Following the Ink Drops…

Art by Greg Simkins

In the course of conducting research for this semester’s Research Methods for Writers class, I have been assaulted with ideas. The topic of tattoos and tattoo artists, is entirely too broad and so I had to choose an avenue that narrowed the field a bit.

I intend to write my final piece as a genre short story. The way my research is going, it may wind up as magical-realism, or some sort of dark urban fantasy. Anybody who knows me would not expect anything else, lol…

Though my research is really just beginning to get under way, some beacons have risen to provide guiding points of light in the dark sea of possibility. I’ve noted these as developing themes and plan to follow their lead in pursuit of my research. Let’s explore them…

The first is this concept of a hierarchy. There seems to me, to be a caste system in place where tattoo artists of various “position” are afforded certain rights, privileges and attention, befitting their “station”.  This is not to say that any one artist who has been relegated to a lower tier on the ink ladder is not capable (or deserving) of producing at the level of the Kings and Queens of the court. This is just how the system has situated itself. Why? How does this happen? Talent is obviously a key contributing factor, but to what ends are other factors such as media coverage, contacts, location, and luck? This hierarchical concept made itself evident to me while attending the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. The VIP artists had a room completely to themselves, with work areas easily six times that of the “lower nobility”. In fact, they were on their own floor, separate from the masses of other artists who had crowded into narrow stalls on the upper floor. There are local Kings, such as Philadelphia Eddie, who stand on a tier above their fellow artists, put there by time, tradition, respect, insight and talent. But even the Philadelphia Eddie’s must walk in the shadows of Emperors and Empresses like Chris Garver or Kat Von D.

Another observation in the vein of hierarchy, is that of the courts themselves. Drawing a comparison to medieval culture and fantasy fiction, there is a distinct parallel to the idea of “noble courts”. Indeed, each artist or group of artists seemed to have its own retinue, its own group of knights and maidens and hangers-on. There are squires as well, apprentices learning the art of the ink gun under the tutelage of a proven tattoo artist. State laws vary in the necessary period of apprenticeship, but I believe the average amount to be 2000 hours. During this period, apprentices spend a great deal of time drawing, learning and aiding the tattoo artists themselves. The ability to create the desired images on paper, to breathe life into thought (and to do it well) is the foundation of moving to skin.

Secondly, I want to explore a reference I heard in relation to the tattoo industry. I have mentioned in a previous post that the tattoo industry is the sixth fastest growing retail industry in the states. I also read a comment that referred to it as a “cut-throat business” What does that mean? What about camaraderie? This establishes conflict, and to write a story about this, conflict is necessary. This is an area worth exploring.

Third, is the belief or attachment of power to tattoos. Historically, tattoos have been used to promote fertility, immortality, or protection. The Egyptians and Maori tribes leap to mind immediately. There has been an inherent mysticism attached to tattoos, a magical association that lends itself perfectly to the genre I wish to write in. I am currently reading about the history of tattoos, in which a significant part of the book is devoted to this tenet. I am also intrigued by the notion of the connection the artists themselves forge with the piece they are doing. Again, I mention Kat Von D. I just bought her new book, “The Tattoo Chronicles” in which she records her personal level of connection to individual tattoos she has done. Kat claims to only do work that she feels significantly important to the customer and that she connects with on some level. I found this artist to recipient “thread” to be significant and attaching weight to the ink transfer.

Finally, as the creative cogs began to grind, an idea formed that I felt compelled to jot down.

From the notes of Joseph P. McGee

The pieces are still falling into place, like dandelion spores exploding across a field of windswept grass. I like the idea of warring gangs/courts/tribes of tattoo artists. Inkslingers? Ink Shamans? I like the idea of power infused in the art at the cost of a piece of the soul? These are all areas to be explored and, of course, more research is necessary.

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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

Where the Wild Things Are: Entering the Kingdom of Skin and Ink

I arrived at the Sheraton, in downtown Philadelphia, not knowing what to expect at all. This would be my first tattoo convention and I was excited at the prospect of immersing myself in the culture. A chill rain spit down on the commoners as they slogged their way toward the guarded walls of the tattoo nobility. Make no mistake, there is (as I would come to find out) a hierarchy, a system of rank and privilege, of caste and respect, permeating the entire sub-culture of the tattooed world. This is a Kingdom of Skin & Ink, and I was but a peasant.

I joined the throng of common rabble, crowded within the outer gate of the Sheraton. We stood in the lobby, struggling to make some sense of the fluctuating and undulating line that snaked around the hotel’s lobby like a child’s crayon scribble. It was obvious that the Sheraton was unprepared for this swarm of tattoo enthusiasts. I was unprepared for the amount of people who had come out to celebrate the art of the tattoo. There were girls and boys, men and women, couples with strollers, old people, young people, black, white, asian, pierced, dyed, tough, effeminate, pale, tan, tall, anorexic, over dressed, barely dressed, beards, breasts, handlebar mustaches, hoodies, and ink, ink, ink, ink: sleeves, hands, necks, backs, calves, faces, you name it, it was inked. It was an explosion of skin art and people were there to show it off.

We stood in line, adjusting to the constant moderation of the hotel staff (who was obviously overwhelmed). We drank our drinks, paying lofty prices from the cash bars that had been strategically placed about, oh, every twenty feet. We shuffled our feet forward, discussing music and their ink, my ink, what we wanted next. I was, with a full sleeve half-finished and four other tattoos, feeling extremely under inked. The air smelled like beer, perfume and cigarettes. A cacophony of conversation resounded throughout the vaulted chamber. I waited a half an hour to get my wrist band, a $20 white paper bracelet with red skulls. Now, I had only to wait in the escalator line to gain access to the city proper. 10 minutes later I was ushered past the escalator guard and placed my booted feet upon the rising step of belt fed ascension. The hour was at hand!

There were two floors, two stops, but I went right to the top. Stairway to Heaven, baby. I’d hit the other floor on the way out. Three images assailed me as I stepped off the escalator. First, the attractive girl in the t-shirt and briefest of bikini briefs who had just recently (like 15 minutes ago) had the entire upper half of her right thigh tattooed, The skin was swollen, the lines were red and puffy and the ink was shiny. She wore her cellophane cover like the skin of a prized hunt. Secondly was yet another cash bar which was doing more business than the Camden drug dealers and third, the Philadelphia police officer who looked entirely bored and unaware of the chaos unfolding around him. I stepped into the madness and tried to get my bearings.

Now, this is no easy immediate task. You have to understand that there is complete sensory overload. There are so many people that salmon swimming upstream feel like they live in rural Idaho. There are colors and banners and postcards, and products, and piercings, and wild ink, and lots of skin, and zombie Gumby escorted by horror themed burlesque girls. Pandemonium would be church services in Nebraska on an Easter Sunday. This was something else. But it was a controlled pandemonium. It was an embraced pandemonium and I threw my arms around it and hung on tight.

My first stop was at a book vendor. Now, anyone who knows me will not find this surprising in the least. I could go to the middle of the Sahara Desert and somehow walk out with a new book. So, I checked out what the Bookmistress had to offer. There were a number of very cool books on the history of tattooing, various artists’ style books, some works on symbolism, etc.  There was an interesting book on the meaning and background of actual Soviet tattoos that were forced on prisoners in the middle of the 20th century. However, I was not going to pursue that route for my research project. I did, however, find a gold mine of a book: The History of Tattooing, covering many different tribes and cultures who believed that tattooing was somehow linked to the protection and preservation of the soul. Bingo. Cash for book. Thank you very much. I also picked up an idea inspiring book of art by a really wild, weird and eclectic artist, Greg Craola Simkins.

Yet another Greg Simkins image

From Greg Simkins

A Greg Simkins Image

I passed up a vegan pizza brochure and pocketed the March Monster convention flyer and pressed forward. My eyes trained on the gates beyond the “NO MC Colors” (motorcycle club) and “Must be 18” signs, to the booths of tattoo nobility. And then I realized what was going on. It was so constant, so integral of the entire environment. There was a constant and underlying buzz of tattoo guns. It was like a massive of swarm of mosquitoes had descended upon us and refused to take flight. Every conversation had to elevate itself above the decibel of the humming inkslingers.

I passed through the doors and into the court proper. Here there be dragons. And here, first to greet you was the king himself: Crazy Philadelphia Eddie. Tattoo icon of Philadelphia and the East Coast. He was behind a table, selling copies of his new book (ghost written by a gentleman whom I also met and would be granted the privilege of attaining his contact information). In his mid-seventies, Eddie seemed as spry and able as one would expect of a tough son-of-a-bitch who had made his way with fist and ink from the age of 15 on Coney Island. He wore a white blazer, but his neck and hand tattoos were contrasted only by his neatly clipped silver hair.

“Eddie, how are you?” I said.

“Good, you?”

I commented on the amount of people here, and how awesome it was to see the craft so supported. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m here for research. I mentioned my research project and the neo-tribalism move and social trends. I told him I was doing a graduate research project. I asked if I could contact him and maybe pick his brain.

“What are you in school for?” asked his writer, Eric Foemmel.

I told him I was going for my Master’s in Writing Arts.

“If you want a real job, become a plumber,” Eddie croaked. “That’s what I was going to be.”

“Well, how’d you get into the tattoo business?”

He tapped his book. “It’s all in here,” he said. “All the picking you could get out of my brain is in here.”

“Well, sign me up.” I smiled and handed over $30 as Eddie signed the book to me. I stepped aside and talked to Eric, his writer for a few minutes. He fished his card out of his wallet and gave it to me, excited at the prospect of someone else using tattoos in their graduate studies. He’d done the same for his PhD. and was willing to help me out.

I left Eddie and entered the lower courts. This was where the minor nobility established their courts. Row after row of tattoo artists, each with their own area. Each with their own banner and prints and cards and photo albums or computer screens showing their work. Every artist with their own entourage, their own court. Girls, friends, helpers, hangers-on of some sort. Every artist, except the occasional available one, tattooing someone’s side or arm, or back, or leg or head. Drawings, transfers, tattoo guns humming. Shoulder to shoulder, people pressing by. No modesty. Skin exposed. Bellies and backs and breasts barely covered. Artists from Texas, and Lansdale, and Massachusetts, and NYC and Detroit. From all over the country they came. Piercings and branding and scarring. Nurse on  duty. Stop and watch.


The next level down was for the true royalty (besides the King, of course. Eddie reigns supreme. An icon). But here were the modern movers and shakers. The Mark Wahlbergs of the tattooing industry. They had whole city blocks as far as space was distributed. They had lights and cameras and entire staffs at their disposal. Here too were the burlesque girls and the painters. The art exhibit and vendors (to include a $1750 jacket that I wanted to mortgage my house for). You could buy jewelery, novelties, piercings. clothing, shrunken heads, bags, books, hats, glasses, etc, etc. This was the marketplace and the quote from Hellraiser seems most appropriate here: “Oh, we have such sights to show you.”

I did my best to push through, wanting to buy everything but buying nothing (except for the books I’d purchased already and don’t think I didn’t contemplate selling whatever I had to, to get that jacket). I would get no ink done today. It seems the protocol is to set up appointments ahead of time. The convention runs Fri-Sun and it seems that people go on Friday, or get rooms and schedule appointments through the weekend. It is extremely rare that one can show up and just get something done. So, I shuffled past the group of apparent motorcycle club members in the midst of a “conversation” with the police. I sidestepped the thirty something couple with their five-year old son. I brushed past the goth girls with their emo boy-guy-friendy things, and made my way to the escalator. And this is where it goes full circle.

Apparently escalators at tattoo conventions are magical portals of bikini wearing girls. There, barring my way from entering said escalator, was a breathing Barbie doll with strips of cloth supposedly passing for a bikini. She was exhibiting her back tattoo (and just about everything else) to the group of camera wielding barbarians behind her. I made sure I wasn’t in the shot and slipped past. I had a wife and three little boys to meet. We were having dinner at Don Pablo’s.

I drove home, writing furiously into my notebook at every red light or traffic stop. It had been an intense and rewarding field experience, one on which my research journey will be built upon, not decided by. It was obvious, in this one afternoon I spent amongst those whom with I share a common bond, that this is no mere hobby or expression. This is a lifestyle. This is an extension of the soul and I am a citizen of their world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REFLECTION

It is interesting to note that I conducted this field research prior to any class discussion of ethnographic field study, note taking, transcribing, and active researching. We’d only just picked our topics that week, most were still not approved, but the convention was going on that weekend whether or not I was going to be delving into this project. That being said, and after extensive study and some practice with ethnographic field notes, I have to say that I am very satisfied with how my excursion turned out. I took detailed and extensive notes. I recorded them in a hybrid mix of the examples given in our text, Writing Ethnographic Field Notes, withdrawing at times to scribble in corners or in my car before leaving the parking garage. I pulled sensory details and conceptual ideas out of every corner of that convention, even bringing home two texts that would prove to be instrumental in my research and an excellent interview subject in the form of Eric Foemmel.

I’m not sure what I would have done differently, except for maybe to make a weekend out of it and actually get some work done there (an appointment is pretty much needed). Maybe some of the after hours activity might have been interesting to observe, but that was not a luxury I had.

All in all, I think that this experience helped me to understand what we were reading and studying in class as I had already successfully done it. It also allowed me to be aware of what I was doing without even necessarily realizing it.

Sound the Tweets of War! The Power of Social Media.

A dense fog hugs the black waters, masking the longship as it slips through the channel. Bay water slaps the prow, churned by the two dozens oars that drive the ship toward the shore. Erik Headsplitter stands at the front of the ship, peering into the shroud. Somewhere ahead, nestled on the rocky shoreline like a surf swept pile of driftwood, sits the village he has come to take. Surprise is essential. The other half of their force will be waiting now, hidden in the thick of the woods above town, for Erik’s signal. The distant fires of the village appear. They grow larger with each succession from the oarsmen. Now, he thinks. Erik turns to the scarred faced boy beside him, his nephew, barely old enough for his winter beard.

“Send the signal,” he says. The boy stands ready, face awash in the glowing blue light of his Iphone. “Sound the Tweets of War!”

We live in an amazing era. An era of instant information and networking. The wonder of the World Wide Web has given way to the wonder of social networking, and a truly instantaneous and global community. New ways to establish a “webdentity” appear faster than we can implement them. Net identity is built atop platforms linked and stacked atop each other like digital dominoes.  Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Twitpic, Web pages, Blogs, Instant Messaging, texts, Google Buzz….these are the examples that leap to my mind initially. It is staggering to consider the complexity of networking that is happening, as we speak. As writers, this is an invaluable tool for us. This is Thor’s hammer, cast down out of Asgard…if we use it properly (more on that later).

This age of social networking offers writers incredible methods of researching that, in the past, would either be unavailable, unknown, or at the expense of time and money not necessarily available. We, as writers, are able to discover new information and establish contact with people half a world away that may provide expertise on our area of research. Contacts breed contacts and within a few days, a few hours even, an entire platform can be built with which to construct your research. As is the case with any research we do, caution is offered to discern the validity and credibility of any information gleaned.

Recently, I posted the proposal for my grad research project (Ars Velius:Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard). After posting, I “tweeted” a link to it, adding hash tags for tattoos, ink and art. Within a half an hour, I received a notice that Chris Garver, of the TLC reality show “Miami Ink” was following me on Twitter. Chris is an incredible professional tattoo artist. An hour later, my tweet was “retweeted” by another Twitter citizen (a Twitizen??) who had thousands of followers, all interested in the tattoo industry and craft. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to have other tattoo artists sign on to follow my tweets, to include Chris Nunez, also of Miami Ink, and other tattoo affiliated sites. The ability to connect with experts in the field of research I am currently conducting is obviously invaluable.

Chris Garver Tattoo Video in Tokyo from Billy DeCola on Vimeo.

However, the blade that we wield is able to cut us as well. Social media/networking can easily become a distraction. With the responsibility to update blogs, maintain websites, post clever status updates, and send out informative tweets, our writing time is diminished. These are all things that need to be done, but at what cost? Mobile ability makes this a little easier (i.e Iphones, Blackberrys, Androids and Ipads, etc)…but still, these little media beasts aren’t content to have some of our time. They want all of our time. As writers we need to, well..um…write. It’s all too easy to sit down to that fresh page, ready to strike the keys and then become overwhelmed with the urge to check your Facebook page. Or maybe, check your Twitter feed…and, oh yeah, there’s that link you want to put on your web page, but wait…did you read so-and-so’s blog yesterday. No? Hmm…well, we’ll just have a quick read. Then you get a text. Then a Facebook message, then a reply on your blog, then six emails…then you turn around, hours later, and you haven’t produced a damned thing on the page. This is the danger.

The easiest solution, I think, is to “turn off” the distractions when you sit down to write. Dedicate this time. Put your phone on silent and out of sight. Do not log in to Facebook, etc. Make this time solely for your writing and schedule other time for “maintenance” (like your website, blog, etc). Checking and interacting with these sites on the go (mobile devices) helps to keep you current. To borrow from Spiderman here, “With great social networking, comes great responsibility.”

Use these treasures wisely and you will be afforded opportunities normally not open to you. Be professional, be creative, and be involved. The world is literally at our fingertips.

And somewhere, The Police are writing a revision to their song: “Re-Tweet in a bottle….I’m sending an SMS to the world, I’m sending an SMS to the world…”

Igor, throw the switch!!

Brrrzzzaaaaaaappppppp

The Tesla coil begins to thrum. Machines spit sparks and rattle. Cobweb clad work tables await a new creation. The doctor enters, madness in his eyes. Or is it genius? So much work to be done, so many mysteries to be explored. But which to breathe life into first? What research siren’s call will sate his intellectual thirst? And so here we begin, at the beginning. At the drafting table.

For my graduate class, Core 2: Research Methods for Writers, I will be working on a semester-long research project. The project is intended to develop and challenge our definition and experience with research methods. Research opportunities far surpass the traditional book and data methods that we are all familiar with. I will be conducting my research in a variety of ways and posting it here, sharing not only my research, but the journey and experiences of gathering the data itself. This is intended for my peers and classmates, as well as any “outside” interested parties.

To research, one needs a topic TO research. Was it Confucius who said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”? Maybe it was Bruce Lee, or Yoda. Maybe it was Chuck Norris. So, let’s take that step. Hold on, let me put on my socks. So here I am, and here you are. I just saw a tumbleweed roll by. Who cued the crickets? Never mind. Let’s brainstorm.

Here are the ideas I have so far. Did I mention that the project should also be a local subject with potential national appeal? Well, I just did. So, here’s what I’ve got:

1. A look behind those roadside memorials that I see occasionally while driving. You know, the homemade cross with the road worker’s vest on it and a wreath. Or the candles and stuffed animals. I see them, usually after the rain has beat them down or carbon monoxide has colored the white plush bear black. Who were these people who died? How did they die? Who loved and cared about them so much that they stopped to build a memorial at that site, the assumed site of their death.

2. What do local religious institutes think about this end of the world thing? The Courier Post recently ran an article about a trio of guys that left behind jobs, companies, even families, to tour the nation, spreading their belief that the world is going to end in May 2011. May 21 to be precise. They claim that the Bible is filled with revelations and signs that this is the end of days. So, what’s the take from different religions? How do they feel about this and other religious institutions? What makes them so different anyway?

3. What’s going on with the local music scene? The music store around the corner has a rock camp for kids. They even get to perform in concert, etc. What other local bands are working on things? What goes on at The Electric Factory? What young talent is out there and how are they getting noticed?

4. What does it take to be a tattoo artist? How do you even begin? What kind of life is it? Is it profitable? It’s always intrigued me. Maybe a behind the scenes look into the profession of the tattoo artist?

5. What’s the story of the lakes around which my development is built? They are old sand quarries, spring-fed. I’ve fished them and caught bass. The middle of the main lake is supposed to be almost ninety feet deep. There is supposed to be a crane at the bottom. When the quarry was operational, they hit the water table and (according to the story) it filled up so fast that they could not get the crane out. A young girl drowned last year in the secondary lake. There is a memorial along the road for her, still.

This is where I am at. I am not sure I even like any of these ideas enough yet to go with them. I am still wracking my brain to come up with more ideas, but I welcome your feedback on what I have so far. What do you think of the topics? Do any of these interest you? Would you ever be interested in reading a piece about any of these? Let me know.

Until then, I’ll be with Igor, throwing switches.