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.

Reality Check with Brad Kingett (Post interview report)

I arrive at the new Glassboro Barnes and Noble early, a feat I save for school and writing related projects. I’m supposed to meet Brad here, in the cafe’, at 6:30 p.m. The cafe’ is fairly empty and I try out about five tables before settling for one that falls victim to the least amount of sunglare. I feel like Marcel Proust, particular in my choice of seating arrangements and comfort, trying out table after table. The floor to ceiling windows of the ghost town cafe are like magnifying glasses, channeling the sun right into my eyes. Sitting down is better, it hides you from the solar death ray.

I take out my notepad and set up my laptop. I open up my interview document, intending to refer to my bullet points as the conversation ensues. I’ll wind up not referring to it much at all as the interview drives itself and I remember a lot of the points that I wanted to discuss. I order my grande mocha, with whipped cream, and relax, splitting time between my drink and watching the door. I’ve never met Brad and we didn’t elect to wear some code garment, like a red sombrero, or “Members Only” jackets.  There are now four other tables with customers, but I am the only one that looks like he is prepared to interview someone or transfer the plans for a super secret new missile system to Tom Cruise. I decide that Brad will probably be the guy to come in with his head on a slow swivel looking for me.

At about 6:40 p.m. Brad walks in. At least I think it’s Brad and hopefully not somebody looking for super secret missile system plans. He’s scanning the cafe’ and I stand up, “Brad?”

“Yeah,” he says. He’s smiling, that’s always a good start.

“Joe McGee,” I say. We shake hands, he gets a drink (something in a small cup, I’m not sure why I notice the small cup, but I do. Now I’m feeling imperialistic with the might of my grande cup. I make a mental note to stop making mental notes of his cup, forget my cup, get on with the interview).

Brad is a little taller than me, caucasian, and young (23). He’s wearing a t-shirt, flannel and a windbreaker kind of jacket. He has shorter blonde hair, with gel in it, waved over to one side in a preppy punk (and this would not be an insult to Brad) kind of neo-rockabilly fashion. He’s clean-shaven and his ears sport large gauges (those earring piercings that create large holes in the lobe). Brad will later tell me that they might be 5/8 of an inch. He’s not sure exactly, but they’re some “weird size around 3/4″ but not 3/4”. The earrings are important because they connect to tattoos, aesthetic expression and a definition and discussion of a deviant subculture, something Brad connects to and feels comfortable in the company of like-minded individuals. During the course of the interview it will become apparent, as my sleeves become pulled up, and my longer hair and obvious earrings are evident, that we share a connection to this related subculture.

We sip at our drinks and engage in some small talk. He apologizes for being late, says he’s never been to this Barnes & Noble. He wasn’t exactly sure where it was. He’s from Sewell, so he’s close.

Brad is an artist besides a photographer and film maker. I mention that I understand he has some art in a gallery here in downtown Glassboro. Yes, he says. He thinks it’s on Front Street, he’s not really sure. He knows it’s across from a BBQ place. He believes it’s been open about a month. I get the impression that he has a lot going on and the art aspect is in the background right now. I’ll come to find out later that he also works at a law firm and this weekend he spent 15 hours filming footage for the potential show that got my attention in the first place. It was a very hectic weekend, he tells me. A lot of people backed out, making for a very frustrating time. He tells me that out of 15 hours of film, he probably has 15 minutes worth of decent footage, stuff he can use for the show.

I ask him to tell me a little bit about his background and about art. I want to know what he likes to work with and how he got to where he is. I basically open the floor up to Brad and he runs with it. Brad turns out to be quite the talker and at times I have to almost interrupt him to focus in on something he says (something I don’t like to do as it can often be seen as stepping on someone’s toes). But the conversation unfolds like a tulip in May and I let Brad go, scribbling away on my notepad.

Brad tells me that he likes to work in a lot of different mediums. He started with drawing and sketching, before progressing into painting and then finally into film and photography. He names Ralph Steadman as a major influence in his art career, highlighting the fact that Steadman did Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrations for his book. Brad liked Steadman’s use of the fountain pen and how the artist can use the ink mess as part of the art.

"Rats in the Kitchen" by Steadman

At the end of our conversation, after the notepad is away and we are just two tattooed guys discussing movies on Netflix, he’ll tell me that “Escape through the Gift Shop” is about Steadman. But in the moment, we’re discussing artists who have influenced his own work. I mention artist Greg Simkins as another who does some neat things with inks. He mentions Shel Silverstein and the surreal style of Tim Burton.

He enjoys working mostly in black and white and in drawing images. He tells me that usually only looks at the image once and then draws from memory. Whatever features stand out in his mind are those that get exaggerated or focused on.

Brad went to St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. In school he tended to get in trouble for approaching projects in a different light, something strange when you consider the inherent individuality of expression in the nature of art itself. Because of this, he was mostly a “C” student. He tells me about a class they had on the holocaust and this “very dark” painting that he did. After it was graded and no longer required for the class, Brad wanted to do something with it. There were paintings hanging in the English hallway. He found an old nail and bent it a bit, pushing it further into the bricks so that he could hang up his painting. It stayed there for three years until included in an art auction where it was sold to a private buyer. “It wasn’t even supposed to be there,” he says, smiling. “It was my own little mark I left on the school.”

“I don’t think you can grade art,” he says. “You can tell if someone is there to genuinely work, or if they are there just because it is required.”

Art by Brad Kingett

We toss around the idea of defining art as the end result of someones creation. Is it something produced by someone with true skill, someone “who can actually draw”, or is it something that looks cool? Brad says that he likes drawing made up creations because it comes from his imagination. Who is to say what is right and what isn’t at this point?

After drawing and painting, he went into film. Brad was heavily into the music scene, both as a participant and as a spectator. In fact, this was where his love of tattoos and piercings started. He was (and is) into the punk and hardcore scene. He started shooting video of the bands as a result of spending so much time with them. He was following the music, spending money and discovering that the bands had no money. By filming the scene, he could be involved and maybe make a buck. However, he needed money to buy film, gas and equipment. And, oh yeah, food. You know, the important things.

Brad realized he’d have to branch out. He started Risen (pronounced Rye-zin) Industries in 2007 and got involved in infomercials. He did a 10 minute video for an Aflac insurance agent about supplemental insurance that was put on the client’s website. It successfully developed more business for Brad and gave him the confidence to pursue this further as he understood that he could expand his work.

Brad moved from web clips to television commercials. Risen Industries filmed a commercial for Empire Tattoo (Sewell, Pitman, and Clementon) that aired on MTV in the late hours, or as Brad categorized “when people with tattoos would be more likely to be watching.” I ask him if he got ink out of the deal and he laughs, “Yeah, I got some ink.” However, none is visible to me at this point (and later, Brad explains his desire to appear mainstreamed as much as possible).

Right now he does a lot of weddings, which he claims to “absolutely hate.” But he does them because they pay “phenomenally.” He explains that it’s almost a crime to charge what he does, but he has to. If you don’t charge the exorbitant amount of money that people expect to be quoted, they won’t hire you because they think you must not be good or that something is rotten in Denmark. People expect to be charged a lot for wedding photography. For Brad, the prospect of doing these kinds of things is necessary, but not very exciting. It’s like a routine documentary about people who he has no connection to. However, this affords him the ability to do the more creative projects, to fund the kinds of things he is actually interested in. He compares it, in a way, to being a tattoo artist. “You do it because you have the skill, but you are doing specifically what they want you to do.”

According to Brad, some people call this “selling out.” But again, this is a necessary means to a creative end. The fun projects will not fund themselves. He laughs at the notion of “selling out.” He says that he could show me pages and pages of scripts for so-called “reality shows.” If you ask him, that’s “selling out”, right there.

Brad is in the process of opening a second branch, Risen Industries Sucks. The original incarnation of his business would handle all of the tamer aspects, such as wedding and photography. Risen Sucks would handle all the band stuff, head shots, artwork and off the wall projects. He explains that he can’t have that stuff in his office with all the wedding photo people because it gives the wrong impression. It comes down to balancing the reality of business versus the desire to chase the imagination.

Chasing the imagination brings us to the current film project that first attracted my attention. Risen Industries is shooting a reality television show at Sinful Creations, Vineland, New Jersey. With the success of TLCs shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink, as well as the apparent attraction to a misconstrued sense of NJ (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of New Jersey), Brad recognized an opportunity to jump on board with something as promising as this. What really attracted him to the project was the approach they wanted to take. They wanted a reality reality television show.

Their show is going to illustrate those things that you don’t see in the others. They want to focus on the people coming in to get tattoos, and that sometimes it’s just because it looks cool. Not every tattoo has some epic back story. They wanted to show that it is personal and invasive, that the artist is on your personal space. It’s intimate, they are touching you and the obligatory small talk is like going to get your hair cut.

The artists in the show consulted other artists to pick their brains about what they might like to see presented. One complaint is that those other shows never show a price, they never show money changing hands.  It reminds me of a placard I saw in Mean Street Tattoo (Queens, NY) shop: “A cheap tattoo ain’t good, and a good tattoo ain’t cheap.” The artists had issues that people don’t realize how much tattoos cost, that they are expensive.

They wanted to show that tattoos hurt. On those TLC shows, Brad says, you never see anyone cry. In the last weekend of filming, there was a girl getting the entire top of her foot done. There’s a lot of bone there, he explains. It hurts. “You never see tears on t.v.. The pain is real.”

Brad talks about a tattoo artist that was getting a tattoo machine tattooed on him (something that only a tattoo artist can get put on their body, according to Brad). This tattoo artist said that he “hates getting a tattoo.” He liked that tattoos, but he hated getting them. “It hurts when you are getting it and it hurts for a few days after. I hate this.” Brad laughs. “You don’t hear ‘This sucks’ or ‘That hurt’.”

They want to make sure that people know what they are getting into so they don’t waste their time, or the artists time. People need to know this stuff, says Brad. He talks a little about the pain and procedures involved in removing tattoos. “Tattoos were never meant to be removed,” he says. Incidentally, my brother John, who lives in Texas is getting a tattoo removed from the inside of his forearm. He tells me that the process hurts ten times more than getting the tattoo. He is five sessions in and probably has five more to go.

Laser tattoo removal - 5 sessions in

They also want to show the fun involved. They want to show what really goes on. On the last day of filming, the shop manager managed to clog the toilet and they filmed the entire episode. “It was just funny,” says Brad. “You’d never see that on other shows.”

And there are snippets that won’t make the final cut, but provide insight never the less. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the correct form of terminology: Tattoo machines NOT guns. One of the artists yelled at Brad about his reference to a “tattoo gun”. Brad replied that “both put holes in you.” “Yeah?” said the artist, pulling a gun out of his drawer. “This one will kill you.”

They are shopping it to Bravo and MTV right now. MTV seems to be the most interested.

The applicants for the show submit their name, age, picture of themselves, tattoo idea, body location, color or black and white, and reason for getting it. The artists have a chance to review and sign off on the ones they are interested in doing. This is a chance for the individual artist to showcase their own skills. Some are good at portraits, others enjoy pure black and white work, while others like illustration. Brad explains that it is a combination of what they are good at and what they are interested in.

Area artists are, according to Brad, excited about the project, but at the same time a bit hesitant. Brad thinks that they are waiting to see the final project and reserving their judgment until then. He thinks the show is going to surprise a lot of people. And yet, some artists will still claim that they “sold out.”  Brad explains that everyone strives to be successful but once you hit that level of success you are out of the circle. You have “sold out.” Brad goes on to explain that the whole process is an act of doing what someone else wants you to do in the first place. With art, nobody is forcing the buyer to purchase it. They buy it because they like it. The artist did the work that he wanted and left it. With tattoos, you are doing what you are hired to do. The point I imagine he is getting at here is that, at what point do you decide to scorn someone for the success they reap by doing work for hire in the first place?

Brad laughs and says that if it were an accounting reality t.v. show, where they were auditing on t.v., they’d probably be applauded by their peers. He mentions the Sistine Chapel. It’s just hired work, he says. “Painting the walls in a pattern. Hired painters.”

Creation of Man; Sistine Chapel

Another tattoo artist echoed Brad’s own sentiment. Being a tattoo artist in and of itself is selling out, he said (his words not mine). His reasoning was that you are taking someones idea, someones creation and doing it for money. That tattoo artists are paid to create someones vision beyond their own. This particular artist was a painter and for him, tattooing was a means to earn money for his painting. “My talents get me the money to do what I want.”

We come back full circle to the art. He tells me that he has drawn up some tattoos for people. They take it to the artists and the artists put their tweak on things. He thinks it is cool that “something you created is something they put on their body.” It “commemorates something you did.”

I ask him about the separation for an artist, that moment that someone buys their art and takes it with them, what does that feel like and in a sense, is this feeling the same for a tattoo artist that sees his work literally walk away. Brad describes it as “bittersweet.” On the one hand, you are losing something you created, he explains, but on the other hand, someone wanted it bad enough to pay you for it. As an artist, he explains, you make a conscious decision to put a price on something that you have created. You give it value and if it is desired enough, that price will be paid. If it’s something that you hold so dear you wouldn’t dream of getting rid of, you just don’t put the price on it in the first place, you wouldn’t put it out there for sale.

Brad’s love of the entire art process is most evident when he tells me that if he were to come upon someone viewing a piece of his art, raving about it, desiring it, and talking to him (Brad) unaware that he was the artist, he would just give it to him. “It’s yours,” he says, complete with an offering hand gesture. “Because that’s someone who really loves the art, not someone saying, ‘oh, this would look great in the living room’.”

On the subject of art, I ask him to tell me his thoughts on the art’s ability to “speak.” He explains that some things need an explanation and if you are around, or if you are the bearer of the tattoo, you can offer that explanation versus someone completely missing the point. I make a note that perhaps this means the objects cannot speak on their own, if they need someone to translate, but as I write this, I begin to think that maybe they do speak. They just say different things to different people. Brad states that some tattoos have bigger meaning than others ( a sentiment echoed by other artists, most recently by Matt Doherty and Tracey Morse of Mystic Eye Tattoo).

But, to Brad, the tattoo represents a subculture. He likes when he sees someone with tattoos or piercings because he knows he’ll be able to relate to that on person on at least some level. “You share a culture,” he says. “It tells me that you’re in the same realm that I’m in. That there’s some common ground.” If he is in a room, or at a party, and he doesn’t feel comfortable, he knows that he can hang with a person who shares that connection. “A single serving friend,” he jokes. “Both oddballs.”

Brad explains that he is a straight edge (someone who abstains from drugs and alcohol) and that if he sees someone else with an “X” on their body, he knows that he has a kindred spirit.

He acknowledges that people are quick to judge. He believes that they probably think, “Oh, here comes trouble.” He goes on to say that “if someone gets to know me, they might be glad they did because otherwise they might have missed out on meeting a good person.” He understands that his choice to embrace a seemingly deviant appearance brings with it questions. It’s part of the territory. He does not get upset and tells his friends to act the same way. “People are going to ask questions,” he says. “Don’t be angry at them for that.” He doesn’t think it will ever be completely mainstreamed. The parental influence is, in his opinion, too strong. Parents pass down to their kids that you do not get tattoos.

We talk about the gauges he has in his ears. He tells me he got them because he was bored. Again, he works in a law firm during the day and can’t get too crazy. He has flesh tone gauges in case he needs them for work. But mostly he will not go any bigger with them because it’s a cost issue. He doesn’t want to buy any more jewelry.

When he gets older he thinks his tattoos will serve as memories, like a scar. “It’s a moment and a memory,” he says. These are stories of and from our lives.

This echoes my theory of aesthetic expression and inner identity as outward expression. That tattoos are shards of soul gazing.

We wrap up the official side of business and Brad tells me that he has a shoot coming up in the next few weeks and that I’m invited to come down and hang out, take notes, ask questions. He is eager to answer any other questions that I have and let’s me know that if there is anything I need to know, just shoot him an email. We talk about movies for a bit and Brad says that it is so nice to sit and have an actual face to face conversation, especially in this crazy world of text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and emails.

It’s about quarter to eight. We’ve sat and talked for over an  hour and could probably talk for hours more. We shake hands (he has a strong handshake, always a solid attribute) and Brad leaves, reminding me to email him with any questions I have. I tell him that I will, of course, do that and also keep him informed about where the project goes. I thank him again.

I pack up my stuff, spend a few minutes perusing the magazine section and then head off into the darkness of the mid-March night.

Pre-interview for Lucio Privitello

This afternoon, I will have the great pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Lucio Angelo Privitello and discussing my research. Dr. Privitello is an associate professor and coordinator of the Philosophy and Religion program at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He is also the President of the Classical Humanities Society of South Jersey.

Dr. Privitello holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Villanova, a M.A. in Philosophy from Villanova,  a M.A. in Philosophy from Temple, and a B.F.A. in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. He earned a Diploma Superiore in Ceramics and Design from the Art Institute in Grammichele, Sicily and has served apprenticeships in painting and sculpture with Giuseppe Benassi in Parma, Italy.

The man is nothing short of impressive. However, he remains, despite his scholarly arena and interests, an extremely grounded person. He is passionate about learning, interested in his students, dedicated to his art, honest, sincere, and one of the most intriguing people I have ever had the fortune to know.

I first met Lucio (and I can call him that as we have become friends and correspondents) in the early 90s. He was an associate professor of Philosophy at what was then Glassboro State College (pre-Rowan University days). I was an undergraduate student. His approach to teaching was so exciting, so dynamic that I have never forgotten his influence on my life. And here we are again, me going to the well of knowledge.

An interesting side note to paint a bit of a picture of the man. He had (and still has) a black briefcase with the power to contain a text or texts on any subject that you brought up in his company. I remember sitting on an old couch in his office on the Glassboro campus. He was smoking his Camel cigarette, leaning back against his chair. His distressed leather jacket (black, of course) was slung behind him. We sat and talk, he and a friend of mine, and somehow the conversation turned toward South American cultures and religious practices. We drew a parallel to the Aztecs and the practice of ritual sacrifice to a project thesis we had in mind. Click go the fasteners on the briefcase and he opens it up to produce a book on Aztecs and ritual sacrifice. This happened dozens of times. It got to the point where we tried to test him. Elephant riders? Check, a fifty page journal article on it. Aboriginal rodeo clowns? Just finished reading a book on it, here you go. Deep-sea line dancing? Here you go. Of course, I’m being facetious, but he did always seem to have the right document at the right time.

This is not surprising considering the inordinate amount of books the man owns. I know, because I helped move him last Summer. I’m not joking when I tell you that we moved two U-haul trucks filled, top to bottom, with books. And these are not the kinds of things you’ll find in Barnes & Noble. These are limited editions of obscure books, written in a variety of languages and translations. It is staggering. I was staggering after moving it all, lol…

I want to speak to him for a number of reasons. First and foremost is his creation of Stockton’s “Philosophies Of Life and Death” course, otherwise known as “True Blood and Philosophy.” The former title is the college enforced label Lucio was forced to apply to his brainchild. The course uses the HBO series, True Blood, to examine the philosophical concepts of life, death and immortality. Considering my core concept of tattoos, as art, to transcend death in a serial immortality practice, this course seems perfect to examine.

Lucio’s background in philosophy and literature, as well as my own knowledge of his interest in all things esoteric and mystical, furthers my desire to speak to him. His background in art and sculpture is also attractive, as his ability to appreciate the concept from a creative stance will open up further lanes of discussion.

Finally, our interview is to take place after his lecture on Marcel Proust, more specifically on his seven volume work, “In Search of Lost Time.” I did some research on the piece and it quickly became evident that there are many themes in Proust’s work that echo concepts I have for my own story. Most importantly: that the work of art can recapture the lost and thus save it from destruction and that art triumphs over the destructive power of time.

As I am friends with Lucio, our interview will be more akin to a very casual conversation in which I try to keep up with his mind. He is truly fascinating and his levels of knowledge are dizzying. Though Lucio can be construed as a “vessel of answers” (Postmodern Interviewing, p. 70), I am close enough to know him that I can employ Jack Douglas’ concept of mutual disclosure (Postmodern Interviewing, p. 72) to create a dynamic exchange of ideas and information.

I intend to discuss:

1. Lucio’s course on Life and Death, focusing primarily on the concept of immortality

2. Proust’s ideas on art conquering time and saving the lost

3. His opinion on art and expression, on the aesthetics of existence

4. His own tattoos and how they play into the concept above.

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.

“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.

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

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

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

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

Crazy Philadelphia Eddie

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

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

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

Notes from Book p.1

Notes from Book p.2

Notes from Book p.3

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

Crazy Eddie & Eric Foemmel

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

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)).

And Some in the Darkness had Stars upon Thars

Dr. Seuss understood a little bit about tattoos and cultural significance. In his story, “The Sneetches“, the single distinguishing mark of social difference is the existence or absence of a star “tattoo” on one’s belly. On this beach, the “haves” have the star and the “have nots” well…simply do not. Those without stars suffer social discrimination. Having the star empowers the fortunate Sneetches and causes a struggle of sorts as the two factions battle for control of the beach. The star becomes a symbol of dominance in which inclusion in this elite clan comes with benefits befitting station.

As silly as it seems, presented in nonsensical rhyme by Dr. Seuss, the concept is very much alive and in practice amongst gangs and prison affiliations today. Entire books have been written about prison tattoos and the complex symbolism behind them.As per the suggestion of my Research Methods for Writers professor, I was intrigued by this avenue of research. I wanted to look at the idea of group affiliations and the tattoo as an identifying symbol amongst like minded individuals. In short, I wanted to look at “gang” tattoos without delving into modern gang sub-cultures. Initial research led me to another kind of gang, one existing in the dark subconscious of fiction, movies and imagination: the Vampire Clans.

Vampires form covens of kindred with the same pursuits, interests, powers and bloodlines. They take some sigil, or mark of their house, often tattooing it on their person. This is not true in all mythology and vampire lore, but is throughout White Wolf’s Vampire, The Masquerade role-playing game. For example, the Toreador clan embraced the black rose:

Vampire clans are always warring amongst themselves. Tattoos are another aspect of their attempt at identification with a, pardon the pun, kindred spirit.

Knowing I was going to write the final piece of this research project as a dark fantasy story, I began to walk down this path. But I didn’t want to do vampires. The magic of the natural world fascinates me. Urban shamanism is a perspective not fully explored and the idea of two battling faerie courts seems rich in material. The fantasy genre has utilized the idea of tattoos as power as well. Wizards of the Coast employs Dragonmark tattoos as magical power sources and social status symbols.

So, this idea of a clan/group association took hold and a story idea began to form. I am going to focus my research on the tattoo as a symbol of power and of clan identification. Power and contesting groups leads most often to conflict and with conflict, I have a story. Here then is the research map illuminating my proposed approach: