ASK ZEKE WITH ZEKE OWEN
This one’s from the legendary tattoo artist dates back to May 1998.
I want to pursue a career as a tattoo artist very seriously. I am currently an aspiring artist with no tattoo training. How do I go about it?
—Chris Sisler, Vacaville, CA
I’d like you to know, Chris, that my editor goes through all this mail out in California, picks out the things he wants and sends them to me. So I don’t have a lot of choice with really picking out my mail and the questions that I’d like to talk about. In other words, it’s just random and I don’t say, “I don’t want to answer this, I don’t want to answer that.” I say, “Oh there’s a juicy one,” and go on. I just have to take the ones that he sends.
First of all, I’d like to tell you a little story about something that happened to me up in Seattle, Washington, one time. And I might start this little story out with a caption that went, “So you want to be a tattoo artist?” By the way, did you see in local business magazine that tattooing is now the sixth largest growing business in the United States?! Well anyway, next to my shop—my shop was on Skid Road. Skid Road was named originally as the logging road way back in the 1800s when they used to skid the logs down the road to Peugeot Sound to put on the ships. Well, anyway, I was out on First Avenue in Seattle for a little while and it was really neat. One of the coolest things that I used to see up there was that the people from Alaska and all over up north used to come down and put their money in the bank and go to the poker rooms and live in the old, beat up, stinky, I mean really stinky hotels right down there on First near the Pike Place Market and Skid Road. And this one guy used to bring down, every year, a couple of typical sled dog looking dogs and they were probably three years old or right around there. And he’d stay in one of those Skid Road hotel rooms where they let you have anything—I mean anything. And in the morning, you’d see the dogs and this guy from the Arctic Circle or someplace, down on the sidewalk and the dogs would both have collars on and each collar would be attached to the other one, kind of like Siamese-twin collars. So, consequently, he’d have one dog on the port side and one dog on the starboard side and they’d both be leaning in about ten degrees against each other and that’s they way he’d walk. Man, it’d be funny right there at the beginning of winter. They’d be falling, a struggling and a pulling. But, after a while, after a few months, winter would start winding down and they’d go down the steps and outside on the sidewalk just in unison—just as happy as they could be, with their tongues hanging out. And they’d run down the street when he’d call them. It looked like he was training them for sled dog work, but I’d never seen that before. It was really strange to watch them.
Next door to my tattoo shop in Seattle was this old bar called the Forty Niner Tavern. And that’s exactly what it was. It was full of all them off the ships and miners. Honest to God they still have mines up there, of course they’d be there for the winter. And Seattle was kind of growing in those days, they were building all over the place, so we had a lot of steelworkers. And the tavern used to open up at six in the morning, and I know that because one of the opening bartenders used to be my girlfriend, Carol. And I’d be over at the arcade—it was open 24 hours a day with a pool hall, and the little guy who ran the grill—and I’d get her home fries and scrambled eggs and coffee and go over to the bar at six in the morning. And the place would be so smoky from cigarettes, it’d be the middle of winter and there was no movement of air in there, and the fire would be going and it was just thick with smoke. And the sun would make rays through the front door and the first few tables had a spotlight like one of the helicopters that flies over the lakefront when you’re out there barbecuing and partying.
Anyway, I was in there and it was packed with all the steelworkers in there partying and doing shooters before they went to work up 20, 30 stories. They’re as drunk as hell going off to hang steel up there. Somebody ought to write a book, if they haven’t already, about how these guys used to save each other’s lives from falling to their deaths by catching them on the floor underneath. Anyway, I was sitting there drinking my coffee and I’d just finished my scrambled eggs and home fries when all of the sudden the most horrible, putrefying smell came into the place. God it was horrible, you know? And I looked around. I once had tattooed a South Korean Sailor for two gallons of kimchee because he didn’t have any money—this was back in the 60s—and he brought me this two gallon can of kimchee and I tattooed him and he went back to the ship. I had zero communication with the guy. So I put the bucket of kimchee—after taking out about a quart size jar of it—and put it in the reefer box in the Forty Niner Tavern and we were looking in there. We thought that was it, because it can get pretty foul sometimes. But that wasn’t it. And I looked up toward the front of the bar, and in the middle of this blazing sunlight cutting through the cigarette smoke here sits this old wino. He has a Korean War era watchcap in a shade of green that was particular to that era with flaps hanging down over his ears. And he had two or three suits on underneath his big overcoat, because it was below zero degrees outside. And his hands were just—you couldn’t tell what they were because the guy was so grimy. He had on big, heavy army wool pants and I looked down and I could see steam coming off his right boot, this old army boot. And the guy’s face was leathered and beat up. And he had his hand wrapped around a double shot glass of some kind of wine or something. With the sunlight on him, he’s just sitting there with head down—he’s drunk about half of it. And the steam coming off his shoe was coming off a freshly laid turd. Somehow, before he had sat down, he had crapped in his pants and his turd about the size of a scoop of vanilla ice cream had slid down his pants and landed on the toe of his shoe. Just balanced there. And the stink was just ripe. It was horrible. And the funny part was I was only one who got nauseous—ready to get sick over it. The rest of the seamen that were in there—a couple of guys from the hotel, a couple of Indians, all these steelworkers, my girlfriend Carol behind the bar—when I pointed it out they said, “My God, there it is, it’s on his shoe!” They all turned and broke into a rolling laugh, but they weren’t sick. It didn’t bother them a bit. They thought it was funny as hell. Well, I didn’t think it was very damn funny. So I went over to the guy and I told him, I said, “You’re gonna have to get up and leave this place and take that fucking thing on your shoe with you! Get outa here!” Anyway, he drank his wine, got up and walked out the door real slow, with his head bent down. Poor guy, he looked like a refugee from WWII, with that shuffle, like those guys with the tattoos on their arms, given that number from Hitler. Out the door he went, and that stinking thing on the toe of his right boot.
But you know, that’s all part of life of being in a tattoo business. So I thought about that for many, many years. And there’s not a real point to all this that I’m telling you. But before you do anything—before you go about planning a big career move into the tattoo business—you really ought to find out more about what it’s all about. Where you want to go, what you really want to do with it. I mean, do you have any tattoos? In other words, before I give you directions to build a bomb you better know what the hell you want to do with the damn thing after you get it finished. Because most of the people who got into this business have a real kinship with their customers in that it really gets into their blood, so to speak, and you keep coming back for more. They stay in it. And I’ve seen real good tattooers just go nuts. Actually, one of Mike Malone’s that came in my shop, what was his name—from Germany—Freddy or something. Anyway, he went back to Germany and he was one of the very first ones on the crack of the wave of the tattoo scene and he took Germany by storm. It was 24 hours a day and it got to him so bad that he had a breakdown and went off to the hospital. And I haven’t heard anything from him since. Mike will know what I’m talking about.
But the point of it is I can tell you right now, don’t take it on your own to try and do this or experiment with anybody. And here I am telling you exactly what I did, and a lot of others did, experimenting on their own. I can’t say it’s a mistake but it’s just a better approach to go into a shop of maybe the guys who’ve been doing your tattoos. I’m sure you have a bunch, right? And talk to them. Bring your artwork in to show. I’ll tell you what, there’s been a phenomenon in this business that went right past me. I missed it. Only just now am I getting to find out about what’s going on. I call them entrepreneurs. They have a job with the transit system or maybe they’re in the bricklaying business in the daytime and they have ten or fifteen tattoos, so now they decide they’re going to have a tattoo shop. They go down to Ocean Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida, and they rent a little store. They put an ad in the paper and they hire six or seven guys and they give them 35% of the gross to sit in there and tattoo. But if they don’t have the equipment, by God, they send off to somebody up north and buy all the machines and the designs and the tools to do the work with. And that’s one way to do it. And they just get together like a big Chinese cluster-fuck and sit there and mark each other up and everybody else that comes in the place.
But that’s one approach, I suppose. I think it’d be better off though if you did find somebody who had a reputation and they would sit you down and let you watch and talk. That’s really the way to get started. Hand to hand—kind of like the old-fashioned apprenticeships used to be at the shoe repair shop. After about a year, they eventually let you put a heel on somebody’s boot, you know?
And also, this is another kind of business where you want to get next to the best person you can. If you have some serious art abilities or training and everybody goes “oooh” and “aaah” when they see your painting, then evidently you’ve got the kind of ability that you need today to succeed in the business. Most of the old time guys are what we call mechanics—take a pattern, slap it on your arm and follow it along. There were some guys that could make it look like Rembrandt. You could tell, it was sort of a mechanical follow-the-dots sort of a deal. But today, when you’ve got so many great people, it just blows me away. I never knew Brian Everett was an oil painter or a portrait artist before he got into this. I just didn’t stop to think like that. The scope of the way I thought was pretty much limited to the tattoo community that I developed myself in. And it didn’t include people like that. And today Mike Malone says I’m the last guy to find out anything. I don’t know—he’s probably right. But today I’m beginning to find out these people in fine arts are getting into tattooing. I’m beginning to think, is there more money working in tattooing than there is working in the art department at some big magazine? And evidently some of them actually like tattooing. So then again, you have to think very carefully about what you say or what you do around this or any other business. But especially in tattooing, because most of the people who are in tattooing are pretty down to earth. There’s not a lot of fiction in tattooing like a lot of people would think. When a guy comes in and you work on him two or three hours and he gets up and runs out the door with your money, that’s pretty real. It’s not a real good example either but—also I don’t just sit there when I’m tattooing somebody. I’ve got something to say. I ask them what’s going on and you get to hear a lot of what’s really happening in the rest of the world. The kind of people I work on are everything from deep sea divers to CEOs of major corporations.
But again, you need to learn or find out more about what tattooing’s all about before you decide I’m an artist and I want to be a tattoo artist. Find out something about it first. Go to a tattoo convention. There you go. Hang out with all those drunks after the tattoo room is closed and they’re all in the bar slinging shit at each other, wrestling around in the parking lot like Bob Shaw and I used to do, drunk as hell in the grease. Things like that. Then that’ll give you more of an insight and whether you really want to be a tattoo artist or not.
ASK ZEKE with ZEKE OWEN
This colorful one is from March 1998.
This is in response to the Ask Zeke column, he stated that “Connelly in Virginia” used individual ink containers for each customer. Tain’t so, my friend—at least from 1975 on to 1985, when he died. R.L. Connelly used to dip right out of the small bottles of ink for every customer that walked through the door. Same needles, same bucket and sponge, etc. He had six colors, with a toothpick in each bottle and a clear glass mixing bowl to the cover the bottles at night. He tattooed me in 1975, and I visited him many times until his death in 1985. He always worked this way. I took these photos of his “ink area” in the early ’80s.
—Frank Mills, Red Dragon Tattoo, Richmond, Virginia
Dear Mr Mills:
I really don’t use a pencil anymore; it’s a lot more convenient to stand here with a little handheld tape and reflect and read your letter, try to give you back some answers, than write them out. And this way, I think, it’s really the way I talk. It’s the way I speak—the F-words and my attitude, and I still make a lot of mistakes when I say things without thinking them out first.
However, I’ve realized after looking back over 50 years that, when you’re out in the public like this, you have a responsibility to everyone listening to what you have to say. Whether it’s your peers or the younger people, it doesn’t make any difference. Because a lot of people are going to listen and follow your advice if you can make any good points at all. I realize that this is a responsibility, especially when the health of these people you’re dealing with is concerned. Also, too, if I do or say something that can cause you to make an error in your business while you’re in the tattoo business (because this is what it’s all about, of course, is the tattoo business) or could cause you to have a problem, especially if you were to lose your license or lose your business or make a mistake, and, God forbid, get sued or what have you—no one wants to have that guilt. I don’t want to carry that around. I have enough problems as it is without out having to make these kinds of mistakes.
So, when I say something in this column, you can certainly tell when it’s fun or tongue in cheek. I mean, everybody knows, for example, that they’ve got fine tattoo artists in Pasadena. Everybody knows that before the ’60s, everybody, I mean everybody, was bucket-shop tattooing. And I run around the planet telling people that I was most likely the first one between Canada, Mexico, the Pacific and the Atlantic that was throwing out my ink and changing my needles. This came from working with Sailor Jerry Collins in Honolulu and Hong Kong Tom and his kinsman, Don Nolan. They were in Alaska just before the earthquake, and I saw their logbook. The Army came down and inspected them and made them keep a logbook—made damn sure that they changed their needles, changed their inks and kept a sterile chain of events. When they got off that place and came down to the Pike where all the tattoo action was in Long Beach in those days, that’s what they said. I remember that after all these years. I respect them for it. They weren’t only my peers, they were my tattoo heroes in those days. The work that they did was the forefront of the great tattooing that we have today—the imaginative art that they did. Absolutely, I saw with my own eyes, when they were on the Pike tattooing, they used the sterile chain of events. I didn’t see them tattoo in Anchorage but I had to believe what they said they did there. I saw the logbooks. I saw dozens of tubes and needle bars and so on. And later on, I saw them tattooing in Long Beach with that same sterile chain of events.
I never met Charlie Wagner in the Bowery up in Manhattan, China Town, New York City. But I certainly spoke with a lot of people who had the integrity to tell me what they said. And when I tell you that that’s what I heard about something or that so-and-so told me, that’s the way we communicate. That’s the way we hear about things.
There was a reference made about something I said about R.L. Connelly up in Virginia, about the way he worked. Well, the point that was made in the letter was that he was working in a bucket-shop procedure as late as into the 1980s. Well, he wasn’t the only one. And this is not to excuse it. Its unforgivable after the word is out, in my opinion, for anyone not to work with a sterile chain of events. First of all, I saw pictures of his desk, the way he worked, and it was a cluttered up mess. Well, anybody can take a picture of anybody’s desk before or during their work, and it’s liable to look like a cluttered up mess. Maybe it was all the time, maybe it wasn’t. I only made one visit to his studio, several years ago—R.L. Connelly had a vacation house down here at the beach that was 15 or 20 miles from where I live. He used to come into my shop, he’d had a stroke, he walked with a limp. We used to sit down and talk for awhile, and he invited me up one time. He was in a hospital, and I just kind of dropped in there impromptu on my motorcycle, and the place looked presentable and clean from what I saw. Okay? If it was otherwise, and I didn’t see it and I didn’t mention it, and it has upset a few people, well I’d have to say that that’s just the way I saw it. I’m not going to apologize for one thing or another. I’m telling you like it is. I feel I have a responsibility in saying the way I saw it. If you saw it differently, whatever.
However, if you choose to criticize me personally for this, I’m gonna throw the ball back to you. Anyone who would sit and get tattooed in a mess that they claim they saw, with a guy who didn’t change his needles or didn’t change his ink, is pretty stupid, and I find it very difficult to believe anything they’d say without knowing anymore about them. So I’m gonna leave it laying like that. And, if you have a problem with that, I’ll be around, wearing my black Friscos and my white T-shirt. And, if I’m there by myself, just walk up to me, everybody knows who I am pretty much. And we’ll deal with it.
See ya. Zeke.
Q: Who do you consider to be the ten greatest tattoo artists of all time? And why? What about yourself?
—Alice Decker (Charlottesvile, Virginia)
A: I keep getting questions about things like that “Do you rate yourself (meaning myself personally, I guess) one of the better ten tattoo artists?” Well Alice, or Ms. Decker, it’s pretty much like trying to sit down and read the Thomas Registry in one evening, to answer a question like that. That’s pretty tough. And as far as how I feel about myself, rating myself, I never did rate myself as to how good I was. I just have a running contest with myself—every time I tattoo somebody to try and do a little better than I did a few minutes ago or yesterday or whatever. That’s the thing to do, to continually try to improve yourself as you go along. Don’t worry about the other guy; he’s gonna take care of himself. You can use other people’s work as a ruler or a yardstick to measure your own artistry but, most of the time, you’re gonna like somebody else’s work a lot better than yours. It’s human nature with a lot of people that way. And I tell ya, another thing too, I don’t think anybody can really rate themselves in the eyes of the world. If you want to have to a contest; the judges are all the people who get tattoos that know something about it, not so much the artist. I’m sure they’re a lot of guys out there who feel they are the best tattoo artists in the world. Just in the town I’m in, we’ve got 52 licensed tattoo artists, pretty much full-time, and just ask them and everyone of them can tell you they’re the best tattoo artist that there is. I remember one time, I’d been hanging around a tattoo shop, I guess it was 1957 or ’58 or something. I thought it’d be a real hoot idea to get Ernie Sutton, one of my first teachers, to have a big barbecue and invite all the tattoo artists to get together and tattoo. Sort of an idea for a convention. I didn’t have any idea that that’s what I was thinking about at the time. And get everybody together to BS and tattoo or whatever, and I asked him, I said, “Hey, Ernie, how about let’s do this one time.” And he says, “Why, if you took all the tattoo artists in the United States and put them in the same room together with the lights out and then you turned the lights on, why, they’d kill each other.”
Well, that attitude still prevails quite a bit today. I think when Dave put the first convention on in Texas several years ago, it was one of the big steps into bringing the tattoo community together, finding out who was on the list of the better or best tattoo artists with their contests and so on. I never really did care too much about who was the best or whatever. I never was the best. When I was young, I used to think I was or wanted to be. But, when you get a little bit older, you begin to think more about what you’re doing than what you want to be. But Dave put on that first convention—it was one of the big steps toward getting everyone together. I didn’t get to go. I was working with Sailor Bill Killingsworth over at Louisiana at the time and I had to stay and run the shop, and he jumped into his big stretch Cadillac with a pile of girls and had a good time, and I had to stay there and mind the shop so I didn’t make Dave’s first convention. I did, however, get to go to a couple of them over the years and I was at one in San Francisco a couple years ago and I met Tin-Tin from France. I got to look through his little collection of tattoo pictures of the work he’d done and I began to realize that, at this point in time, there’s no sense in even trying to be the best. Just do the best you can and keep on trying to improve yourself, because there’s just so much talent on the planet, and subject matter in tattooing is spread out enormously. I mean, you’ve got every subject on the planet to do, and also the imagination has just stretched and that’s limitless right there. I don’t think that you can say anymore that there is one guy better than the rest. There may be some people in one particular subject, like, take for example, Paul Booth and the sort of macabre things that he does. He certainly excels at that. Y’know, there’s some people that do portraits—certainly Brian Everett is right at the top of the list there. Everything Brian does and, of course, Jack Rudy. And when you say “in the world,” then you have to take into consideration the Japanese style. And the Europeans have a style. There’s a guy down in the Philippines with one arm that let’s you lay in his backyard in a hammock while his kids stretch the skin and he does a portrait by hand—that is to say a couple needles tied on the end of the chopstick with the thread—and dips it in ink and does a portrait for you on your chest or your arm or whatever, as good as anybody I’ve ever seen in my life. And nobody even knows the guy’s name. I might’ve heard it once years ago when I was over there but I don’t remember it now. And there’s so many different styles, they’re never gonna decide this question. You might say that this guy does the best portraits, or this other guy does the best multicolored European type of work, or this guy in Japan is at the top of the list as far as full-size big Japanese tattoos go, and this other guy does the best a la-Americana stuff. How do you decide? And I’ll tell you the truth, I really don’t think it matters. The work is so good today, that you can go five hundred miles in any direction and you’ll find somebody tattooing that does really dynamite work.
So I think this question becomes less and less important. I mean, if it’s important for you, then the thing for you to do is spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out. I haven’t got time. I’m in my shop just about eighty hours a week, and it’s hard to enough just to sit down and stumble through the more basic questions for some of you out there, let alone a monster question like this. But I’m sorry I couldn’t answer it any better, I don’t wanna rerun everything I’ve just said to you, but you and everybody else ought to be exuberant, so happy, that you’re able to go to any city in the country and get tattooing done in a fine-arts mode. It’s incredible! The people today who are 18 or 20 years old just take it for granted. But the struggle to bring this business or trade or form of art to the point that it’s at today has been a mountain to go over. Not just with the health department and the criticism from the rest of the people that don’t get tattoos, but the technical end of it—what kind of power supply, what kind of needles, what kind of this, what kind of that. And to attract really fine-arts people into the business, that wasn’t really easy either. Because most of the people who were tattooing years and years ago didn’t really care. They were in it because it was a hobby or a way to make a few bucks or whatever. I’m just so happy to be a little piece in the puzzle. When it all comes together, no one knows where it’s gonna end. It’s never gonna end but what it’s gonna come up to, in the next century, it’s just too much to even think about. Let alone, start forming up ideas of who’s the best, who’s the top ten today or tomorrow. Hey just enjoy it. Go down and get a real nice tattoo and forget about it.
ASK ZEKE—NOVEMBER 1997
Just one question to the Zekemeister, this time… but Mr. Chaney Lang got the world’s longest answer. The legendary Zeke at his finest.
You talk about the “sterile chain of events.” Seems to me that a lot of artists use rubber gloves and an autoclave but just use regular tap or bottled water in mixing their inks. Doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose?
—Chaney Lang, Seattle, Washington
This is a timely and very important question from one of my favorite cities in the country. I worked in Seattle, Washington for four or five years, I guess. I love it and I love the people there. Anyway, Chaney, I also mentioned something about ultimately putting the ink in a Pyrex quart or two quart mixing jar, taping several layers of gauze over the top of it and autoclaving it. The gauze serves the purpose of keeping it from splashing all over the inside of the autoclave as well as venting it. Anyway, you’re concern with the tap water really hits a note with us here in eastern North Carolina. I picked up the front page of the paper after two years for some reason and saw that everyone here is so concerned with the massive hog waste spill that occurred locally about two years ago and their concern is that it’s seeping into our ground water. Well, we use a lot of water in tattoo shops, we flush the toilet, we wash our hands, we wash out customers with it, we drink it. Y’know, the list is endless. So what happened? I certainly wouldn’t want anybody putting hog waste water on my tattoo let alone using it to mix the ink! Here again, Chaney, I don’t use or know of anyone else that uses tap water to mix their ink with, okay? Distilled water is available at your drugstore and is really the best source of water to use if you’re using water at all to mix your ink. I don’t even know if you’re a tattoo artist. Evidently you’re not. But everybody I know uses distilled water first of all, if they use water at all to mix their ink. I don’t rely on anyone else to tell me what’s in my ink or whether the minerals are in it or the metallics, how little, how many, does it contain cadmium, etc. We don’t want cadmium. Jeff and Sean at Cherry Point, and myself, we take our ink to a chemist up in Virginia and have him check it out. His actual business is manufacturing detergents and things like that but he has the technical ability up there to really tell you what you’re using and if it safe and so on. I would guess that everyone in the business today is capable of finding a chemist that is friendly towards tattooing somewhere in the community who can establish this criterion for you. Don’t rely on anybody else to do it. Go ahead and pay a few bucks and do it yourself. Find out what’s in your ink and what it’s all about. I remember working up at Dave Shore’s in Canada, probably 25 or 30 years ago for a summer while Dave went on a little vacation-I think he went to Hawaii for a couple of months or so and I went and sat in for him. Well, while I was there, a couple of officials came into the tattoo shop and just demanded that we take samples of ink to a local chemist. So they gave us a name and, y’know, get the reports back of what it was and they would be back in a month to check what’s going on. And they asked, would we please not use the red. They’d had some complaints about the red ink that we were using. Well anyway, we did this. We took samples of the ink to a chemist and got our reports back and the red, it claimed, had 54% mercuric sulfide in it. So it was taken off the bench, taken off the table. And we replaced it with local Vancouver Health Department approved red. And that was that. I remember one of the major tattoo suppliers back in the ’50s and ’60s was selling a red to all of the big guys; Sailor Eddie, Johnnie Walker, a few guys up in Brooklyn, I don’t know if Coney Island Freddie was part of the bunch or not, but they’d gotten some ink from one of the bigger guys in the business; it didn’t itch, it didn’t bump up. In fact, there was no problem with it in the skin other than after about a year or so it just disappeared. It literally fell right out of the skin. Just over a period of a couple years and you looked down and there was your nice red rose or heart without any red in it. So there again, it’s time to get it off to the chemist and find out for yourself what you’ve got. I was out in Long Beach at the time working with Bert Grimm and a few of those guys out there. This was before Bob Shaw came out to the coast and we didn’t have that problem. That was just fortunate, because in those days not too many people really checked it out and sent the stuff off and found out what it is. We relied on the word in the community. There was probably less than a couple hundred guys full time tattooing across the United States.
But, getting back to the subject of the water, I recall one of my favorite Jerry Collins tales; I worked around the corner from him and hung out with him in Honolulu in the sixties. And, y’know, he’d been in the navy and been in the merchant marines and did a lot of traveling and we used to swap stories all the time. Anyway, he was telling about one time when he was in New York at Charlie Wagner’s tattoo shop-this happened back in the 1940s. You wanna talk about mixing water in your ink; he was in there talking with Charlie and this sailor comes in and sat down in a chair and pretty soon it came time to put the red in the tattoo-and in those days everyone used an old cold cream jar and mixed their ink up with a little water and maybe a little alcohol and stirred it up with a coffee stirrer, a little wooden stick. So, he looked in his jar of red ink and it was about as dry as a bone. So he looked around, and they didn’t have a sinks or water in the bathroom; it was down the hall in the back of a barber shop next door. So he looked at the customer he says, “Hey sailor, what kind of red do you want to put in this tattoo here. I got a couple different types of red.” And the sailor says, “How about that red up there,” and he pointed to some designs behind the sailor that were really high up on the ceiling behind him and the sailor had to turn around, really turn all the way around and look up. And, when he did, this Charlie picked up the jar of red ink and spit a big wad of tobacco juice in the jar and grabbed his swizzle stick and started stirring it up and got it mixed up and going again. And he grabbed his old machine there, the one that was wired for red, and just proceeded to tattoo merrily away on the old boy. That was one of Jerry’s favorite ink mixing stories that we used to rerun. Y’know, Chaney, I don’t know how our inspectors that go to these hog farms can miss twenty five million gallons of hog shit when it spills over and, according to the newspaper, runs knee deep across tobacco, bean and corn fields and than runs across a road a quarter of a mile away and stops traffic and then runs into the ground to contaminate our drinking water. Again I say the city claims that this hasn’t happened yet but evidently it’s putting people out of business that are down river. Nobody’s going down there. It’s definitely into the river water. When it gets into our drinking water and the water that comes into the tattoo shop I guess some of the people that you’ve seen up in the Seattle that are mixing their ink will hope the city is taking care of the hog farms in Seattle better than they are here. So, a couple of gallons of distilled water ought to mix up enough ink to last a while. And I guess if we’re gonna keep our ground water safe we’re gonna have to get our own patrols to check what everybody’s doing at the toxic waste and hog farms. Evidently this just keeps happening all across the country but they wait till it happens before they go and jump up and down and try to do something about it. I guess we’ll have to check it out ourselves, like everything else. You can’t rely on anybody to do it for you anymore, can you? We can call it the Civil Toxic and/or Hog Waste Spill/Dump Site Inspection Patrol.
A fishing buddy of mine, last thirty-five or forty years, was out here last week from California and he was at one of the local watering holes down at Newport Beach and ran into Dennis Rodman. They had a few drinks, showed each other their tattoos and sort of bullshitted around for a while and he had a pretty good time talking to Dennis Rodman and I’d like to know more about what he got, what his tattoos are like, what his story is and maybe even get a few views on what he feels are the status quo and the politics of the country. If anybody’s interested in anything like that, let’s write a letter in to Baxter there and see if the next time Mr. Rodman’s out at Newport at the watering hole and runs into Big Andy if they can’t sit down and tape it. I think that’d be a lot of fun.
The next thing I wanted to talk to in my commentary is there’s a bumper sticker sign I see around once in a while that says, “God, Guns and Guts Made America.” Well I think it’s the God-fearing men with guts carrying the guns that saved America or got us free from the British, the tax problem and the situation we were in and kept us free. I realize it was the politics that involved us in WWI and whatever, but WWII was definitely that we were attacked. We were attacked right there, no doubt about that. What their political problem was is whatever, but the point of it is these military guys are out there laying it on the line. Keeping your ass free so you can ride your motorcycle on the highway. Well I’ve always wondered what it would be like if everybody in the United States who had a tattoo, say on Memorial Day at 3:00 p.m. EST, that’s twelve noon out there on the West Coast, pick up the phone and dial their senator or the congressman or maybe one specific place, like someplace in Washington, D.C.-that’s where everything seems to happen, in that inner circle up there, right? What if they all dialed all at the same time, do you think it’d make any difference? Do you think the phones would ring off the hook? Of course, there’s nobody there on a holiday, but do you think anyone would notice us if we did that? How many people are there in the United States that have tattoos? I know there’s over 78% according to a Navy survey done at Balboa Hospital back in the ’60s. There’s probably more than that today. I would guess somewhere over 85% today of our military people are tattooed. And they’re the ones out there. This magazine is about tattooing, who gets ’em, why, what and where. Well think about this, think about the guys up there that don’t have any tattoos and what position they’re on. It’s not gonna be long before we have to do something about protecting our freedom a little bit more. You wanna go down and get a tattoo? Like I said last month, there’s still places where you can’t. It’s illegal in Oklahoma, South Carolina, whatever. And these are only two or three, a little handful of people, telling you, “You can’t do this. You can’t have any protection from our health department in our state to go down and get a tattoo.” Well, what about the other things that are constitution and bill of rights abuses? What’s gonna happen? Can we get together here? Can we form one huge voting block of tattooed people? Every time you pick up the paper or listen to the TV someone’s complaining about illegal vote count. The guy that invented the electoral voting machines claims that it’s being tampered with. This magazine reaches a lot of people and it’s gonna reach more. The magazine you’re holding in your hand right now is going places. This magazine has the potential to go all over the world. And mostly, importantly, it can be the format to talk to people here and to protect our rights. Tattooing is the first step. So you think about that.
This is one of Zeke Owen’s columns from back in September of 1997. Still outrageously wonderful today.
How come the current, modern day tattoos are so bright and colorful? Are the inks better now than in the old days or what?
―C.R., Pasadena, California
First of all, I don’t even believe there’s a tattoo shop in Pasadena. I doubt if anybody in Pasadena probably sees more than a dozen tattoos a year pass through the city. C.R., how old are ya? Don’t you even know how to spell your name? How about when you’re writing, you at least give me a first name, or a nickname will be fine, so we know kinda’ who you are. It makes it a little bit more personal, all right?
Anyway, tattoos don’t look any brighter than they did years and years ago and the ink is the same. It’s still four micron-size particles. Basically it starts out as a by-product of metallic mineral ores and there’s a dozen different ways you can mix it up. Every tattoo artist I’ve known always has his secret formula for mixin’ it up. And there’s a million different ways, between alcohol, distilled water, glycerin, you name it. But basically, the terminal event should be, I hope, you stick it in a Pyrex jar, run it in your autoclave at the correct time and temperature and put a little bit of gauze on the top there so it don’t boil over and run all over the place. When I started tattooing out in LA, California, about 40 years ago, most of the guys were just using black, red and green. There was a couple of guys down in Long Beach like Fred Thornton that used a little blue and a little brown. Well, those colors were new to everybody in the United States. They were difficult to get. Didn’t quite find the right mix or whatever it was for the newer colors. However, there was one major difference. There was a couple of guys in the United States, one guy was in Hawaii. That was, of course, none other than Sailor Jerry, and a fellow named Connelly up in Virginia. And their ink went in and stayed in beautiful, and it lasted, and it was bright. Above all, Connelly in Virginia would put the ink in so it would actually look like it had depth. Just like when you look at a classy paint job on a car, it gives you the same impression of depth. A cut way above everybody else. Well, there was a reason for this. I noticed one major difference. That was, they did not use the same ink over and over again on each customer that came in. They had individual containers for their ink. I think Jerry was using triple-O capsules at the time and Connelly was using some little paper cups. Well, that’s it right there. It’s the chain of events you use. You do a real clean job, use sterile needles, throw the ink away so nothing but the pure pigment is gonna get trapped in that second layer of skin. It’s gonna last and it’s gonna be nice and bright.
When I got in the business, there were only two companies even selling dry pigment or some mixed for the tattoo business. They were kind of in the experimental stage too. No one was making ink, dried pigment if you will, for the tattoo business. And occasionally, a lot of the guys in the business wanted to try something else, so they did their homework and they found out there were big companies that were selling the better ink and the smart guys would send for a small sample, try it out on themselves, their neighbor or the mom or somebody. And if it stayed, it lasted, it went in easy, it was bright, then they’d get some more, they’d order a couple of pounds. And if it didn’t, they’d just deep six that one and wait a few more months until the company made another batch of a different lot number and they’d send for a sample of that. I know Jerry used to buy red that was mined in India, it was ground processed in England, and sometimes it would take him a couple of years of trial and error before he got a real nice red. These events occurred in the 1950s until the 1960s. I like to call it the transition period. This was a time when everybody was experimenting with ink and needles. They started cleaning up their act.
I did a lot of traveling in those days, and my color looked pretty good. Other tattooers would come into my shop after hours and steal my ink to try and find out what the big secret was. They couldn’t figure out that the real key was a sterile chain of events. When you get through with the ink, throw it out and put some sterile ink for the next customer. That’s the whole clue.
Well these guys passed on this technique to the new crowd, the next generation. And that’s why you see most of the tattoos today look so nice and bright. With exceptions of course, and that’s the basic premise that you have to remember. Tattooing is one of the most individual things on the planet. The person that gets a tattoo, his skin is different than the next guy. The tattoo artist that puts one on, his work is as different as the other guy down the block. You could take ten different customers, ten different tattoo artists, all with the same tools adjusted the same way with the same ink, whatever, the same level of ability, but all the tattoos are gonna look different when they get through
And, of course, it’s what happens, what the customer does after you leave the shop. You keep your bandage on 24 hours? Probably not. Well you should. This gives you protection against anything in the environment getting into the tattoo before it has the chance to close up. This mean little or no rejection of the ink, it’s trapped in your tattoo. It’s important to go to a tattoo artist that has enough experience to know how to adjust his machine and power head, the tube and needle bar and the needles, so it functions correctly and doesn’t damage, that is to say chop up, your skin. Because when this happens, you get a big scab, a big scab falls off and damages the outer layer of skin that protects your tattoo. It can cause a little or a lot of damage. And definitely cause some color loss. I would like to add that pigment manufacturers are positively making certified non-toxic pigment that we use in the tattoo industry. As I understand it, we are required by our government to send in a certification for each color. And if I were you I wouldn’t experiment around, it’s not necessary anymore. And, if you do, you’d better know the difference between zinc-oxide and titanium-oxide just for openers.
There you go, I hope that explains everything you wanted to know about color, brightness and the whole bit.
Some of my older tattoos have faded or spread out all over my skin. What’s the best way to bring them back to life? Cover them up or re-do them? Is it sacrilegious if someone other than the original artist does the repair job?
―M.A., New York City, New York
Well, apparently M.A. has got her tattoos a long time ago, they’re fadin’ and they’re spreading out all over her skin. Well, it depends it on how much money you got I guess. When you come into my place, we can do anything. We can cover them up, we can go over the outline, we can put some color back in ’em, we can add to them, it just goes on and on. You know what you gotta do, go down to a real good tattoo artist and get some suggestions. They do this all the time, there’s nothing unusual about it. The only thing is, when you pay fifty cents for that tattoo on the bowry back in 1940, today it’s gonna cost you forty bucks. So that’s the only problem you have, is how much dough you got.
And no, it’s not a sacrilege to get someone besides the original artist. Tattooers always appreciate loyalty. Loyalty is an outstanding virtue and, I guess, having just one artist do the work adds a real nice look to your work in my opinion. Of course, if distance and time prevail, and the original tattoo artist is too far away, or he’s deceased, you must be able to find a good tattoo artist in your area. If there aren’t any, and you take a vacation once a year, look for one wherever you go. If you can’t find a good tattoo artist in New York City, you’d better take up boating, because there’s some damn good ones up there. So, M.A. from New York City, if you like your tattoo and it’s blurry, and you still have the same feeling towards it, the graphics, the idea behind it, what you want to say, how you’re expressing yourself, go down and get it tuned up. If you don’t like your tattoo, you’re tired of it, you split up with somebody, whatever it is, go down and get it covered up.
When I got my tattoo out in North Carolina, I returned to San Diego and a phenomenon is kinda going around. My friend’s apartments are getting kicked in by guys in black. Is this because we’ve all got tattoos? Is there still the stereotype that we’re all a bunch of thugs? What the hell can I do to prevent this?
―Anonymous in the Military, San Diego, California
Reply to Anonymous:
Well, you could a get a portrait of Janet Reno tattooed on your chest and when they kick your door in, rip your shirt open, flash your tattoo of Janet Reno at ‘em. I heard they’ll use their fingers to make the sign of the cross and back out of your door, hell I don’t know. Do not, however, put a tattoo such as a group portrait of the Clinton family on your forehead. Forehead tattoos have definitely become a target for certain groups around the country. Anyway, regulations forbid any tattoos visible in uniform except short-sleeve tropicals, right? Nothing obscene or indecent, and all tattoo shops west of Honolulu are off limits.
Do politics and tattoos fit in the same slick magazine?
Without knowing your rights, and how to vote to keep your country free, tattoos could become illegal nationally. Remember, without you we wouldn’t have any freedom and the government would become the biggest gang. Pay your fair share of taxes, register to vote, and make three copies of everything.
Several people have asked what the heck’s going on in New York City? Well I’ll tell you what’s going on in New York City. A few weeks ago I drove up and went through the usual parking rigmarole so I wouldn’t get towed away and spend the rest of my life trying to find my nice Suburban and paying a $600 fine. Well, that’s the attendant problems you get up there, people live there and you deal with it.
I went to the City Hall to the council meeting on the issue of why tattoos been closed since 1960 or ’62 and how we’re gonna get it open again. But we were waiting for City Hall to open up, we saw Mayor Giuliani pull up in his limo, walk up the steps, wave at everybody. Big Joe Kaplan was there, I went over and talked to one of his body guards for a minute and it’s always exciting to see these people. I always wonder what makes them tick. I mean tattoos been going around 700 years, so it must be a tough decision to figure out whether to make it legal or not.
Anyway, I got to go up and put in my two cents at the city council meeting. And it was worth while. To watch the city council members up there and listen to the process. I mean, there’s some really great people up there. I hope somebody made some notes, gets the message out to the other cities and other states that have tattooing closed and really let them know what’s going on here. I want to thank the city council for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the democratic process. God bless you and good luck.
I wanted to add a little note about South Carolina. All of you know South Carolina’s been closed for years and years. A friend of mine that tattoos in Savannah used to live next door to one of the older senators who’s initials are S.T., I believe. Anyway, they got into a conversation, I think Senator T. was out there on this 16-row cultivator or whatever, having some fun, and Jack asked him a question about tattooing, and Senator T. popped up with, “What! Tattooing in South Carolina? Over my dead body!” He put down his glass of lemonade, jumped up on his 16-row cultivator and took off. So there you go, that’s the attitude these guys have. And the only way you’re gonna get your state open is to get in there and bulldog it like the New York guys did. Right at the grass roots level, the city council, these are people like you and I. They understand your problems, they want to listen to you. Get in there, throw the ball around and maybe you’ll get something done.
One of my great joys was working with the legendary Zeke Owen. A tattooist since anyone can remember, Zeke had a style and swagger that is often copied but never duplicated. Case in point: Zeke’s rambling columns, which appeared on the pages of Skin&Ink for three years (1997-1999). Zeke wrote me last week and said, ”
Hey, man, Nice to hear from ya. And congratulations on the new gig. I don’t know if you heard: I had a stroke, died in the hospital… and I’m still living in knowman’s land. The worst thing is that I couldn’t write for you once in a while. I so miss being a part of the magazine. You did a great job with “her,” Bob, and we all love you for it. Thanks for carrying the banner.”
Typical Zeke, who, by the way, might like hearing from you (email@example.com).
Here’s one of Zeke’s columns from 1997.
Where were you when the documentary “Ice Lady” was on TV? The fifty-two-inch TV Satellite system in my studio is on eighty-plus hours a week, our waiting room is kinda like the Edsel car dealership on a Saturday afternoon.
When the Ice Lady flashed across the screen everybody put down their magazines and paid attention. I grabbed the remote and turned up the sound. A crowd of Marines gathered in front of the TV. I was really awed as the camera man panned the “oh-so-clear-looking tattoos on the two-thousand-year-old frozen female corpse. They must have been done by the Leo Zulueta of the day. I turned my gaze about ninety degrees to the right and (behold!) I had a flash sheet of R.C. Edwin that was almost a mirror image of the seven-thousand-year-old designs on the screen.
I came to the apparent realization that people have been getting tattoos for seven-thousand years. I was really startled by this discovery and suddenly the efforts that I have been making for the past thirty-seven years seemed to take on an added meaning. Are we now a part of a seven-thousand-year-long chain? I began thinking about it, and clearly it seems we are.
As I look over the last thirty-seven years and the millions served, I remember all the credit, bank, IRS forms, etc. that I wrote “graphic artist” on the line that asked occupation. Recalling to mind the story given by Ernie Sutton, my first teacher, about the bank clerk that reviewed his loan application for his new 1961 Thunderbird. “She looked up at me with this dumber than shit expression and said ‘tattoo artist?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘and I make twice as much dough as you do, so don’t worry about it.’” Well, this was just about everybody’s attitude in those days. Pretty much a defensive posture, long sleeves and such. I remember when Tats Taylor spent several thousand dollars in legal fees defending his license to practice tattooing in Ft. Lauderdale. Why do we continually have to get on our soap box and jump up and down defending ourselves to get a license? I don’t want to get too far out on a political tangent. I’d really like to talk about where we’ve been and where we’re heading.
Personally, I don’t really have a lot of regrets. However, I do wish I would have been able to accomplish a lot more―in terms of solid evidence of the accomplishments we have all made to present tattoo on a completely different plane. We have made a complete turn around of the conditions that really protect the customer (sterilization, etc.). There has also been a phenomenal change of the caliber of art. We have gone from around two hundred full-timers when sat down at 507½ Main Street and put on my first “pay” tattoo (1958), to upwards of fifty thousand artists. I’m guessing fifty thousand because “Mr. Big” of the tattoo supply business prints fifty thousand catalogs every year. Does anyone really have a head count? If these numbers are accurate, that’s a two hundred fifty percent increase in thirty-five years. Almost every studio has a floor person. Stop and think about that for a moment. We have really come so far and grown so much.
For some of us, the tattooed Ice Princess has definitely put some new ink on the picture. New ink always makes you feel great. You fiddle with it, you rub this and that on it. You look at it more than a new Rolex. Old timers used to tell about spending a quarter for a new tattoo back in the ’20s and ’30s and used to say it made ’em feel good, “a sort of emotional fix.” Tattooing had a simple function in the 1950s, for one reason or another you “just wanted to get one” and you went down to Main St. or Broadway, Coney Island or The Pike and got it. Forty years later we’re still getting tattooed but now we’re examining all the reasons why. We have put every micron-size particle under a microscope and state governments are “taking over” the regulation of our business and practice. When I came to North Carolina seventeen years ago there were no regulations. The city didn’t quite know what to do with us, and I presented a copy of health regulations to an Onslow County sanitarian. I had written regulations for Westchester County, New York Health Department when I was working at “Big” Joe Kaplan’s old studio in Mt. Vernon. Prior to coming to JAX, home of Camp Le Jeune, USMC, I must have worked in a dozen cities, all health department regulated.
Five or six hours after giving copies of the Westchester County Health Regulations over to the Onslow County Sanitarian Joe, who probably shit-canned ’em as he was retiring anyway, the city came up with their own. They also decided we should attend a class on the techniques of tattoo sanitation in the Health Building at our local Community College. About thirty people showed up. We all thought the nurse that gave the course did well even though she obviously didn’t know anything about tattooing and, as we heard later, didn’t want one. The County Health Department has not held this course for a few years now. No one seems to know why. When I renewed my license for 1997 the License Bureau clerk said with a smile, “We have forty eight of you getting licenses this year.” The county was inspecting “Tattoo Parlors, swimming pools and septic tanks” with pretty much the approval of the operator. State inspection has been cut to once per year, our autoclaves must be biologically tested once a month. The people inspecting and regulating probably still don’t have one, want one or know how it works.
I was told I was the first person licensed to tattoo in Guam, under the new trust territory’s regulations. I don’t know why they waited so long. Guam has had tattoo artists since the mid 1940s. Ernie Sutton left the island in 1952 because, “When the damn typhoon hit, the water from the tidal surge dumped me off of my air mattress onto the deck.” I have very fond memories of Guam and its people, and frankly wished I had never left. Fred Thornton, a west coast artists of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, ex-Navy flyer and roller-skating rink owner, was one of the first to travel to Guam at the end of World War II. You have to realize in those days the tattoo business was not recognized as a business at all, a hobby business at best. Travel had to have a legitimate gig to get into the country and tattoo. It was slow and difficult, including military stopovers and checkpoints. Most of the time you worked in the back of a bar if you got lucky, otherwise you had to put up a frame with some chicken wire for a partition inside the barroom. Lots of fist fights and beer bottles flying around on Saturday nights. Then, the biggest health threat was the errant airborne bottle whacking your customers while he was getting his bulldog and USMC.
My set up consisted of a small school desk, a half-gallon bucket of water with a dash of Joy soap, a natural wool sponge, one jar each of red, black and green, three tattoo machines (one for each color), a box of Kleenex, a roll of paper towels and a straight razor. This made up the “recipe” for tattooing from the 1960s all the way back to the early 1900s when ‘Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine as we know it today. Now we’re doing weekly biological tests on our autoclaves. We perform our craft using a sterile chain of events. As of yet no one is wearing a snood, but it’s coming soon.
The old timers would tell you it was not necessary to sterilize as “something in the ink kills all the shit.” I was in my Seattle shop one afternoon taking out a load from my old Pelton crane that weighed at least 75 pounds. In walks the cook off tugboat, Danny Panzu. He introduces himself as an ex-tattooer and asks me, “What the hell are you cooking in that thing?” “Well,” sez me, “It’s a sterilizer, boss, and I’m cookin’ me needles, eh.” “Listen,” sez he, ”Ya see these fish scales on me [sic] arms.” He showed me fish scale tattoos about one square inch each solid, from his elbows to his knuckles. “Well I had a tattoo shop next door to a whore house in Colorado Springs during the War, and I always wondered about this sterilizing shit. So one night about one o’clock, I took some shader bars out to the curb, looked around so’s nobody’d see me, and reached down and tucked ’em in a crack in the gutter. Well, about 3, 4 o’clock in the morning one of the girls comes out and dumps the douche buckets the girls keep up in their rooms. Now my shop is on the downhill side of the whore house so everything comes my way. I left those shader bars in the gutter for a weekend, and ya’ see this here. (pointing to the fish scales) I put ’em on myself, with those harpoons I’d left in the gutter, and nothing every happened to me. And, if I were you, I’d get rid of that piece of shit.”
February 7, 1997: Congratulations New York City. You’re legal. I watched Mayor Rudy Giuliani get out of his limo, followed by his body guards, acknowledging waves and smiles as walked up the steps of City Hall. It is a gorgeous building and I was thrilled just to be there. About two hundred artists from mild to wild followed the Mayor in and sat down in front of the very articulate city counsel. The reps from the City Health Department were present and had done their homework well. They were, however, berated for being late with some paperwork a day or two, which isn’t bad considering it’s been illegal to tattoo in NYC for about thirty-five years. The majority whip wrassled and wrangled over State vs. City Law, until he finally ran out of breath. I realized all this rhetoric is necessary to “clear the air” before getting to the guts of the issue. A couple of people were asked to comment or make suggestions to the City Council. One young lady didn’t want to wear a smock to work. (She was so good looking she could have been in painters white overalls and still been a fashion plate) Another complained about the possible onslaught of a raid from, yes, ten thousand tattooers descending on Manhattan. Sorry, the war wasn’t fought for you to be the only bootlegger in NYC.
But, alas, not to worry. High rent, insurance premiums, muggings and just getting your car towed will take its toll. Big Joe’s car was towed from one meeting to the tune of nine hundred dollars. Rents start at five thousand dollars and up, insurance numbers are the hypotenuse of your age squared, and evenings out with entertainment is at least a grand for three couples. For the better class joints, China Town tariff is about half that. So I can’t see more than four hundred artists. Ed Hardy likes to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
When my chance to say a few words came, I wanted to go on the record as saying to the city council that tattooing practice in a sanitary manner is not hazardous to public health. As I made this comment, I glanced quickly around the council room. Only Coney Island Freddy caught it. I caught his nod and smile. You see the Supreme laid it down when they shut the city down in 1962 with this one; “Tattooing is a hazard to public health and barbaric practice.” Well, eat crow Justice so-and-so! The trade has proved you were one hundred and eighty degrees out. I have shared my little bit with as many as I could, and together you all brought tattooing out of the Ice Age. True, a few barbarians are still at it, but at least they’re using a sterile chain of events now. Keep it up and pass it on.