Read an Excerpt
By David Ritz
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 2002 Rolling Stone Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShow & Tell
by David Ritz
TATTOOS CUT DEEP. As fantasies, as dreams, as symbolic declarations, they breathe beneath our skin. They augment our private or public lives; hidden or exposed, they come to life as erotically intimate penetrations, signs of self-invention or self-scrutiny, self-denial or self-indulgence, self-love or self-obsession. For many of us engaged in the Western pop culture of the Twenty-First Century, tattoos resonate with musical overtones, imagistic counterpoints to the brashness of rhythm & blues and rock & roll. They scream for attention, cry for affection. They're attempts to fortify the funk. keep the music turned on forever, no pause between songs, no release from the thrill of true grooves liberating us from the tedium of an ordinary look or an ordinary life. Tattoos are the ultimate artistic statements about ourselves, turning bodies into canvases of extreme self-expression. Such statements require a ritual that, in turn, requires pain. The pain is the price we pay for a fresh vision - sometimes clear, sometimes confused - of how we choose to walk through the world.
THIS IS A BOOK OF VISIONS. Clarifying or confusing those visions, tattooed people talk about how, when and why they went for the ink It's all show-and-tell. The stories are silly, profound, thoughtful and odd. The stories, paired with their correspondent symbols, say all that can be said about why some of us feel compelled to decorate our bodies in a permanent fashion. In explaining the mystique surrounding tattoos, I can only tell my own odd story In doing so, though. I recognize and respect the mystery of the lure. Mysteries are mysteries precisely because they defy easy resolution. In asking the question - How did I, a fifty-eight-year-old man, wind up with fourteen pieces of modern art marking up my body? - I'm still not sure my answer makes sense.
IT BEGAN A DOZEN YEARS AGO, when my twin daughters. Alison and Jessica, were in high school. They were leafing through a book of tribal tattoos, all the rage back then, when I glanced over their shoulders and innocently commented. "Maybe one day I'll get a small tattoo."
"Who are you kidding?" they replied.
"You're not the type."
I resented the typecasting. I protested, "You might not know me as well as you think you do."
I thought it over for a few days. I envisioned a small symbol - of what I wasn't sure - that might sit discreetly on my right shoulder. I went so far as to visit a tattoo parlor. The place was filled with bikers and gangbangers picking out pictures of ferocious snakes, tigers and bare-breasted women. Thoroughly intimidated, I left without saying a word.
"You're right," I confessed to my daughters. "I'm not the tattoo type."
THE STORY MIGHT have ended there had Alison and Jessica not brought me a newspaper profile of Jill Jordan, described as a fine artist working in tattoos. Formally trained at an art school, Jordan was said to be selective about who and what she tattooed. The writer called her sensitive. "Sounds like your kind of person, Daddy," said the twins. "Maybe you should meet her." By then I had a notion of what would be my one and only tattoo. Wild about rhythm & blues since I was a child, I saw the simple letters R&B as a heartfelt tribute to a lifelong passion. Because I write biographies of rhythm & blues artists, it also seemed professionally appropriate. Armed with enough rationalizations to keep me from feeling entirely foolish, I went to see Jill Jordan in her Hollywood tattoo parlor. The name - Red Devil Tattoos - gave me pause, but Jill was pleasant and to the point. It would take her three weeks to prepare a design. Three weeks later, I saw the design. I liked it but in the secret silence of my head was convinced I was losing my mind and ruining my body. She couldn't actually tattoo me for another three weeks, during which I considered bailing. The night before had me crazy with anxiety. The next morning I felt like I was going to my execution. For reasons still not entirely clear, I went through with it. I sat there and experienced a pain more annoying than excruciating. It took less than a half hour. I was branded "R&B." When the bandage came off twenty-four hours later, I looked in the mirror. I didn't like what I saw; I loved it.
I'm embarrassed to say I was giddy with the pleasure of the thing. It seemed quite perfect; it seemed to be me. I was set. A middle-aged man with a small tattoo on his right shoulder, nothing more, nothing less. But soon my satisfaction was unsettled by a simple notion: I had two shoulders, not just one; moreover, I had two musical passions - R&B and jazz. Jazz. After all, was my first love. With "R&B" sitting so sweetly on one shoulder, wouldn't "Jazz" be the perfect complement for the other? Within a month I was back at Jill Jordan's. I went through the same process, gaining respect for Jill's deliberate and artful approach. The jazz design, like its R&B sister, was vibrant; it seemed to sing. The second tattoo delighted me even more than the first. I was balanced between the two musical strains that sustained my heart. I needed nothing more. Or did I?
I did, but I didn't know it at the time. I thought I could get away with this modest duo of tattoos, but my mind wouldn't rest. I began considering other designs on other body parts. The jones kicked in. Then came the epiphany: I was seated in Town Hall in New York City, listening to pianist George Shearing perform "Celia," a breathtakingly beautiful ballad by bebopper Bud Powell. Onstage behind Shearing was a large canvas by Stuart Davis, an American who depicted jazz as cubist expressionism. Shearing's gentle lyricism seemed to conspire with the poetry of the painting. I found myself crying. I'm not sure why - perhaps because the song suggested the mystery of the Forties, the decade of my birth and my parents' troubled romance, an epoch I've always viewed with aching poignancy. I felt consumed by beauty.
The next day I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a major Stuart Davis exhibition was on display. I bought the book from the show, studied it for weeks and finally found myself at Jill Jordan's studio asking whether she could translate Davis into a tattoo. She thought she could. But when I saw the sketch weeks later, I was astounded by its size. It was enormous, starting at my shoulder and spilling down to my elbow. "Can't it be smaller?" But I knew the answer before the question left my mouth. The design demanded length and breadth. This kind of art, like jazz, required room to breathe.
A month later, I watched myself watching the tattoo take form on my arm. This was a different sort of commitment. This tattoo was hardly discreet; it was screaming. A voice inside my head was screaming that this time I had really done it, ruined whatever sense of decorum I had once possessed. But when the deed was done, when I looked at Jill's extraordinary design, a louder voice exclaimed. "Fuck decorum; this is funky!" Suddenly all bets were off. I saw what my unconscious had certainly seen long before I was willing to admit it: I was a work in progress.
My warped sense of symmetry led to another Stuart Davis-inspired tattoo on my lower left arm; a sprawling Kandinsky would soon dance across my lower right arm. The larger the tattoos, the bolder Jill's designs, the more confidence I had in her ability to understand the images I wanted under my skin. Not only was her craftsmanship a fine mixture of skill and soul; the colors of her ink - hand-selected from countries around the world - were so startling that many people scrutinizing the tattoos were certain they'd been painted in oils.
In six-month or eight-month intervals, the tattoos multiplied. Fragments from various Miro paintings were pieced together and drawn on my upper right chest. My love for 1950s coffee-shop decor was satisfied by a sprawling wallpaper design from that period. I borrowed from lesser-known artists like Steve Wheeler, whose bursts of mechanical imagery excited my whimsy and now adorn my clavicle and right leg. A dripping Jackson Pollock was recently inked on my left calf.
I AM, IN SHORT, an illustrated man. My tattoos give me visceral pleasure, much of which comes in the form of the reactions of others. To the perpetual question - What is it? - I offer a perpetual answer: Art. I'm gratified that for the overwhelming majority of observers my tattoos bring smiles and warm greetings. An astounding number of strangers look at them and simply say, "It's all about music, isn't it?" It is.
My daughters, who led me to Jill Jordan, went to her a little while after I did and were tattooed in distinctive ways that bear no relation to mine. It was my wife, Roberta, initially skeptical of my tattoo obsession, who offered the most telling analysis of all: "They represent a triumph over your troubled childhood," she said. "They're your way of asserting your happiness."
I do believe happiness is the key, the kind of happiness that comes with embracing a mystique I can never quite grasp. When, for example, others ask, "How do you know that you want that stuff on you forever?" my answer is, "I don't know." Not knowing is part of the fun. I love the notion of permanent whimsy when, in a flash, I see a colorful image and decide to make it part of me. The more tattoos I have, the less seriously I take them. I see them as flights of fancy blessing me with the same sensations I experienced listening to George Shearing playing "Celia" - a rush of spontaneous beauty, a feeling of fleeting joy.
DAVID RITZ, a four-time winner of the Ralph K. Gleason Music Book of the Year Award, recently completed a biography of jazz singer Jimmy Scott (Da Capo Press).
Excerpted from Tattoo Nation by David Ritz Copyright © 2002 by Rolling Stone Press.
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