of regular activities. It takes you outside the circle and could quite possibly anger, upset, or create discomfort with your research subjects. Instead of an involved insider, you become a detached outsider. Secondly, you may miss important bits of information happening right under your nose.

While reading “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” (Emerson, Fretz and Shaw, University of Chicago Press, 1995), I drew a parallel to chapter two: In the Field: Participating, Observing, and Jotting Notes.  The book makes mention of fieldworkers retreating to private places, such as stairwells, deserted rooms, or even closets or bathrooms to jot down details while they are fresh in their head.

This jogged my recent experiences while attending the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. I remember retreating to remote corners, away from the bustle of activity, to jot down notes and information. I particularly was concerned with recording my meeting with Philadelphia Eddie and did not want to let the rest of the afternoon influence my memory of our conversation. It was refreshing to see my same method mentioned in the text as usual practices for ethnographic researchers.

The book also mentions that some researchers avoid writing in the field at all, but “immediately upon leaving the field, they pull out a notebook to jot down reminders of the key incidents, words, or reactions they wish to include in the full field notes.” (Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, p. 24)

Again, this was me. No sooner had I reached my truck, I had my notebook out and was scribbling furiously in it. I had a dinner engagement and had to leave the parking garage, but I wrote at red lights. I wrote when the traffic slowed down, and I wrote when I reached the restaurant ahead of my family.

This was the only way I felt confident that I could do the experience justice. Some people have minds like industrial strength super glue, capturing every lint speck dust ball of detail where it remains until scraped off. Some people, like me have spaghetti strainer memories with holes the size of croquet balls.

However strong (or not so strong) your memory is, it is important that you, as a field researcher, adopt a method that works best for you. No two people, or methods will be exactly the same. Often your method will involve some hybrid of standard practices, dictated at times by ongoing events and research environment.As noted above, I employed a couple of the types of observation/note taking mentioned in this early chapter of the book.

I urge you, the researcher, to find what works best for you.

I have included a sampling of my field notes here:

Fear and Loathing in our Research Methods

Research methods yield diamonds when we, as writers, truly begin to stretch the traditional concepts of the term. Books, journals and databases only offer the casual tourist fare.  This is not to say that such research is without value, or should be ignored. Absolutely not. These tools are static though, not prone to the dynamic shifts and unaccountable complexities that some of the more  engaging methods offer. They should be our starting point of reference. The path from which we depart, machete in hand.

J.W. Creswell, in his book, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design (2nd ed.), explores five qualitative research methods. One method in particular intrigued me, especially considering the implied risk associated with it. Ethnographic research involves looking at a larger group, or sub-culture (Creswell sets a number of 20 or more as an allowable number for solid ethnography) to examine shared behavioral patterns. Furthermore, this form of research involves immersing oneself in that particular environment, in a sense becoming one of “them” in order to truly achieve an insider’s perspective.

As mentioned previously, Creswell points out an inherent risk in this type of research. Proper data collection requires longer time in the field, longer time living amongst your research subjects. The danger is in the researcher losing himself in the process, or as Creswell states, “going native” or “compromising oneself.”

I began to think of Hunter S. Thompson, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Here is this quasi-narrative, drug addled fiction mash-up created from the notebooks and acid trips of Thompson. The basic plot summary consists of a journalist and his attorney thrusting themselves into the wild sub-culture of the Mint 400 motorcycle race in order to score interviews with locals on a politically sensitive and racially heated topic. Somewhere along the line they became “compromised.” The lure of that world grabbed them and pulled them in. This is not to say that Thompson did not walk out of the whole affair with something worthwhile, but his foray into ethnographic research is something to take note of.

I recently attended the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention while gathering research for a piece focused on tattoos. This field research was, in a sense, a lighter form of ethnographic research. I purchased a ticket, sported my ink, and went into that world the same as any other person might. I joined in the spirit of the occasion and experienced the day, stopping short only of actually getting a new tattoo (lack of appointment times and available cash are to blame).  But since then, I have begun to forge acquaintances and engage in conversations with professional tattoo artists. I have an appointment lined up in March for new work. I am experiencing the world from within.

Conan O’Brien, in an effort to interview Hunter S. Thompson, took it upon himself to exhibit some of his subject’s same spirit. Though this is not ethnographic research (due to the focus on the particular individual, in this case Thompson) it demonstrates the lucidity and value of stepping outside traditional research methods. As you’ll see in the clip below, Conan left the comforts of the studio, eschewing the normal interview routine, to score the time with Thompson that he had been after. Please enjoy:

Research should be fun. Research should be surprising, leading you down twisted side trails that don’t appear on the map. Through engaging experiences we are able to write the kind of pieces that engage our readers’ interests. You owe it to your readers to fully invest yourself in the research and if you’re going to shoot the machine gun, be careful not to spill your whiskey.