A Visit to Mystic Eye Tattoo

I took a ride over to Mystic Eye Tattoo yesterday, looking to take some notes for further field research. It was nice out, sunny and not too cold for once. The shop is about ten minutes away. I’d stopped in earlier to make sure that it would be okay. Matt Doherty, the artist who is working on my sleeve (which has not been touched in over a year..tattoos are not cheap) told me that it would be no problem.

So, here I am. It’s 4:41 p.m., Saturday and I’m in a strip mall that has seen better days. Mystic Eye Tattoo is on Greentree Road in Turnersville, next to an auto body shop that apparently (if their sign is to be believed) specializes in transmissions. The tattoo shop anchors the left flank of stores. The rest are, in this order: C&E Uniforms, Japan/China Food (a very original business name), and Crown Chicken/Crown Taco. All except the tattoo shop are ghosts of businesses past. Empty storefronts, dark and desolate interiors. There is a “Quick Shop” in the lot next door.

I grab my notebook and pen, and back up pen, and smile inwardly that I don’t have to wear a jacket today. The neon sign on the door says “Open”. The front window case is filled with Egyptian statues, a big Buddha, gargoyles and obelisks..all very intriguing and mystical.

Field notes, p.1

I enter the shop and the front room is empty, except for the girl sitting at the computer, behind the counter. I recognize her as one of the artists, but she doesn’t know me. It’s been over a year since I’ve been there. She smiles and asks if she can help me. I can see down the hall into Matt’s room. He has someone on the table, being tattooed. There is a dark-haired girl sitting in the room as well.

I tell who I am and that Matt said it was cool if I came by. I remind her that Matt started my sleeve (a tattoo that covers your entire arm). She says, “Oh yeah, I don’t think you had long hair then. It looks good long.” I thank her and tell her I plan on growing it out (much to my wife’s chagrin). “Yeah,” she says, “I have friends that tried to grow it out but had to cut it because of work and all. You should keep growing it.”

I tell her that I just want to take some notes, observe a bit. I notice she does not have a client and so I ask her if I could pick her brain a bit as well. She agrees, just as soon as she is done sending her message on the computer. It turns out she’s on Facebook. The guy who was getting tattooed eventually comes out from Matt’s room and busts her chops for being on Facebook on “company time.” She tells him, jokingly, that she has “a fan group.”

Field notes, p. 2-3

I sit in the front room, on the larger of the two green super comfy couches. The coffee table is covered with at least 30 different tattoo magazines. Some of the titles are Tattoo Society, Tattoo Review, Inked, and International Tattoo. A majority of them feature beautiful women in provocative poses on their covers.

A variety of art adorns the lime green walls. On the wall to my left an Indian brave rides a charging boar through a jungle, and a flower blooms to reveal dancing figures of flame bodies. Plastic bamboo plants and ferns fill out some of the corners and line the walls. Plastic ivy winds along the walls. There is a corner curio cabinet with more statues of Pharaohs, Greek sculptures and Aboriginal boomerangs. The wall across from me is covered with awards and certifications. More primitive statues decorate the shop, many of which seem as though they could be pulled out of the pages of National Geographic or Smithsonian Magazine.

Two rows of fluorescent light fixtures illuminate the shop from the drop ceiling. A radio is playing from one of the back rooms. It’s quiet. The buzz of the machine does not permeate the air like you’d expect.

Tracey Morse, the tattoo artist who spoke to me when I came in, walks out from behind the counter, through one of those swinging doors, like a hinged gateway separating the lobby from the realm of ink. “So, what’d you want to ask me?” she says. She sits down on the couch across from me. She’s wearing jeans, green Doc Martins (oddly similar to a pair that I sold once on Ebay and, to this day, regret doing) and an artsy kind of shirt with sheer sleeves that make some of her own tattoos visible as if looking at them through dragonfly wings.

Tattoo by Tracey Morse

I’d gone into the shop with the intention of just making some observations and recording data about the environment itself, but now I was faced with a spur of the moment interview. I’m quick to adjust. I ask her to talk to me about the process, about the machines she uses and needle sizes and uses. Tracey begins to rattle off facts and data about the machines that sound more like a motorhead discussing engine dynamics than a tattoo artist talking about her machine.

She talks about the variables in the machines. She tells me that she uses a coil machine that requires more adjustment and tinkering based off of needle grouping. These groups can range anywhere from one to five needles and more variables react to the gauge size of the respective needles.Tracey tells me that Matt uses a rotary machine that relies more on voltage settings to determine the speed and force of the penetration, as well as the depth setting of the throw. She is spitting facts as if she were telling me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She talks about pre-calibrated force and resonance and as I nod and scribble into my notebook, she says “I’m probably speaking Greek to you.” I wonder if Greek would be easier to learn.

Field notes, p. 4-5

Tracey explains that a lot of the control over the machine just comes with practice and experience. A tattoo artist can gauge the operation of their machine by the chattering, “like a car engine.” She uses a meter to measure how smoothly her machine is operating in order to take any of the guess-work out of it. She talks a little about the specifics of needle gauges and weight. There is a spring gauge setting that depends on how small the needles are. My head’s spinning, but I know that she has a customer coming in soon and I want to see where this conversation goes. I don’t want to interrupt her for exact mechanical functioning of the machine. There’s more I want to hear about the process and besides, I know I can come back to them, or email Matt if I need clarification.

Tracey explains that needles fall into a few different layouts: round grouping, stacked, fanned out (staggered) and round shaders. These are the typical needle configurations. She uses at least two machines per tattoo, especially if color is involved. A typical machine selection is one with fine needles and another bold shader (there are various shaders: liner shaders, bold shaders, etc). If it’s a simple name tattoo, she might just use one machine.

Field notes, p. 6-7

I ask them about the colors they use and what that entails. I understand that once you open them up you have to use them. Tracey explains that they have expiration dates and that you pour what you intend to use for a specific tattoo into a work cup. Some are very concentrated and she’ll use water and glycerine to thin it a bit. They come in 1 oz. to 8 oz. bottles, depending on the color. They use a lot of white and black, and there are different kinds of black. For instance, there’s blue-black and then heavy black.

Matt is done in the back and is standing at the counter listening. “Blue black?” he says. They engage in a discussion about the different shades of black.

We start talking about the process of the tattoo and how it starts with the concept. Matt explains that a large part of the process is being able to aesthetically incorporate a customer’s ideas and intent. Tracey adds that a lot of the tattoos are very meaningful and you “form a bond with the person.” I notice that there are no flash panels on the wall, or books of flash (flash is a  pre-designed, stock tattoo to use). Matt says that flash is still used a bit and that there are some good books, but the trends have mostly moved past that. There are a lot of trends in the business, like for a while every person who came through the door wanted Chinese lettering. I suppress the urge to laugh. I have such a tattoo on my chest. It is the hexagram for “The Traveler”, pulled straight out of the I-Ching. I was 19 and one of my best friends and I had the same symbol put on the same spots on our bodies. No regrets, but it’s funny to hear it called a trend.

Matt believes there is more custom work now because you have more artists getting into the tattoo business. The work coming out now is influenced by the artists getting into the trade.

Field notes, p. 8-9

“It’s less cookie cutter,” Tracey adds.

Matt expounds on it and explains that tattooing used to be treated like, and considered, more of a trade. Now it is more of an art form. This is a sentiment that has been repeated numerous times in the research I have been doing. It is a sentiment expressed by newer, younger tattoo artists and retired, venerated tattoo artists like Crazy Philadelphia Eddie.

Tracey tells me that was how she got into the business. She didn’t know anything about tattooing, but she brought in her own art for her tattoo. At the time they did not have any artists to create original tattoos. They had boards of flash on the wall. She started doing their art for them, drawing tattoos for the tattooists. It got her foot in the door and that’s how she started.

I ask her how difficult it was to transition into working on skin. “It was different transferring to a new medium,” she says. “The machine runs you at first until you master the variables.” She worked on friends and volunteers for a little over a year before she was ready to take on paying customers.

She’s getting ready for her appointment now, up and about. I tell her how it still seems so complicated to me and how much I have been learning. I mention my awareness of the terminology and “machine” vs. “gun.” “Yeah,” she smiles, “gun is a cardinal sin word.”

“Have you gone to any of the conventions?” she asks. I tell her that I did go to the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention. She tells me that the New York convention is a great one to go to. She believes it’s in May. She’s not sure about Baltimore, she’s never been.

Field notes, p. 10-11

We talk a little bit about the freedom of being a tattoo artist, how you have the artistic freedom to create, you can dress how you want, grow your hair if you want, live free and able to openly express your individuality while meeting interesting people from all walks of life. Tracey says she “counts her lucky stars every day”. She’s extremely happy with her lot in life. She pulls at her hair (it’s kind of pulled up and back into a ponytail/bun kind of thing). “You don’t even have to do your hair,” she laughs. “But you still have to present a decent appearance. You have to have respect for the people coming in. You can’t be a douche.”

I’m making some more notes about the shop in general. Matt and Tracey are gearing up for their 6:00 appointments. A younger guy walks in, prob in very, very early twenties, if not twenty on the nose. He asks if they “charge by the letter.” Tracey tells him that they “charge by style, intricacy, and how much time it takes.” She asks him if he wants to see a style book of lettering, but he declines. She also tells him that if he has a sample or something they cold take a look at that. He looks a little bewildered, as if the idea of standing in the tattoo shop itself is intoxicating. “Do you take walk-ins?” he asks. Tracey says that “more often than not we’re booked.” She recommends an appointment.

Tattoo by Matt Doherty

Matt comes around and has a seat on the couch formerly occupied by Tracey. It’s like a tag team tattoo artist information feed. Matt starts to tell me more about the act of tattooing. You have to hold the machine at a 45 degree angle. You can tell, he says, just by the vibrations of the machine hitting the skin if it’s a good line or not. Again, it comes with time and experience.

We talk about the influx of tattoo shops in the area and the growing business nationwide. He mentions Empire Tattoo for instance. He says that they have now 4 or 5 shops, all in the last year. But, he says, the owner markets the hell out of his business. Matt uses pizza parlors as an example. He explains that it’s not too hard to make pizza. There are pizza places everywhere in south Jersey, but they all manage to generate business. And with pizza, he’ll still eat it even if it is just “tolerable.” However, with tattoos, it’s a little bit more complex. “If you’re good, you’re good,” he says. “Your work speaks for itself.” People find an artist they like and feel comfortable with and dedicate their business to them. Less skilled artists are usually cheaper, he says. Again, I think, good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good. It usually works itself out, he explains. The more detailed, more complicated tattoos are going to require a better, more experienced artist.

“You have to promote yourself,” he says. “Not too many tattoo artists do that.” Matt went to school for graphic arts, specifically for things like book covers and fantasy art. He tells me that those artists pound the pavement. They research prospective markets and potential employers. It’s a lot of work in order to be successful. You don’t see that in tattooing. It seems to be more of a laid back, let the work come to you kind of atmosphere. But, he explains, the owner of Empire Tattoo has a billboard, has had mailers, bought a commercial spot last year during Monday Night Football.

Matt tells me that he is actually taking the shop over. Dave, the previous owner (and his previous boss) is already living in California. Matt has promotion plans and ideas for mailers and coupons (yes, tattoo coupons. Start clipping). I ask him if he intends to make any major changes. He’ll keep the name, he says, but the first thing he intends to do (as he eyes up the lime green walls) is paint.

He also tells me that he has a new apprentice, a friend from art school. She is close to being able to do work on paying customers. The process of apprenticeship entails a lot of drawing, a lot of practicing on friends and volunteers. Matt and Tracey both say that they had people lining up to volunteer. “If you mess it up, just fix it when you get better,” their friends would tell them. An apprentice needs to do about 2000 hours (one year) before the board of health comes in to certify them. They also have to take a blood borne pathogens course.

Tracey’s customer is in, a woman named Rachel. She is getting a dog memorial on the back of her neck, a paw print. Apparently she is on an antibiotic and has to call her pharmacy to make sure it’s okay to get tattooed. While she is on the phone, Matt and I discuss tattoos and mysticism and shrunken heads. Did you know that the headhunters shrunk the heads of their victims so that their soul did not escape to seek vengeance on them? Yeah, wild, huh? Rachel is off the phone. It’s okay to get tattooed.

Matt orders his dinner from a new delivery place. Some kind of turkey wrap. It’s nice to see he’s eating healthy. Matt appears to be in good shape, short cut hair, no visible tattoos from the biceps down, except for the pencil thin mustache on his finger. There is a picture in his tattoo room of he and his girlfriend with their fingers up under their noses, displaying their elegant mustaches. The sign on the counter states that there is a $100 minimum for any tattoo. A $1oo deposit is also required.

We sit and talk about school and kids. He remembers pulling at least one all-nighter a week. As a painter and fellow creator, he is interested in the whole process of what I am doing and understands the value of objective research for a subjective piece. It’s like panning for gold. You cast the net, pull up a whole load of silt and filter it through for the good stuff. We talk about my other projects and about painting and how easy it is to get bored with a long project. For him, it’s doing the background after the excitement of the detail work. For me, it’s sticking with a long novel when fresh ideas present themselves.

Field notes, p. 12-13

We talk a little bit about his new daughter, 6 months old. We talk about the couches. He thinks the one he is sitting on is just not deep enough. It’s just casual, comfortable talk, the kind of interaction that lends itself to a long-term relationship in which I can speak freely with him and he with me.

But, it’s getting to be that time. Tracey is in her room with Rachel. Matt has to get his station together for his appointment. He let’s me know that if I have any questions at all or need any help, just stop in, call him, email him. Whatever I need to do, he’d be glad to help me out.

Tattoo by Matt Doherty

We talk about my unfinished sleeve. He tells me that he’ll cut the price a bit for me, giving me about a 30% discount. He looks it over again and gauges how long it will take to finish certain areas. “I’m much faster now,” he tells me. He also says that some of the original needs a little touch up detail, some of the lines and some color need work. He says that’s free of charge, just come in and if he doesn’t have an appointment, he’ll work on it. “I’m a lot better than a year ago,” he says. “The more you do, the better you get.”

We shake hands, and I assure him that I’ll hit him up if any other questions come to mind. I have the itch to get more work done on my sleeve and so if the money tree decides to sprout a new branch of spare cash, I’ll use some to work on my incomplete sleeve. I’m going to try to get in and get a little touch up work done on it, take him up on his offer.

I see good things happening for Mystic Eye Tattoo. Matt is young, energetic and driven to succeed. I know he’ll do well and I look forward to seeing them succeed. The afternoon was, as has been all of my research thus far, fruitful and successful in building a bridge into the future.

Harper’s Annotation Take 2

After falling short with my first prospective annotation object, it was time to withdraw and regroup. I’d originally considered the tattoo machine as the perfect image to represent the research that I was immersed in. What better object to anchor the many facets of my project than the tool that bridges the artist and the customer, making the creative process possible. It would be like annotating the sword of the duelist, the gun of the gunslinger, the skateboard of Tony Hawk…you get the idea. But I thought that was too simple, too limited. But it’s not limited, and it’s only simple in its straightforward delivery of the topic. Bill Wolff suggested the machine as did several of my peers.

As fate would have it, as has been the course of my research this semester, I fell into an awesome picture. Brandee Gordon, Native Ink Tattoo, posted a picture of her holding her favorite tattoo machine.

Brandee's Machine (original picture)

It’s a bright pink tattoo machine. I emailed it to Bill and he suggested I get the machine alone, but loved the pink as it opened up discussion for gender issues and representation in the tattoo industry. I asked Brandee to take a separate picture of it, which she was more than happy to do. She has been incredibly receptive and helpful, providing me with a lot of additional information and media upon request.

Now, it just so happens that Brandee just had some new ink done on her own body and posted a Twitpic. I saw it and knew in an instant that it spoke volumes about what I was working on. Her new tattoo demonstrated the connection between art and tattooing. Again, Brandee was more than happy to let me use the picture for my potential Harper’s annotation. Here are the images I intend to use:

Brandee Gordon (new ink)

So, I’ll look to tackle the following themes in the call out boxes of my annotation:

  • [Brandee’s Ink Photo]: The move/dichotomy from tattooing as a trade to a fine art, along with the recognition as such and acceptance as a legitimate business.
  • [Brandee’s Ink Photo]: The fact that women represent the majority of people being tattooed right now and the dual struggle that women had to fight as far as gender discrimination AND perceived deviance as having tattoos
  • [Brandee’s Ink Photo]: The idea of aesthetic expression and the wearing of our “soul” on our sleeve (skin)
  • [the pink machine]: The rapidly growing tattoo industry. 6th Fastest growing retail industry, 20 shops in a 12 mile radius of my house.
  • [the pink machine]: Progression of tattoos from tapping dye under the skin to new technology, including the ability to laser remove them
  • [the pink machine]: mainstreaming of social media: TLC shows, books, etc..societies fascination with tattoos and celebrity artists.

I think that the two images compliment each other very nicely and provide a concrete base for definitive facts and solid research. Again, I am grateful to Brandee, who is on the road again…in NYC, guest tattooing and visiting there for a few days. Always on the move..lol.

I’d like to present this short film clip of Brandee at work, creating a memory on a customer’s arm and acting as the vehicle of love and a family’s embrace of generational divide. This video had a tremendous impact on the direction that my final genre piece will take. Enjoy.

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.”


  • 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 Brandee Gordon, Native Ink Tattoo

Tonight I will have the pleasure of chatting with Brandee Gordon, owner of Native Ink Tattoo in central Indiana. Brandee opened Native Ink in 1998 and has established herself quite well in the industry. She has tattooed extensively amongst NFL players as well as other professional athletes. Her clients travel from across the country, and the world, for her talent. Brandee has also traveled to her customers, going as far as London and Mexico. Brandee has appeared in a number of magazines and continues to grow and succeed in a rapidly expanding industry.

I “met” Brandee through Twitter and found her to be quite friendly and informative about the craft (both traits that have no doubt helped her succeed in the close circle of professional athletes). She has been extremely helpful and responsive to my questions or comments, even when it seems that she is constantly on a plane or going somewhere to ply her trade. She has agreed to speak with me via Facebook chat tonight at 9:30.

There are a number of areas that I would like to discuss with Brandee, to include the ability of tattoos to “speak as objects of art”, the artist/customer relationship and bond she has established, the rapidly developing industry and her part in it as an artist, business owner and a mom, the power of the tattoo to embody a person’s true core. There are themes that I have stuck to throughout my previous three interviews in order to objectively piece them together across a spectrum of personalities, but there are new themes that have developed in the wake of these same interviews. For instance, a common idea of “tattooers” vs. “tattoo artists” has developed, an idea that there are true tattoo craftsmen and then there are fine artists that happen to use skin as their medium. There also seems to be disparity about the need or desire to share the complex and intimate details of a customer’s reason for their ink.

I have prepared my interview much the same as I have my previous three. I researched what I knew or could find on Brandee through her website, Facebook, Twitter and other related links. Then, I looked at why I was interviewing Brandee, how her insight was unique and at what angle she could provide me with new information, or at least another angle at looking at some previously discussed topics. I set up themed areas to hit around, but otherwise I like to let the interview develop itself. I do not like to put walls around people and force them through my gates. I want to follow their trail and see where it leads me. That’s where the best information can usually be found. It is amazing where the research takes you, often to unexpected and pleasantly surprising places.

“I see…tattooed people.”

I’m sitting in Sabrina’s Cafe, in Philadelphia. It’s one of those cozy, old charm establishments with the air of individuality most often found in the city. I’m there for an early lunch. It’s not a big place. It’s not tiny, but just big enough that it doesn’t lose its identity. It’s a mixed crowd. There are a couple of men in suits, sitting at the breakfast bar with their laptops out. There are younger men and women, presumably from the local college, having a late breakfast and chatting up about movies.  A group of four or five women are engaged in conversation. There are couples, there are small groups and there are other lone diners enjoying a moment of peace, seating for one please. Sabrina’s is probably about 60% filled.

I order the meatloaf parm sandwich, topped with cheese and peppers and other delicious things that simply must have been grown in heaven’s garden. It came with a side of the tastiest parmesan french fries I have ever tasted. Ok, the first parmesan fries I have ever tasted, but man they were good. I sipped my iced tea and, as I usually do, I began to record. My eyes swept the room, my ears tuned into conversations. The giant film reels in my brain began to spin, capturing whatever details could be retained for future clips in some future story at some future time.

My eyes locked on the tattoo around the ankle of the woman who resembled my son’s first grade teacher. Part of a shoulder tattoo escaped the short sleeve of the man a few tables over. My waitress wore a big smile and a low cut blouse, showing off the tattoo right in the center of her chest. I began to scan table to table, waitress to waitress. They were everywhere. Another waitress went by, same blouse, tattoo in same location. The waitress working the breakfast bar, discussing stray cats and art exhibits with a group of people, had her inner forearm done, as well as her chest. Ok, not that I was looking, but dark ink on pale skin in the center of the torso, exposed above a low cut shirt is not accidental. (Side note: either this was pure coincidence, a trend amongst friends, a job prerequisite, or some diabolical cult intent on enslaving the palates of hungry diners).

I ripped out my notebook and began to record my observations. I’ve been reading, researching, blogging and interviewing about tattoos for weeks now. I have tattoos on the brain (and, yes, on my skin) but this was not some research induced projection. I was witnessing a slice of life example of how far tattoos have come, of how common they have become. I had just interviewed Brad Kingett, Risen Industries, the day before and we had discussed how many people were getting or had tattoos. We both agreed that it would never be 100% accepted, as there are too many generations still growing up with an adversity to ink, handed down from parent to child and so on down the line. But here I was, sitting and observing a variety of collective strangers, a majority of which displayed some visible ink.

"I see...tattooed people."

I also think about Brad’s reference to “our own subculture.” That there is an air of comfort afforded those of us who share this common bond. It is a point of common ground. It is an experience and acceptance of a practice some would be quick to judge in poor light. It is something you can strike up a conversation about if you find yourself feeling awkward in the midst of a party where you know no one. We, who wear our tattoos proudly, are linked in some small fashion. On the beach, we Sneetches have stars on our bellies.

In between servings I try to catch a glimpse of her work, appreciating the art on her skin, without trying to appear as if I am staring down her shirt. She put it there for a reason. She wore a shirt that showcased it for a reason. This tattoo is for her, but it is also meant to be shared. All of the tattoos that I see throughout the room are parts of a walking exhibit. All pieces of art in this living exhibit.

And when the bill comes, the total is $12.90. The sun is smiling, Spring is coming. The food was delicious, the service was friendly. There are people in Japan trying to recover their lives. We share a bond through ink, my server and I. We are part of our own subculture. Brad was right. I leave a $20 and tell her I don’t need change. I have to take care of my own kind.

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.