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.

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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.

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.

Research Interview Schedule & Ambiguous Flux

As it stands, my interview schedule is in a somewhat tenuous position. The players are there, but the stage has not been set. However, I can tell you this:

Christine from Mean Street Tattoo, NY, will be interviewing with me via Facebook chat on Tuesday, March 15th at 9:30. Christine is an apprentice tattoo artist with a year’s experience under her belt.

Brandee Gordon, of Native Ink Tattoo, has graciously agreed to conduct an online interview with me. I have mentioned Ms. Gordon in several blogs and she has expressed her consent to help me in my research. However, she is currently out of town on business and I am waiting to iron out an interview time.

Update as of 3/8/2011: Brandee and I have established contact and will be conducting our interview via Blackberry Messenger next week at a time to be determined.

Brian Dicola, of Eddie’s Tattoo and Loyalty Ink, has communicated that he would be willing to talk to me at the Philadelphia shop (he is there on Wednesdays). I am trying to nail down the night of the 16th (March), but have not received confirmation.

Erin Kane, of Infamous Arts Gallery, will be unable to interview with me. She is suffering from some wisdom teeth issues and is in major pain.

I took this opportunity to look at the scope of my potential interview subjects and realized they were all tattoo artists. Christine offers a nice perspective as an apprentice, a role I feel is crucial to understand in my forming of trade roles and cultural establishment. It occurred to me that I ought to expand my interviewing scope.

Tonight I sent an email to an old friend of mine and extremely interesting (and knowledgeable individual), Dr. Lucio Angelo Privitello. Dr. Privitello is a professor of philosophy at Stockton College with interests in a variety of genre crossing and pseudo-mystical studies. In fact, he recently created a ran a course last semester focusing on philosophy and the HBO series “True Blood”, using the show to study death and immortality. Immortality, a theme I conceive will take a lead role in my eventual story. I am awaiting a reply from Dr. Privitello.

Dr. Lucio Angelo Privitello

Update as of 3/8/2011: Dr. Privitello has agreed to interview with me. His recent class (and subsequent class composed book length project) explores death, immortality, and the preservation and understanding of the self. These are aspects that are very close to the heart of my project. I will be attending his lecture on Proust, at Stockton College, on March 26th. We will be sitting down to talk after his lecture.

Update, as of 3/8/2011: Alexa Mantell was kind enough to point me in the direction of her friend, Brad Kingett, owner of Risen Industries (A film and photography company with dedicated art interests). Brad is working on a project that has not released any official information yet, and so I will not divulge. Needless to say, it is related to my research project. The following application was posted to Risen Industries Facebook wall:

Brad is interested in my research topic and has agreed to sit down with me for a face to face interview. We are tentatively scheduled to meet Monday, the 14th.

 

As changes and scheduling updates occur, I will post them to this page, maintaining a current interview schedule.

State of My (Tattoo Research) Union Address

The findings of my research so far (and let me tell you, I still believe myself to be only ankle-deep in research) has been richly rewarding. The sociocultural connections that I have discovered to date provide enough material to fuel several stories. And let’s not be fooled, my direction has been fully plotted for a rich story of darker magical realism. “The History of Tattooing” (Dover Publications, 2009) is rife with incredible real world examples of tattoo history that could easily find itself in the pages of a Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Joseph McGee novel. Yes, I did just put myself in the same company, lol…my blog, my rules.

For instance, there were several early beliefs ( as written in Sinclair’s “American Anthropologist”, vol. X and XI) that the soul was regarded as a tangible object. Upon physical death, the soul, or spirit, assumed an “exact replica of the earthly body”, to include any tattoos or marks. These tattoos served as rites of passage through the afterlife. Take the Sioux Indians for example. They believed that tattoos received in life would allow for their passage to the “Many Lodges” in the afterlife. It was Sioux belief that the spirit, mounted on his spirit horse, would be stopped in his ghostly passage by an old woman. It was her duty to inspect the dead warrior for his marks, or tattoos (often on his forehead or wrists, and sometimes on his chin). If he was discovered without, he was thrown from the cliff, or cloud, to wander aimlessly and melancholy through the mortal world.

Page Notes from "The History of Tattooing"

The Northern Tangkhuls (India) believed that tattoos linked husband and wife in the afterlife. The Abor tribes (Himalayan) considered the tattoo the “poor man’s identification mark in heaven.”  Those of wealth were adorned with possessions befitting their station. Those without were inked up.

These are only a few of the examples that I have begun to unearth in my research. These are the kinds of details that make for great storytelling. These are the kinds of facts that, when tweaked by an overactive imagination, become stories.

As I prepare to move into the interview phase of my research, I have lined up the following potential resources:

I will be conducting two face to face interviews for the story, both with practicing tattoo artists. Erin Kane is an artist at Infamous Arts Gallery in Plymouth, PA.

Tattoo by Erin Kane

Brian DiCola is an artist at Loyalty Ink, in Kenvil, NJ and at Eddies Tattoo, in Philadelphia, PA.

Tattoo by Brian DiCola

Both have agreed to chat with me about themes, concepts and ideas that I have mentioned in my previous blog about the direction my story was going. I am awaiting an answer on speculative times and dates.

I have also requested two of my recent online (Twitter) contacts to interview with me. Christine Murphy

Christine Murphy

(@ChrisMeanStreet), an apprentice artist at Mean Street Tattoo,College Point, NY, has agreed to interview with me. Due to the busy and irregular schedule of their work, we are trying to set up a time for a slower night of the week. Chris is more than willing to help me out and we have been in email communication to establish a firm time. I am waiting to hear from Brandee Gordon

Tattoo by Brandee Gordon

(@nativeinktattoo), of Native Ink Tattoo, Central Indiana. I mentioned Ms. Gordon and her studio in my previous blog.

And, perhaps reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, as the research begins to develop and I get deeper into this world of ink, I find myself with appointments and invites from the artists I have been in contact with. I have tentative appointments with Erin and Christine. I fancy the thought of one day flying out to Indiana to get work done by Brandee, and Brian is right across the bridge, inking away. In fact, the more I grow to learn about and appreciate the deeper implications of the craft, the art, and the people who do it, the more I find myself intrigued by the idea of traveling to new artists for different pieces.

It seems that this adds another dimension to the piece, in which it is no longer JUST a piece of who you are, it is a tale of where you’ve been and who you’ve met and in this instant (and for every instant after) that inkwork on your skin tells a tale of a person and place with whom you will forever be connected. It is, in this sense, a “talkative thing” (as described by Lorraine Daston in her introduction to “Things That Talk” (Zone Books, 2008)).

If You Build It, They Will Ink: Tearing down the walls of tattoo “tradition”

There is a movement happening in America that you may not even be aware of. You see the signs around you, inked across the skin of soccer mom and goth girl alike. The bank teller hands you your change and your eyes flit across the colorful chain of flowers tattooed around her wrist. Your neighbor mows the lawn, tank top proudly worn to expose the guns and the tribal swirl covering his shoulder. Professional athletes, covered in tattoos, are idolized and celebrated. Tattoos are no longer “confined to sailors and street hoodlums” (Levins). Celebrities, what we embrace as near royalty in modern society, show us, through their own ink, that tattoos are no longer for the shadows.

Actor Johnny Depp Photo Credit: Tattoo Retro

In fact, the tattoo industry (as of recent reports) is the sixth-fastest growing retail industry in the United States. Within 10 miles of my house alone, there are 20 tattoo studios. These are not back alley parlors where designs are chosen from boards on the wall and customers are herded through on skin canvas production lines. These are warm, sterile, creative places where tattoos are done mostly by “appointment only”. These are places like Mystic Eye Tattoo, DNA Tattooing or Patrick Tattoo, where every attempt is made to cater to a growing middle-class of tattoo customers. What is the fastest growing demographic of the newly tattoo initiated? Middle-class suburban moms.

The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion explains “tattoo marks are clearly symbolic… Tattooing in preindustrial societies dominantly relates the tattooed person to a social group or totemic clan, age or sex category, secret society or warrior association… As societies grow more complex and the division of economic and social labor becomes more refined, tattooing becomes more a matter of individual choice and serves the purpose of self-expression… As the technology of the art develops (for example, the invention of the electric tattooing needle), so do the designs and colors multiply, allowing considerable scope for self-expression and making statements about the self… Contemporary tattooed men and women wear on their bodies subtle and beautiful expressions of a continuous tradition that links deity, nature and humankind.” (The Encyclopedia of Religion (16 volumes) Macmillan Publishing, New York, Mircea Eliade, editor, 1987, vol. 2, p. 270).

Tattooing, an art dating back at least 4,000 years (“Tattoo Renaissance,” Time magazine, Dec. 21, 1970, p. 58) is now recognized as a fine art. As John Berendt wrote in Esquire magazine:

“Serious artists…are joining the ranks of tattooers and their designs are being exhibited in museums and featured in expensive coffee table books; fine-art tattooers are, furthermore, leading an effort to improve the image of tattooing….Fine art tattoos…appeal to an affluent, well-educated clientele…The new-style tattooee doesn’t merely pick out a design from the tattooer’s wall; he has an image in mind when he arrives at the studio and then discusses it with the tattooer, much as an art patron commissions a work of art.” (“That Tattoo,” by John Berendt, Esquire magazine, Aug. 1989, p. 32. Thanks to Hoag Levins for supplying the reference).

Tattoo artists themselves, from the celebrated stars of LA Ink (TLC), led by the incredibly talented Kat Von D

Kat Von D

of High Voltage Tattoo and Miami Ink (TLC show), led by the legendary Chris Garver to the local ink scribes of South Jersey, are now recognized as professionals with highly regarded skills.

Chris Garver

When Patrick Levin wanted to open his tattoo business in Camden County, New Jersey, in 1998, he became the first person to be registered under New Jersey’s new tattoo regulations, recognizing him as a “professional” and acknowleding his trade as an “art“.

Patrick Levin

But the highly regarded and much sought after talents of these ink masters are not merely contained to local proximity. People are waiting on appointment lists and traveling out of state to seek work from artists who they feel best represent their identity, their soul. Brandee Gordon, owner of Native Ink Tattoo in Elwood, IN, recently told me that she often has customers fly in to get work done from her. She has also traveled to them, going as far as London to tattoo clients. This is art, appreciated, celebrated, even venerated.

There is a renaissance blossoming of identity and individual celebration. Fine art walks amongst us, gracing the skin canvases of friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers. There is a desire to share ourselves with the world, from the outside in. People are no longer content to hide behind the walls of their flesh. We are, in a sense, tearing down the walls and the skilled artists of the tattoo industry are helping to lead the charge.

“Your body is a temple, but how long can you live in the same house before you redecorate?”

Brandee Gordon of Native Ink Tattoo