Literary Mad Man & Famed Tattoo Artist Jonathan Shaw
Jonathan Shaw is the first tattoo artist to appear on The Tonight Show with David Letterman. His likeness was depicted by Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman on the cover of The New Yorker. Shaw is also the son of legendary Swing-era bandleader Artie Shaw. Jonathan Shaw also played the tattooed thug opposite Clint Eastwood in the movie Tightrope (1984). He founded the magazine International Tattoo Art and his recent visual exploration of tattoo art, Vintage Tattoo Flash II has become a mainstay of collectors of tattoo art. Shaw's long-awaited memoir-style novel, Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist was hailed by Jerry Stahl as "...beautiful as a dead drunk's bible..." and its sequel Homeward Bound was recently released to much acclaim. Shaw also made headline news as the infamous "tattoo artist to the stars" indicted by a New York City Grand Jury and charged with eighty-nine felony counts of illegal weapons possession. Described by Iggy Pop as, “the great nightmare anti-hero of the New Age,” Shaw's tattoo client list included names like Johnny Depp, The Cure, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Joe Coleman, Kate Moss, Orlando Bloom and Tupac Shakur. Jonathan Shaw is still one of the most respected names in the tattoo profession today for being instrumental in pioneering the tattoo industry.
Before you became an author, you had one of the oldest and most established tattoo parlors in New York City. What was tattooing like back in the 70s and 80s in the city?
Tattooing was a whole other ballgame back then—especially in New York City. It's such a changed world today on so many different levels; it's hard to believe that such a radical evolution could even take place in such a short span of time. But that's exactly what's happened over the last thirty years. For one thing, a lot of people don't know that tattooing was totally illegal in the city of New York back then. It only got legalized in the early 90s—largely due to the kind of high profile work I was doing at my Fun City Tattoo studios on St. Marks Place and MacDougal Street, which was were Manhattan's first and only legitimate walk-in tattoo shops were back in the day. I was also in the…position of being Managing Editor of the world's first glossy, wide-distribution mainstream tattoo magazine. I also put together and curated the first big tattoo-related art gallery event in downtown Manhattan, which got a lot of mainstream attention in the press. From there, it all just snowballed into a huge cultural movement in the early 90s. …So, without even fully realizing at the time what a huge, far-reaching influence all that would eventually have, I was bringing a level of unprecedented visibility to tattooing that previously just didn't exist.
They say nature despises a void, and there was definitely a big gaping void waiting to be filled for tattooing, which was already becoming super in-vogue in other places like California. So, on some level, I was just at the right place at the right time doing what I was doing with tattooing in New York. Prior to all that, the whole thing was all totally underground. There was some tattooing going on in the city, here and there, but it was all in the shadows, and it was a very small, insular community—if you could even call it that back then. Everything went on behind closed doors. The handful of professional tattooers who existed back in the day worked by word-of-mouth, or maybe had a few little ads on the back pages of the The Village Voice or fliers discreetly passed around in local neighborhood bars and nightclubs, that sort of thing. But there was no real mainstream tattoo culture in New York back then. Nada. That all started with me when I first opened Fun City Tattoo, and began taking the thing to the next level.
“...I think my soul always sought expression through some form of storytelling.”
Having begun work as a renowned tattoo artist, how did you come to the art of writing? Do you find that tattoos tell stories in a similar way that fiction does?
Actually, it's really the other way around. Writing sort of came first for me. It's funny, but from a very early age, I think my soul always sought expression through some form of storytelling. As a kid, way before tattooing came into the picture, I always wanted to be a comic artist, then later a writer. I grew up surrounded by culture. Both of my parents were creative people, intellectuals. There were always lots of books and artwork around. And while I wasn't very happy or "well-adjusted" as a child growing up in a really fucked up alcoholic home, and feeling a deep and compelling need to rebel against all that crazy bullshit, the creative seed was still planted in me on some level, so my early adolescent rebellion just took a different direction, creatively.
While my mother was into classical music and renaissance painting and French philosophy, for me, growing up in the 60s counterculture environment, I was all into Frank Zappa and EC Comics and science-fiction books, and later stuff like Zap Comix and Bukowski and the Beat writers. Later in the game, I even got to know many of my heroes, like Zappa and R. Crumb, personally. Those encounters were a huge validation for me as an aspiring young artist and writer. Eventually, after becoming acquainted with the work of Kerouac and Bukowski and Celine, stuff like that, I gave up on the idea of being a comic book artist and started writing on a regular basis—mostly just for myself, like journals and poetry and short stories, mostly for the sake of just writing all sorts of random stuff that needed to find some sort of expression. I eventually got a few pieces published in the Los Angeles Free Press. That's when I actually first met Bukowski, who had a weekly column there. That was a big deal for me. But as a young hope-to-die alcoholic drug addict, the sort of discipline and single-mindedness of purpose needed to write full time was just too daunting for me, and I eventually gave up on writing and took off on the road in Mexico and Central America.
(Jonathan Shaw tattooing a client)
Drifting around, working on ships in ports in Latin America, I eventually made it to Brazil, which I ended up calling home for most of my early years, before coming back to the States to pursue a tattoo career. Ironically, it was through the tattooing that I eventually found my way back to writing, when I stumbled across the gig being the editor of that big glossy tattoo magazine I was talking about. Other than that, the only writing I did during all those years on the road was random journaling and so on. But even writing "professionally" in the capacity of magazine editor, I wasn't doing what I considered "real" writing. It was more of a commercial sort of thing to my way of seeing. It wasn't until years later, after getting sober and undergoing a huge personal transformation, a sort of spiritual awakening, that I came to a fork in the road and decided to quit tattooing full time. That's when I left New York for good and moved back to Brazil to dedicate myself entirely to writing all these books that I knew I had in me.
“…one of the things that old Bukowski had told me back in the day was that before I could ever come to write with any real truth and authenticity, I would have to accumulate a totality of experience.”
So, to answer your original question, that's how tattooing led me back to writing, in a sense. Because one of the things that old Bukowski had told me back in the day was that before I could ever come to write with any real truth and authenticity, I would have to accumulate a totality of experience. And that body of life experience was very much informed by my decades as a traveling tattoo artist, among other things. So it's not that I see tattooing and writing as similar forms of expression, really, so much as that any good writer is inevitably going be drawing from a certain well of life experience in his work, and my personal well of experience just happens to be filled with a lot of wild travels and personal interactions as a world-traveling tattoo artist.
How did you find your way to your current literary representation and how did you get your most recent book published?
That's a good question. It's been a very long and winding road, believe me, dotted with all sorts of crazy haphazard signposts, representing what I've come to see today as a confluence of divine synchronicity. It started with the publication of the first edition of my first novel, Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes... After I first quit tattooing and moved back to Brazil to write full time, I was working on the gargantuan task of trying to begin what would eventually evolve into my multi-volume memoir series called Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, a project that's ongoing to this day, and probably will be till they throw dirt on me. Before starting to write that book, I'd already put together a screenplay based on the general storyline of Scab Vendor, at the request of Johnny Depp. After eventually being optioned for film by Leo DiCapprio, the movie project ended up on the proverbial shelf in Hollywood. But it wasn't a total waste of time or anything. The script served very nicely for me as a sort of rough outline for all these books I planned to write based on all my crazy life experience—just like Bukowski had predicted for me decades before.
Through a whole weird confluence of circumstances and events, Narcisa wound up being an instant cult classic. I was amazed and delighted. Next thing you know, Johnny Depp calls, telling me he's putting together a deal for his own imprint with HarperCollins. He asked me if I'd be willing to re-release Narcisaon that title. Of course I'm like, “Fuck yeah!” So before I even had a chance to put that damned book to rest and get back to working on the original project, my memoir, Scab Vendor, I suddenly find myself involved in another long, massive rewrite of Narcisa for this big, prestigious mainstream publisher. That turned into a two-year editing spree, during which time I really got to dig deeper into the story's essence... And it was in that whole long-winded, passionate, obsessive editing process that I finally started to find my chops as a writer and an editor—which would turn out to be invaluable preparation for me by the time I eventually got back to work on Scab Vendor.
The book got published to great fanfare—a tremendous, unexpected boost for a basically unknown "outlaw" author—and got me loads of positive press, including a Rolling Stone article where they actually dubbed me: "The Next Bukowski." So, the HarperCollins edition of Narcisa worked out very well to establish me as a sort of "brand name" writer—which I figured would definitely come in handy when the time came to eventually shop my "real" books, the ones in the Scab Vendor memoir series to other publishers.
(Book trailer for Jonathan Shaw's Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist)
Now, with Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, we're talking about an epic literary work that I basically spent my entire life preparing to write, not to mention several very inspired, hard-working years writing and meticulously editing. If Narcisa was a literary appetizer, Scab Vendor was going to be the main course. The manuscript was laboriously edited and polished. The book—which would eventually be published to solid critical acclaim—was presented…with a package of celebrity and literary blurbs and positive press that would make many best-selling authors drool with envy.
Orson Oblowitz is a young film director who I knew from my years in New York. Orson was part of that little extended network of trusted friends...people whom I'd shared drafts of my work-in-progress with over the years as part of my own haphazard creative process. Orson had already eagerly read both editions of Narcisa, and had even shown it to a filmmaker colleague who'd flirted with the idea of making it into a movie. Orson had also devoured several early drafts of Scab Vendor, and had always been a great supporter of my fledgling literary efforts, right from the start. ...he asked me when Scab Vendor would be published. That did it. He stopped my impending rant with a wide grin: “Dude, you should have told me you needed a literary agent. One of my best friends is married to one of the coolest agents in the business. Just say the word and I'll give her a call and set you up with him. He's gonna fucking love your writing!”
Orson was a close friend, and he swore by this literary agent. And so it came to pass that a few days later I was on the phone with you, Mark Gottlieb at the Trident Media Group literary agency. You sounded really cool and open to working with a new client, and asked me to send you my manuscript. …you devoured the whole 1,000-page Scab Vendor saga with great enthusiasm, and got right back to me with genuine interest and praise for my vision. When you told me that you were a fan of many of my own favorite writers, like Louis Ferdinand Celine and Bukowski, I realized you really got it. …you seemed to have a true passion for your job. Not only that, but as good fortune would have it, you just happened to be heir to the throne at one of the top literary agencies in the country—if not the world!
As we got ready to submit Scab Vendor to publishers, you were always abundantly generous with your time and your seemingly unlimited wisdom, experience and expertise. You patiently walked me through each step of the process, from helping me write a solid submission letter, to giving me many invaluable editorial suggestions. For one thing, the original Scab Vendor manuscript came in at an unwieldy thousand-plus pages. Thanks to your golden input, I was easily persuaded to break the massive slab of a book up into two separate volumes—which allowed you to quickly and efficiently negotiate a really nice three-book deal with a great publisher.
“...even in the greed-infested, cutthroat world of modern day publishing, there are still a handful of inspired, angelic souls with no shortage of integrity and vision.”
Since then, I've come to consider you one of my closest, most respected friends and trusted advisers—proof positive that, even in the greed-infested, cutthroat world of modern day publishing, there are still a handful of inspired, angelic souls with no shortage of integrity and vision.
We've all had our own battles in life… Do you consider writing to be a form of catharsis or a form of escapism from the pains human existence? What can writing and reading tell us about our own lives?
To quote from my own Author's Note from the latest installment of my ongoing Scab Vendor series, Homeward Bound, “I believe that, as human beings, we all come hard-wired with an inherent need to share our strength, weakness, pain, passion, despair, hope, love, hate and general personal stories with those of our kind, in order to help one another navigate our common human experience. In that sense, storytelling can be seen as a powerful evolutionary tool. And, like tattooing, it seems to be one of the most ancient compulsions of the human psyche.”
“I would compare it to vivisecting one's own soul—which can be extremely painful, and equally rewarding.”
That being said, I think that it's an entirely subjective experience, depending on any given author's experience and intent, as to whether writing is used as a highly cathartic, introspective healing practice through storytelling, or as "a form of escapism from the pains human existence." In that sense, it's like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that there's no practice I know of that offers a better, deeper, more effective opportunity for cathartic healing and personal evolution than going over one's own life experience with a fine-tooth comb via the creative process, in a spirit of rigorous honesty and profound self-examination, than this sort of writing. I would compare it to vivisecting one's own soul—which can be extremely painful, and equally rewarding.
In all honesty, I am happy to say that my books—while very easy to read in a literary sense—are by no stretch of the imagination "easy reading" in an "escapist" sense. Quite the contrary. I'm not writing Harry Potter. If readers are looking for reading material that won't challenge them to think or deeply contemplate their own human experience, they probably won't resonate with my work. My stated intent in writing these books has always been to "comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable." Speaking for myself, if I was trying to please everyone with my work, I'd be squandering a God-given gift, and not living up to my highest purpose as an artist. At the risk of sounding condescending, I'm quite happy to leave that sort of thing to the many competent hack writers out there.
You've surrounded yourself with some rather colorful characters over the years, from the likes of performers such as Johnny Depp, Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop—to authors such as Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Jerry Stahl. Do these personalities ever inform your storytelling—do aspects of them appear as composite characters in your books?
Well, that's a tricky question. I guess the answer is just as tricky. I'd have to say yes, and no, in the sense that for me as a writer, every human being is approached in a much broader sense as a sort of archetype for various facets of the overall human experience. And every character in my books—composite or otherwise—is exactly that: a representation of all sorts of psychic, emotional, spiritual states of shared human consciousness. In other words, if readers are looking for some sort of tawdry celebrity "tell all," they ain't gonna find it here. At the same time, there are all sorts of wild stories about different encounters with all sorts of people I've known and interacted with in my life. Some are famous, others infamous, and still others entirely unknown—but my intention has always been about an attempt to examine, through the literary vehicle, some deeper truths through an exploration of these characters, rather than to tell stories of "famous people" just for the sake of naming names, ya know?
(From left to right: Iggy Pop, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp, Jonathan Shaw)
Many readers looked to your previous book, Scab Vendor, for mention of tattooing, but you've said it's about much more than that and your publisher described it as "...a multicolored, cinematic, modern-day Odyssey, written in blood, ink, and tears—a kaleidoscopic, visionary roadmap to the journey of the human soul." Could you elaborate on any of that? Does your character, Cigano, pick up the tattoo gun in the sequel, Homeward Bound?
I think that any good writer is inevitably going be drawing from a certain well of life experience in his work, and my personal well of experience just happens to be filled with a lot of wild travels and personal interactions as a world-traveling tattoo artist. But on another level, the tattooing is just icing on the cake, like the tip of the iceberg. When I entitled the book Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, I suppose the title may have led some people to a false impression that it would be all about tattooing. That's kind of unfortunate, but it wasn't intended as any sort of "false advertising" or anything like that. I'm not about misleading anyone. The fact is that, before retiring from it and embarking on a writer's path, I was a pretty famous tattoo artist for decades. And, once you're branded as this or that as an artist, no matter how far you may ever happen to evolve artistically, you're always gonna be seen as the thing you made your name as. In my case, it's the famous tattoo guy. No getting around that. It's inevitable.
But, for me as a writer, it's kind of a double-edged sword, in that I suppose it's all good and well to have tattooing as a sort of literary "hook," but it's also great to have a deeper conversation available in any real human story than just some simplistic "my life in tattooing" book, ya know? So, in that sense, the whole "Confessions of a Tattoo Artist" thing turns out to be more like a vehicle and an opportunity for telling all kinds of wild stories—stories revolving around certain specific tattoo scenarios and settings, but not being strictly about tattooing, per se. My God, if I were just writing books about tattooing, they would probably make for a pretty fucking boring read, and definitely be limited to a fairly insular and largely boring audience (laughs).
That said, the fact is that I've had the honor of living a pretty interesting life, both as a tattoo artist, and as a human being. And of course a huge part of my life's journey has been experienced in the context of tattooing, so that's always gonna be a big part of my story, and all the stories I have to tell in the evolution of this ongoing book series. So, to answer your original question as to whether my character, Cigano, ends up tattooing more in the latest installment of the series, the answer is basically yes. But I still need to make it real clear that both books, Scab Vendor and Homeward Bound, are only the first two books of what will eventually end up being like a four- to six-book series—should I live long enough to finish putting the "whole" story of my life's journey into writing in any sort of cohesive, linear timeline. These first two books only cover basically the first twenty-odd years of my life, way before I became established as the "famous tattoo guy." While much of the narrative is told in real-time "flashback" storytelling, from the present-day perspective of an older, kind of disillusioned "famous tattoo guy," there is a good bit of tattooing in Homeward Bound in that context. But the real full-on, nitty-gritty full-time tattoo artist chapters of the story don't come into full focus until I get into upcoming volumes of the series. Right now, I'm in the middle of completing Scardust, which is book three of the series. There will be some tattooing in it, too, of course, as in all of these books. But, like I said, the main focus of the storytelling won't be directly related to full-on tattooing, until I get up to the part of the story where it's really all about my years tattooing in all sorts of different places. I really look forward to writing about all those adventures. More will be revealed to me in the process, as it has been again and again, right from the start.
Meanwhile, there's this feature-length documentary about me called Scab Vendor: The Life and Times of Jonathan Shaw, that's been in production for over four years now. And, while the storyline of the film is largely informed by the overall outline of my whole book series-in-progress, it's really got a huge focus on my tattoo history in it. The filmmakers are in post-production with this thing right now, should be coming out sometime in 2019. I think it's gonna be a really good opportunity to present my work to more of a mass audience. We'll see…
You've collected some amazing artwork over the years, in owning pieces from the likes of R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and even Joe Coleman, who has composed portraits of you. Among your personal collection of art are some amazing pieces of vintage tattoo flash, or what we might commonly know as tattoo templates, from some of the great masters of early tattooing. You have compiled many of them into art books of yours such as Vintage Tattoo Flash II. Did you have to go to extraordinary lengths to come by any of those pieces?
Well, the old style tattoo imagery that's the main focus of these big coffee table art books was originally just part of the overall scenery in my life as a tattoo man. Back in the day, old hand-painted tattoo flash like that was much more commonplace in the tattoo world than it is today. It was everyday reference material for most of us, and you saw it everywhere. My collection of the old stuff that comprises the images in my Vintage Tattoo Flash books just sort of came together over the years as the stuff became more scarce and sought after.
“One day I woke up to realize I was sitting on priceless archives of vintage Americana, a really important documentation of folk art history.”
Tattooing is a popular art form, always has been. As such, the designs change and evolve according to public demand. The material you see on tattoo shop walls is basically dictated by popular tastes. New iconography started being introduced into the mix by newer upcoming tattooists sometime around the mid-80s, catering to the changing popular tastes of the time. The old designs that had been the bread and butter for the old school tattoo guys for so many decades were quickly becoming obsolete. Much of this material was on its way to the dumpster when I started collecting it. A lot of it was actually given to me, and even the stuff I did pay money for was sold at a very nominal cost. Most of these old-school guys couldn't get their heads around why anybody would even want it. To them, it was just obsolete shop material. Unsellable crap. You've gotta understand that, for someone whose stock-in-trade is selling tattoos, if a design doesn't sell anymore, from their point of view, it's basically worthless. But I loved the old tattoo designs, always had, ever since I was a little kid. And I had a very strong intuition that someday it would make up a really cool, valuable archive. So I just started amassing boxes and boxes of the stuff, picking up more and more in my travels and interactions with the old timers and constantly adding to the collection. One day I woke up to realize I was sitting on priceless archives of vintage Americana, a really important documentation of folk art history. But I never consciously set out with that intention. Like most good things in life, it just fell together and happened on its own.
From the videos we've seen online, you seem to be a fan of in-person author events for the purposes of book launches. What do you find to be beneficial to authors and readers for such events—is it simply a way to connect with fans, or do you find the performance aspect of author readings to mean more?
Good question. When I put out my first book…I was still pretty green to the whole thing. I think I had some real silly delusions of grandeur around these sorts of book launch events. Mostly at the publishers' encouragement, I did quite a few of them at different bookstores around New York and Los Angeles. But, after a while, reality sunk in… I'd started out with a relatively-small-but-fiercely-loyal fan base, and I still have that. …if I ever do sell a shitload of books, it's certainly not gonna be as a result of trudging around the country doing in-house book release events at little indie bookstores like I was doing when I first started publishing. Today's world just doesn't seem to work that way. Everything is on the Internet, and I'm not a big Internet guy.
Thank God for the Scab Vendor documentary I was telling you about. If my work is ever gonna reach a wider audience at all, it will probably be as a result of that sort of high profile media exposure, and not a bunch of random little bookstore appearances. …I decided to just stop doing them and take a more sort of unconventional approach and have some fun with it. That's when I started booking these sort of multi-media spoken word shows I've been doing, where I put together a little performance, either at a tattoo shop or a regular nightclub setting, going onstage and reading excerpts from my books at these things, usually with a live band backing me. I just did my third year in a row of sold-out events at a really happening downtown Manhattan nightclub called the Slipper Room, sharing the stage with Joe Coleman and Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello. These guys are close friends and brother artists with huge public followings in their own rights, and it's just been a lot of fun. We've had a ton of big name celebrities in the audiences, and it's been slowly evolving into a regular scene. People who've been to these shows really look forward to the next one. …Just promoting it on Facebook and so on, word gets around and people show up, and I've been having a lot of fun with it.
I might as well have some fun and give the fans a good time. And word seems to get around that we're doing something cool and different. I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, “Man, that was the coolest, most entertaining book-signing I've ever been to. Book signings are usually so fucking boring! Keep doing what you're doing!” So I probably will.
Having written and published several books at this point, across a few different publishing houses, what have you learned from the book publishing experience?
Hate to say it, but what I've learned is that it's not all glory. Not at all. It's nice to be able to get your work out there in bookstores and on Amazon and all that, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business. And, like most business propositions in today's world, there's a lot of evil "fuckery" and corruption around the whole publishing world. This might sound controversial, but I have to remind people of what most already know: that when art and commerce get into bed together, art is usually gonna take a brutal anal pounding. I mean, just look at how many of the "Best Selling" authors out there are putting out pure vacuous garbage, while some of our best writers will never even see a publishing deal—let alone sell enough books to make a living from if, if by some obscure chance they ever do get their stuff published.
“…a handful of inspired, conscientious, hardworking literary agents like you are so crucial to maintaining some sort of ecological balance and integrity in publishing.”
Let's face it, so many great books end up getting buried, while the windows and front shelves of many big bookstores are lined with the worst kind of "Best Selling" nonsense, simply because their mainstream corporate publishers are willing and able to pay the big bucks required for that sort of prominent placement. Don't even get me started about how the "Best Seller" and "Critics Awards" lists are blatantly manipulated for filthy lucre. It's an insidious, greed-fueled shit-show of tragic proportions. That's why a handful of inspired, conscientious, hardworking literary agents like you are so crucial to maintaining some sort of ecological balance and integrity in publishing. Without them, authors like me would be fucked.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers looking to become published authors?
Given my cynical sounding answer to your last question, I'd like to quote from the tombstone of my old friend and literary mentor, the great Charles Bukowski: “Don't try.” But, if you should decide to try, then write purely and solely for the love of the gift you've been give to create, and leave any silly expectations of being the next J.K. Rowling at the door. If you stay firm in following your heart's true calling as an artist, while you might not find yourself rolling in cash and prizes or fame and public acclaim, chances are good that you will reap the inevitable rewards of living a life of true integrity. In the inspired words of the great George Orwell, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Tell your truth to the best of your ability, and be a revolutionary. Otherwise, don't fucking try!