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Jeff Johnson on Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life In Ink

One of the best books I've read so far this year--recommended to me by my wife Ann, who has published the author in Weird Tales--is Tattoo Machine by Portland resident Jeff Johnson. A tattoo artist for over 18 years, Johnson has written an eye-opening, compassionate, and sometimes disturbing account of what it's like to work in an industry that requires close contact with people and that has recently begun to be given its due as a form of art. As the dust jacket says, Johnson has "inked gangbangers, age-defying moms, and sociopaths; he's defused brawls, tended delicate egos, learned to spot and avoid bunnies, and made it his mission to perpetrate ingenious and awful practical jokes."

What makes the book so good is Johnson's willingness to be open and honest about everything associated with being a tattoo artist. That means he's not shy about giving readers candid glimpses into his personal life. But just being honest isn't enough, really, to make a book a classic--for something like this, you also need a knack for telling anecdotes and for good writing. Johnson's adept at both--I mean, really adept. That kind of synergy makes for a reading experience that transcends the subject matter. Even if you don't care about tattoo art at all, you'll love this book. (The NY Post even did a feature recently.)

Recently, I interviewed Johnson about Tattoo Machine, via email.

   Tattoo machine Was it hard to be so personal in the book? You more or less let us into your life in a variety of ways that many writers would find too intrusive.
Jeff Johnson: It wasn't really that hard at all, and this is a surprising question. A "sanitized" memoir is always a bummer. The reader can tell. If you think about it, every time you make anything, from literature to art, you expose yourself and let people into your life, and the measure of how well you do this is in fact the very same measure of how well you have done. Things that are "made" that do not reveal something of the substance of the person who made them are poorly wrought. As a tattoo artist I've been investing my personal vision into objects available for public scrutiny for years. I wanted to tell the truth here, and its true that at times its a little... truey. How do you think the book will change the way your friends and colleagues see you?
Jeff Johnson: It hasn't changed anything, nor will it. I'm not much of an equivocator in my personal or professional life. That's a luxury afforded to accountants and real estate brokers. The people around me already know who I am. In fact all of my friends and colleagues have read Tattoo Machine already, and they all pretty much said the same thing.  To paraphrase--"Cool dude, a book. Dig your chops." What do you hope a reader who isn't familiar with the art and business of tattoos takes away from the book?
Jeff Johnson: First and foremost, a thoughtful smile. This is a fascinating industry, and it's at the cusp of something greater than anyone imagined even five years ago. Throughout the book I toyed with the greater social implications of what the rise of this most personal art form might mean. There are answers that lead to more questions, but ultimately all roads lead back to the individual. The reason behind getting a tattoo is different for everyone, and that's just damn beautiful. People are embracing their identities! Declaring their uniqueness!  I also hope people will tip their tattoo artist better. Was there anything you decided not to put in the book because it was too personal--either about yourself or someone else?

Jeff Johnson: No. I let it all hang out. I'm shameless in that respect, but in the context of a book like Tattoo Machine, you have to be. Two other superb memoir/industry exposes that come to mind are Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and the incomparable Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica. These men are as different from each other as night and day, yet both bravely let the reader into their personal thoughts and unusual worlds. In many ways they set the bar for this kind of book. So while writing this and thinking of their work, I realized that if it seemed personal, I'd definitely hit pay dirt.  How much drafting did you do? Was it difficult at all to get distance from your subject matter? The book has a remarkably comfortable feel to it.

Jeff Johnson: I wrote the book over the course of several weeks and then spent several months tinkering with it. I generally use time to get some distance from what I'm working on. For instance, I have twenty-one short stories completed right now, but I let them sit for several months before doing the final draft. So I'll be completing last year's work here shortly. It was the same thing with Tattoo Machine. The chapters I finished first were polished around six months later. I was really lucky to meet and befriend Karen Kirtley, a brilliant woman who teaches editing at Portland State University. I learned a great deal from her. Also my former editor at Speigel & Grau, Tina Pohlman, was simply invaluable. What's the reaction been like at readings thus far?
Jeff Johnson: It's been great! The turnout has varied from city to city, but people seem genuinely curious. I'm always surprised at how many seriously old people there are. I guess readers never retire, and I find that heartening. The only negative experience I've had so far was in Bend, Oregon, of all places. A late add-on, and the only weensie town on the tour. A few baby tattoo monsters with sludgy neck tattoos and Miami Ink uniforms showed up and gave me hard juvie stares. It was adorably cute, really. They needed a hug, but they didn't stick around for the reading, so I was unable to cuddle them. Too bad. There were two gentlemen tattoo artists there that asked very insightful questions, and the rest of the people were a pleasure to read to and speak with. Do you have a favorite part of the book?
Jeff Johnson: I had fun with all of it. People seem to talk the most about the segment involving the killers. If I had to pick a chapter... I dunno. I'm a big fan of your writing, Mr. VanderMeer, but I defy you to name your favorite chapter in any of your fine works. It's like picking out your favorite toe, or the tooth you're most fond of. Oh, I can do it, trust me. I hate my pinkie toe, for example. So--what was the hardest thing about writing it?

Jeff Johnson: It's been my experience that nothing worth doing is ever easy. Writing is certainly no exception. As I applied myself to this project and it unfolded before me, I began to see parts of myself I hadn't know were so close to the surface, or even there at all. For the author, writing a memoir is kind of like creating a strange mirror, where the flavor of your own essence becomes tangible. The reflection was at times startling. It still is.
What are you working on now, besides the promotion of the book?
Jeff Johnson: I have a few short stories I'm close to finishing, but my primary project right now is a crime novel set in the tattoo shop entitled Lucky Supreme. I've been hard at work on it for months now and I hope to get a finished manuscript to my most excellent agent, Richard Pine at InkWell Management, in September. Writing Lucky Supreme has been a blast. I love telling stories, and tinkering with words is just as fun as monkeying around with designs. It's amazing that I can use the same pen for both of these things. Making anything is its own reward.


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A genuinely funny and insightful inside look at the craft. A good book to read though on a rainy Sunday. Funny and informative. After think about it for 30 years, I think I'm ready to get my tattoo!!!

Portland artist Jeff Johnson gives readers an unvarnished look behind the tip wall in his first book, Tattoo Machine. As part owner of the Sea Tramp, one of the oldest tattoo parlors in town, he sees enough crazy shit on any given night to curl the hair of the uninitiated and grizzled veteran alike; however, it is Johnson’s gift for language, metaphor, and unflinching introspection that gives the book its heart. Of course it’s a flaming heart with barbed wire and maybe some wings—but it’s a heart. You don’t have to care about tattooing to take something worthwhile away from this entertaining look at human nature and the art of self-expression.

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