I’ve been wondering how many people are out there, still working, that got started back in the days of the acetate/charcoal stencils? I could come up with a handful or so. There is no doubt that, these days, there’s a lot more that haven’t than have. That’s probably a good thing.
What brings this to mind is our new guy in the shop. He’s young, full of piss and vinegar and a fire in his belly. He’s named Wiley. That’s right, Wiley, as in coyote. He’s only been tattooing for five or six years and lays down some kickass neo-old-school-style work. When he set up his workstation, one of the first things he stuck up on the wall was some old acetate stencils. He framed them, like objects of veneration. Hmmm.
Now, as nice as they might be to look at and reminisce over, to me, they are like revisiting a bad, re-current nightmare. I haven’t thought of those things in more than twenty years. They were the Devil incarnate. They were the demon in disguise. I wonder if Wiley would have framed them had he ever experienced the reality of working with those damned things.
I’ve come to realize that the old acetates dictated simplicity. There was no tolerance for detail. They also dictated the manner in which you could work, from the bottom up. You could blot but you couldn’t wipe. One false move and the stencil would be gone. Poof! They were very unstable. I’d spent a number of hours back in ’74 and ’75 up at Big Joe’s watching him, Zeke and whoever else put these things on. It was before I started tattooing. I was hoping to get the hang of it. It looked so easy. To lay one on, you simply applied a spray of green soap or a thin layer of Vaseline on pre-washed skin. Then, with a saltshaker, you dusted the stencil with charcoal into the pre-cut image. Then you had to clean off the excess to keep the transfer from being too smudged.
All that stuff was easy enough. For me, the big trick, especially with bigger pieces, was in taking the charcoal laden/semi-rigid tool of the Devil hisself and transferring the image to the compound surface of the human body. All this with the hope that the imprint would be readable, knowing that I’d better not sneeze, or it would be gone. In a sense, I got lucky. I only worked with those things for five or six years. I got better at getting them on after a bit.
One time, back in the eighties, I had gone down to Jaxvillle to work with Zeke. It was at the Lucky Tiger down on Court Street. It was next to the cabstand, across the road from the bus station. Court Street was a few blocks of honky tonks, bust-out joints and hockshops, not to mention any number of tattoo shops. It was the R and R strip for all those young marines. The police station was on Court, too.
Anyway, I think it was summer. Hot as hell. I had this somewhat large young marine flat on his back on a foldout utility table. He was getting that classic unicorn from back in the sixties, the one with the fiery mane and tail. We’ve all seen them by now. I got the stencil on him in a couple of tries, in the middle of his chest. Very good for me at the time. Then, about halfway through the outline, for whatever reason, I absentmindedly gave the piece a spray of water and a green soap wipe down. OH SHIT!
I froze with the realization of what I had just done. It was gone. This poor bastard would have to go throughout life with the legs, ass and tail of what was to have been the most magnificent unicorn ever etched into the human hide. GONE! I doubted my skills in lining up with what I had already completed, in trying to put the stencil back into the concave hollow in the middle of his chest. Damn!
With the young marine seeming to grow larger by the minute, I excused myself. With my heart pounding, pouring sweat, I anticipating the worst ass-kicking of all time, so I semi-calmly walked over to Zeke, who was also in the middle of a piece. I quietly informed him of my situation. Armed with the offending acetate stencil, we sauntered back over to the still prostrate, very large young marine. Old Zeke, who was much younger back then, without a blink, popped that stencil right back on there. Everything lined up perfectly. About a half a pack of Kents and a dozen excuses later, I had calmed down and gotten my wits about me enough to finish the piece.
The marine went away a happy man. He was sporting a semi-magnificent unicorn and grinning from ear to ear. I got paid, I even got a tip. But more importantly, I kept my ass intact.
No more acetate nightmares.
Catch you on the rebound.
LOOKIN’ FOR PAUL
I’ve been on hiatus for the past couple of months. The magazine did a special edition and gave me a reprieve from laying pencil to notepad. The layoff, however, left me in a day-to-day frame of mind. Hardly conducive to writing. Now, it’s that time of the month again. No, no, no; not that time of month! I’m long past menopause by now. Is there a male equivalent? I must have missed it. Does hair loss count as a symptom? I’ve got to sit down and squeeze out another column. There are deadlines to meet, and I’ve always sort of dealt with stuff on my own time, a world-class procrastinator. You know, “I’ll take care of whatever, manana.”
By the late ’70s, after I had been hit-or-miss tattooing for a couple of years, I came to the realization that I didn’t know dick about the technical aspects of my recently found, hopefully artistic, pursuit. In those first couple of years I’d become acquainted with a few other tattooers in the city. Bootleggers,like myself. In the hazy mist of my memory (or was it my imagination?) I thought I had heard one of them
speak of an old guy, a retired tattooer who was genuine old school. He was rumored to be living somewhere in upstate New York in the Albany area a few hours drive away. I was also told, or imagined that I was told, that this same person would tell anyone with a discernable interest in tattooing anything they wanted to know. WHOA! “Look for a guy named Paul,” they said. I also remembered/imagined hearing that this same guy also made the best tattoo machines on the planet. “Irons” he called them. Being a relative scarcity back then, it seemed too good to be true. It must have been in my imagination. Maybe an acid flashback.
Needless to say, my previous experience in trying to glean information from other tattooers had left me frustrated and highly skeptical. All I had ever gotten from my earlier attempts were tongue-lashings and stonewalls. Nonetheless, I was determined. I had to know more. I needed to learn something of the basics. I needed to know something of the mechanics of it. I needed to know the history.
A couple of weeks of pounding the pavements left me empty handed. It was business as usual. Nobody knew nuttin’. Stonewalled again. But I persevered and finally got a full name and address. I’m damned if I remember who from. My best guess would be that it was from Ruth M. (I’ve purposely omitted her last name to protect the innocent.) She was a fellow bootlegger with a few more years experience than myself. The very same person who first gave me access to the “holy grail” of tattoo, a supply catalogue.
The address that she gave me was both bad new and good news. The bad news was that the old guy had moved to Florida. The good news was that he had moved to Florida. As it turned out, he was living a couple of miles straight down the road from where my then in-laws were living, Jacksonville Beach. It was our stopover spot on my yearly drives down to Miami and back.
I must have written to this Paul guy that morning. To my surprise, ten days or so later, I got a response. In fact, it started a correspondence that lasted several years, between visits, of course. “If you ever pass this way, you’d be more than welcome to visit. Give us a call,” he told me.
His place of “retirement” was in a dirt road trailer park. It was on the main drag to the beach. He and Helen, his wife of forty-odd years, had the first trailer to the left of the entrance. It was a singlewide with a canopied slab down most of the length of it. At the back edge of the lot was his then already famous “iron factory,” a six-by-eight-foot metal utility shed, a la Sears&Roebuck.
The man, of course, was Paul Rogers. Living history. Paul was an unassuming man in his seventies. Slender with a shock of white hair and matching mustache, he was tattooed from over the shoulder down to his wrist. He was always shirtless on my visits, showing a surgical scar that ran from bellybutton to sternum. He was always welcoming and open. In retrospect, he was the only one at the time that had come to the realization that tattooing was a dying art. He felt, as I learned through my visits, that it was his obligation to pass on the knowledge and lore of our ages-old profession. It needed to get to the younger generation. He wanted to ensure a continuum. He wanted it to stay alive.
I wished that I had known enough to ask better questions.
Catch you on the rebound.
One of my favorite Skin&Ink columnists was Fineline Tattoo’s Mike Bakaty. Located at 2nd and 2nd in New York City, Mike’s sage advice and profound insights were buried in the back of the issues, so it’s time to bring them to light. Again, one of my favorite all-time writers (and that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway)… the incomparable Mike Bakaty.
BAKATY’S WORLD WITH MIKE BAKATY
A TATTOO IS A TATTOO IS A …?
One thing you never hear in a tattoo shop, when someone is looking at a person’s new tattoo is, “Holy mackerel, that looks like shit!” The general response is, “It looks great,” or at least a serious nod of approval. Then struggling for something to say, mumble, “Where did you get it?” making a mental note not to go to that place or person. What the hell, a tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo.
You can’t help but wonder what some people are thinking, when they get the tattoo that they get, and who they get it from. It’s not just the image. More often than not, it’s in the underlying drawing―looking like it was done by a semi-talented twelve year old.
It can also be in the execution: knotted, broken, inconsistent line work, for example. It could be in the piss-poor shading, if any at all, or in splotchy, muddy colors. It’s everything that you don’t want to see in a permanent mark on the human body. A waste of precious skin. Though one has to admit that even a bad tattoo carries a certain punch, more often than not, the work was done by a “friend.” These same folks, unless it was a particularly brutal job, will swear undying allegiance to the person that did it, their artist/friend. When questioned, it’s “I don’t want to be unfaithful” or “ I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” And then there’s the eternal classic, “It didn’t take too well.” What the hell, a tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo. As my son, Mehai, says, “You know, pop, people would rather have a good tattoo experience than a good tattoo.”
I think there’s truth in that.
Back around the time that it dawned on me that I could draw better than what I was doing off of the few sheets of commercial flash I had, I was tattooing a number of young guys from the Lower East Side, aspiring bent-nosed types, you know what I mean? Whenever they got work, you’d be paid in single dollar bills. If you did an eighty-buck piece, you got eighty singles. The one time I asked about it, the response was, “You do dollar action, you get dollar bills.”
One of these guys showed up one day wanting to get a grim reaper, which, of course, I had. The thing was, it was a piece of commercial flash. The image had passed through a hundred or more hands before it landed on that particular sheet. I thought it was really lame. The skull was lumpy and the teeth were disproportionate to the size. The fingers and arms looked like a bunch of weenies on the end of a stick. The drapery in the robes was non-existent. In other words, it looked like shit. I knew I could draw it better.
I ran this down to the kid and told him to give me a couple of days for the redraw. I did the skull without the lumps and made the teeth proportionate. The arms and fingers looked like bones, and it was more gestural. The robes looked like drapery out of a Renaissance painting. Not a bad job, if I said so myself. The upshot of the whole thing was, when the guy came back a few days later, I had him look at my drawing and compare it to the original. “Yours looks too real,” he proclaimed, as though he’d come face-to-face with the Reaper himself. “But the other one looks more like a tattoo. That’s the one I’ll have.” A tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo.
The thing is, as you think about it, that attitude was not necessarily unjustified. The artwork, needlework and iconography of tattoo had remained basically the same for a hundred years or more, with minor variations. Everyone was doing the same thing. What stylistic differences that existed were not as per the hand of individuals, but rather regional. An “east coast” style was characterized by its telltale black shading, and a “west coast” style is where the modeling was done in color values. I’ve even heard of a “midwest” style, although, after thirty-odd years, I’m damned if I know what that might be. That’s all changed.
My old pal, E.J., brought to my attention a recent book, Micro Trends by Mark Penn with Kinny Zalesne. It states that back in the seventies there were about three hundred tattoo shops in the U.S.A.. Today there are more than four thousand. How many tattooers? Multiply that worldwide. On top of that, there’s a small army out there just drawing flash, some of it amazing.
We’ve seen a veritable flood of exposure and tattooed people―from five million in the seventies to an estimated thirty five million today. They encompass every racial ethnic and socio-economic class, a truly democratic cross-section. Who knows how many books, documentaries and periodicals? There’s been a tidal wave of talented individuals and an avalanche of availability in materials and equipment that have given rise to images and techniques that were unimaginable thirty years ago. And yet, with the quality of work being done these days, there are those still out there for whom a tattoo’s a tattoo’s a tattoo. You gotta wonder.
Catch you on the rebound.
21 First Avenue, New York City 10003