BY THE LIZARDMAN
The first time I got to see Penn & Teller live at the Rio in Las Vegas I was advised by my friend Todd Robbins, who had arranged the tickets for my wife and I, to arrive early because before the show they played live jazz and I ‘might just recognize the tall man playing bass’. I don’t think it will be spoiling anything for anyone to say that the tall man in question is Penn Jillette, who I immediately recognized. However, my eye was quickly drawn away from Penn and to the pianist he was playing with. I turned and whispered to Meghan, ‘I think the pianist has stretched lobes.’ with more than a little surprise.
The pianist, Mike Jones, did in fact have stretched lobes and a whole lot more as it turns out. It also turns out that Mike is not just any old jazz pianist. Now, when it comes to jazz I do not have a refined ear by any means but as the saying goes I may not know much but I know what I like. I greatly enjoyed the pre-show entertainment he and Penn provided (he also appears and plays during the show).
Later on, I googled Mr. Jones and discovered just how accomplished and respected he was in his field — visit www.jonesjazz.com for more on his music. After a recent return to once again see the show I noticed his tattoo work peeking out above his collar and below his sleeves and had the idea I should have gotten when I first met him: a BME interview. After finding a contact email on the P&T website I wrote and requested an interview, to which he graciously consented.
When did you first get interested in body modification and body art?
I first got interested in tattoos when I was a teenager. I would see someone on TV with tattoos and thought they were really beautiful. I talked about getting some in my twenties, but was worried about being able to work. I think I knew even then, that if I started, I wouldn’t want to stop!
In the mid nineties, I first started to see some stretched lobes, and facial piercing in New York, and I thought they were really cool. I started hanging around a tattoo and piercing studio in Salem NH — Masterpiece — and got to see some really amazing work up close, for the first time.
Could you describe your modifications (tattoos, piercings, and anything else) and who did them?
My first piercing was my left nipple, done at a place on 2nd Ave in NYC. I think my nose was next, and that, along with my tongue, ears, labret, PA, and nipples were all done by Rob Smith at Masterpiece in New Hampshire. I decided to move to Vegas in 1999 to work with a singer, and was given my first tattoo as a going away present by Dan Carroll, the owner of Masterpiece. It was a beautiful Celtic band around my left bicep, and I was hooked!
I moved to Vegas and found Dante, the owner of Dante’s Studio Tattoo in Henderson, Nevada. She did my first big piece, a half sleeve on my right arm. Her daughter Angela then did a full sleeve on my left arm. Dante then laid out the rest of my right sleeve, and Angie is currently coloring it in. She also did some ram horns on my head, some stars on my neck, and we’re working on a big chest piece with sparrows. I also have some Doc Marten boots tattooed on my feet, and legs. It’s a long project and a lot of black!
My friend Tony Fitzpatrick, a famous and amazing artist whose work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in NY, and other galleries around the world, is designing a jungle piece for my back.
I remember talk of a deal with Doc Marten based on your boots tattoo — where does that stand?
I took some time off from the boots, but I’ll be finishing them up over the next few months. It’s a lot of black, and my poor artist was going crazy. When they’re done, I’ll have our agent go to Doc Marten and see what they say. Of course, I didn’t do it for that reason, but it would be funny.
Is there a theme or overall concept to your work?
I really don’t have an overall theme, although I have the traditional Japanese on one sleeve, and really colorful tribal on the other. I like big pieces where you have to stand back to get the whole idea. I waited a long time to get my first tattoo — I was 37 — so I made sure I knew what I wanted in terms of each piece. I like bigger pieces, rather than a lot of little ones.
How does your family feel about your modifications?
My Dad is a WWII vet, and to him I think tattoos are something way outside of the mainstream. He’s been pretty ok about it, but I think he’d rather I didn’t have any! Shortly before my mom died, I told her I was thinking about getting a tattoo, and she said she thought they were cute, but not to tell my dad!
As a musician you work in a highly creative field and jazz is often esteemed as being a particularly creative form of music. Do you see your modifications as an extension or another form of that creativity? Are they related in any specific way to your work in music?
Here’s where I get a little shallow! I create music every night, and I’m one of the most fortunate people on the planet. I work with two dear friends, whom I respect and admire, and I get to do pretty much whatever I want. I can also look however I want, and they think it’s great. I don’t attach any real meaning to any tattoo, other than to think it looks cool.
I know some people get ink for very serious and personal reasons, and I respect and admire that. With me, I just like the way it looks.
The stereotypical connection most people make between tattoos and music are rock and metal bands. Are tattoos and piercings common in the jazz world? How do your professional peers react to your modifications?
I love that most people think I play metal, and I love the look on their face when the find out I play music that’s fifty years old. When I was at Berklee College of Music, I’d wear almost nothing but Zeppelin and AC/DC shirts, and get filthy looks from the hardcore jazz guys, who all dressed like they were Miles Davis in 1963. They shut up when I played, and that was the end of that.
It makes me very happy to mess with peoples perceptions, but I think piercing and tattoos are becoming more popular in jazz just because they’re more popular everywhere. It’s 2006, and it’s just not that big a deal anymore.
Since you have public modifications (stretched piercings, scalp tattoos, and hand and neck tattoos) do you find a difference in the reactions of fans from before and after having these done?
I haven’t had any negative reactions from any fan at all. The most common thing I hear after the show is “I love your tattoos”! It’s weird. My wife tells me that people are staring at me once in a while, but I’m oblivious. I never mind it when someone asks me questions about mods, because, as far as I’m concerned, I’m a walking billboard for the tattoo and piercing industry!
You mentioned early concerns about possible work related issues if you got tattoos (a very real and rationale concern) and then later talked about getting dirty looks and comments for your choice of dress only to “shut them up” with your ability to play. It seems that many times a person who wishes to explore body modification must overachieve in order to be accepted and gain respect. In a perfect world judgments and criticisms would be based solely on merit but in reality people’s prejudices often slip in. To what, if any, extent do you think that your choices of dress, modification, etc have affected your career?
Well, with P&T, my career has never been better. I believe I wouldn’t be able to get a gig at the Ritz Carleton again, but I made a deliberate decision a few years ago to not do that kind of work. When I play at a jazz club, I never have a problem. I really think that people are just getting more comfortable with body mods in general. The days of going into a small “redneck” town where they don’t accept you because you look different are disappearing. The one or two times that I’ve been nervous, or uncomfortable, going into a small town diner, I’m usually greeted with the same kind of interest and curiosity that I get anywhere else. It always ends up with people saying how cool it looks!
I’ve stood out in front of the P&T theater singing autographs and greeting people for over four years. That’s over a million people that I’ve connected with, for at least a second or two. One time, one person, out of those million, an older man came up to me and said, “Love the music, hate the tattoos”. I smiled and said the exact same thing I would say to anyone else, “Thanks for coming, have a great night!” So if only one in a million people doesn’t like my ink, I’m doing fine!
I noticed that the photos on jonesjazz.com don’t really show any of your modifications, nor are they mentioned there — is this by design or just happenstance? Have your modifications ever really factored in to your marketing as a performer and/or with dealing with labels and the like?
The website was put together before I started any visible mods, and when my next CD comes out, they’ll be there! I’ve always thought that having me look as I do would be a killer idea for marketing. Zeke (from our show) calls me the “jazzdemon” and I would like to exploit that. I haven’t even gotten far enough with a big label to address the issue of my appearance, but Chiaroscuro has no problems with how I look. The fact that I’m a reasonably good musician seems to be all they care about.
Per William Burroughs, any ‘words of advice for young people’?
My words of advice for the youngsters are only to do what you love. Life is too short to fuck around. You only get one chance, so make it count. These all sound like clichés, but, it’s all true, and so important.
because the world NEEDS freaks…
Former doctoral candidate and philosophy degree holder Erik Sprague, the Lizardman (iam), is known around the world for his amazing transformation from man to lizard as well as his modern sideshow performance art. Need I say more?
Copyright © 2006 BMEzine.com LLC and Erik Sprague / The Lizardman. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published March 14th, 2006 by BMEzine.com LLC in Toronto, Canada.