Baxter's Blog

GALLERY—VYVYN LAZONGA

Posted in Gallery, History, Road Trip Stuff by misterroadtripper on June 8, 2010

Here’s the article I wrote about the time that my wife Mary and I visited Madame Lazonga Tattoo in Seattle, Washington. This was one of Mary’s four trips to have her backpiece completed by Vyvyn at her shop in Pike Street Market. Each session was nearly five hours long, if I remember, and she had about five sessions. All face down on a table. Yikes! This story, with it’s dramatic twists and turns, was originally printed in the August 2005 issue.

THREE DAYS WITH VYVYN

 By Bob Baxter

Vyvyn Lazonga has reinvented herself, again. She now goes by Madame Lazonga. Actually, it’s a return to where she started. She used that name, years ago, when she tattooed in San Francisco’s Mission District.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Vyvyn started in Seattle with Danny Danzel in 1972. She simply went in and asked for work. “Back then, I had an idea that it would be really ignorant to go and ask for a job,” she remembers. “I went in and asked about helping him, which I did, since he had a laryngectomy. He didn’t have a telephone in the shop, so I’d take telephone calls for him, and take care of the business stuff. Anything he wanted I would do, because the minute I heard he had opened a tattoo shop, I thought, Well, I’m going to go down there and see if I can help him. So I did. I was his helper.

“I owe Danny my whole livelihood, my career and everything, but I realized I could only learn so much with him. I was producing my own art even back in the early ’70s. I would sit at home and draw up a whole bunch of flash and take it to the shop, and Danny would put it up. It was great. I started developing different images other than traditional. That was really fun and inspiring. I loved it and I loved Danny’s enthusiasm. Danny really helped me a lot, to the best of his ability. Back then, I was so naïve. Then I quit. The reason why I quit, basically, was because I got a pay cut. This was after five years. It was so horrendous for me, because, when I left the shop I left my bicycle, because I used it to commute back and forth. I left my camera there. I didn’t know what to do. I worked out of my house for a couple months, and then I ate crow and went back to him and apologized. I got my job back for a little while, and, then shortly after that, I opened my own shop on Capitol Hill. I guess I had to learn some lessons on my own.

“I was by myself. I was there for three years. It was during Reagonomics, and everything was cut down to the bare bones. I didn’t own a TV. I barely listened to the news. Sometimes I used to take it personally like, what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my career? All I did was hustle, hustle, hustle all the time. I just got sick of it. I got sick of this town. I’m leaving. I’m going. So I moved to San Francisco where this guy Burt and I opened a shop in the outer Mission. Burt didn’t make it, so I kept the shop and kind of made a go of it. Luckily, I had a real good article written about me in an art paper in San Francisco, which brought in all kinds of underground people who were into tattooing, back then before it was popular. I had this whole new clientele just from this one article. It was great. Then, after my lease was up in the outer Mission, I decided to work privately. I moved down to the lower Haight and I worked out of my apartment for a few years. It was wonderful. I loved that neighborhood. Business was really great. Then, after that, the earthquake hit, and that was devastating, because I lost business, my place to live, everything. At that time, I had already rented a little studio in Seattle, so I took everything that I could carry that was important, put it in the car and headed for Seattle. I never went back to San Francisco after that. I started over in Seattle, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Mary's backpiece by Vyvyn.

MARY’S BACKPIECE

I guess it was Vyvyn’s kind of Baroque-medieval-Chinese sense of design that attracted my wife, Mary. I mean, if you’re going to carry around a major tattoo piece, you’d be silly not to have a world-class artist do the work. Plus, Vyvyn is famous for creating one-of-a-kind designs that mold to the body and reflect the wearer’s spiritual self. They beautify and edify at the same time.

Vyvyn has been in Seattle for three decades. To my way of thinking, every female tattoo artist doing business today owes a debt of gratitude to the way that was paved by Madame Lazonga and other courageous women like her.

It was a rainy day in Seattle. In fact, all three days were wet and gray, just like we like it. Great weather to be creative. So, Mary stepped off the plane from L.A. and met Vyvyn at her shop in mid-afternoon. Right after lunch, the work began. Three and a half hours the first day, two hours the second and another three on Friday. Mary had a very fitful sleep that night. Post-tattoo deliriums.

The work went well. Vyvyn had prepared a full-scale drawing before we arrived and, as soon as she prepared the station, she laid on the pattern. As is her trademark, the design fit perfectly and was exactly what Mary wanted. Big Chinese poppies.

It got pretty intense, as backpieces do, but Mary hung in there, knowing it would be a while until she saw Vyvyn again. She hoped to get as much done as possible. But Vyvyn is not about speed. She’s careful and precise. She’s also chatty and fun, but the art is her first priority.

DEALING WITH THE HELP

When we first arrived, there were two other, young artists working at the shop. Melissa Thompson was inking an angel on her client’s arm. The other, a young man, was working on sketches. Both had been with Vyvyn for a short while. The personnel keeps changing in her shop. It’s usually about attitude. This day was no exception.

Vyvyn’s shop at Pike Street Market is classic. A comfortable big room with high ceilings and plenty of space to move around. There’s three stations and the young man worked at the far wall, on the other side of Melissa. At the century-old market, there’s a communal lavatory for the shop owners and, when the kid left for the day he took the key with him. In other words, all of us, including Vyvyn, were locked out. Vyvyn telephoned, left a couple of messages and never heard back.

In the morning, the kid walks in and Vyvyn tells him, “Hey, this is the umpteenth time you’ve taken the keys. From now on I’m going to charge you five bucks to help you remember.”

With that, the kid says, “What was I supposed to do?”

 “Remember to leave the key,” said Vyvyn.

 “So, why don’t you have a couple extra keys made, so this won’t happen again?” No apology, no nothin’.

Now, I usually don’t wade in on other people’s business, but this time I asked Mary, “Should I step in?” She nodded yes from the table and I crossed the room in three long strides. I backed the guy up against the counter.

“You rude little prick, I told him. “You’re exactly what’s wrong with tattooing today. No respect. This women’s been tattooing for 33 years and you should kiss her feet for letting you work here!” Plus a few other choice phrases. You get the picture. And just when the kid was catching his breath, I let him have it with his disrespect for the clients in the shop. Vyvyn had put up a screen up for privacy. Because it was a full backpiece, Mary had her top off while getting tattooed. But the kid didn’t pay any attention. He felt it was his prerogative to walk past the barrier and doodle with his machines right in front of a large wall mirror. He looked up a couple times at the reflection. That didn’t sit right with me.

Needless to say, I had the kid packed up and out the door in half a minute.

 Everyone held their breath. Then Vyvyn broke the silence. “No one has ever stood up for me like that before. I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks.”

Here we are again; lack of respect. Why do these legendary artist have to go through such bullshit with these young wannabes that think they’re God’s gift to tattooing? They have no respect for history or the people who built the business. Without the old guys (and gals) and everyone else who pitched in to break the barriers, lay down the rules and open the door, this kid and all the others like him would be drawing cartoons on paper napkins. Give some people a little talent and they think the world owes them a living.

 Whew! But, in spite of it all, the outline is almost complete and one of the poppies is colored in. Like they say, you never forget where you get each tattoo. There’s no doubt about it, Mary will never forget the beautiful orange poppies she got on this particular trip to Seattle.

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