Me Want Food


And this tattoo, done at Lucky Lou’s in Atlantic City, New Jersey, says, of course, “Nom Nom Nom” in Arabic, because, hey, Middle Easterners gotta munch too, am I right?

An alternate spelling on Jimmieknuckles by “The Big Ragu,” done somewhere in scenic New Jersey, after the jump.

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Valentine’s Specials at Sacred Tattoo


Hey, our friends at Sacred Tattoo are practically giving away romantic/bitter/vaguely erotic (?!) tattoos tomorrow! Valentine’s Day + crippling recession = deals.

That is correct! For one day only, Sacred Tattoo is offering a deal that is too good to be true. We created a special set of flash with a love theme that starts at $20! The designs are traditional, funky, perverted, and bitter. (Brass knuckles that says “Love Hurts,” heart-shaped skull & crossbones, and even a “Thinking of you” condom tattoo.

We will also be doing name tattoos starting at 20 bucks!!!

This will be first come, first served so be sure to come early. The shop opens at noon and closes at 8pm. Some restrictions apply. Feel free to give the shop a call with any questions.

STFU and Read!

This tattoo (by Bruce at Body Art Tattoo, Newport Beach, CA) has to be one of my favourites of recent months. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this sprayed on a wall around Toronto, along with “Think, Please!” Toronto graffiti artists are quite special.

Read more for another photo..

I’ve wanted my knuckles tattooed for years, so after a few days of internal struggle and a few drinks I decided to go for it! I think that people nowadays are getting lazier and are less informed, so my tattoos are a reminder to me and everyone else to educate yourself and read more!

If I could afford to have my books shipped over from England, I would definitely do as I’m told..

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Stop! Knuckle Time!!

Apologies for the fewer than usual posts today (at least it seems I haven’t posted as much) but it’s been busy and I’m not feeling well. I’ll make it up to you, starting with this impromptu collection of knuckle piercings on (and by) Brian of Studio Graphics, Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Read more for some tongue-split-on-shiny-knuckle action, and an incredibly deep explanation of how they came to be..

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De-Fingered: Finger Amputation Interviews in BME/News [Publisher's Ring]

De-Fingered: Finger Amputation Interviews

Yesterday we talked to a few individuals who “needed” amputations for primarily physical reasons, so today I’d like to chat to two people who chose amputation for purely psychological reasons, each choosing to self-amputate one of their fingers at home, disguised as an “accident”. Both of them did this privately and secretly, for themselves, so the pictures in the article are not actually of them.

BME: Tell me about yourselves?

Douglas: I am a thirty year old male from northern Europe, and I live in a small community with me wife and son.

Beth: I’m completely sane, and to all intents and purposes ‘normal’. I just happen to be driven to do things in a way that most people can’t understand, and I’m capable of doing things to myself that a lot of people are not. I believe I’m somewhat unusual as I’m female and I did this entirely alone and without any assistance or help from anyone. I have five digits on one hand, four and a small nub on the other, having removed most of my ring finger.

BME: Why did you choose to amputate your finger?

Beth: Because I wanted to, I could, and it made me happy.

Douglas: A few reasons — one of the reasons is actually your fault Shannon! If it wasn’t for BMEzine and the ModCon book, I probably wouldn’t have been thinking about it the years before I did it. BMEzine has opened my eyes to various body modifications, and I have always been fascinated by people doing extreme things to their bodies. Amputation is as far as you can go if you ask me, and I wanted to see if I was able to do it myself.

BME: Was it rewarding or worth it in terms of that way of thinking about it?

Douglas: Yes, it was. I haven’t gotten pierced since the amputation, and I have some tattoos left to be done, but otherwise I feel complete in my body transformation. I used to be somebody else, but today I am me.

BME: Do you feel that BME should do more to discourage people from cutting off fingers, or would this just make it even more appealing on that level?

Douglas: If people want to cut off their limbs, they will do so even if BME discourages them from doing do so. What I think is more important is that BME should provide “safe” guides on how to DIY and that someone (not neccecary BME) should the person them to slow down and think about the consequences it will have for the rest of their lives. That goes for all modifications.

BME: You said you have other reasons as well?

Douglas: We have a friend of our family that is missing fingers from different accidents and wars. I can’t swear that it formed my interest, but from a psychological point of view, it probably did.

The first time I came across DIY amputation was when I was twelve years old. My mom and I went to the movies and saw a film named “Black Rain”. It’s a film about an American cop going to Japan to deliver a prisoner, but something goes wrong and the prisoner escapes and blah blah blah. It’s not a very good movie, but the Japanese prisoner is a member of the Yakuza, and in the movie he cuts off his own finger in a traditional way. That had a huge impact on me. I remember thinking “WOW!! That is some heavy shit! Are people really capable of doing that!?” Yes, they are.

BME: That’s funny — I remember that scene making a big impact on me as a kid as well. How did you do your amputation?

Douglas: I got intoxicated with alcohol, put a rubber band on my pinky and injected some lidocain with adrenaline in it. Then I waited about thirty minutes or so, and then I took out a huge kitchen knife and ‘popped’ the joint in the finger with some heavy pressure.

Beth: I had no desire to go through the knuckle joint — disarticulation. I wanted to go through in between knuckles. My need was very specific. I obtained injectable xylocaine, a syringe, a rubber band, a scalpel, butchers poultry shears, a paring knife, a belt, and a towel. I found out how to perform a digit nerve block from a nursing guide. After administering the xylocaine in the appropriate places I tied off tightly with a rubber band and placed my hand on a chopping board. Originally I intended to excise the tissue away from the bone first, leaving a longer flap on the underside. I figured this would make patching it up easier, having studied closure procedures on medical websites. Of course it didn’t occur to me how suspect that would have looked in the emergency room but that idea went out the window anyway once I began to cut.

I started on the top side by pressing down with the scalpel as hard as I could. It cut easily, but I was surprised by the sudden bleeding — that may sound stupid, but I guess I panicked. I sat on the floor and placed the blade of the poultry shears into the cut I had started and squeezed as hard as I could. The nerve block was perfectly administered and I felt no pain whatsoever as I closed the blades. It didn’t require too much pressure to go through the bone — it just kind of went ‘clunk’. It took a couple of goes to cut through the flesh. My finger was still partially attached, so I returned to the chopping board and quickly sawed through the remaining piece of tendon. It was very tough. I had a brief look at my new hand, removed the rubber band, used the belt as a tourniquet and wrapped it in a towel before presenting myself at the emergency room.


Finger after a year packed in salt.

BME: What story do you tell people about how it happened?

Douglas: I used to tell people some bullshit lies, but it always ended with me not being able to follow up the questions. My friends knew beforehand that it was about to happen, and most people that know me “know” what really happened, but they can’t prove it. Nowadays I tell people that I was drunk in my kitchen, and that I really don’t feel comfortable speaking about it. I don’t lie, do I…?

Beth: I say I had an accident boning out a joint of meat. I played the female hysteria card. That helped me avoid too much close questioning, and gave me an excuse for failing to bring the digit with me for re-attachment — far too icky and gross! Ha-ha! Plus of course the unhygienic manner in which I became detached from it made it less attractive an option.

Only one doctor made an issue of re-attachment, and I made it quite clear to him that it wasn’t going to happen. The happiest moment was when the nurse took me to have an x-ray and as I laid my hand on the cold plate I was very aware that that finger was not making contact and was no longer there. It suddenly hit me — it was gone and I felt elated. I had surgery under general anaesthesia to repair the stump.

BME: How was your aftercare and healing? One of you went through the bone, and the other went through the joint, so I assume it was different.

Beth: Very, very painful. For the first few days it felt like I had hit it with a hammer but the pain didn’t dull — it was persistent. And very slow indeed. I took antibiotics and pain killers. After ten days I had the sutures removed and began massage and exercise. It took a long time for the swelling to go down.

Douglas: Mine was very easy. I went to the hospital and the surgeon did an amazing job. They fixed all nerves and tendons, so I don’t have any phantom pain at all! The first few days I was on some heavy medication, and I got out of my job for a month or so. That made able to rest up properly.

BME: Was there an aspect of guilt? I know in previous interviews readers have raised the concern that it’s “taking advantage” of the system to make the healthcare system pay for voluntary mods?

Douglas: I have allways paid my taxes, and I would be happy to pay more, so no, I didn’t feel guilt at all. I see your point, but I don’t see it as stealing from other people by using a system I pay for.

BME: What does it feel like now that it’s healed?

Beth: I’m very aware of it; it feels different. I guess it’s slightly tight feeling when I make a fist, and it’s much more susceptible to cold than my complete fingers. I love how it looks, and how differently my other fingers move and behave in order to adapt to the loss. It’s very sensitive. I enjoy having it sucked and nibbled very much indeed. It’s one of the best choices I ever made.

Douglas: It is very hard to describe, but the easy way out would be me saying that it feels normal. I don’t remember how it felt with the finger still attached to my body. My body reacts like if it had been like this since day one. I use what’s still left of the finger as I used my old finger.

BME: That’s interesting — so there’s no “phantom fingertip”? It just ends mentally where it ends physically now?

Douglas: That’s right. At first, my mind was set on still having the finger, so when I tried to “tab” the computer or itch my nose, or even biting my nails, I found out my body didn’t comply with my brain. Also, I dropped things all the time. It took about a year or so for the mind to be ok with it.


Amputation with artificial finger.

BME: Is there anything you’d do differently if you could do it over again?

Douglas: There are four things I would have done differently:

  1. I would have seen a psychiatrist before I did the amputation so they could tell me that I am normal. I went to one after the amputation, and they couldn’t find anything that was wrong with me.
  2. I would inform my family before the amputation.
  3. I wouldn’t be drunk.
  4. I would’ve used a better lie for people that are asking.

Beth: Not that I can think of. I’m very satisfied.

BME: Will you do more amputations?

Douglas: I will never say never, but at the moment I don’t have any plans on it.

Beth: I don’t think I could pull off another ‘accident’.

BME: Finally, how did you choose the specific digit to remove?

Douglas: I don’t know actually. I have always known it would be a finger or a toe, but finger seemed easier to do by yourself.

Beth: It’s strange. I don’t remember what made me focus on that particular finger, or for how long I had wanted to do it. There are reasons which I not prepared to divulge which may have triggered me to begin with. Then I simply became obsessed, driven to remove it. I fantasised about it constantly. I would bend it down and pretend it had gone. I wouldn’t say I had a dislike for it, it just wasn’t ‘right’ and I wanted it gone.

In my mind it was gone long before the actual act of removing it.


Shannon Larratt
BMEzine.com

Semi-Voluntary Amputations in BME/News [Publisher's Ring]

Semi-Voluntary Amputations

Between all-out voluntary amputation, like Jason’s hand amputation story, and medically-dicated amputation from injury or disease, is a grey area of semi-voluntary amputation where amputation is chosen — often pushed for — to solve a medical problem that would not normally require amputation. Doctors often resist it, but the amputees persistence at a “quality of life” argument eventually lead to surgical intervention. In this set of interviews (all of which I started with the incorrect assumption that they were purely voluntary amputations) we talk to three such individuals, one who removed a toe, and another who removed his leg, and a third who removed a finger.

- Shannon

BME: Tell me a little about yourself?

I’m a person who enjoys “foot art”. That is, bunions, overlapped toes, feet that look different, and toe amputations.

BME: So not an interest in amputation per se, but just different sorts of feet?

Yes… My foot fetish started, I think, when I was a kid, probably seven or eight years old. Since then I always looked, searched, and observed different shapes of feet and toes — the more “odd” a woman’s foot, the more curious I became.

BME: Tell me about your foot.

In my case, the second toe always overlapped my big toe, but over time it overlapped more and more. I went to a foot doctor and asked him to remove the toe. It wasn’t a medical neccessity, and I liked the way it looked [with the overlapped toe], but I had to stand at work all day for years and the pain overcame the desire… The next step was to have it removed.

BME: Was it hard to convince the doctor?

The doctor wanted to straighten the toe, but the result would be a stiff toe and the procedure would be eight to twelve weeks. I didn’t want a stiff toe and didn’t want to lose the time… So, we agreed on the toe amp.

BME: To what extent was it something you had to do, and to what extent was it something you wanted to do?

It’s like the chicken and the egg… I’d say both… The desire was always there to do it but this made it possible. I liked the look of my overlapped toe but it was time to move on to a toe amp… I guess it would be “wanted to do”. My wife also had it done and she didn’t mind, so, “What the Hell”…

BME: Your wife also has toe amputations?

Yes, she had it done twenty years ago, and she adjusted to her toe amps. She had similar, overlapping toes, and it was easier to remove them than deal with the pain and time to rebuild them… We’re very busy people.

BME: Does she know you have a foot fetish of this type?

Yes, she knows and we share my foot fetish. Her feet have bunions — at one time overlapped toes — and now toe amps plus extras…

BME: How do people respond?

Not many people know about my toe amp, but some people stare at it when I go barefoot or wear sandals, more so than they did when my toe was overlapped… Their curiosity excites me.

BME: What was the aftercare and healing from the procedure?

The doctor told me to keep it covered until the next visit, but I just had to look and take pictures. The healing process was fast, and there was no pain from the “get-go”. In about ten days it was all over.

BME: What does it feel like now?

It feels like something is touching where the scar tissue is. I like it a lot. My bunion also got bigger, because my big toe took the place of my second toe. I’d have preferred it if the doctor removed all the excess tissue where the toe was, because one gets a pressure sensation where the tissue was left, so I returned to the doctor a year later and he did that. It now feels and looks much better.

I always loved feet and what I have seen with foot modifications, bunions and odd deformities all my life, amputation is my favorite “fetish”.

BME: Tell me a little about yourself?

I’m a 51 year old bi-sexual man with some ink and other body mods. I’m Ex-US Navy Sub Forces — “Deeper Longer Faster” — and happily married to a RN.

BME: Tell me about your amputation?

The procedure was done by a doctor and was a trans-femoral (above the knee) amputation of my left leg. It was a very difficult procedure actually as there was titanium hardware in the bone from prior surgery. They had to make a step cut of the tissues, avoiding previous scar tissue as much as possible. The step cut, if you took the leg and looked at it from the side was cut to look like a step. This allows a thick flap of meat and fat to form a cushion and also a good closure of the remnant limb. All the major arteries needed to be tied off as well as the nerves being cut. Also, tendons need to be reattached in a fashion that will help you walk with a prosthetic. Trust me, a leg amputation is not for an amateur to do! Slip up and, well, you can easily bleed out very quickly and not have any real mobility even with a prosthetic.

BME: What story do you tell about how your amputation?

Well, it depends on the person (LOL)!!!

Mostly I tell the straight out truth short version. The long version is what leads up to me deciding to do this.

Roughly six years ago I was hit head on and my left leg was shattered along with numerous other injuries. I almost died. I had lots of pain and the left leg never really healed. Trust me, after being in a wheelchair or on crutches for almost five years it gets tired real fast, especially if you are an active person like me. I went round and round with various doctors and got the song and dance “it’s a viable limb,” meaning, “yeah, it’s alive, so what if it’s useless.”

Total bullshit — typical of the attitude in medicine today. Seriously, it’s a double standard in medicine. We can keep a limb alive even though it will never be useful again, so we will and let the patient go through hell. It even comes down to a double standard in other areas as well. Women can get lipo, boob jobs, or reductions hysterectomies… mastectomies, hey no problem, no letters from a psych… just “can you pay?” Yet if a man wants an Orchi, well, he must be nuts — better get two Psych’s to say hey it’s okay… bullshit. Medicine has ignored the most important thing — your quality of life and only you can say what is best for that, not some white robed geek. I was fortunate that my personal MD knew of a vascular surgeon who takes that into account, so no psych board. I know many other amputees who went through hell before they got the surgery they needed to get on with life.

BME: What was your aftercare and healing process like?

Very painful and drawn out. The burning sensation was enough to drive me up a wall. Healing took about eight weeks for the initial period, and total healing almost a year. Getting comfortable was the hard part, especially in bed. You need to relearn sleep posture. Aftercare was like any other major surgery but with an exception — daily checking the stub with a mirror, looking for wound openings and tissue break downs. The process also was getting used to showering sitting down. The first time after staple removal I tried standing up — it felt like the leg was still there and down I went. That’s the hard part. You still feel the limb even though it’s gone.

Aftercare involved eight weeks of PT to re-strengthen the limb and my back for normal posture, and then another twelve weeks learning to walk again with the prosthetic and also to straighten my back out from years in a chair.

BME: What does it feel like now and how do you like it?

It’s painful many days… I have what are called neuromas. These are nerves that were cut but have regrown into ball-like structures that are very sensitive to heat, humidity, cold, and touch. But truth is, I feel great. I can walk again and enjoy walking along the beach like I used to. I feel whole again.

Most days I am happy with my decision — remember I elected to do this — but there are other days I wish the hell I had my leg back.

BME: Anything you would do differently if you did it again?

Yes, I would have done it much sooner then I did

BME: Are you at all interested in other amputations? You mentioned an orchi (castration)?

For me where I am in life an Orchi is a viable thing from several aspects. First off, I am prone to epididymitis due to a series of injuries to my testes. Seriously I have had two bouts in the last year and the pain is very exquisite — not the nice kind any way. Second, my partner has a very low sex drive and, well, masturbation just staves off the itch only so long. Even though I am bi I am monogamist so relief outside of the relationship is both not in my character or realistic. There have also been six cases of testicular cancer on my fathers side of the family developing around the age I am now. So from one view it would be health insurance so to speak. I also have no need to reproduce with my son grown and moved away as well as my daughter being a parent as well. No need to be a dad again for this kid, LOL. From an erotic point I also find it appealing to have a large degree of control of my sex drive and also find the whole thing a big arousal. Body image comes in as well I really never have felt totally comfortable with my testes, or for that matter, my birth gender as well. Latent Transsexual I guess. Seriously, when growing up Westerns were the big thing on the tube and while my male friends always wanted to play the cowboy or gunslinger, secretly inside I wanted to be the one rescued.

Remember the era I grew up in SRS was a new thing with only one in the States at the time as far as we know Christine Jorgensen and Stonewall was a recent event.

BME: How did you decide to go through with amputation?

Almost five years getting my mind set right and it still was a hard thing to do. I mean, sure, mine was sort of driven by a health need, albeit I could have gone on without having it done, but it is not a thing to take lightly. I have seen some of the photos of folks taking chisel to a joint or toe or more, but I bet most of them did not think it through long term. An amputation is not like ink in that you can laser it off or remove the implant or jewelry. Once that part is gone, that’s it, game over, for that part of the body.

There are also many things to research before doing this things like “Phantom Pain” — for example your left toe hurts like you stubbed it but it’s not there. “Phantom limb” — your leg is folded under you sitting on couch but it’s really not there. Then there are neuromas — nerves that have regrown into a ball… very very painful! Then there are the looks you get. People staring, but when you catch them, they avert their eyes — they are sackless assholes staring like that.

BME: Would you call what you did a “voluntary” amputation, or something that was medically required?

It was a completely voluntary amputation. I wanted to try to have some form of normalcy again. I was hoping to end the pain I was in 24/7 and get off the pain killers that were fogging my mind. Plus the messed up leg was to me an eyesore on my body. I also couldn’t really do anything prior to the amp. It was pure hell sitting and not being able to take part. Well, I did get some normalcy back. I like my body again, but I still have pain… oh, well, trade offs… LOL.

I had to more or less kick and scream and brow beat people to have it done. The Doctors were not willing to do the surgery as it was not a life threatening issue and the soft tissues were healthy. The Femur itself had never healed completely. As far as they were concerned it was healthy for me to spend my life in a wheelchair or get around on crutches. It really took a lot of effort to get the amputation. With the exception of one doctor they had “ethics” issues cutting off what they perceived as a healthy (LMAO) limb.

BME: I definitely understand what you mean though on the pain issues — I had a surgery (bone tumor removal) that messed up the nerves in my leg, and while I’m physically fine, I’m in constant pain from it and have thought for a long time about whether it would be better to amputate it (not that a doctor would for me, and realistically, the phantom pain could easily stay after an amputation).

You could do the route that I took and keep telling your primary care MD that the pain is intolerable, pain med’s are not an option, and that it is affecting your overall quality of life. I was fortunate that when I relocated to this area and my new primary care MD is an extreme advocate of quality of life for the patient. Many MDs are still of the mindset that as long as the limb is viable they won’t do it even though the patient’s life is miserable. There are patient advocates around — a web search can help.

Phantom pain is a weird thing — it is totally different then what I even thought. Best thing I can describe is it feels like you stubbed your left toe yet the toe is gone on up to cramps and stuff in the limb like it is still there it is not in the remnant area but below that. Now what I have is different — that is the neuroma where the nerves have regrown into a ball. Phantom pain can be controlled and eliminated by several means from using a mirror to trick the mind to scratching or rubbing the non existent limb. Yeah it sounds odd, but it works and it can also be controlled with acupuncture. Besides, in 99% of the cases it is not a constant thing, and for most people well it stops after a while once and for all.

BME: How old are you?

I’m 25 years old and currently enrolled in welding school in Manhattan.

BME: What lead up to your amputation?

In june of 2005 I was working for Steinway and Sons, at their piano factory in Queens. My hand slipped into one of the cutting machines and cut across the tops of my knuckles on my middle and ring fingers, severing the tendons. I had surgery on them and regained most of the use of my ring finger but the joint on my middle finger fused due to the bone being damaged as well. About eight months later I had surgery on the middle finger again to cut out the fused part and try to get my finger to bend. After months of physical therapy, my finger wouldn’t bend. It was permanently crooked, swollen, purple, and painful. I was always getting it caught and banging it on stuff. There had been too much damage and it had sat too long without bending to do anything else. I went to see a different doctor, as the first doctor refused to amputate, and he immediately approved the surgery. It had been over a year since the accident. On September 19th of 2006 I had the finger amputated.

BME: How was your finger removed?

I had it amputated by a doctor in Massachusetts. They knocked me out and cut through the PIP joint (proximal interphalangeal joint). the doctor left a flap of skin on the bottom of my finger at the joint that he then pulled up and over the joint and sewed it to the top of my finger to seal it off.

BME: How was aftercare and healing?

Aftercare was easy. My entire right hand was bandaged for about six weeks. I wasn’t allowed to remove the bandage until I went back to the doctor’s. The healing was pretty intense — pain like I had never felt before and an incredible itching deep inside the bone. The first few nights were particularly rough. I had been prescribed vicodin, but it didn’t do anything and I pretty much laid there in bed cradling my hand until I eventually fell asleep — passed out. After the first couple of weeks it hurt less and less, but it was still painful, itchy, and very tender. Once the bandage came off, the stump was swollen about twice the size and I had to wear a little silicone sleeve over it to make sure I never accidentally bumped it on anything… which still happens a surprising amount considering it’s tucked away between two full fingers!

I also had ghost sensations. Pain was actually not all too common. The biggest ghost sensation I had was an itching in the tip of my finger. I’d always reach out to scratch it and then realize what it was, and there was nothing I could do to stop that. I did occasionally have ghost pain sensations and they are really easy to deal with. I couldn’t do anything to alleviate the pain so it didn’t matter that it was happening on a body part I no longer had. I also occasionally had the sensation of my fingertip touching something when the rest of fingers did. The first time it happened was when I went to pick up a glass. I distinctly felt my middle finger tip touch the glass as I wrapped my real fingers around it. It was a weird mental trip for sure. I had been expecting the other ghost sensations, but not that.

BME: What does it feel like now that it’s well healed?

Now it’s hardly noticeable. But to be fair, it was hardly noticeably as soon as the initial pain went away. My middle finger had been immobile for over a year before it was cut off. I was used to not being able to use it for anything, so once it was amputated I never had a period of adjustment. It was a relief once it was gone. I’m much happier now that it’s been removed. I see it as a positive thing and have fun with my stump. I have a tattoo on my side that is a portrait of my hand missing the finger, “MINUS ONE” is tattooed across my knuckles, and I wear the mummified finger around my neck.

BME: Anything you’d do differently?

I’d try to get it done a lot sooner — that year with it still attached was hell.

BME: Do you have any interest in further amputations?

Probably not completely voluntarily, but I do definitely have a much larger interest in amputations now. I’ve thought about cutting off the other middle finger to be symmetrical, but I doubt I’d ever go through with it. It’s kind of funny it happened. When i was in high school, an anatomy teacher I had spoke of a guy he knew from when the teacher worked in a hospital. The guy was a mechanic and had damaged his ring finger several times. It got to the point where his ring finger was useless and he had very little control over it. He ended up having his ring finger amputated all the way into his palm and had a four fingered hand, with no spaces or stumps. i always loved that story and thought it would be awesome to have a four fingered hand. That, and all the exposure through BME and people I’ve met with amputations — my landlord is missing the same finger as me, as well as part of his index finger. That all made it really easy to have my finger cut off.


Shannon Larratt
BMEzine.com

Johnny Thief Tattoo Interview in BME/News [Publisher's Ring]

JOHNNY THIEF TATTOO INTERVIEW

Johnny “Thief” Di Donna (IAM/BME, MySpace, InkedNation) is one of the most skilled and true artists inking people in America right now, and has achieved huge success in a broad range of very mainstream fields without compromising himself to that mainstream. Whether it’s designing artwork for Guitar Hero 3 or tattooing customers at his shop SEPPUKU TATTOO in Savannah, Georgia, fronted by Downing Greek Gallery, his raw talent shines through, and he recently sat down and talked to us at length about his experiences as a tattoo artist.

* * *

BME: How did you get into art? Were you an artist as a child, or did it come later?

I have a belief that all artists are born artists. Oh, I know people can be trained and educated and then work in the arts, but there is more to art than wiggling a mouse or working a Spiralgraph™. That vision to see into other places, that insane burning desire to work through the night, that notion that if you don’t work, you could lose your sanity… these aren’t things that can be taught. They separate Artists with a capital “A” from the rich kids going to art school and thinking they’ll be gallery sensations by the age of twenty.

Art was always there, a God-given talent, and sometimes it’s strange talking about it in such analytical terms. It’s not unlike talking about, ‘How long have you been breathing, and who influenced you breathing from early on?’, y’know?

BME: How did you first get introduced to tattoos, and how did you decide it was something you wanted to do for a living?

I worked for fifteen years in various fields of art before ever tattooing. I spent years designing sets, screen printing, designing, art directing, offset printing, prepessing, and building art departments for gigantic corporations. My client list had been huge, working on everything from the 1996 Olympics programs for Reebok to sets for Saturday Night Live and everything imaginable in between.

I always loved tattoos, but I had moved from New York to Florida in the late eighties just before the tattoo renaissance would really reshape the fabric of the scene. Florida tattoos were horrible and I was poor, so no tattoos for me anyway. I had many opportunities to scratch, and I blew them off. People would stop me in the middle of the night, out in Ybor City in Tampa, wheat pasting flyers for concerts, and they would be like, “Man! You’re that guy! You do that fanzine! You’re the THIEF! Man, you need to do my tattoos!” And people would start taking off their clothes and explaining in detail what they wanted… which is alluring when it’s some killer babe. But, I’m checking out area shops, and this was back when Florida was in lock down, arresting 2 Live Crew for obscenity lyrics, arresting Michael Diana for drawing and things like that. I’m thinking, man, it must be really hard to own a tattoo shop, with all these religious freaks trying to close you down, and all the ostracization heaped on them, so without knowing how much that I was doing the right thing by them, I always turned down those kinds of offers.

Fast forward to 1999, when I’m putting my ex through school, and working fourteen hours a day to do it, while all my other friends are creating posters for bands and blowing up in the underground. Knowing that I was dying inside, my ex bought me a starter kit for my thirtieth birthday. One of my good friends was also an employee, Mike Martin, now of Engine House 13, a screen print shop in Columbus. Formerly a trained tattooist from Ohio, he was tattooing outlaw style in Myrtle Beach during the tattoo prohibition. He threw a party featuring nine bands, a custom hot rod show, and me tattooing illegally on anyone stupid enough to sacrifice some skin. (Incidentally, I still tattoo these people for free to this day as a thank you). We called it the Lo Down Ho Down, and there’s a poster we designed for the show published in the Art of Modern Rock (by Paul Grushkin and Dennis King, Chronicle Books), my tattoo baptism enshrined for posterity.

After playing around with it enough to get the fever, under Mike’s watchful eyes, of course, I realized that tattooing is no hobby. It’s a 24/7 lifestyle commitment. I started doing crazy amounts of research, and testing the waters. Did I want, at age thirty and with fifteen years of experience, to leave a $60K a year job with full bennies in NYC to go scrub someone’s toilets to maybe become a tattoo guy?

I interviewed Paul Booth, Shotsie Gorman, and Brian Everett for our online fanzine, the Black Market Manifesto. They’re great interviews, but I was really picking their brains about their career choices. I attended lectures at the Museum of Natural History on Body Arts through history, given by Hanky Panky, Don Ed Hardy, Chuck Eldrich, Lyle Tuttle, and a number of masters. I went to as many conventions as I could and started taking seminars. I collected more and more tattoos, and started trading work with some of the artists at their invite, one of which was IAM member Johann Florendo of Queens, which was really flattering.

I finally applied for a job with one of the top studios in the tri-state area and was hired. It was a devastating amount of work. But the cool part was, once I started getting my chops, the old corporate job was bought out and sold, and the new owners liquidated 90% of the spots. Tattooing provided me with job security, ha!

BME: What did your family think of you becoming a tattoo artist?

My family has no idea I’m a tattoo artist, I have not spoken to them since 1992.

My formative years were terribly abusive, growing up in NYC in the 70’s at the height of its crime wave, to underage parents who had no concern for me at all. Art and NYC go hand in hand; unlike other parts of the country, NYC loves an artist, the schools loved me because I wasn’t some thug or gang kid, and the only ones around me who hated me being an artist was my family. As a teen, I’d be kicked out of the house for painting, and forget it, when I started painting sets at a theatre, everyone was sure I was some sort of mezzafanuch… in fact, there was a point I had to sneak in to the city, as my drug addict step father forbade me from going, based on his illiterate fear that I would catch AIDS just by walking around the city streets and then infect and kill the entire family.

My parents would beat me for wanting to be an artist. I had to fight tooth and nail for it. It’s one of the reasons why I get so passionate about art and so nauseated at bad artists, or people who think being an artist is an easy ride for rock stars, doodling all day, banging painting models, and going to art parties all night long. Bullshit, my stint as an artist hasn’t just been a few resumes worth of work, there’s times it’s been an out and out war. I’ve also tattooed in places where it was illegal, add that to the mix, fighting the government for your right to create art, and you get an idea of why I have no problem tearing someone up for sucking.

BME: How did you learn and refine the craft of tattooing?

Oh, that is still actively going on, my friend. Tattooing is seriously difficult, more so than any other medium, it’s a consistent challenge every day. Obviously, you’re working on a living medium that differs from person to person. As an artist, sometimes you really need to turn off the creative and concentrate on the application. It’s a ton of technique, some real hard and fast science. The art part of it is almost an afterthought.

I made sure that once I was committed to the tattoo lifestyle, that I served a complete apprenticeship under a reputable master, (Mario Barth, back when he had only one Starlight Tattoo, in my case). Practice of course helps. Getting tattooed by masters and sitting at their feet and learning from them, of course, one of best ways to open your eyes and take things to the next level. I’ve been slack in that area: I was too busy making a lot of money for people who didn’t care about art or me. But now I work for myself, and this year I’ll be out of debt, and am starting to look to Europe and Japan to get work from my heroes.

BME: Who are your influences as an artist and as a tattoo artist?

My influences, jeez, there’s a book. I’ve had so many, it’s rough to condense it all, I’ve got interests as diverse as classical renaissance art to graffiti, and everything in between. Although I love inkwork, so I’m a huge fanboy of the Romitas, Miller, the Hernandez Brothers, Shawn Kerri, Rick Griffin, and anyone who can work only in black, and create a universe out of it. I love comics (Marvel, DC, horror, Japanese manga, punk, underground, independents) movies (sci fi, horror, foreign, film noir, animae, kung fu, samurai, monster, and really weird cult shit) art (nuovo, impressionism, surrealism, cubism, chiascurro, abstract, dada, low brow, pinstriping) posters (Mucha, Griffin, Kelley, Mouse, Kozik, Coop, Kuhn, Pushaed, Mad Marc Rude, and all my friends and peers) tattoos (Americana, Japanese, new school, grey, color bomb, whatever, it’s all killer)… and the tons of subcultures I’ve been involved with, like motorcycles, punk, ska, hardcore, zine publishers, literature, writing, sex and erotica… it all contributes.

And damn, there are more and more talented bastards coming out of nowhere every day. Who doesn’t love Filip Leu? He’s a genius and easily the best tattooist alive today. I love Jack Rudy’s ethics. Same with Norman Keith Collins (Sailor Jerry) and Paul Rogers… ethics are constantly being eroded in this field and we could still use some of those old school values to preserve the craft for future generations. Bugs was a huge influence on me for a lot of reasons, I also feel he’s really underappreciated in the scene. Mike Rubendall’s commitment. Niko’s realism. Grime’s next level shit. Adrian Lee’s vision. Chris O’Donnell’s structures. It’d be easy to go on all night…

BME: What are some tips that you would offer to new tattoo artists to become the best they can be?

For starters, never think this is going to be easy. No one ever became great because things were easy. You think Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man because it was easy? This is not a profession for the faint of heart, for slacker laziness, or for piss poor gimme gimme “I DESERVE IT” attitudes. My marriage ended and I will never work in any other field because of my decisions; I made sacrifices that this business demands. Turn off the My Chemical Romance and start acting like a fucking man. (Girls, you know what I mean!)

Second, forget about shortcuts. Scratching out of your house will teach you nothing. It will simply put money into the pockets of sleazy companies that will ship ‘tattoo supplies’ to your home. These companies are not run by tattoo artists, and their equipment is a joke; lousy ink, meat slicing machines, needles jigged by blind monkeys. The best companies will only ship to health department regulated legal places of business and will require you to prove it.

In NYC from 1961 to 1997, it was illegal in all five boroughs to tattoo. This was from one single trumped up case of hepatitis that came out of a prison. When you scratch, you are breaking zoning laws, health department laws, and biohazard waste disposal laws. In Chatham county, (Georgia) these fines can rack up to six digits and jail time. If you get caught scratching, you could reverse the laws and have an entire county or state go back to being outlawed. You could unemploy every tattoo artist in the state.

In the old days, which were not so long ago, apprenticeships were fucking hard. They were meant to be, they were supposed to weed out the fanboys and act like boot camp, college, and shock treatment all at once. In days not too long past, if you went to a shop asking to buy equipment, you’d leave with broken hands.

In Japan — (*cue the ‘Kung Fu’ TV show music*) — the old rules were as severe as everything else in their culture. You didn’t get a bunch of small tattoos that had nothing to do with each other, you would have one single master design you an entire horimono body suit. This suit may take years to complete, and the relationship and respect between artist and client was critical.

When seeking an apprenticeship, it was like that scene from ‘Fight Club’, which Chuck stole from the practices of Shaolin monks. A prospect would stand outside the temple, with no food, shelter from elements, or encouragement for days, being berated, screamed at, maybe attacked. If the prospect endured, he was allowed in to begin his training. Japanese apprentices shave their heads, like a monk… what they are doing is sacred to them. They move in and live with their sensei, their apprenticeship is 24/7. They will not tattoo for two, maybe three years at all. They will do everything from cook, clean, to anything asked of them. If they screw up, they are beaten.

They study the history, culture, and sacrifices of all who came before them. They will draw until their hands fall off, become master calligraphers, and water color painters. They will study ukeio-e woodblock techniques, and understand the full range of mythology and religion descending from Shinto, Buddhism, and Bushido. When they tattoo, they will be using instruments made and handed down for generations. When they graduate, they lose their old name. They are adopted into the family, and given a two part name: Hori, which means literally to engrave, and also a new family name… like Horiyoshi 3… Now a family member, they will work with that master for at least five years, as a tribute back to his generosity. He may work with that master for the rest of his life, or he may find his own path.

The artist doing the apprenticing is a world class master with decades of experience, who commands the respect of both an international clientele as well as artists worldwide. He has contributed to the industry in many ways, elevating the art form, improving technique and materials, and upholding the ethics, self policing the industry. This level of respect allows him to easily tattoo everyone from working class laborers to the highest level of Yakuza officers. When a hitman bows to you in respect, you are doing something right.

An apprenticeship will teach you far more than how to tattoo. It will teach you VALUE for what you have, and have been given, value for your clients sacrifice of blood and skin, and value for how hard it was to get to this place in history and to not squander it lightly.

BME: What are your favorite sorts of tattoos to do?

I just love to tattoo. I love the look on people’s faces when they are just blown away. Challenging pieces, photorealistic pieces, things that are just a bit over my head are great, they teach me to stretch and grow. I love tattooing complex designs that my old boss would say were impossible, like wood cut effects, or a color portrait, mostly just to spite him. But sometimes, tattooing is as much about the ritual and bloodshed as it is about the subject matter. You know, like when people need a tattoo as opposed to just want a tattoo.

I still love the basics of tattooing… I haven’t lost that first love of the gig. I get excited ordering supplies. I love unpacking a new machine or pouring out a bag of new ink caps. I love doing a first tattoo, a swallow, a sacred heart, a rose and a spider web… there’s still a rush from meeting someone you may never have met anywhere else, and having the chance, with a small clean tattoo, of changing them forever.

I’ll tell you something funny: I don’t think I’ve tattooed any of my other art on people, like my posters. Yet, I see it tattooed by other tattoo artists all the time. Someone a state over did a beautiful rendition of the winged girl holding a baby skeleton from my Godsmack/Deftones poster… I was jealous!

BME: What are your favorite sorts of clients to work on?

The kindred spirits, naturally… people who know who they are and why they are here. Strong individuals who come in, sit, get a fucking tattoo, a tattoo that is 100% who they are inside, now tattooed on the outside, and go out to kick ass. It makes you feel like an armorer, or an arms dealer.

BME: Least favorite?

Ugh. It’s getting worse. The dumbing down of America certainly has wrought some damage, huh? I hate tattoos of inclusion. When someone doesn’t know who he is and is getting something to belong. Not belong to something he created or revolutionized. Belong to some vapid institution or brainwashing that the arts have railed against for centuries. Someone who doesn’t know what it is he’s getting or why. Like all these nautical stars on emo kids, never knowing why the word nautical is there, on a kid who’s never even seen the ocean. A tattoo that brands you as a group and a follower, and not as the unique individual you are. I call them an anti-tattoo.

Or crosses. Ugh… I hate a cross tattoo. Nothing can be safer than a cross tattoo. Who’s going to get pissed at that? Praying hands. Doves. That Icthus fish. All Christian bumper stickers ripped off a pastor’s bumper. Do not get me wrong, I am not anti-Christian, quite the opposite. Remember that Jesus was crucified with thieves, it was a thief on a cross who was first promised the kingdom of heaven. But, you get someone who has to have the praying hands with the rosary beads and a dangling cross, with another big cross behind it, and a dove, and a banner with the word “FAITH” in it, you know, just in case we didn’t catch all that with the five other symbols in one tattoo… so, you’re tattooing this Bible bookstore nightmare, and he’s on his cell phone, talking to his wife. Then he hangs up and calls his girlfriend. WTF? Or brags about how he’s dodging child support. Or calls his dealer for a bump after the tattoo. These are all fakers who have no idea what they’re getting or why. But, they can go to Thanksgiving dinner, and instead of getting hell from grandma about their tattoo, she will most likely kiss it. I call bullshit.

The Bible is 3500 years old, 66 books long. It inspired people like Mozart and Michaelangelo, inspiring some of the greatest works of art in mankind’s history… In fact, there are portions of the Bible that indicate that the arts are gifts from God, supernaturally given to us by Him to glorify Him, like the artisans who constructed the temple of Solomon or the Ark of the Covenant, or King David who invented a number of musical instruments… the BEST you can come up with, endowed with all your faith and supreme being power, is bringing in your friend, rolling up his sleeve to show me his John 3:16 tattoo, and say, “I like this. Gimme one of these?” UGH! I’ve had guys ask for a cross tattoo, and when I ask where they’d like it, they roll up their sleeve and all they have is cross tattoos. They look like fucking Arlington National Cemetery!

An example, a kid came in, and he’s asking me about a tattoo. He’s like, “You know that verse, ‘My Brother’s Keeper’? That’s what I want, My Brother’s Keeper.” I’m like, “Sure I know that verse. Who doesn’t, it’s in the first three chapters of the Bible. It has nothing to do with being your brother’s keeper, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Cain said it to God after he killed his brother Abel, asking ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. Now, if you plan on killing your brother, then by all means… ”

See what I mean? Here’s a kid who not only missed the point utterly, he has the whole lesson completely ass backwards. A country that is SO obsessed with God this and God that, but has no fucking clue what their own book really says at all.

So, no. I didn’t spent twenty-five years of my life creating art to help perpetrate ignorance. Sorry!

BME: If you could choose any three tattoo artist to be tattooed by yourself, who would you choose and why?

Horiyoshi 3, Filip Leu, and Robert Hernandez. Because they are the best in the world, and I can only imagine the wealth of knowledge I’d gain just by sitting in supplication at their feet. Then Paul Booth, Grime, Marcus Pacheco. Tin Tin. Boris from Hungary. I’d always get more Bugs work. These are cats operating on planes that grunts like me can only aspire to.

BME: What do you think about shows like “Miami Ink” and the mainstreaming and extreme popularity of tattoos? What’s good about it and what’s bad about it? If you were offered the opportunity, would you appear on such a show?

I hate these shows. I do not watch TV and I do not currently get any channels, but the premise of the shows is flawed at the base. It’s corporate assholes who own and dictate the show, then package it and sell it like it was cologne or motor oil. They have no idea of the legacy of our history, or how hard it was to bring tattooing to where it is today, and certainly weren’t there when we fought for legalization. When money is the focus, art dies. From what I hear about the shows, they are long on drama, short on education. And I can’t stand the idea of tattoo faux pas being broadcast nationally; like when they’re doing set ups without any gloves on, wiping fresh tattoos bare handed, or Kat Von D is brushing back her hair with bloody gloves and just keeps on tattooing.

And I know how cool it is to have Steve-O tattoo you, trust me, I’ve done stupider things with tattooing myself. We all have and still do. But why on earth present that to the public? That’s a right that tattoo artists have earned, to do retarded things like go to a convention and then tattoo each other in a dark room under the influence of various substances. Instead, here you have an unlicensed, untrained person tattooing on national television, showing how the tattoo community likes to break health department laws for ratings. STELLAR.

Here’s a killer idea on how to make tattoo TV work: Pick an artist every week, someone up and coming, but not like some megastar. Let’s say like an Aaron Bell, a respected cat in the community who throws down like a motherfucker, but isn’t the owner of several clothing lines or a chain of McTattooshops. Send this person somewhere they’ve never been to explore both the territory and then to seek out the indigenous tattooing. Like some tebori hand tattooing in Japan, get some work in Paris from Tin Tin, or on a beach in the Fiji islands. You would be exposed to a different culture every week, plus see tattooing permeating cultures globally, and have the benefit of a sharp tattooist to illustrate things to the layman. It’s win-win-win, and would be really interesting TV, without all the fake drama or star fucking.

Tattooing is thousands of years older than TV, movies and marketing. Please, corporate whores, stop dragging it down to the lowest common denominator.

BME: What direction do you think tattooing is going in and what does the future of tattooing look like to you?

Haha! I have an issue of ITA that is from 1998, with an interview of Aaron Cain by Dave Waugh, done while they’re on a golf course. It’s amazing. In the article, Dave asks Aaron the same question, and it’s comic how off he is on his answer. He had figured tattooing had hit it’s saturation point, and couldn’t possibly be more exposed. This was before any of the bike build off shows, tattoo TV, the glossy Madison Avenue magazines like Inked, or online banner ads for home mortgages being drawn by animated tattoo machines.

So you want me to go on record like poor Aaron? ;)

I say, I think it’s a scary time: two illegal wars, prison camps, sanctioned torture, trillions in debt, fixed elections, suspension of Constitutional rights, illegal wiretapping, unemployment, falling markets, devalued dollars, the class gaps widening… this country is more apathetic than its been in ages. How many laws do these polesmokers have to break before they’re dragged off to the Hague? Seriously, Dick Cheney could rape someone’s mother on TV, and there will be some fascist pundit justifying it and saying what a whore the mother was and she was asking for it. I have no idea what is going to snap these spoiled, fattened, apathetic losers out of their funk, but I fear it. It’s going to be a second great depression, war with China, or a nationwide Katrina. It’s going to get really bad before it gets better. Tattooing will of course survive. It’s watched things like the pyramids being built and fall into ruin, it will definitely have a shelf life rivaling radioactive waste. And tattoo artists will continue to thrive; during the last depression, the entertainment industries thrived, even with money so short. I just can’t wait until the mall mentality shatters so we can get back to caring more about people than we do about stuff.

BME: How do you feel about tattooing hands, faces, and other “public” skin? Do you do any screening of clients?

Sure. The first and only time I called the cops was on a nineteen year old who started trashing the shop when I refused to tattoo a skull and crossbones on his face. He was just out of prison on a drug charge, was a father already, was beating the mother, (also a client, who covered up his name on her neck after having it for all of two months) and had only one other tattoo. Instead of seeing where I was coming from, that it wasn’t worth the $50 I’d charge him for the tattoo to unemploy him from 98% of the jobs in this country… he felt I was ‘disrespecting’ his manhood and started throwing our portfolios around, screaming he’d burn the place to the ground, and that I didn’t know “who I was messing with”. I was pretty sure I was ‘messing’ with a 140 pound teenage ex-con, so I called the cops rather than snap his femur with my steel toes.

If the kid had some serious work gong on, some sleeves or a big back piece, and had a secure form of income, a trust fund, or a recording contract, then it may have been a different story. I take each client on an individual basis, regardless of the tattoo. I tattoo hands, fingers, feet, necks, and ears all the time. But the same ethics that makes us a quality shop doing clean work also makes us stop and exercise some small amount of social responsibility.

BME: How often do you turn people away, and why?

More and more as time goes on. We get a lot of people in and out who treat our shop like the food court. They want it fast and cheap and they want it now. When informed that the wait might be as long as thirty whole minutes, they stomp their feet and ask where the next nearest shop is. So, after showing them an entire portfolio of before and after shots, I send them on their way, and I don’t feel bad about it at all. We also get a rash of people who come in with a grocery list of things they need in a tattoo, several different subjects, a cover up, must go from hip to hip… no problem, until they tell us that they’re working with a $40 budget for several hours of work. Haha! Right now it’s just me and my amazing partner, Matt Lukesh, so walk-ins can only be done during the slow times. A LOT of people leave, thinking all tattoo shops are the same.

The only real subject matter I turn away are blatant racism or white power tattoos. I have zero tolerance for that shit. But luckily, our clients for the most part keep us interested. We get to do some tasty things and they’re usually somewhat open to exploring outside their boundaries.

I’m also sort of against all white tattoos, because I know how our own melanin will obscure even my best efforts and do not think I can deliver a quality product. And not a fan of black light tattoos. I don’t trust the company producing the ‘FDA approved’ inks, when you examine the release forms and find out the ink was developed for use on fish. Besides, how often are you in black light? Even the owner of a chain of strip clubs isn’t in black light enough to go through the pain and expense… more often than not, it’s a gimmick used by people who don’t know how to put in regular tattoo ink.

Although, to my chagrin, I use three colors from the Skin Candy line of pigment that are also completely black light reactionary, as well as looking great under daylight, and not one single case of dermatitis or reactions. D’oh!

BME: With galleries starting to exhibit tattoo and tattoo related art, do you think this is a good thing, and do you feel that tattoos are “fine art”, or are they “folk art” or “craft” or something else? How do they fit into the larger art world, if at all?

This is funny, because our entire front lobby is the Drowning Creek Rock Art Gallery, with a full display of screen printed concert posters done by Jeff Wood and his impressive roster of artists, from Coop, Frank Kozik, Alan Forbes, Jermaine Rogers, Mark Arminski, Stainboy, Jeral Tidwell, Jason Goad, and myself. We’ve had a number of signings out of the shop, a few art shows, and display some of our original art as well.

As a professional artist, you realize that the gallery scene is kind of a bogus creation. Gallery owners are quite often viewed as scum: many sell art for a 50% commission. 50%! Who else gets 50%? Loan sharks in Brooklyn are jealous of 50%! A lot of what makes a successful artist in terms of pay scales and exposure is a lot of whoring, ass kissing, and nothing to do with Art, capital “A”.

The lines are getting blurred in as much as you have so many more fine artists taking up the tattoo profession, but are not stopping their former careers either. So you have tattoo art that is without any debate fine art. And it’s the kind of thing that will never provide a proper answer. Throughout the ages, the greatest artists in history were rarely the most lauded in their times. Some were shunned by critics but had commercial success, some so far ahead of their time that they failed to hit in any way at all until far after their prime.

BME: Have you ever apprenticed someone? How did you choose them and what was the experience like (and if you haven’t — would you apprentice someone, and how would you choose them)?

I have not, I’ve only been tattooing eight years. I figure I have another decade before I’d be ready to take an apprentice. Most likely my apprentice will be the hottest barely legal Japanese girl ever born, a demon possessed nymphomaniac sado-masochist and exhibitionist, with a hardcore fetish for larger, older, ugly Italian men. Luckily, I do not show a bias in my selection process.

BME: If you weren’t a tattoo artist, what do you think you’d be?

I was born an artist, I was doing art for fifteen years before I was ever tattooed. This last year alone I also did a number of concert posters, DVD covers, one real painting, and our work was featured throughout Guitar Hero 3, on top of running a tattoo shop 90 hours a week for 52 weeks. I would love to have the luxury of painting more often, and be one of those guys who can bitch about the gallery owners taking 50% of a $25,000 painting.

BME: Do you plan on tattooing your whole life? Are you planning for retirement?

Yes, I will retire. When they nail me inside a pine box. Or how about we get all Charlton Heston on it? “I’ll stop tattooing when they take my tattoo irons from my cold dead hands!

That was pretty tough guy; right?

I have the words UGLY FUCK tattooed on my knuckles. I’m so in this for life. Sleep when you’re dead!

BME: Have you experienced physical problems from tattooing (back, hands, etc.)?

My partner does. The funny part is he is the skinny good looking one. He smokes like a fiend, eats only cheeseburgers, and gets winded opening a sterile pack of needles… he has all kinds of back pain, and is at his doctor weekly. Me, I’m almost three hundred pounds, the largest I’ve ever been… but my doctor declared that I’m “very healthy”, I have great blood pressure, clean lungs, and 20/20 vision. Thick rubber grips on my tubes and the occasional massage help keep carpal tunnel at bay. If I can get back in shape and drop this small child’s worth of extra weight I’m lugging around, I’ll be doing pretty well.

BME: Do you find being a tattooist helps or hinders finding “that special person”? Does it interfere or help at all with your social/personal life?

Being an artist is weird. I’m bitterly divorced… I’ll skip the play by play. When my clients tell me what a great catch I’d be, I tell them that artists aren’t stable people, artists cut off their ears.

I’ll be forty in December, I have a hell of a lot of notches on my belt, and yet I don’t know one goddamned thing more about women than I did when I hit puberty. I have a suspicion that they all work for Satan.

Although I haven’t really dated anyone in the scene who was a professional. I’ve hooked up with plenty of artists, but oddly enough they never wanted to hear about any of the things I’ve been working on, they just wanted a booty call. I guess as far as inspiration is concerned, my tongue has better uses than all this talking.

BME: What are your feelings about the rising popularity of scarification and other forms of body modification as opposed to tattooing, which has a much larger modern history?

I’m glad to see it. Apply everything I’ve said about commercialization and the superficiality of our plastic disposable mall culture to this question. Anything that gets us away from being drones and back to being actual humans again is just fine by me.

BME: How do you feel about scratchers and lower-end tattoo shops, and their role in tattoo culture?

I despise scratch shops. We just had two shops close here in Savannah, neither made it more than a year. One, the owner was a wannabe 1%er, a biker with no patch, who never tattooed, never drew or painted. Two of his artists left within days, the remaining artist had been fired from three separate apprenticeships from the worst shops in town. I’ll give you an example of the kind of shop this was. A cat walks in, knowing the owner deals heroin. He hates tattoos, has no tattoos, doesn’t want to see any tattoos, will never get tattoos. He scores, and asks if he can crash in the back and fix up, which he does. While out on the nod, the owner grabs a machine, and with no training whatsoever, just starts tattooing this guy, the same way you may draw with marker on a friend passed out drunk at a party. The guy comes to covered in scratch that looks like Helen Keller attacked him with a weed whacker… he can’t really go to the cops, how do you explain being tattooed against your will out on a nod? The shop is now closed, because the owner is in prison for drug dealing, weapons running, and murder one.

This is a story I have to tell in 2008?

Now, when I walk into the zoning department or city hall, and introduce myself proudly as a tattoo artist, is this what they think of me? Fuck that! Not to mention, that I’m sure there were days that we were sitting on our hands while they were rocking and rolling. They had plenty of clients all too happy to show up and get stoned… they would pimp that shop as the greatest tattoo shop that ever was. Except now it’s closed and the tattoos look like an experiment in flesh eating bacteria colonies. We live in a time when the Guy Aitchinson’s and Anil Gupta’s have raised the bar to staggering heights, yet these inbred assholes have helped keep people in the dark ages. It’s disrespectful… to all who came before them, to the craft itself, and to all the people they’ve scarred up. This, of course, is just one of the real reasons why we named our shop SEPPUKU. Death before dishonor, gaigin!

When the health department comes in for inspections, I yell at them for being too easy. All that yellow paper tells anyone is that I know how to mop and wear gloves. What I propose, is the TATTOO LICENSE ROAD TEST! Get some prisoners, or kids who want a $5 tattoo, like you get a $5 hair cut at a barber school. The instructor comes out in a bad polyester shirt and a clipboard. He is going to test you on cross contamination practices, skin prep, stencil application, client comfort, lining, shading, coloring, bandaging, aftercare, sterilization and biowaste disposal… you get three hours to put on a nice clean tattoo, some well done lettering, bright colors, smooth blends, maybe extra credit for real toothpaste whites or special effects. If you fail, you go back to apprenticing and try again in six months. A photo is taken of your first tattoo and is laminated on your license as a testament to your skill. Testing is done once every three to five years. Your license is copied on the client’s release form with a check box to prove they have seen it before you begin work on them.

Why not? The shit is medically invasive. It’s the 21st century. Tattoos are expensive. Imagine a body shop that painted cars like some shops tattoo. Not everyone needs to be Corey Kruger or Mike Rubendall… but if you can’t at least put in a clean rose and a dagger, find another career, please? If you want to suck at your job, go work for the DMV, people expect you to suck there.

BME: Are there any times you’ve regretted your career path?

That’s a tough one. I wrestle with it every day, as I’ve spread myself pretty thin. As I mentioned earlier I’ve been a set designer, a mural painter, an airbrush artist, an illustrator, a fanzine publisher, an art director, a screen printer, an offset printer, a digital artist, a concert poster guy, a wheat paster, a pinstriper, and a tattoo artist. All my peers my age are masters in their singular professions. For example, I have a passing friendship in Coop. He’s the same exact age as me, but whereas I’m only known in select circles and bust ass to make bills each week, Coop is world renowned and lives large in a Hollywood villa with his dominatrix wife and a garage full of hot rods. So it goes with most full time poster artists I know, and especially people who were tattooing for as long as I’ve been working. I started working in ’86, I still rent, I have only the slimmest of savings… if I had been tattooing for that long, geez, I’d love to think how far I’d have come.

Sometimes I wonder exactly how much tattooing played in my wife’s decision to bail. It’s been seven years, and I’m still just a mess. A MESS!

But on the flipside, I’ve had multiple careers, each one by itself is someone’s unattained dream. My resume is as long as your arm. I’ve gotten my hands dirty in such a wide variety of mediums and done some of them really well, a bit of a post punk Renaissance guy. Which is great, too. I’m a tattoo artist who can design everything I need from camera ready magazine articles to signs to business carsd to web sites, and is also in magazines, books, galleries and Hard Rock Cafes globally. This is no bad thing either. I never would be that one hit wonder guy, you know, like that shitty guy you hate so much but gets up so much for his specializing in fetish art, or some such shit. I’m glad not to be the ‘old school guy’, the ‘scary monster guy’, or the ‘hot rod guy’, or even conversely the ‘neo-classical guy’. I have some jazz in all kinds of fields of interest and can move in and out of them as a true professional.

I imagine at the end of the day, I’d like to be well off enough to have no limits as to what I want to do with my life; for example, except for Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, I haven’t been off the continent at all. I have a lot of traveling to do, both geographically and spiritually. I don’t like stuff, you can’t take it with you, it’s just dust, after all, but man, if I had the freedom to create art with a capital A, that would be amazing.

Give me some of that time I wasted on suicide, drugs and marriage, let me drop fifty pounds, and come back in five years and see what I can do. ;)

          


Shannon Larratt
BMEzine.com