- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

TATTOO MACHINE: TALL TALES, TRUE STORIES, AND MY LIFE IN INK

By Jeff Johnson

Spiegel & Grau, $25.00, 249 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

Want some absolutely fascinating information you’ll absolutely never use? “Tattoo Machine” is the book for you. Let me add a qualifier or two. If you have one or two little “tats,” you already have some of this information, and if you have several, you have a bit more, and if you have the First Amendment tattooed on your right bicep (Hi Chris Frink — tattooed journalist from Louisiana), you probably have quite a bit. Nevertheless, to have all the information Jeff Johnson has, you need to be, like him, a tattoo artist — and there are mighty few of those in the general population.

Let me add, for the record, that though I am tattoo-free, I did know a tattoo artist, the one and only Carol “Smokey” Nightingale, aka the “Man With the Golden Needle.” A Canadian by birth who had learned how to tattoo from his mother (she gave him his first tattoo when he was 11), Mr. Nightingale had a shop just off New York Avenue Northwest, around the corner from the old Greyhound bus station in the District.

In addition to being a walking art gallery, Mr. Nightingale was a clotheshorse, a real Beau Brummell (to use an old term) complete with diamond stickpin in his tie, and if you saw him dressed in one of his fine suits, you would never guess that except for his hands, feet and head, his entire body was covered with tattoos.

Although Mr. Johnson doesn’t mention Mr. Nightingale in “Tattoo Machine,” given his oft-mentioned respect for the great tattoo artists of the past, I am sure he knows of him. Mr. Nightingale held a patent on an improved version of the basic tattoo machine and was celebrated for the vibrancy of his colors, both subjects covered well by Mr. Johnson. However, lest I leave the impression that the book is a how-to manual or a dry history, let me hasten to say it is anything but.

For one thing, Mr. Johnson is as colorful a prose stylist as he is a skin painter. It’s not a style that will appeal to all readers, being a mix of hip jargon, science factoids and blue language. If this were made into an audiobook, the guy would read it at warp speed.

Here’s a typical paragraph, without any no-no words: “I already knew that tattooing had changed my brain to some extent. The pattern-recognition software in my brilliant wife’s visual cortex is [off], for instance. Mine has developed because of sketching, which essentially involves picking the good lines out of the random garbage you’ve drawn on a sheet of paper. It’s a simple and very useful side effect of my career. So she’s in charge of the computers, and I’m in charge of finding her shoes and her car keys.”

As you can see, the book is very much first-person driven. In fact, it’s as much a memoir as it is a book about tattooing, so if you prefer the third-person point of view or a modest narrator with a clean mouth, this probably isn’t the book for you. However, if you don’t mind, and especially if you like, hey-look-at-me prose from a writer with lots of ‘tude, you will really, like, dig this book, man.

In addition to the interwoven account of how the author survived a messed-up youth (which included crime) to become co-owner of the Sea Tramp, the oldest tattoo parlor in Portland, Ore., and a brief but very interesting history of the business and how it works, Mr. Johnson delivers a virtual cornucopia of rogues and rascals. He portrays the artists, both good and bad, and their customers, good, bad and very bad, all of it with a rollicking brio that is often contagious.

Mr. Johnson writes, “Every tattoo has a story. Every cover up has two.” What is an artist to do if he or she, heaven forbid, misspells a word or, worse, a name? It happens more than you’d think, apparently. Even Mr. Johnson has done it, as he tells us in one particularly funny but scarifying account.

Ever wonder exactly who — other than a vast number of young people these days — gets tattooed? Buy and read “Tattoo Machine,” and you’ll learn that Mr. Johnson has inked the skin of “professional athletes, nervous coeds, age-defying moms, newlyweds and sociopaths.” And you thought it was just you.

One of the most intriguing facets of this most colorful book is the peek inside the tent of the tattoo parlor (don’t you love that term?) subculture. While “Miami Ink” gives you one look, this book takes you on a tour of several levels of shops, from top-drawer like the Sea Tramp to low-rent, hazardous-to-your-health, soon-to-close-or-be-closed emporiums where everyone is drunk or stoned — the tattoo-er, the tattoo-ee and those who also serve by only standing and waiting for a friend.

At the end, Mr. Johnson turns philosophical. In Chapter 27, “The Lost Paintings,” he bemoans that none of the art he created will live on after the “owner” of the tattoo dies. That made me wonder, yet again, what happened to Mr. Nightingale after he and the Japanese attack dog that kept his customers in line faded into the night like a bad tattoo.

One thing that becomes very clear by the end of the book is that today’s tattoo artists, especially the young, dedicated variety, are a far cry from their earliest progenitors. While Mr. Johnson makes no bones about mentioning how good he has become over the years since he got truly serious about tattooing, he frequently praises those who, he admits, are better artists than he will ever be, good as he is.

It is hard to understand why people get tattoos. True, Chapter 28, “What Does It All Mean?” in Mr. Johnson’s wonderful book helps. But there still ain’t no way I’m getting one — the only passage in the book I underlined is the one that says “It hurts.”

Nonetheless, I’d like to say, “Good night, Mr. Nightingale, wherever you are.”

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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