ModBlog News of the Week: September 2nd, 2011

It’s time again for the weekly news, but before I start I just wanted to thank those of you who sent in stories this week.  It’s because of your submissions that the weekly news isn’t filled with celebrity fluff.  As always, if you’ve got a story you think should be included, just send me an e-mail.

To get things started this week is a story from the Daily Mail about the US FDA starting up an investigation into tattoo inks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has launched an investigation after new research turned up troubling findings about toxic chemicals in tattoo ink.  Recently published studies have found that the inks can contain a host of dodgy substances, including some phthalates, metals, and hydrocarbons that are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.  One chemical commonly used to make black tattoo ink called benzo(a)pyrene is known to be a potent carcinogen that causes skin cancer in animal tests.  Coloured inks often contain lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel, titanium and other heavy metals that could trigger allergies or diseases, scientists say.  Some pigments are industrial grade dyes ‘suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint,’ according to an FDA fact sheet.

Now the FDA has launched an investigation into the long-term safety of the inks, including what happens when they break down in the body or fade from light exposure.  Joseph Braun, an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, told Environmental Health News: ‘The short answer is we don’t know if the chemicals in tattoo inks represent a health hazard.’  An estimated 45million people in the U.S., including at least 36 per cent of adults in their late 30s, have at least one tattoo.

Take a quick look at the comments section for some comedy gold.  “Many people will scoff at this article but I actually know a young woman who died from one of these tattoos and it was cancer.”

While it is a good thing that inks are being scrutinized, the media is going to turn this into a fear mongering story with headlines like “Tattoos cause cancer!”.

Still on the subject of tattoos, a man in England decided to get a tattoo tribute to one of his favorite literary characters.  Let me know if you can find him.

John Mosley, 22, had a giant tattoo of his stripy-shirted hero – like the one in the popular books, in which readers must find the character in crowd scenes.  Music producer John’s design – which took 24 hours – features 150 characters among the landmarks of his home city Norwich, plus a pair of UFOs and a space rocket.  John said: “It will be a talking point for years to come. People will look at my back and have fun searching around for Wally.”

There’s more news to come, so keep on reading.

Breaking news from Huntsville, TX this week.  It seems that a brand new trend in piercings is catching on with the youngsters, and the Houstonian is on the front line, reporting this incredible find before anyone else.

Melissa Moncada had been craving a change for a while, something more permanent than an updated hairstyle or Facebook identity. She drove up to a local tattoo parlor with a friend and decided to get something new. While she didn’t get a tattoo or a typical piercing, she did get something very new and very different: a microdermal piercing.  Microdermal piercings, also commonly referred to as microdermal implants or dermal anchorings, are semi-permanent piercings. They are considered semi-permanent because if the body jewelry is removed, the body will heal completely, leaving no hole.

The piercing involves a titanium anchor with a post and a jewelry end that screws on to the post. The flat anchor, which has multiple holes it its base, is inserted below the skin into a pocket made by either a dermal punch or a gauged needle. This allows for tissue to grow through the holes, securing the piercing as it heals.  The piercer cleans the area and marks the spot with ink. Once the position of the microdermal is confirmed with the customer, the piercer uses a dermal punch or a large needle to create a pocket or slit. Lastly, the anchor, set with the jewelry typically already screwed onto it, is inserted into the pocket using a curved motion until the piercing is parallel to the skin’s surface.  As with any piercing, it is important to keep microdermals clean to allow for proper healing. Due to their small size and level of simplicity for piercers, they can be done just about anywhere there is enough skin for a pocket. Like most piercings, they are convenient and quick.

From what I understand, next week they’re going deep undercover to do an expose on gauged ears.

Speaking of piercings, a short article was published this week in reaction to the new local television weatherman.

During the TV and Entertainment report with Jane Holmes, Neil and Jane question whether Channel 7′s weatherman Jonathan Pollock’s piercings distract from the actual weather report.  Maybe it’s just a younger generation thing?

Moving back to the US, a Salt Lake City deputy is being investigated after a teen girl came forward following a traffic stop.

T.R. says Womack pulled over the car in which she was a passenger on Nov. 20, 2010, allegedly for speeding. After forcing all three girls in the car to “stand barefoot on the snowy roadside and lift up their shirts and pull their bras away from their bodies,” he took their ID to his cruiser, allegedly to check for warrants, the complaint states.  T.R. says Womack returned and told her she was wanted on “an outstanding warrant for a heroin violation in Arizona.” T.R., knowing she had never been to Arizona and never touched heroin, protested. Womack told her “he was not able to show [her] the warrant because he had ‘logged off.’ He told [her] that if he tried to access the warrant again, it would alert officials in Arizona, requiring him to arrest her,” the complaint states.

“Womack told [T.R.] that she had two options: either to be arrested and go to jail for booking and processing, or to get in his car and be searched for certain tattoos and piercings. Not wanting to be arrested and taken to jail, and believing Womack’s statements regarding the necessity of a search because he was a uniformed officer of the law, [T.R.] reluctantly chose the latter option. “Womack placed [her] in the passenger seat of his patrol car and instructed her to remove her clothing. In obedience to the uniformed officer’s commands, [T.R.] did indeed remove her slippers, shorts, underwear, and shirt.  “Womack then informed [T.R.] he needed to check for a vaginal piercing. [T.R.] refused to spread her legs for him. Womack then told her to get dressed and return to the car.”  Womack gave the car’s male driver a “warning citation” for speeding and let the group go, but never filed an official copy of the citation with the sheriff’s office, the complaint states.

T.R. says she visited a police station in June “to check on the alleged ‘Arizona warrant’ Womack had mentioned,” and found there was no such warrant, for her or for anyone else with her name.  She says she then contacted county authorities to report Womack’s actions, and “had a discussion with a victim’s advocate from the county, who told [her], in substance, ‘Don’t bother reporting this, because these things happen all the time, and nothing ever becomes of them.’”  She says she submitted a complaint to the sheriff anyway.

I’m not sure what disgusts me more, the officer’s actions, or that the victim’s advocate told her not to report it.

This month’s issue of Vogue Italia has drawn the attention of news media outlets following the reveal of the cover photo.  In them model Stella Tennant is seen with a nostril piercing and a corset that bound her waist down to almost 13 inches.  Well it turns out the cover was actually a tribute to Ethel Granger, the world record holder for the world’s smallest waist, and fan of body piercings.

When we posted the startling image of Stella Tennant on Vogue Italia’s September cover, we focused on the model’s crazy jewelry, most notably her oversize nose ring.  But all of you, it seems, were focused on something else: her teeny, tiny corseted waist.  “Her waist has been photoshopp­ed into another dimension,” commented nermz345. “did you all check out her waist???” asked candyazzbb. “I have bracelets larger than that corset girdle thing,” noted mamysmom1.

So we chatted with Vogue Italia to set the record straight. While the cover looks extreme, it is because Tennant is channeling a very specific woman with a very unique look. The cover’s inspiration, Ethel Granger, had the smallest waist in (recorded) history, measuring a mere 13 inches. And she didn’t come by it naturally.

As Vogue Italia writes, Ethel’s waist was due to her husband, William Granger, who was obsessed with the idea of a wasp-waisted woman. Vogue Italia explains:

Before their marriage Ethel was a plain, unsophisticated twenty-three year old girl who wore the shapeless 1920s dresses that William despised. […] One epochal day, when William put his arm around Ethel’s waist she asked “darling, can you feel any difference?”. He could: a pair of corsets that tied Ethel into 24 inches, more or less her natural waist line. The process of Ethel’s waist modification began. Initially Ethel was satisfied with wearing a corset only during the day, but William convinced her to keep it on while sleeping.

After years of corsets, Ethel finally achieved a Guinness Book of World Records-worthy 13-inch waist, as well as a signature look involving a variety of facial piercings.

Check out the linked article to see the Vogue Italia cover that paid tribute to Ethel.

Finally, you may recall an article by Jordan a few years back about Rob Spence, the human eyeborg.  At the time Rob had developed an artificial eye that had an LED implanted into it, giving him an eyeball that lit up like Arnie’s did in The Terminator.  In the interview, Rob discusses his plan to eventually develop a miniature camera that he can fit into his eye socket.  Well, that day has come, and Rob has even filmed a movie using his eyecam, a documentary for the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Rob Spence lost his right eye following a shotgun accident when he was a child but for the last several years he’s been known as Eyeborg.  And this month the Toronto filmmaker took his cybernetic eye project to the next level, releasing his – and the world’s – first documentary filmed on eye-cam.  “It’s such a prevalent pop culture idea to have a camera eye that if you’ve ever met anyone who’s had an eye removed they’ve at least made a joke about it,” said Spence, 39, in a phone interview.

With the help of a crack team of young engineers, Spence was the first person in the world to turn this fantasy into a reality.  They built him a camera that slots into his eye socket and, with the help of a wireless transmitter/receiver, can record everything in his field of view. The camera is a tiny 3.2mm squared and has a resolution of 320×240.

Spence, who also does work for advertising agencies, was hired by the team behind the blockbuster video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution to create a documentary, using the eye camera, featuring himself and other real-life “cyborgs” with prosthetic limbs. The 12-minute documentary was released on YouTube about five days ago and has already garnered over 280,000 views.  The goal was to compare real-world cyborgs to those featured in the game, which is set in 2027 and depicts a world where people cut off their human limbs to replace them with far more advanced bionic body parts. One character has an electronic eye that can not only record video like Spence but is also connected to the brain and optic nerve and can overlay the game character’s view with augmented reality-style situational data.

There’s a lot more in the article, including what Rob’s been up to since he last spoke with BME back in 2009.

So that’s it for this week’s news.  Have a great long weekend everyone, and we’ll see you back here next week.

It’s finally here!!

Dear IAM family,

The time has finally come. After 3 very long years, several false starts, thousands of man hours, dozens of people (most of whom aren’t the same people from the start), 3,714 emails between the developers, Mike, Jen and myself, hundreds of pages of designs, hundreds of thousands of lines of code, thousands of revisions and unfortunately my entire life savings! 🙂

We’ve been tweaking things left and right on the private beta to clean up as much as we can and have it 100% perfect with every feature ready to go but that’s the entire reason it’s called a beta! We need to have our community actively using it so that we can move forward with fresh eyes. As the community uses the beta, more and more features will be added, we had to draw the line some where and get everyone using it so that we could make all the other adjustments that we need to make with the system under heavy load.

I’m sending out this broadcast to all of IAM in order to let everyone know that we’re about to release the new version of In order to make sure that we have the most up to date copy of the data, we’re going to have to turn IAM off for a couple of days prior to launching the new site. IAM will be offline starting Monday the 8th. It should be back online on Thursday the 11th.

We have spent the last several years going over and over the data, the old site and the new site to make sure that we are always advancing and giving you more than IAM & BME have ever been able to offer in the past.

With the initial launch, some features that you’re used to using may not be available initially, but please don’t worry! The site will continually be upgraded to keep BME/IAM in line with the rest of the internet. As I said before, we have to draw the line at some point with a feature set and get the community running on the new software in order to keep adding all of the features that we want IAM to have.

Please keep in mind that this is the first upgrade that IAM has received in well over a decade! I look forward to it and I appreciate your patience and understanding while we work out the kinks that arise with any upgrade!

While your journal entries, forums, messages and photos will all be imported, please take a moment to use the following tools to make a back up of your data. The “Diary Download” tool will make a file that contains your diary entries, their titles and the dates they were posted, including the HTML you may have included in the post. The “Photo Download” tool will make a zip file containing every image that you have ever uploaded to IAM (including those that you have removed access to from your page). Please allow some time for the tools to process and the downloads to complete. Some members have very large photo back up files and they will take some time to download depending on the speed of your connection.

Diary Download Link:

Photo Download Link:

While the over all “look and feel” of IAM will be changing, most of the way that IAM works will remain the same. We’ve even gone to great lengths to keep the IAM related MACRO tags working. All of the functions and features of IAM will still work and function the same way. The biggest “change” is that all of the various settings that you need to select to select things and make your IAM account function a certain way will have been moved to one “settings” page so that you don’t need to dig in various settings pages in order to find/change them. Our main goal was to make IAM easier to use. That was the main focus of the redesign.

The following MACROS WILL NOT be able to be imported to the new IAM. The reason that is is because those MACROS have been replaced with other MACROS or they have been built INTO other functions that operate a different way. Please remember that these features will be available but with things like your IAM page’s custom theme, you will have to recreate it on the new system.

  • 1.In forums, the following functions will no longer be implemented: **NOINDEX**, **BOTTOMINDEX**, **INDEX**, **RTL** **TRANSCRIPT**
  • 2.In diary entries: **NOBME** – This will no longer be necessary as your media will all be available in the “media” section of your profile. You decide what you want to share with IAM members, with BME or keep private.
  • 3.In diary entries: – This function is not being imported. You can set your page to either “IAM Only” (this is the default) or to allow anyone.
  • 4.Custom themes. These will not be imported. The new IAM uses a WYSIWYG editor and you will be able to easily customize your page using the new editor. If you want to save your current settings so you can refer back to them after the move, we encourage you to view your custom edit page and take a screen shot or copy the data in some way as once the move is made you will no longer be able to access that information.

If you have any questions, please EMAIL [email protected]. Jen, Mike and I will be very busy during the upgrade process so we will not be able to answer individual messages sent via IAM during this time but you will definitely be able to get a reply from Jen if you email [email protected].

Thank you for your continued support of BME. You are what makes BME possible and the place that it has grown to be today!


p.s. Everyone’s IAM page is active as I just made sure to add time to all the accounts on IAM so if your friends haven’t logged in because they said their accounts have been expired.  So tell all your friends that their IAM account is active so they can come check out all the new features, as well as back up any of their data.

Tattoo Hollywood Opening Party & Bob Roberts’s Book Release!

Tattoo Hollywood & Known Gallery are proud to present new works by BOB ROBERTS and BERT KRAK | LADIES WELCOME and the release of Bob Roberts’s first book ever titled “In A World of Compromise…I Don’t”


About the book release:
Tattoo Hollywood Opening Party & Book Release: Thursday, August 19th, 2010 | 8-11pm
We will be selling 100 signed copies at $300.00 plus tax
Pre-order at: [email protected]


Opening reception: Saturday, July 31st, 2010 | 8-11pm
Tattoo Hollywood Opening Party & Book Release: Thursday, August 19th, 2010 | 8-11pm
Show runs: July 31st – August 19th, 2010

Known Gallery
441 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036

About the artists:

Bob Roberts
The man, the myth, the legend: Bob Roberts. Few people have had the impact on tattooing that Bob Roberts has. His sheer artistic genius is sublime, and his biography reads the same way. For over thirty years he has been part of the vanguard of talented tattoo artists who, unbeknownst to them at the time, have pushed tattooing from a craft to an art form.

The list of artists Bob has worked alongside reads like a star-studded who’s who of the tattoo artist hall of fame, of which Bob would no doubt be a member if such a thing existed. He apprenticed with Colonel Todd and Bob Shaw at the infamous Pike and then worked alongside Cliff Raven, Greg Irons, Paul Rogers, Jack Rudy and Don Ed Hardy. His own shop, Spotlight Tattoo, continues to house a roster of talented artists bent on following in Bob’s footsteps.

Bob’s creative genius is not limited to tattooing and painting, he is also an accomplished musician. His musical career reads much the same as his tattoo resume. Bob has played with Ruben and the Jets, Hot Tuna, The Offs, New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders, to name a few. His life has been “rock and roll” as well; Frisco, New York, LA, Europe, Japan, Bob has done the world tour. He’s also ridden across most of the United States on a Harley, and he’s “ridden it like he stole it.” That is how Bob lives his life, and his artwork reflects it.

But the thing that stands out the most to me about Bob is his persona. Ungovernable, fiercely independent, Bob does not compromise…. He does it HIS way. And thankfully for us, Bob Roberts has forever changed tattooing for the better.

-Takahiro “Taki” Kitamura
State of Grace
June 2010

Bert Krak

Loyal husband, father of four, expert tattooer, fine artist , business man, genius. Was born July 12th,1977 in Hollywood, FL. Met his wife in 95. Had his first son in 96. Started tattooing and painting around the year 2000. Currently owns and operates Top Shelf Tattooing in Queens, NY and Smith Street Tattoo Parlour in Brooklyn, NY. Specializes in electric walk up style laser proof tattooing that look like they were drawn and applied by a man.

No Superfluous Flummery: An Interview With Bob Roberts

Last month, while in Los Angeles for BME’s Tattoo Hollywood convention, I was given, above all else, one specific task: to interview Bob Roberts, the owner of L.A.’s Spotlight Tattoo, whose art gallery opening that week I wrote about here. There was, of course, an element of danger. “He can be very intimidating,” people cautioned me. “Be careful what you say around him.” Though ostensibly well-meaning, these warnings were unnecessary. When we sat down to talk on Sunday afternoon as the convention was winding down, Bob struck me as a cross between Jeff Bridges’s The Dude from The Big Lebowski and John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski: an old hippie, content with his status and the life he’s lived…who occasionally gets very, very fired up about things. (Voice-wise, though? He’s The Dude.) Drawing from his nearly 40 years of experience, we talked about his humble beginnings, shitty artists he’s known, blow job etiquette in 1970s New York, various people who deserve to have their thumbs cut off and much more. Here’s our entire conversation, edited in parts only for clarity.

BME: OK, let’s start with some procedural questions and then once we’re warmed up I’ll try to make you cry.

Bob Roberts: Alright. Can you hear me? Test, test. Is the needle going on there?

BME: We’re ready to go. So where are you from originally?

BR: Los Angeles, California.

BME: And what brought you to tattooing in the first place?

BR: Well, it’s a long story. My dad had a store at Eighth and Broadway, and he used to take me with him to work on the weekends. When I got old enough to run around, first I would go by this pawn shop that had switchblade knives that would start at one inch and would go until they were maybe over six feet. Then, they had a lot of tattoo shops, so I used to go into all of them until I’d get thrown out, and I just always loved it, man. I saw all these people getting tattooed and from a young age it just nailed me to the wall.

Later on, I was in rock and roll bands for a long time—I played the saxophone—and I was painting a lot of flash and I wanted to find a job, and I thought I could be good at [tattooing]; I loved drawing the designs. So I went to a few shops and went, “Hey! Where can I get some ink and some guns?” And they just told me to get the fuck outta there.

So, I was living in Laurel Canyon, and I was driving down the hill one day and I saw a friend of mine hitchhiking, and he had this girl with him named Truly, and she had a fringed leather jacket on with a really nice Japanese dragon done in Indian beads on there. So I inquired! I said, “Man, that’s a nice dragon, it looks like a tattoo design.” She said it was, so I asked if she did it herself. She said, “Yeah, and I’m a tattoo artist too.” This is 1973, by the way. I told her I was looking into getting some equipment and machine, and she told me she had a whole outfit she could sell me. So, I bought some machines and some flash (that I still have) and a power-pack, and that’s really how I got started.

Shortly after that, I started going down to The Pike and got my first three tattoos—my first shop tattoos—by Bob Shaw, and I told him I was interested in working there. I’d bring him stuff that I’d drawn and I’d get tattooed by him, so he gave me the ultimate challenge: bring some people in that’ll let you put a tattoo on them. Well, I was in a rock and roll band at the time and these guys knew I could draw, so I told them to come to The Pike with me to get some free tattoos—I was bringing two carloads of guys a week down there. And I did alright, you know? I guess they figured, “Well, I guess this means we have to give this asshole a job.” And they did!

BME: At what point did you branch out on your own?

BR: Well, after working for [Bob] Shaw and [Colonel] Todd, I first worked at a shop in Santa Ana where I had the honor of taking over the great Bert Grimm‘s chair, and me and Bobby Shaw worked there. I worked at The Pike for close to four years, and eventually, for the only time in 37 years, I quit tattooing for four months before going back to it after I got a job with Cliff Raven. From there, I went to work with Ed Hardy for three-and-a-half years, and then I went to New York City and opened my first shop there. It was a fifth floor walkup, where I tattooed in one half and lived in the other; that was the first Spotlight Tattoo. Then I moved back here after I got kicked out of New York.

BME: You got kicked out of New York?

BR: You know, in New York City they sell buildings like they sell houses out here [in Los Angeles]. I never knew that. I was living in a place there, and the next thing I knew my lease was up and I was going, “What the fuck, man?” I was paying $550 a month for a loft, but the guy who owned that building sold the building I was in and nine other buildings to someone else.

So, tattooing was still illegal at that time in New York City, and I wasn’t gonna live and work in the same place again, and I couldn’t afford to open a shop on the street and then get a separate place to live—plus, I was burned out on New York, so I came back here, and I went out every day for six fuckin’ months trying to find a store. On Melrose, you couldn’t rent an outhouse for less than $8,000. It’s a little different now, but back then it was in its heyday. Finally, I found a little garage next to where I am now and stayed there for nine-and-a-half years, and then I moved next door into the shop I’ve got now.

BME: So when you started tattooing, did you consciously decide what your style was going to be?

BR: No! I did what I had to do wherever I was. I broke in on biker stuff at The Pike—you’d do Harley wings every night, you’d do reapers, you’d do eagles, you’d do roses, marijuana leaves, you’d do at least one to four Hot Stuffs [devil designs] every night. All that kinda stuff, man. You work at The Pike, you’d tattoo 15 people every night, five nights a week. We had three people on the night shift and three people on the day shift, and everybody tattooed 15 people—at least 75 people a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I still don’t know how I did it.

So then I went on and started seeing some of Ed Hardy’s work and some Japanese work and I wanted to learn how to do that. I tried to do whatever I could—this was 1976—and I could already do the other stuff pretty well. Then I came up to work for Ed and things started changing. All of a sudden, people thought all the old American traditionalism was no good because the line was too big, you know what I mean? All the old-timers thought, “Well, that shit ain’t gonna last.” We joked and said, “Oh, this is the new thing that’s gonna replace everything?” And we were all wrong. We got on a big high horse about it, and I tried New School-style for a bit until I realized, American-style? You can’t do that way, man. It doesn’t hold up—it’s only good for certain things. But when I opened my own shop, I had to do everything that walked in the door to pay the rent. One day it’s a reaper, one day it’s a portrait, tribal, Celtic, portrait, all this different crap—I had to make a living. Some of it I was good at, some of it I wasn’t, but I did the best job I could.

But I was always best at American traditional, the stuff I did at The Pike, and I got into a comfort zone where I could take that stuff and do my own thing with it, which was really hard for me to do with the Japanese-style stuff. I worked on Japanese stuff up until a couple years ago and I just stopped doing it, it was getting too far out of my reach.

BME: How long did it take you before you realized you wanted to make a career out of this?

BR: I knew right away, I just didn’t know if I could do it. Back then, working with these old timers, you didn’t know what went into mixing ink, you didn’t know anything. Eventually, they had me in there whenever I had a day off making needles, and all the other younger artists would get mad. “Well, how come they’re showing this fuckin’ guy this stuff?” They didn’t want to teach everybody that. If they saw you painting flash? They’d look at you like, “What the fuck are you doing this for? We’ve got all the designs you need. What, are you thinking about opening a shop down the street?” Oh, they were serious! You’d ask them about mixing colors and they’d tell you, “You don’t need to know that. What, you planning on opening up? What do you need to know that for? We’ve got everything for you right here.” That’s how it was.

Somebody comes in and goes, “Oh, I want this custom—” and they’d stop them right there. They didn’t draw nothin’! If it wasn’t on the wall, they didn’t get it. They’d fire you if they saw you doing it, because they didn’t give a fuck about anything like that. If you sat there and drew for half an hour, all they saw was $200 walking out the door. If you wanted to put something custom in, you went and drew it at home, and then you had the client come back. You didn’t fuck around. Names, that’s the only thing you drew on, and you just picked up a pen and went, “Jane. J-A-N-E.” Twenty seconds. Five bucks. There was none of this fancy stuff The cheapest thing was a name, and then you’d have Hot Stuff for $12.50, eagles would start at $17.50—see, Todd said if you put the 50 cents on there, you’d get tips, he worked it all out—and go up to $36.50. I think the biggest thing they had was a peacock with grapes, and that was the most expensive tattoo, which was $101.50. We shaved their arms with straightedge razors—that’s how you could tell the men from the boys. The boys would all use their fuckin’ safety razors. If you used a safety razor at The Pike, they’d fuckin’ throw you out of there! You couldn’t fuck around with that. That took too long. Then you’d put Vaseline on their arm, and then you had an Acetate stencil that you’d use black charcoal powder on. You’d smooth it out and touch that onto their arm, and the powder would stick to the Vaseline. You had to work your way from the bottom up so you didn’t wipe the stencil off.

BME: So when you’re looking at a tattoo, whether it’s one that you’ve done or one by someone else, what makes you think, “Now that’s a good tattoo”?

BR: If it’s done right, man. First I look at the design, then I look at application, then I look at if the artist has overdone it or underdone it or done just enough. You don’t have to fuckin’ add 50 million extra rows of rosettes—no superfluous flummery, no extra bullshit. It just takes away from it.

BME: Do you feel like a lot of people overdo it these days?

BR: Yeah. The New School got all fucked up, man. They make it all limp and add all that extra shit in there—who needs it? I don’t like it. It just takes away. You’re working by the hour so you just go, “Hey, let’s add another two hours on there.” For what? For nothing. Doesn’t look good, doesn’t work.

BME: Do you think artists’ approaches have changed from when you started?

BR: People ask me stuff like that about “then and now” and where stuff is going and what do I think the new thing is going to be, but there’s something people don’t realize. If you’re a photographer, the important thing is what you’re taking a picture of, not you—if I want to be an artist, I can go buy brushes and I can go buy paper and make art. But, if I want to be a tattoo artist and nobody’s coming to get a tattoo from me, I’m not a tattoo artist. So, the future and where things are going and the approach, it’s not up to us, man. We’re secondary. The important thing is the person getting the tattoo, not me. Where’s it going? It’s going where they want it to go!

If we draw all the traditional stuff that we like and we think, “Hey, this is the shit, man!” and nobody wants it, it’s worthless. It’s taken this amount of time for people to realize that that stuff [traditional tattoos] is really what it’s all about. It’s gone all the way around with all this other garbage, and now it’s come back to where people starting to recognize that stuff again. But still, the bottom line is, somebody wants Celtic on their arm, somebody wants tribal, they should have it. They want some fucked up New School thing with 80 million colors, they should have it. I can’t tell somebody what they should get and what they shouldn’t get. I can tell them what I’m gonna do and what my capabilities are, and if you want to fuck your arm up you’ve got every right to fuck it up, but it ain’t gonna get fucked up in my place.

BME: When have you refused to do a tattoo?

BR: When I didn’t like the drawing, if I thought it was boring. I’ve had a lot of people who’ve stayed up for three days on speed and did this fuckin’ drawing they want to use to cover up five tattoos, some big fucked up treble clef, and they come in and say, “OK, here’s what I want,” like I’m a fuckin’ secretary and I’m taking dictation over here. And I go, “OK, why don’t you let me redraw this, I’ll fix it up so it looks right,” and I get, “Oh no no no, I want it just like this.” And I go, “You know what, you should have it just like you want it, and I’ll tell you what, there are five more shops down the street and you should go down there.” “Oh no,” they say, “but I want you to do it.” I say, “Well, I’m not gonna do it like this.” And I’ve had a lot of people walk out really mad at me. I’ve gotten in fights and all kinds of shit about it, but usually they come back and they thank me a couple of years later.

You’ve gotta know what to say to people, man. You can go up on Hollywood Boulevard where they’re all “experts” on every style under the sun—they’re “experts”! And once you pay them, they don’t give a flat fuck what you’ve got on your arm. They’ll sit you down, take your money and just fuck you up.

BME: So you think it should be the artist’s job to talk someone out of a design?

BR: Well, sure it should. Half these artists don’t give a fuck. Everybody’s getting tattooed now, and half of these people, they don’t give a fuck, so they go to artists that don’t give a fuck. Then, eight years later, they walk into a shop and they see what a good tattoo looks like, and they didn’t even realize they had a bunch of garbage on them. It’s sad, man, the way these people think. You go to the gas station and you get gas, you go to any liquor store and you get a pack of Camels—well, here’s a tattoo shop, you should be able to get a tattoo here! And all they’re doing is gettin’ fucked up. They got all these health department regulations and this kinda regulation and that kinda regulation—you have to be more than 150 yards away from a school and all this stuff—but on the other hand, they let some fuckin’ horrible artists just sit there and make money. That’s the sad part: so many people innocently walk in, and it ain’t rocket science, but I’ve seen just horrible stuff.

BME: What do you make of more and more young people are getting their hands and necks and faces tattooed without having substantial work done on the rest of their bodies first?

BR: Well, that’s the way it was a long time ago, but now you can’t control it. You’re an idiot if you try to, because they’re gonna get it. But on the positive side, you look around now and, Jesus, there are just so many really good artists. The degree of workmanship has just exploded in the last 10 years. There are guys who’ve been tattooing for three years and their stuff is just absolutely beautiful—a whole lot better than I probably will ever be.

BME: Do you like the convention atmosphere?

BR: Yeah, I like conventions…as long as I don’t have to work them, I like them. [Laughs] I just bring my prints and sell those. I worked at conventions for years and years and years, and then I wouldn’t do it for a while and then I’d go work at one and I’d get home and think, “Christ, what the fuck am I doing this for?” I’d work at all these conventions and I didn’t even have the money to go to them, so I had to go there and work the whole fuckin’ time. Plus, they wanna set me up in a phone booth, shine some real bright lights in my face and go, “Alright, Bob, now play us some hot jazz.” Or, “I got a spot left for Bob Roberts, I’ve been saving it just for you, right on my ass here,” the worst skin in the fuckin’ world, about the size of a postage stamp, so I’m gonna stand on my head at ten-thirty in the fuckin’ morning with a hangover and tattoo this guy on his ass because I promised him I would do it and I forgot to ask where he wanted it.

BME: Does it bother you when people want a tattoo from you just because you’re “Bob Roberts”? They’ve never seen your portfolio, they don’t know your work, but they know you’re Bob Roberts and they want a Bob Roberts tattoo.

BR: Nah, that doesn’t bother me. If they’ve got nice legs especially, it doesn’t bother me. [Laughs] I’m just like anybody else. I have to make a living. Some of these guys get so opinionated, smelling their own fuckin’ shit and backing themselves so far into a corner they can’t see their own asses—”I don’t like this” and “That’s no good,” “No blood and guts,” you censor yourself so much that you can’t swing your own fuckin’ ax. Like I said, I used to have to do everything. Now? I’ve got six other guys in there. If I think somebody can do it better than me, I’ll give it to them. People will come out of my shop with the best tattoo they can get, I don’t give a fuck who does it. Spotlight’s full of good people, and some of the worst work I ever did was when I was working by myself. Now? I’ve got hell-hounds on my chairs. I got these young fucks in there like Norm and Grant and Bryan Burke, and these guys are fuckin’ fantastic. I feel like I’m dying out over here! Throw me a fuckin’ lifesaver, you know? But it’s great, because this way I don’t have to do the stuff I don’t want to.

BME: How often do you tattoo these days?

BR: I’m down to three days a week now—down from six days a week, 14 hours a day. Now I do three days, and I can do one or two tattoos a day.

BME: And when you bring a new artist into Spotlight, what do you look for?

BR: Well, first thing, I look at their photo book, and if the guy’s got a pretty good selection, he’s good at a lot of different styles, I’ll give the guy a job. But then I’ll tell him, “You’ve gotta be more than good to be here. You can’t be a shithead, either.” The work may look good, but if he doesn’t fit in, he’s not gonna stay here. I don’t like firing anybody, but I tell them, “If you’ve got a problem with it now, there’s the door. Leave, pack your stuff and we’ll still be friends, because if I have to fire you…”

BME: Have you had many unceremonious firings over the years?

BR: Yeah. I just had to get rid of a really good artist who I found out was stealing from me. I treat my guys pretty good, man. I give them a good percentage and all that, and this guy was really a fuck. He’s lucky he just got fired. Fifteen years ago I’d have cut his fuckin’ thumbs off.

BME: What do you think of the nostalgia for the era when tattooing still seemed more “dangerous,” when it was still underground and illegal in New York and other places?

BR: I’ll tell you what, man, of all the things in New York City when I was there…you’d have a 24-hour Go Put Your Money Through A Hole And Take Your Dope spot with lines down the street and they didn’t do anything about that, but with tattooing, the minute it became illegal, nobody wanted to do it there. When I was there, there was me, there was Bruce Martin (who didn’t really do much tattooing), there was a guy named Don Singer who maybe put one on occasionally, there was Tom Devita…and that’s about all I can think of. There might have been some others—there was Mike Perfetto in Brooklyn, but he wasn’t right in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, I can’t remember if it was legal or illegal. But I mean, nobody ever bothered me. Of all the things that were illegal that went on in New York City, I mean, you could get your dick sucked down around the block for five bucks every day. You could get six girls if you wanted to spend $30 and pay five bucks a blow job, one right after the other. I’m not kiddin’, man. Nobody bothered these people, this stuff just went on. Whatever you did in your loft in New York City, if nobody complained, they didn’t bother you. And even if somebody did complain, if you weren’t chopping people’s arms off and grinding ‘em up into little bits—if there were no blood stains or torsos, the police just left you alone. I don’t know how it is now, but that’s the way it was then. So as far as any nostalgia, I don’t think there was enough of it going on then [for there to be real nostalgia].

BME: So it’s a kind of manufactured nostalgia?

BR: I think so, man. But hey, over the years, I got to be an opinionated kinda fuck, you know? And that sort of thing doesn’t matter. Like I say, the bottom line is, people put importance in tattoo artists and guys that have been around a long time, and now there are more good artists than there have ever been—they’re state of the art, they’re flying out of the roof—but still, it comes down to what people are gonna get. That’s the most important thing. Without them, we ain’t tattoo artists. You see these lovely young girls who don’t even look like they’re old enough to get in the shop and they’ve got a neck tattoo, they’ve got the back of their hand, they’ve got a dagger down the front of their chest and a skull that’s eroded and burned and spider webs—the girl’s 19 years old, for Christ’s sake. I take my hat off to them. If anybody came to me when I was 18 or 19 and said, “Hey, come on Bob, we’re gonna go to the tattoo shop and get great big fuckin’ daggers from our necks to our belly buttons,” that sort of thing was nonexistent.

BME: It’s funny, because it’s not uncommon to hear people take that as a sign of younger people being too impetuous and not thinking things through.

BR: No, listen, they’ve thought it through. It’s a saving grace. It dictates what you’re gonna be able to do in your life. God, if you get a bunch of fuckin’ tattoos like that, you’ll never be able to work in a bank, you’ll never be able to work for the FBI, and maybe people think, “Well, good, maybe that’s what I should do, then. It might save me from destroying myself.” And it does. It changes the way you look at yourself and it changes the way everybody else looks at you and reacts to you for the rest of your life.

BME: For better or worse.

BR: But see, for you guys it’s commonplace now. I remember when I got this tattoo on my forearm, what, 39 years ago? After, I went to see some friends of mine, and they were scared to fuckin’ look at me. I’m not kidding. They were genuinely fuckin’ scared of it. It wasn’t like it is now—it wasn’t popular. People didn’t do that, not the crowd of people I hung around with. They didn’t get tattoos, especially not big fuckin’ skulls on their arms.

BME: What kind of people were you friends with back then?

BR: Well, I was a hippie, and this was sort of when I was making the transition from hippie to being a musician and thinking about doing tattoos. Actually, I’d been a musician for a while and I couldn’t support myself. I always wanted tattoos and I was thinking about learning how to be a tattoo artist, toying with that idea, but also, I was just getting into getting tattooed back then. I had to think about it for a long time. The first tattoo I got was in downtown L.A., and I was working for my dad and there was a tattoo shop around there, and I just drove by the place every day for two weeks, say to myself, “There’s the tattoo shop, gonna go in?” And I’d just keep driving. It got to where I’d go to bed at night and I couldn’t sleep because I wanted a tattoo so bad, but I was afraid to get it. So finally I snuck over there when my dad couldn’t see me and I got three dots on my leg—75 cents. I never knew I’d have this many tattoos or that it’d be my profession for life or any of it. I think it came after me more than I went after trying to be a tattoo artist. I put forth all that energy trying to get machines and all that, but I didn’t really think of it as a learning experience. I was cocky. I’d go into shops and go, “Well, I can draw better than that.” And I could. Just give me a machine, you know? Just give me some guns and some ink.

Every day though, I thank my lucky stars that I broke in with Bob Shaw, Col. Todd—that foundation has helped me through it all. People who don’t get to break in at a shop like that, where they don’t get to learn how to shade a panther, they don’t learn how to do a pair of Harley wings, they don’t have that foundation, I can see it in their work that they don’t know how to do that stuff. Or they fuckin’ New School it all up, just make it a bunch of limp fuckin’ crap and I look at it and say, “Oh, I see…can you do a real one?” [Laughs]

BME: Who are some of your favorite artists right now?

BR: Well, my son Charlie for one. All the guys at Spotlight, Bryan and Steve and Norm, I love Bert Krak and Steve Boltz, Richard Stell, Tim Hendricks, Jack Rudy…

BME: And with how popular tattooing has gotten, do you think it’s going to stay or come and go in waves?

BR: I thought it was gonna be done 15 fuckin’ years ago. “Look at this, it’s gotta go downhill, it’s peaked out.”

BME: Could you have ever imagined there’d be a time with television shows about tattooing?

BR: No. Hey, listen, when I started out, I couldn’t even imagine that there’d be tattoo magazines. Now you can go to the newsstand and pick up five magazines and you’ve got a global view of what’s going on at this very moment. Me, if I wanted to find a fuckin’ dragon, I went to the library for eight hours and then went to the 25-cent Xerox machine, copied a dragon and traced it and made sure nobody was looking at me.

I remember I used to ride my motorcycle cross-country every year and I used to like to stop in the small towns where they had that good old country home cookin’, and I’d ride up on my bike and everyone would be scared of me—within 10 minutes I’d see the local sheriff—and they didn’t bother me, but they just wanted to make sure I was just getting something to eat and getting gas and was going to keep going. [Laughs] Now, I haven’t done it in a while, but the last few times I did it, I stopped in the same places and now the waitresses would say, “Oh, those are great tattoos!” They’d get the busboys and the dishwashers and everybody would be out front showing off their tattoos—this is in the very same towns! It’s everywhere. Every little town across the United States has a tattoo shop now.

BME: Is that a positive thing, though? Or do you think they should weed out some of the lesser shops?

BR: Well, that’s what we were saying, the health departments want to make sure everything’s sterile, you got a foot pedal and hot water and sinks and you wash everything down with hydrochloric acid and all that crap, but I’ve seen shops that were absolutely immaculate, you could eat off the fuckin’ floor, all the best equipment, all the expensive shit, everything’s wrapped in prophylactics, and they have the shittiest fuckin’ artists in the world. They don’t govern that. It’s art, who says it’s good or bad? Somebody might like what this guy does, but to me it’s absolute fucking garbage. The guy should have his fuckin’ thumbs cut off, at least. But they don’t regulate that, and that’s what needs to be regulated. Look how many unfortunate people in all good faith walk into some of these shops and throw their money down, and they’re getting fucked up and having their money taken from them. And there are a lot of them.

BME: You’d think with as many good artists as there are now, the worse ones will be exposed eventually.

BR: They don’t care, man. Like I said, they’re going in to get a pack of cigarettes. That’s what it is to them. They don’t know about all that stuff. It’s always been that way. I’ve known guys—who will remain nameless—who’ve been tattooing for 47 years that are just terrible. That’s all they’ll ever be, just sitting there and fuckin’ people up forever. But they’re people you’ve never heard of. Most people that you’ve heard of, that have been around…I just saw Maurice [Lynch] was in here, a lot of people don’t know who that is. That’s Tahiti Felix’s son, who just turned 75, and when I worked in Santa Ana, I used to see his Felix’s Marine Corps stuff come through, and it’s still ingrained in my brain. The first eagle, globe and anchor I saw—I’d seen work at The Pike and all they did there, but I’d never seen too much other work that I thought was good. I just remember seeing this guy’s arm, this was 38 years ago, and it’s as plain in my mind as if I saw it yesterday. That’s all those guys did. They don’t try to invent nothing, they don’t try to get out of the realm of their own shops, they just did good, simple tattoos—and a lot of them. Not because it was cool, not because they thought something looked like a good gimmick, they just did it. There was no reason. They were there, and that’s what they did. And guys like Bob Shaw and Col. Todd, they were just pure-hearted tattoo artists, there were no lines about how this is cool or trendy or fashionable or anything else. They just did it, man.

You’d see this for years, man, breaking in at The Pike? Guys just came in and did this stuff. Sailor Jerry just did it. They weren’t on T.V. Journalists? People like you? They’d throw them out. “Hey, wanna be in the paper?” “No, just get the fuck outta here.” They didn’t want to have anything to do with it. People get into it now and they have a lot of pride, a lot of self-satisfaction. You get to be a big-shot, it’s cool, you make a living. But, some people? Some people were just thrown on the ground and they fell down a hole and that’s where they are. They’re never gonna be anything else.

Visit Bob and his crew online at All paintings featured by Bob Roberts. All photos from Tattoo Hollywood by Phil Barbosa and Thaddeus Brown.

Markus Cuff’s Got a Head Start

© Markus Cuff Photo 2009

Markus Cuff has been cooperative so far, but now he’s stiff-arming me. We’ve been on the phone for a good half-hour or so, having a perfectly pleasant conversation about his 15 years as one of the top photographers at Tattoo magazine, and now this? He gives me the high-hat over a harmless, standard interview question?

“How old are you?” I ask with my typical childlike sweetness and wonder.

“I’m, uh….” He stops himself short. What have you got to hide, Cuff? “I’m 103,” he finally says. “My age is a closely guarded secret.”

“You can be vague,” I tell him. “Just say you’re ‘something-ish.’”

“‘Something-ish,’” he repeats, and pauses again. “A hundred and three.”

Whatever, wise guy. I’m only asking because his story makes it seem like he’s lived through (and contributed to) a number of seminal cultural moments, and these life experiences just seem a little incongruous with his lively, almost boyish voice. But, sure…103.

What he tells me is by the time he got around to photography, he already felt like he was late to the game. If he’d started in earnest as a teenager, he could have been going to concerts and shooting bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream, guys like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and maybe he could published a retrospective book by now, making money off portraits of rock gods. He saw others go that route, but while his potential peers were chasing fame as photographers, Cuff, the boy from suburban Maryland, home of Link Wray, took a detour and made a name for himself as a musician instead. He spent two years handling the drum kit for Emmylou Harris’s band, touring and playing on her Pieces of the Sky album. Some time in the late seventies/early eighties, he moved to Los Angeles and ended up playing in The Textones with Carla Olson and Kathy Valentine (the latter of whom would go on to join The Go-Gos), hitting the L.A. club circuit with bands like X and The Blasters.

It was there in L.A., though, that he made friends with some kids who were taking photo classes at Santa Monica College, and Cuff, who had once long ago learned how to develop prints from black and white film, felt that old passion start to warm. “I looked at their work,” he says, “and thought, ‘Damn! I know I could do as well as that! I think I’m a lot more artistic than these people!’ And I think it just sort of clicked with me—no pun intended.”

As a teenager in Maryland, Cuff would spend a lot of time in D.C.’s cultural institutions—the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian, the Freer Gallery of Art—that allowed visitors in gratis. He developed a taste for Hokusai woodcuts and other Asian-style pieces, but more generally developed and nurtured an inclination towards the visual arts—an inclination that would lie dormant during his musical excursions, that is, until he joined his friends at SMC, where he excelled. He got a lot of A’s. He immersed himself in photography. He sorted out his influences: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Robert Frank and Walker Evans, and, of course, the master as far as he’s concerned, Irving Penn, who he calls a “dynamo of photography.”

“I don’t think anyone’s ever been as versatile as he is,” he says of Penn, who’s shot everything from portraiture and fashion to cosmetic ads and the “mud men of New Guinea.”

None of this should come as a surprise. A young, eager photographer falling in love with the classical beacons of the art form? Sure, and next you’ll tell me there are freshman philosophers with things for Freud. But what happened next was Cuff, instead of shooting tulips and teapots, got picked up in 1990 by the magazine Easyriders and started photographing motorcycles. “That was fine with me,” he says. “I needed a job.”

Mike Rubendall / © Cuff

Except it was luckier than that. When he wasn’t hanging out at galleries or playing drums in his younger days, he was going to car shows, reading hotrod magazines and trying to copy the custom car designs of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on white T-shirts with felt-tip pens. He had experience dealing with insular communities of people who liked to go fast—motorcycles were a breeze. But Easyriders didn’t just traffic in bikes; their roster of magazines also included Tattoo and its sister publications, Flash and Savage. In 1994, Billy Tinney, the editor-in-chief and senior photographer for Tattoo, tapped him for a special assignment: To start shooting profiles of tattoo shops in Los Angeles for the magazine. It was an era, Cuff says, when tattooing was still somewhat underground. “This was before you were seeing [tattoos] on every basketball player, every football player,” he tells me, “and way before things like Ed Hardy shirts and Affliction.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is mighty…niche. I wonder where this could ever go?’”

Cuff’s first assignment was to shoot Greg James and the crew at Sunset Strip Tattoo, or, as he describes it, “baptism by fire.” He was accompanied by two other editors under the Tattoo umbrella, Frenchie Nilsen and Dave Nichols, to make sure he knew what he was doing and that he was the guy for whom they were looking. Sure enough, he didn’t freak out or soil himself or anything of the sort. And the tattoo artists? Well, they took to him quickly, too, he says. But I’m not buying it. If he’s not going to tell me his goddamn age, I figure the least he can do is give me some dirt about the vicious hazing he must have faced at the hands of these old school bad-asses…except he doesn’t budge. “I’m kind of a get-along guy,” he says with such sincere cheer that I know it has to be the truth. It’s becoming apparent that this is a guy who trades in gaining access to the famously inaccessible, and that’s the sort of station that requires either authenticity of personality or a high tolerance for fakery. After nearly two decades behind the lens, though, it strikes me that the latter would be too exhausting to cling to.

With Sunset Strip Tattoo in the can, Cuff was anointed “the local guy.” He hit shops all over the city, photographing their interiors, exteriors, staff and clients, building records for each. There are only so many local shops to cover over a year’s worth of issues, though, let alone four or five years’ worth, so the magazine started sending him on the road, first to San Francisco and San Diego and Santa Barbara, and eventually to Phoenix and Portland, New York City and Boston, Hawaii and Tahiti. He learned as he went along, though he still says he wouldn’t consider himself an expert. When he went to Tahiti, he picked up a book about the history of tattooing on the island and, when taking refuge from the heat, read about the English and Russian explorers who came to the island and left with tattoos, only to be gawked at back home like circus animals. It’s in these more “exotic” locales that he typically feels more compelled to educate himself about the culture. “The more literal kind of old school, classic American-style tattoo is a little more understandable,” he says. “It has symbolism, but it’s something you grow up with. You see someone walking by with a sailor-style tattoo and you don’t think it’s that strange. With the island tattooing, I felt like I had to study it a bit more.”

The Dutchman / © Cuff 2009

One of his greater thrills was getting the chance to photograph The Dutchman and his Dutchman Tattoos Studio and Gallery in Burnaby, British Columbia, a few years ago—partially due to admiration, but also because no one had photographed the artist in years. “He pointed to an old article on the wall,” Cuff says of The Dutchman, “and said, ‘See? We’ve been done before.’ And it was from the ’80s! I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

But some of his favorite studios are back on the mainland. He raves about Mike Rubendall’s Kings Avenue Tattoo in Massapequa, New York, to which he’s made several professional visits. “The level of the artistry is just so high,” he says. “There’s never one image that comes in front of my lens where I think, ‘Oh no, how am I going to do this?’ or, ‘I’m going to delete this after I leave.’ Because that does happen.” One of Cuff’s biggest pet peeves when shooting clients’ tattoos is going home afterward, looking at the images on his computer, and realizing that someone has tried to sneak a cover-up past him.

“All power to those who can do cover-ups,” he says, “but for me it doesn’t work. I see something underneath the other image and it bothers me, especially nobody’s told me it was a cover-up.”

At this point, he’s got shop-shooting down to a science. Shops are approached far enough in advance to allow time for the artists to contact clients to come in and be photographed, and once shows up and sets up his lights, it’s all business, blowing through an average of 25 clients a day, in addition to any supplementary photos of the shop itself and staff. There are no assistants, no make-up artists, no hair dressers, so part of his success and peace of mind can hinge on the cooperation of his subjects, some of whom, he says, go above and beyond. It’s not uncommon for shops to assign counter staff to handle photo releases and other paperwork and to supply him with coffee and muffins. Beyond that, though, the ingredients for a great photo shoot are somewhat expected. “Some hot girls are always fun,” he says. “It’s always great when you see someone who has it all together. Great makeup, hair, cool clothes…it’s a great feeling and makes my job pretty easy.”

Most shops, he says, have had a convivial atmosphere during shoots, but there have been exceptions. Occasionally, he’s had shoots where he’ll take a staff photo early in the morning, and then need to take another one in the evening—because someone was fired or quit during the day. “That’s not a horrible thing for me,” he says, “but it definitely makes you think, ‘Hey, there’s some drama going on around here.’”

All of this—the travel, the education, the meetings and greetings and inside baseball—and yet, Cuff himself does not have a single tattoo of his own. Sure, he has his reasons—he’s very light-skinned and prefers long-sleeved shirts, so he wouldn’t ever show one off; he doesn’t work out assiduously and isn’t going to be flexing in the weight room with a pinup girl on his biceps—but he largely abstains because he considers himself a sort of cultural anthropologist in the tattoo world. “I’ve dropped in via photography,” he says, “and I’m documenting a world. I don’t necessarily have to participate actively to document it well.” He analogizes the fact that he doesn’t have tattoos to the common phenomenon of great fashion photographers who neither (1) dress well nor (2) walk the runway. “The idea that you have to be a motorcycle rider to shoot motorcycles,” he says, “or a tattooed person to shoot tattoos is kind of a holdover idea from the ’50s and ’60s, when the tattoo and motorcycle cultures were so underground that the only people who were interested in capturing them were from those worlds.” When Easyriders came around, however, Cuff’s focus wasn’t on becoming a biker: It was on becoming a great photographer. “I’m a beauty fiend,” he admits. “I’m not trying to expose an underbelly, and I’m not trying to get at somebody and expose their weaknesses. I’m just trying to document things in the most beautiful and flattering way I can.”

Justin Weatherholz / © Cuff 2008

Following Cuff’s immersion into the world of tattoos, however, he’s experienced a dilemma all too common to the heavily tattooed: a relative lack of mainstream acceptance. Some photographers are able to stack their portfolios with tattoo imagery, he says, “but I don’t think if I sent in my portfolio of images and they were all loaded in that direction that I could get a job with a mainstream ad agency.” He’s approached gallery owners in Los Angeles about potential gallery showings, and has frequently been told of the catch-22 inherent in this sort of work: the people who are more likely to enjoy his work are the least likely to buy it. “It speaks to a certain crowd,” he says of tattoo imagery, “and it’s largely a younger audience, who, in general, is trying to pay their rent, trying to feed themselves, and they don’t have the kind of disposable income an older, moneyed crowd has. So if I print an image fairly large and I mount it and I matte it and frame it and I charge ‘X’ amount of money, it’s something that’s going to appeal to an older audience as far as the quality and presentation, but it’s something that a younger audience is more likely to buy…if they could afford it.”

It’s a tough spot, he admits—all the more reason to not allow himself to get stuck in one niche. As a photographer, he’d love it if people looked at his tattoo work and, in that, saw someone talented enough to do fashion or advertising, or looked at his motorcycle shots and entrusted him with a car campaign. It’s a conundrum for the photographer who worships the versatility of an Irving Penn, yet maintains, “I don’t necessarily want to sell out, I don’t necessarily want to be watered down.” The common thread through all his work, he says, is that he seeks imagery with an edge—work that speaks to what he calls a “knowing audience.” The sort of thing that can be off-putting to people in the “straight world.”

And sure enough, he has branched out: Within his portfolio is his “Wasteland” series, which focuses on broken down, dilapidated rural scenes (with some shots of Hank Williams III included for good measure), as well as some of the live concert photography he missed out on in those early days. “It’s like big-game hunting,” he says of shooting concerts. “You’ve got three songs at the front of a concert. That’s all. You get the thing in your sights and you get it…or you ain’t gonna get it.

“There’s an adrenaline rush when Madonna jumps out on stage; you’ve gotta get a charge out of what you do.”

Nonetheless, he still feels like he’s hustling to catch up and build his body of work. “It’s almost like their classic rock photography is my classic tattoo imagery,” he says of those who jumped on the photography train ahead of him, the artists close to him in age—whatever that is. “Maybe if I live to be 100,” he says, laughing, “there’ll be a retrospective.”

Wait…100? What the hell happened to 103?

Dawn Purnell / © Markus Cuff photo 2008

Visit Markus online at

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BME’s Big Question #8: Regulation Time

Welcome to BME’s Big Question! In this feature, we ask a handful of the community’s best and brightest piercers, tattooists, heavy mod practitioners and shop owners for their opinion on one question or issue that’s affecting the body modification community. Many, many thanks to all of the contributors.

If you’d like to be a part of future editions, or if you have an idea for an issue or question you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail me.

This week’s topic:

Do you support government regulation of body modification practices? And if/when there were to be regulation, do you think that tattoos/piercing/scarification/etc. should all be under the umbrella of “body modification,” or would you rather they be kept fundamentally separate in the eyes of the law?

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Joy Rumore
I would theoretically support regulation for the sake of client and practitioner safety, but realistically it would be a NIGHTMARE.

It’s hard enough to find doctors that don’t panic at the first sign of a healing tattoo or piercing, let alone those who would be willing to stand up to their peers and condone body modification publicly and THEN be willing to create and support regulations for the industries.

Even if all that did happen, there are the hurdles of politicians and PTA mothers to clear, as well. Or am I being too pessimistic?

Tracy Baer
My guess is that you’re being realistic, Joy. And pessimistic or not, the politicians and PTA mothers are the hurdles that would be the hardest to clear. Well worth the effort, but still a tricky one.

The rules and regulations on tattooing have caused our industry to improve in countless ways just in the last decade. Ever tightening boundaries on what is considered safe and sane in the world of tattooing has caused those of us who tattoo for a career to improve and adapt. In my opinion, those changes have been for the good.

Long gone are the days of tattoos only being for “sailors and whores.” Don’t get me wrong, I still tattoo my fair share of both groups…but, we see a wide mix of people on a daily basis. Church ladies share a couch in the waiting room with gangster rappers while waiting for us to finish tattooing the cop. The surgeon on his day off stops in for a consult on his back piece, while the renegade biker brings his daughter for her first piercing.

And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.

There have been many changes I’ve grumbled about over the years, but in reality, it’s the things I’ve grumbled about that have caused my chosen career to become widely accessible to all of those groups, and more. You learn to work around the ones you don’t care for…and find, for the most part, a better way.

John Joyce
I would support regulations if they were made with the support of people in our industry. Too often bureaucrats and health department officials write up the regulations without getting any input from someone in our field. The health inspectors that inspect studios in most places are used to inspecting restaurants. They don’t really know what they are looking for in a tattoo/piercing studio.

California right now is in the process of writing regulations. They met in a few different cities with piercers, tattoo artists, the APP was represented by Steve Joyner, and that is how I feel it should be. That way you are getting regulations that make sense.

Meg Barber
Well said, Tracy.

The idea of regulating the things we do is a double-edged sword. On one hand, rules and guidelines set up and ENFORCED are a wonderful thing, but only when the rules and guidelines are created with input from the practitioners who are professional and on top of their game. I have worked in shops in the past that were about as dirty and unethical as it gets (this was over 10 years ago), but the owner tattooed a health board member and got to make up the rules—that is TERRIBLE. That’s why the autoclave area was also a break room.

Other cities get it right though. In Philadelphia, if I am not mistaken, shops must use internally threaded jewelry for initial piercings. They hit gold when they got Bill Funk to help write legislation.

Of course, the downside to responsible legislation is that it sometimes harnesses what we can do as far as more extreme procedures. The law tends to frown on scalpels, biopsy punches, anesthetics and the like. It’s a cross we have to bear, I suppose: Do we operate within the laws designed to protect the public from the stupidity of people who don’t know what they are doing, or do we break the law because we are responsible and know how to use the tools we aren’t supposed to be using?

If legislation were to go into effect that really, truly protected people—the outlawing of ear piercing guns, the requirement of weekly spore testing for all autoclaves and statims, mandatory bloodborne pathogen training, etc.—then that would be the right start, in my opinion.

John Joyce
Where I live and operate my studio, there are no regulations—other than the state law of not tattooing anyone under 18 or who is intoxicated. I’ve been open for eight years, and worked in this area for almost four years before that. In 12 years, I’ve never seen an inspector, or even heard of one inspecting any studio around here.

I would love to work with the health department or whoever, to set at least a minimum set of guidelines that all studios have to follow. Walk into most studios around here and ask them what a spore test is and when the last time they ran one was? You’ll get blank stares.

Meg Barber
John, being in NY as well, we have NO inspections. We have to hang a sign up that says if you are unhappy or have a complaint, dial 311.

In NYC, where we are, it’s worse than the usual statewide ignorance, I think. There are sunglass vendors doing piercings at sidewalk stands for $30, jewelry included, no age limit. We hear horror stories all the time of the St. Marks piercers doing 14-year-old kids’ nipples and stuff.

Tattoo artists are required to register with the city, get a license, etc., but piercing is totally and completely unregulated. It’s terrifying.

Tracy Baer
I like to think if I were in an area with absolutely no regulations, I would run, not walk, to the powers that be and get started with some input. With a quickness.

This in NO WAY is meant to cause a fuss, or to point fingers, but it’s easier to complain about the lack of (or problems with) regulations if you have no intention of trying to be involved. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but in most cases there should be a chain of command to follow that will lead you to a meeting or an individual with whom you can voice your concerns.

John Joyce
I’ve contacted the health department in the past and was told there was nothing they could do because they just didn’t have the money.

I’ve even had clients tell me that they had called the health department on other studios after having work done there, and were told the exact same thing.

Meg Barber
New York just doesn’t give a flying fig about it. They figure that the people can govern themselves, which is REALLY backwards considering that tattooing was illegal here until very recently because of the health problems associated with dirty tattooing. That’s why the licensing is in place, although from what I understand, it’s pretty useless. Our piercer at our other store has a tattooist license just so he can get wholesale pricing on piercing supplies through a few NYC–based companies.

Funding for such things is very limited here. It’s there for welfare programs and other things, but not there for the general health and welfare of people getting modified. If I was 16 and knocked up here, I’d get the best care, but if I get the hep from a dirty studio? Forget it.

John Joyce
NYC is a little different than the rest of the state. We don’t even have a tattoo licensing process here [in Syracuse]. Although, I have heard that the licensing process in NYC is set up more to make the city money than to actually benefit the general public.

Another big problem I’ve seen is areas that have good regulations in place don’t have the funds to enforce them. Look at Philadelphia. It has some of the best piercing regulations in the country. But, they aren’t enforced at all, and you can walk into any number of studios and get pierced with crap externally threaded jewelry, even though regulations say you can’t use that for an initial piercing.

Meg Barber
True. Money always seems to be best put to use on other programs. Giving everyone who smokes in your city the patch for free is more important I guess.

I asked Maria about the health inspections here in NYC. In 17 years, there has never been one, but about 10 years ago, someone with a fake badge came around and demanded $100 to do an inspection.

Have any of you actually worked with the health departments in your areas?

Derek Lowe
When I lived and pierced in Madison, Wisconsin (’96-’98), I worked closely with the state when they decided to set up statewide regulations. They formed a committee of three piercers, three tattoo artists, a doctor, a public health nurse, an epidemiologist and a few other people. They had a basic template when we started and then we worked on refining the regulations. For the most part it was a pleasant and productive process. The non-practitioners were respectful of what we had to say and in many cases took what we said about our specific industries very seriously. We ended up with what I felt was a decent set of regulations. Unfortunately, I left the state before those regulations went into effect. I can’t speak to how well they are, or aren’t, enforced.

Here in Minneapolis (and they are looking at going state-wide soon), we have a set of regulations that isn’t bad. There are definitely some things that could be improved. The regulations were created before I lived here, but it is my understanding that there was input from at least a few piercers and tattoo artists. Unfortunately, those regulations include bans on branding, scarification, implants and suspension.

I have worked with the Minneapolis health department a fair amount, but they seem to be in the position that most health departments are in: they don’t have the money to do any more than the bare minimum they are required by law. We get our once-a-year inspection (which is okay, but not fantastic) and we don’t see them again unless there is some sort of complaint.

I think the key to good regulations (which I support) is having knowledgeable, ethical practitioners involved in the process from the beginning. It’s much easier to get the regulations right the first time around than it is to try and get them to go back and change things once they are in place.

Steve Truitt
In New Mexico, the laws went statewide late last year—instead of just the city of Albuquerque, like they have been for the last 10 years or so. The laws were written with piercer and tattoo artist input, and there is a piercer and tattoo artist on the board that regulates us (Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists unfortunately).

We have some decent laws, like all shops have to pierce with implant grade jewelry, for example. However, they straight-up told us that they are not going to enforce the laws or shut down any shops that refuse to comply because then they couldn’t make any money off of that shops permits, etc.

It always comes down to money. Even if they didn’t enforce the laws and just sent out a letter or something pretending that they were going to, it might help make a lot of these shops clean up their acts or close down on their own. The stupidest thing they could have done is what they did by telling us that yeah, these are the laws, but they have no intentions of enforcing them because they want to make as much money as possible—and that means giving everyone with $300 a permit even if they don’t meet any of the “qualifications” that the board has set to get a permit in the first place.

John Joyce
I’ve heard that same story a lot—that basically, you send you city, county, or state some money to get a certificate and that is basically it. After that, there is no real enforcement.

I think it’s great that the stories some of you have shared involve meetings with piercers and tattoo artists to set the regulations up, but it doesn’t do any good if they aren’t enforced.

Derek Lowe
I’m not trying to make excuses for health departments or health inspectors that aren’t doing their jobs. I do think it’s important, though, to keep in mind that very few of the people involved in inspecting and enforcing piercing/tattoo regulations know anything about the industries to begin with. So, not only are they being asked to take on additional inspections, and probably for no additional pay, they are also expected to further their education regarding piercing and tattooing with very little, if any, resources (i.e., time and money) being provided by their health departments. Most inspectors are trained in inspecting restaurants, nursing homes, local fairs and possibly hospitals—not piercing and tattoo studios.

Clearly, continuing education is part of any job. Imagine, though, if someone came along and told you that you needed to become familiar with how to do a manicure or a pedicure. After all, those things involve the body just like piercing and tattooing…even though you have no interest in those things. Now, not only do you have to learn that stuff, but you aren’t going to be given any time or money to do it.

I don’t think it’s hard to imagine how much time and effort any of us would put into learning about those procedures.

Ryan Ouellette
I’m terrified of regulation. On the plus side, it would keep some crappy shops less crappy, but I’d be concerned with the state banning procedures they don’t understand. A few years back, New Hampshire tried to ban all piercing because some councilman’s daughter got an illegal piercing. So rather than just making stricter rules, they attempted to outright ban the entire practice. I would love to see responsible regulations in place, but not if it limits what procedures can be done. In the last few years, New Hampshire has actually lessened regulation due to budget restrictions. They can’t afford to inspect shops anymore, so basically everybody works off the honor system, and you can imagine how ridiculous that gets.

I’m sure every body art worker wants reasonable regulations. I don’t think the majority of health departments are educated enough to understand what it is they’re regulating and how best to do so. The double edged sword is that it’s often one individual’s personal opinion that decides what gets a regulation and what gets a ban.

John Joyce
Over-regulation is definitely a major concern, and the possibility of banning certain procedures is part of the reason I’m OK with the lack of regulations we have right now. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see some reasonable safety guidelines set in place. I think there should be checks at least twice a year to make sure at the very least studios are running regular spore tests.

Derek Lowe
“The double edged sword is that it’s oftentimes one individual’s personal opinion that chooses what gets a regulation and what gets a ban.”

That’s very much true. When I first moved to Minneapolis I was discussing the ban on suspension with the inspector who handles piecing and tattoo shops. I asked her why suspensions were banned and she responded with something along the lines of: “Someone brought in a tape of it for us to watch. Have you seen that stuff?! My God.”

Seems as though they were pretty freaked out by it and so they went the route of banning. I don’t think any of the piercers involved in the process were interested in suspension, so I don’t think they fought it very hard, if it all.

Jordan Ginsberg
Would you rather potential legislation be focused on “body modification,” as a catch-all for piercing, tattooing, scarification, implants, etc., or do you think those should all be treated as separate industries?

Derek Lowe
I think it makes sense for cities/states to address them at the same time, so maybe in that sense they should be grouped together. However, I think it’s important that each discipline be addressed individually to make sure the regulations make sense, are effective and are enforceable.

Tracy Baer
They should absolutely, without exception, be treated as separate industries.

Steve Truitt
The problem is, if they’re treated as separate industries, most people don’t know much about scarification, implants, etc., so if they have to go make separate laws about that instead of grouping it all under a body art law they will most likely just make it illegal.

There are enough piercers, tattoo artists, and mod practitioners together to make up a legitimate presence at a hearing to pass laws about those issues. If they break it up separately there are a lot fewer people in each category and that makes it easier for them to pass laws to regulate us out of business completely.

Most laws for public safety in a piercing, tattoo, mod studio apply to any form of modification as well, so separating them is more of a headache for law-makers, too, which makes them less likely to want to do that. It’s much easier for a lawyer, politician, etc., to say, “Make that illegal” than to say, “Make it legal, but make sure that anyone doing it is complying with this 30 page list of rules and regulations I’m going to draw up.”

John Joyce
I don’t see any problem with grouping them together. Like Steve said, it makes it less likely that they will just make certain things illegal. For the most part, a lot of the regulations would be the same anyway: age requirements, spore testing, autoclave logs, single-use sharps, sharps disposal, etc….

Tracy Baer
OK, maybe I’m talking in an ideal world that they should be separate.

Honestly though, how much in common does tattooing have with any of the things that you all are discussing? Aside from the fact that they both are a modification to the body and that these days they share a building.

Ryan Ouellette
I’m sure to all of us the difference between piercing and tattooing is like night and day. But, to someone outside of the industry, they aren’t going to care. They’re just all things that make their granddaughters look like whores.

Steve Truitt
Tattooing has plenty in common. Like John pointed out, autoclave usage, spore tests, use of gloves, using sterilized single-use needles, disposal of sharps, use of disinfectants, etc. I’d say about 90 percent of the laws in most places could go for any type of modification, and only about 10 percent are specific to any one form of it.

John Joyce
Exactly. There are going to be some specific laws for each, but the most important regulations are going to be pretty universal.

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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BME’s Big Question #7: Microdermals, The Universe and Everything

Welcome to BME’s Big Question! In this feature, we ask a handful of the community’s best and brightest piercers, tattooists, heavy mod practitioners and shop owners for their opinion on one question or issue that’s affecting the body modification community. Many, many thanks to all of the contributors.

If you’d like to be a part of future editions, or if you have an idea for an issue or question you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail me.

This week’s topic comes (and features follow-up questions) from Rachel Larratt:

“How do you guys feel about doing microdermals? Is it the same as a ‘regular’ piercing or different?”

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Meg Barber
I’ll step up to bat with this one.

I hate microdermals with a capital H. I think that while they do offer some possibilities that haven’t been seen before as far as placement and jewelry styles, they are problematic, hard to successfully heal for the long haul, and are just an all-around hassle.

I see a lot of them reject and leave pretty nasty scars, because most of the time the client isn’t looking at it on a regular basis (because of its weird placement) to see if anything is wrong with the piercing. I see a lot of them with massive piles of shmutz built up around them for the very same reasons.

People don’t tend to view them as “permanent” at all. It’s something to get done now, like an earlobe or nostril, and there is no forewarning about the issues that arise with them from most piercers.

When they started to get huge, I admit, we got on the bandwagon, but we have certainly backed off on our enthusiasm with them since watching issues arise. This past month, Vibe magazine had a blurb about microdermals in their fashion issue. It showed a piece on a girl’s side that we did, but what it didn’t show was me resetting that sucker back in there two weeks prior to the shoot because it had been shifting outwards.

I know that there are a lot of people gung-ho about them, and they can be fun, but I think they should be viewed much like surface work with a more permanent edge.

Ryan Ouellette
I was leaning towards a negative opinion of them a few months back, but then I started experimenting with longer stem lengths and now things are going a lot smoother. I’ve done about 250 of them over the last 18 months, I’d say the first 200 were 3/32″ rise, no matter the location. I was getting some tilting, and the occasional failure, but still maybe a 60-70 percent flat heal success rate. I think out of that initial 200 I personally removed maybe 15, and a few were cut out by other shops. Now with the 1/8″ and 5/32″ stems I haven’t had a single significant tilt or failure in about five months. The only ones I’ve taken out have been for work reasons, or people just not wanting them.

[Ed. note: Ryan adds, “I just checked my numbers on past microdermal orders and I’m under on my guess for how many I’ve done, but the success rates are still pretty accurate.”]

A big issue about them is removal. I’m the only shop in my area that takes them out without using a scalpel. I just use a needle and micro surgical hook to take them out without enlarging the stem hole at all. A lot of people are terrified of trying them because they think they have to get them cut out if they fail.

Overall I’m a big fan of them and I try to push people towards those over surface piercings for all nontraditional surface placements. With how easy they are for me to remove I don’t even refer to them as permanent. I just call them semi-permanent and offer future removal for free for any I’ve installed.

Rachel Larratt
Does anyone else offer free removal as standard practice with a microdermal?

Microdermal rejection scars look fairly extensive from the photos on BME. Do you suggest to clients the immediate removal at the first signs of rejection or do you generally try to reseat the microdermal?

In what situations have you refused to do a microdermal?

Ryan Ouellette
I’ve tried re-seating once or twice but now I think it’s just pointless. And I usually tell people that if they can see the foot through the surface and there is any redness it’s time to remove it before you get an ugly scar. But if I take them out early I get barely any scar at all.

I only refuse if the skin is too delicate to support the jewelry—areas like the inner wrist or high anti-eyebrows. Or areas where you get a lot of friction, like low hip placements.

John Joyce
I have a pretty high success rate with microdermals as well. In a lot of cases I think they are a much better option than surface piercings. However, I think it is the responsibility of the piercer as a professional to go over the risks and make sure the client understands them. A lot of people make a big deal out of their “permanence,” but honestly, removal isn’t that hard. Like Ryan said, they don’t need to be cut out with a scalpel, and a lot of the time I can remove them without even using a needle. Scarring really isn’t anything major with these and it’s a lot less than you would get with a rejecting surface bar.

The only area I’ve seen consistent problems with these is along the collar bones, especially more towards the shoulder. I won’t even do them in that area anymore. Most of the ones I take out now aren’t because of rejection, it’s because the person didn’t want them anymore, or, in most cases, it’s because they were done with inferior quality jewelry. I always remove them free of charge since it’s something the client can’t do themselves, and I don’t want them trying to.

I’ve done these in a lot of different areas. A lot of my friends, including my girlfriend, have some that are over two years old now. These are in places like the lower back, sternum, anti-eyebrow area and above and below a navel.

I have re-seated some that were not that old, and they healed up fine. I think this really only works if the piercing is still fairly new. Scarring keeps coming up, but honestly I haven’t seen any real scarring from these at all.

Meg Barber
I’ve had a 50/50 success rate with re-seating ones that are tilting; some work, some don’t. The areas I see the biggest problems are the back of the neck and cleavage, and the shoulder is a troublesome area as well, like John said.

We generally remove them for free, unless they were done elsewhere. I don’t cut them out either, just a little massage usually does the trick, although the feet with the big hole…those are a a lot tougher to remove, and sometimes need to be helped out with a needle. As for scarring, the worst I see tends to be on the rejecting nape placements. Lots of buildup with those, not pretty.

Are there any other placements you guys shy away from? We don’t do the thin-skinned areas Ryan mentioned, or hands or feet—too much trouble.

Steve Truitt
I do a lot of microdermals, and I also try to talk people into them instead of surface piercings when they come in for something like a sternum, anti-eyebrow, etc. I rarely take any out because of rejection—mostly I remove them because of issues at work/school, or the person just doesn’t want them anymore. I’d say from what I’ve seen we have about an 80 percent success rate with them.

I offer free removal if they were done at my shops, and sometimes even if they weren’t. There are a lot of shops around here that use the horrible ones made in Thailand/Korea/wherever it is that sell them for $1 or less. When educating people about them and why they aren’t working out for them, most of the time they understand what I’m saying and come back to get them done with the proper jewelry in them, so when it seems like a situation like that, I don’t charge for the removal.

When I remove them, I just massage the tissue until the heel can pop out, then pull them out. Sometimes I have to slide a needle underneath them to cut through the scar tissue that grows through the holes, but that’s only about 50 percent of the time. I’ve seen some scarring, but normally less than from surface piercings or other rejecting piercings.

If someone wants to keep the microdermal when it seems to be rejecting I’ll try re-seating them if there isn’t a lot of scar tissue built up already, or if there is, then I have them wait a few weeks till it goes down and can be re-done. The place I’ve noticed having the most problems with tilting out and needing to be re-seated more often than anywhere else is the lower-center forehead, the “third eye” position, or closer to the eyebrows there as well. I think this is due to all the movement in the area, so I warn people that come in for those before doing them.

Rachel Larratt
There are several variations: solid base, one hole, two holes and three holes. Which design do you generally prefer?

Steve Truitt
I prefer the Anatometal pieces with one large hole. I’ve used the IS and Wildcat pieces as well; IS are my second choice. The bases on the Wildcat pieces are a little too thick for my liking, and the finish isn’t as nice as the Anatometal and IS pieces.
The Anatometal pieces tend to heal much better and more securely in place in my experience, however that does make them slightly harder to remove than the others.

Stephen DeToma
I’ll chime in “thumbs down.”

I was really excited when I first saw them. I had a pair of them put in my forehead by Didier at Enigma a few years back and it didn’t take me long to start changing my mind. I’m also not a huge surface piercing fan to begin with so I guess I should have seen that coming.

The whole issue of removal was a great deal more complicated when people hadn’t removed them a whole lot. I don’t like doing them so generally I pass and book an appointment for the boss, but I’ve gotten very good at taking them out.

The biggest problems I see with healing is people’s inability to remember they have them: catching them, snagging them. I had one guy that had lost the top of an anchor he had in his nape while on vacation. The shop he went to put a 6 mm steel ball on the jewelry and he then spent a week in bed till he came to see me—the thing had grown out completely sideways.

But, curve balls aside, if someone is coming in to take an anchor out, removing the threaded end and attaching a threaded taper, gently enlarging the pocket under the tissue by stirring the jewelry a bit works pretty well for me. It feels a lot like losing a tooth; just kinda wiggle it until those threads let go. As Meg said, the large hole model is a little trickier.

Meg Barber
That’s how I take them out too, Stephen, although remember that one disaster you had to remove when you were guesting here? That thing was so scary!

Stephen DeToma
Yeah, that was one of the authentic “surface anchors” that has one half bent like a closed staple and an arm that holds the gem. It was the first time I had seen one and was a little puzzled. You can’t just wiggle those things out because of the shape; it’s similar to the old bar trick of folding a drinking straw in half and inserting it into the neck of a bottle to pick it up. For that one, I actually used the bevel of a needle to widen to hole enough to take out. That poor girl was completely freaked out.

That’s another thing about anchors: I think there’s just as many people who understate what can happen with anchors as those who get everyone all wound up about scalpel removal. I think it’s important to inform the client of possible risks without downplaying them or scaring the crap out of them, and also, to recognize the capabilities and limitations of anchors—meaning, they open options but they aren’t foolproof.

Meg Barber
As for the base I prefer (back to Rachel’s question), I like the IS ones for ease of removal, but the Anatometal ones for staying power. Those suckers are tough to get out though. I’ve got a client that got a “Madison” placement dermal, and it rejected three times with the IS one. I popped in an Anatometal one, and it’s going strong at about eight months now.

I’m pretty thorough when I explain the hows, whys and removal aspects of them, but not everyone understands, even after a talking-to. People see pictures of all this crazy stuff done with them (like eyelids) and then get irritated when they find out that they can’t just take them out when they want to and put them back in like a standard piercing.

My big question for all of you is how long do you tell your clients they take to “heal”? I tell mine that they will settle in after a few weeks to a month, but can never really be called “healed,” as there is never gonna be a neat little dry pocket around that base.

Also, what is your aftercare suggestion for them? Do you have your clients bandage them initially?

Ryan Ouellette
I tell people the “initial healing period” is about a month, but that it can take a few extra weeks to toughen up. I also tell them to wait at least six weeks to come in for an end-piece change, or to wait three months if they want to do it themselves. I cover all mine with a Nexcare waterproof bandage and tell them to leave it on for anywhere from one to three days depending on the location.

Allen Falkner
Microdermals hit about the time that I started transitioning out of piercing so I’ve only done a handful. So, it’s really hard for me to formulate much of an opinion. [Ed. note: But that’s never stopped you before!]

As for my like or dislike of dermal anchors…personally, I like them. Less invasive than traditional larger transdermals and if well-placed they hold up infinitely better than surface piercings. If anyone has ever read one my rants you’ll know I’m not a big a fan of surface piercings…but I don’t want to get too far off-topic.

As for removal, I’ve helped with a couple, but that’s usually because Allen gets roped in when it requires brute force. I’m definitely not shy about getting out “stuck” jewelry. As for price, well, I’m sure everyone has their own opinion. Me, I think all removal and most general maintenance should be free, no matter who put in the jewelry. It’s been my experience that people normally tip really well for a free service. Plus, it’s good for business and ultimately good for the community. Each crappy piercing that walks down the street or appears in the media is a blow to the entire piercing industry…and you know how it is. There is a certain satisfaction about fixing someone else’s mistakes that really makes doing your job worthwhile.

Meg Barber
Price is a good point. What are you guys charging to do microdermals? Do you include the foot in the price?

Our cost is $75 for the service, which includes the base, then the additional cost is what frontal you want on it—disks or gems or whatnot. And we take them out for free.

Steve Truitt
I charge $80 for one and $60 for each after (in the same session on the same person) with a disc on them. If they want gems, etc., the price goes up depending on the end.

Ryan Ouellette
I charge $70 for one, $130 for a pair, $60 each for three or more. Price includes standard disc ends; gemstone or alternate ends are an additional $10-$15 each. Free removal if I installed it, $20 if it was put in somewhere else.

I charged $80 when I was first doing them, but now with IS lowering their prices I can’t see charging that much. I only charge $65 for a surface piercing with an Anatometal flat surface bar and those cost twice as much as microdermal jewelry.

John Joyce
I charge $75 for one with a flat disc, more if they want a gem. Each additional one done after that I take a little off the price. Free removal whether I installed it or not.

Stephen DeToma
I believe were running $50 for a basic disc, $75 for gems.

John Joyce
Since we’re talking microdermals, I’ve had two different people come in over the last two days that both had microdermals done on their sternums at a different shop in Syracuse. One girl’s fell out within a day, and the other girl’s was sticking way out and was about to fall out. I’m not sure what method was used to put these in, but there was a huge pocket made. In the one that was still in, there was a gaping hole around the post of it. The rise used on both of them was far too long for these girls as well.

I think most people in this forum are probably getting somewhere in the 85-90 percent success rate with microdermals, but I think it’s really important to remember that we aren’t the majority of piercers out there. There are going to be a lot more piercers only getting 50 percent success rate or maybe 75 percent at best. This could be from any number of things: using poor quality jewelry, poor installation technique, poor aftercare, poor placement, or just not really understanding what a microdermal is.

My point is, with piercing, but especially microdermals it is important for the client to do their own research first. It is also important for the practitioner to make sure they fully understand microdermals, and how they work.

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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The Man With the World’s Most Tasteless Tattoos

Mike Beer and his offensive tattoos have received their fair share of attention on ModBlog, and the reaction has been … mixed, to say the least. Since the dawn of time, humans have wondered what goes through the mind of a person who devotes his skin to tattoos of jokes about child rape, transsexuals and gay Nazis. Today, we get a little closer to answering these questions.

Note: Most of the tattoos featured in this interview have been featured previously on ModBlog.

BME: First of all, tell us about yourself.

Mike Beer: Well, I lived in Northern Virginia my whole life, but recently moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to play in my band, Call The Paramedics, full time, as well as to be surrounded by assholes like myself. I have been getting tattooed since I was about 17 and am now about to turn 23. My first tattoo was a small hand-poked pentagram on my ankle, which I have had fixed so that it no longer looks like garbage, but I’ve had mad love for Satan since the beginning.

Humor is very important to me. However, since I would say I am rather desensitized to almost everything, the things that are hilarious to me are not very amusing to others, which is what brings us to this interview.

BME: Indeed it does. Have you always been an attention whore?

MB: Yes, I’ve been an attention whore for pretty much as long as I can remember — mainly because, when I was real little, my parents would beat me, lock me in the cellar, and occasionally make me put put on sex shows with our German Shepherd for them and all their friends while they would drink moonshine and throw dixie cups of scalding hot water on me. (Throughout my childhood, our dog Roxy was my best friend.)

I guess nowadays I’m just finding my outlet for all the pain and humiliation I endured as a kid … or maybe I just want to have an excuse to take off my clothes in front of strangers and everything I just said was a lie. Who really knows?

BME: Alright, enough of your yarns. How would you describe your sense of humor? What’s funny to you?

MB: I’d have to say my sense of humor is a cross between “modern” and extremely ignorant. I’ll make a joke out of anything: cripples, old people, blacks, Jews, Mexicans, whites … and any other things I may have forgotten. Your dog dies? Funny. You have a death in the family? Funny. A girl and her boyfriend have been trying for a long time to have a child, they finally get pregnant and eight months into the pregnancy she has a miscarriage? Hilarious. But don’t worry folks, whatever I dish out I can take in return.

BME: So it’s less to do with being funny and more to do with being an awful human being. Got it. Anyway, your declaration of love for Satan aside, what was the first “offensive” tattoo you got? Tell us about it.

MB: First “offensive” tattoo I got was the man with a pussy eating himself on my leg, although nobody ever really found it to be offensive. Shortly after getting that, I got the chick with a cock shitting on herself. Both tattoos were done by Eric Doyle at Jinx Proof Tattoo in Washington, D.C. Many people were not happy with chick with the cock, so I’d consider those my first offensive tattoos. I originally just wanted the guy eating himself and at the last minute decided he should have a pussy. The idea for the chick with the cock was merely an attempt at some kind of symmetry on my legs. And again, the poop was added last minute.

BME: Hey, when you’re right, you’re right — the poop certainly adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the piece. What came next?

MB: If I’m not mistaken, the white power unicorn tattoo came next. It was all downhill from there.

BME: The white power unicorn is offensive to pretty much every imaginable group. What was the thought process behind that one? Did you feel like you were crossing a certain threshold once you got a Nazi swastika tattooed on you, the ridiculous context and the fact that it was for the sake of a joke notwithstanding?

MB: The Nazi unicorn was also pretty spontaneous. My buddy Jason wanted to tattoo this piece of unicorn flash and couldn’t find anyone who wanted it, and I was obviously game under certain conditions — that is, I told him it had to be the most hateful unicorn ever. The best reaction I’ve ever gotten was, “How could something so beautiful be so ugly?”

For the record, I am not a Nazi — I just like to make fun of everything. People need to lighten up, and if they don’t like what I’m about? That’s fine with me, join the rest of the crowd. I didn’t really feel like I crossed over some kind of line, but that is pretty much when I decided that damn near every tattoo I got from then on needed to come close or outdo the last one, and I’ve been making good progress, with plans for much more.

BME: Have you gotten any memorably bad reactions to your work?

MB: Nothing that really stands out. I’ve noticed my mom on several occasions looking at the trannies on my legs; she knows that they are there but never really says anything. I’d imagine she is just bottling it up deep down inside and never letting it out. I’ve had trannies actually come up to me after they saw my legs, and they thought it was hilarious. Surprisingly enough I’ve gotten the most negative response on here, which is funny because some of the most horrible things I’ve seen were on BME. It’s kind of ironic.

BME: While I’ve got you here, why don’t you tell me a bit about your band.

MB: Well, I play drums in Call The Paramedics. We’re Atlantic City–based scumbag death rock. I guess our music could be described as Cannibal Corpse raping AC/DC while El Duce narrates. We attack the crowd, our singer cuts his face open, I blow fire, and this is all accompanied with massive amounts of cocaine. I’ve been told the music is pretty good too. You could say we’re for fans of GG Allin, rape, dirty needles, golden showers, cars parked in front of handicapped ramps, elderly shut-ins, and people broke down on the side of the road due to massive car pile ups from wandering stray dogs on the highway.

BME: Well, that sounds … great. Does anything offend you? Do you think it’s possible to go too far? Humor me here.

MB: Eh, not really. There are plenty of things that I think are wrong, but it doesn’t mean I won’t make a joke out of it. For example, I love animals, but I just got a dog in a kennel being put down tattooed on my leg. I would probably never rape a little kid, but I have “It’s rape time” with candy and little kids’ body parts tattooed on me, and so on. I live in an area and am friends with some of the most rotten people on the planet; around here it’s an ongoing battle of who can really lower the bar. I just want to fit in, you know?

BME: Nice of you to mention that you’d “probably” never rape a little kid. Classy. So where do you go from here?

MB: Aside from hell?  There is nowhere to go but down. Oh, for all the ladies on here, holla at me. I’m a great “bring-home-to-the-parents” kind of guy.

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BME’s Big Question #6: Fameballin’

Welcome to BME’s Big Question! In this feature, we’re going to ask a handful of the community’s best and brightest piercers, tattooists, heavy mod practitioners and shop owners for their opinion on one question or issue that’s affecting the body modification community. Many, many thanks to all of the contributors.

If you’d like to be a part of future editions, or if you have an idea for an issue or question you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail me.

This week’s topic comes from Allen Falkner:

“The media. We’ve all dealt them. How do you feel about the media? Have you had good or bad experiences? How do you decide who to talk to and who to avoid? Maybe name one of your most memorable media experiences.”

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Meg Barber
I’ve had good experiences overall with it. In previous shops I’ve worked in, there have been the usual newspaper interviews, appearances on the news and radio, etc. I’ve done scarification for one local paper for their “Beat the Winter Blahs” issue; the cover was me cutting, so that was fun and pretty cool.

Here at Venus, media is our best friend. We love the media. We have had high level celebs in the store, with paparazzi lined up outside shooting in, and we use that footage to our advantage with our Press Kit that we use as a display piece in our lobby. Instead of having portfolios and stuff sitting around, we have our Press Kit, and it really gets people talking and excited to be pierced by the same studio and piercers who have worked on their favorite celebs, and we have the media to thank for that for sure! I mean, without the media, those people aren’t really all that special.

Of course, there is always the downside of overzealous reporters trying to trace a hepatitis outbreak to the rise of tattoos and piercings in the nation, who come snooping around and spreading bad press. But in my experience, that’s few and far between these days, and not really too much of a concern, really. When something like that pops up, you write your little letter to the editor, throw some facts at them, and forget about them.

I think, to an extent, this question ties in with the Internet question as well, and Internet media is becoming more prevalent. With sites like Digg occasionally putting up tattoo- or piercing-related stories or photos, there is more exposure to our work than ever, and as long as it looks good, that’s never really a bad thing.

Oh, here’s a story. I really should let Maria Tash tell this, but it’s too funny to pass up …

Years ago, she was interviewed over the phone by CBN. She didn’t realize at the time what it was — she was thinking in her head CBS or CNN. A few weeks later, a client comes in to tell her he saw her picture on TV … on The 700 Club. She was being referred to as one of the most evil women in America, and her quotes about the beauty of piercing were all turned into pro-satanic remarks, essentially. You can never be too careful.

Steve Truitt
I’ve had good and bad experiences with the media. I’ve worked with the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel several times, and they’ve always been really easy to deal with. They didn’t try to portray us in any particular way, more like, “This is what’s going on and you should make your own opinion about it,” which is nice for a change since a lot of the stuff we do is usually portrayed in a negative, or shock value type of way.

I’ve also worked with several big budget feature films and had fairly good experiences. Most recently we did suspensions in a scene in the movie Game, which should be released this summer or fall. The people making this movie were really interested in what we were doing, they did everything they could to provide us with anything we could possibly need and make sure we were safe and comfortable, and weren’t trying to portray us as freaks or negatively in anyway in the scene.

The only time I’ve had bad experiences have been when dealing with local media, like news stations. We were interviewed about suspension for a news segment several years back. They asked questions about the popularity of suspension, the safety issues, possible complications, why people did it, etc. When the piece aired on the news a few days later they had changed all the questions being asked to be about tongue splitting and surgical modifications, and chopped up our answers and rearranged things we said to fit their new questions that they never asked us. They did that to make it more shocking and to make us look really bad. After this and hearing similar stories from quite a few other people who have done interviews for the news (not just body modification related either), I stopped talking to news reporters at all and won’t deal with them again.

Tracy Baer
I’m not a tattoo artist, but I play one on TV …

Does that count as media experience?

Meg Barber
Oh whatever, you’ve been in the paper about a million times!

Tracy Baer
I have, and it’s been a double-edged sword for sure.

The news story that was filmed on Halloween, while I was dressed as a vampire, and then didn’t air until after Thanksgiving was probably the worst thing. I looked like a goth kid, and they took bits and pieces of what i said to make a paragraph that was to the editor’s liking.

It was horrible. The one thing that sticks in my mind is the question of why people get tattooed. My answer was long and drawn out — that, I believe, was my mistake. It was edited, and the only answer they played was, “People get tattoos for vanity’s sake.”

Seriously. I gave them at least 10 other reasons that I could think of. So, there I was, dressed up as a vampire on the evening news, talking about how people only get tattooed for vanity’s sake. I was mortified.

I think I’ve learned from my mistake on that one, though.

In more recent media coverage, I’ve had better luck. The last few were positive. The interviews have been upbeat, educational, and well rounded, as well as beneficial to my amount of business and new clients. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that body modification is more widely accepted, or that the person interviewing was more open to the idea of tattooing as a legitimate career.

Either way, I feel like the horror stories in the news are being overshadowed by the positive ones. That being said, there’s definitely a place for the horror stories. Individuals who take this industry for a place to make a quick buck need to be brought to everyone’s attention.

Meg Barber
I agree. The bad side is that the shows that go over the dangers never point the finger at the troublemakers directly. No investigative reporting happenin’, you know? And it should happen: send the undercover person in the shady shops with the bad reps to see what’s really up. It could really shed some light on those places, encouraging people to make smarter choices.

Allen Falkner
I think everyone agrees on the most important point. Depending on how the media wants to spin the story you can be presented as an articulate professional or you can be edited to sound like a fool and a hack.

It’s been my experience that the media that focuses on documentation pieces, National Geographic, The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, etc. tend to tell the story in such a way that the subjects are shown in a positive light. Granted, there is normally some added sensationalism infused into the story, but that’s what sells, right? However, even if the story is given a commercial flair, these production companies know better than to make people look bad. These kinds of pieces are built on mutual respect and trust. If they violate that, then their chances of working with that culture might be virtually impossible in the future.

Now when it comes to other types of media that are simply doing a one-off piece, the person being interviewed must be more careful. I’ve been burned more than once by agreeing to something without having all the facts. Once I had a live debate on TV and it was obvious, about 30 seconds in, that the topic wasn’t about piercing. It was a witch-hunt and yours truly was the witch. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

I guess my advice would be to do your research. Find out as much as possible about the person and/or company doing the interview. In general, writers and production companies stick to a specific style. If you can get your hands on some of their previous work, you should be able to get a sense of what direction they might take it, and ultimately how they could portray you.

The old saying is, “Any publicity is good publicity.” But, when you’ve had little to no exposure, bad publicity can really hurt you in the long run.

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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Diego Olavarría, BME Scholarship Winner

In 2004, Darrin Fowler started the BME Scholarship project, a community-funded program established to award one student from the BME community every year with a donor-based scholarship, based on the strength of an essay of the scholarship administrator and judges’ choosing. The winner of the 2005/06 scholarship was Diego Olavarría, whose winning essay can be read here. We recently caught up with Diego and exchanged e-mails over a couple of days, discussing where his education has taken him, where to find artistic inspiration, and his take on how society interacts with body modification nowadays. I’ll note that Diego’s last response is actually more like a short essay, but it’s fantastic. I hope we’ll be hearing from Diego again very soon.

To participate in or donate to this year’s scholarship fund, please visit

BME: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself.

Diego Olavarría: Well, I think I should start with the essentials. My name’s Diego, I’m 24, and I won the BME Scholarship back in 2006. I do many things with my life, but nowadays I think what I do most is study, read, translate, write, and travel … as well as buy groceries and all sorts of other mundane activities that take up more of my time than they should. Despite what most people who know me would have predicted a few years ago (because I openly and constantly admitted hating the place), I live in Mexico City, although I don’t see myself growing old here.

BME: What don’t you like about Mexico City?

DO: Well, that’s a question which I could spend the rest of the day answering, but in general, I think it’s fair to say it’s a rather unhealthy place to live in, a very stressful place. If you don’t take it with a (copious) dose of humor, it gets to you. It’s hard to find peace and quiet here; you’re just constantly attacked everywhere by ads, bad music, car horns. It can be dirty, it can be dangerous (although a lot less so than it’s usually made out to be, I think. You can live more sheltered from crime here than in other Latin-American cities). What else? There aren’t many trees, the drivers are aggressive, distances are big, public transportation sucks, so does the traffic, there are too many people everywhere. People live in fear of each other, the police can’t be trusted, the wealth-gap is huge …

But on the other hand, the weather is pretty good, and if your daily activities don’t require a lot of commuting and you live in an interesting area, it can be a pretty enjoyable place. There’s a good level of cultural activity, cheap eateries, well-stocked bookstores, the best university in Mexico, and it’s overall a pretty colorful and surreal city. Its a good place to see strange things happen. A place like this keeps you inspired.

BME: Do you think it’s sometimes more important to be inspired by your surroundings than to actually enjoy them?

DO: That’s a very good, but also a very difficult question. To answer it, I will have to reflect on what “enjoyment,” “inspiration” and “peace of mind” (peace is where I draw profound enjoyment from) all consist of. As someone who creates (as I mentioned earlier, I write), I think it is important to be inspired by my surroundings. Some people draw inspiration from past events, and really don’t care much about their settings; that is not my case. Settings are important. However, if forced to choose, I’m sure I would prefer peace of mind over inspiration. Mexico City is a good place to spend a few years, but it’s a killer place in the long run. What I mean is that I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life here.

It’s quite true that much of the art in the last hundred years has a tendency to create an aesthetic effect of the unpleasant. Most good books and paintings are disturbing pieces. Most of the best artists have been tormented souls, people consistently disturbed by metaphysical and historical terrors. Seen through this perspective, Mexico City could be a work of art, perhaps even a masterpiece.

But do I live here because I prefer enjoyment over inspiration? I think it’s important to find a middle ground between one and the other. For instance, I’m sure that war is very inspirational, and so are tragedies and diseases. But I wouldn’t voluntarily bring them into my life just because they inspire me. Like if the uninvited problems weren’t enough! Otherwise I would be a bit like a Dostoevsky or a Roberto Arlt character, someone who needs guilt and pain to move on, and who is willing to bring it upon themselves. And on the other hand, I appreciate peace more after a bit of torment. Mexico City is my platform into both worlds. It’s a place I’ve chosen consciously because, on one hand, it keeps my mind alive (it inspires me), and on the other, I’m lucky enough to have found a way to deal with it so that it doesn’t drain my soul away (meaning I can also be at peace here).

BME: How does the city compare to some of the other places in which you’ve lived (or at least in which you’ve spent significant periods of time)?

DO: Well, I guess Mexico City has problems that are common to all large cities, but they just seem bigger here because of the amount of people. It’s a terribly hard place to organize. There are lots of things that compare and contrast, but one thing that’s unique to Mexico City is the light. I don’t know another city that has the same kind of light. Maybe it’s because of the smog, maybe it’s the colors of the houses, or the glow of the pavement. I don’t know. The effect is sort of dirty, dusty, grayish and unappealing. But when the cold wind blows in in the evening, sometimes you have these incredible pink sunsets.

Some cities I’ve been in (Rio de Janeiro, Paris) are beautiful. Others (Lima, Sao Paulo) are ugly. Mexico City happens to be both, at the same time. It’s also a city that’s been through a lot. It was the capital of the Aztec empire (it was probably the biggest city in the world by then), and at some point during the colonial era it was the most important city in the Americas. It has been totally and effectively urbanized (the natural settings have been annihilated: there are no rivers, all lakes have been dried up, there are not many trees left), but at the same time it’s located next to a volcano that could erupt any second; it’s near a fault, and therefore an earthquake could shake the place down in a matter of minutes. I find the whole setting pretty intense, and I don’t know if there are many cities who have so much to say about themselves.

BME: So what’s a typical day like for you, if such a thing exists?

DO: I try not to have a routine, and my days change a lot depending on what I am thinking or reading or doing. Right now I’m back to the university, so first thing I do every morning after waking up and browsing the news online is head over to the university for my daily Russian lesson. Then I usually have some breakfast at the university, and head over to the library where I’ll either bump into some friends or read for a while. Either way, I try to read for at least an hour every day. The rest of my day depends on whether I have other classes/meetings/pending translations. I usually come back during the afternoon and cook myself something. I spend the afternoon either translating or reading or relaxing, although I try and go out for a movie at least once or twice a week. I usually write late at night.

Some months I also run, and some months, when I don’t go to school and have enough money, I travel. When I’m in the city, I see my friends a couple of times a week, although I spend most of my time by myself. If I have free time, I enjoy not doing anything. Since I don’t have a 9-5 job, things change every week for me. I like it that way. My life changes a lot, all the time.

BME: You’re back at university — what’s the status of your educational career? Where do you attend, for what, etc.?

DO: I’m currently studying my second Bachelor’s degree (Latin American Studies, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico; my main focus is on Latin-American Literature). I still have a bit to go, since I took some time off to travel and also to focus on other aspects of my work. I already completed the credits for my first Bachelor’s (Interpretation) and am currently starting to write my thesis.

I’m not sure I’m going to finish my second degree, though. I think it’s more likely that once I finish my thesis for my other degree, I’ll start a Master’s program instead. It’s not too difficult to get a scholarship for your Master’s degree, so it’s a better deal for me.

BME: What’s the topic of your thesis? And was that the program in which you were enrolled when you won the BME Scholarship?

DO: Well actually, the programs I was enrolled in back when I won the BME Scholarship are the same ones I am still finishing now. I hadn’t finished the credits for my degree in Interpretation, but I was already doing this one in Latin-American Studies.

My thesis is a bit strange. I just started it, but I’m excited about it. It’s a linguistic and social comparison of Latin-American literary Spanish in three different recent urban novels. The point is to somehow find similarities between Spanish dialects (specifically words in Peruvian, Mexican and Cuban Spanish) that can be traced not to a common etymological origin, but to social factors that lead to the invention of certain concepts. I’m particularly interested in words that can be traced to a Latin-American context (words that refer to symptoms of specific types of social inequality, for example).

BME: Can you talk about applying for the BME Scholarship? Was it helpful? Was the topic something to which you had given much thought prior to it being announced?

DO: Well, ever since I heard of the scholarship it seemed like the right thing for me. I waited for the 2006 edition to be announced and when it was, I began preparing my application. I thought about the question for a few weeks, took a few notes, and once I felt I was ready to write it, I started doing so. Essay is a genre I approach with more enthusiasm than precision, and this particular essay was probably the longest paper I had written in English by then, so it took me a bit to write, but once it was announced that I was the winner, I was thrilled about it, of course. The effort was well worth it.

But what’s really important for me about the BME Scholarship is that it helped me achieve objectives that would otherwise have been very hard to reach. The most tangible one is that I was able to pay off some of my academic expenses, and this allowed me to save money to go backpacking in South America, with the intention of writing a travel book. Which I did. The book, Más allá del sur (Beyond the south), is a collection of chronicles, stories and meditations, and it would have been impossible to write without the scholarship.

BME: Do you ever revisit the essay you wrote for the scholarship? How do you feel it holds up, a few years later?

DO: To say the truth, I don’t revisit it. I don’t like to read my own texts once they’ve been published. It’s a cruel thing to do to yourself. I’m sure some aspects of the essay would probably make me blush a bit now, but in general, I think the main ideas of the essay (freedom of the body and the moral consequences of some types of body modification) are issues I still hold very close to me and believe in, as well as being subjects which I still deal with in my writing.

However, I am a bit saddened by something I hadn’t noticed at the time I wrote the essay, but that seems more and more apparent to me: the existing tendency towards the trivialization of body modifications. Although there has always been a tension between whether it should be a cosmetic issue or a path of self-exploration, I feel that freedom of the body matters less and less to most people and has ceased to be a dominant force behind most people’s incursion into the world of body modification.

BME: I apologize if this qualifies as cruel, but in relation to your last point, in your essay, you wrote the following:

“Body modification and sexual practices which would easily have gotten people burnt by the inquisition 350 years ago, are now conceived as normal and desirable. I believe that this is due, partly, to the consolidation of a large sector of society that has worked hard at expanding the conception of what freedom is and also at better defining the acts that are acceptable under it. This, along with the growth of a necessity of identity and self-knowledge in a society characterized by its emptiness, has led to the the growth of an open-minded postmodern society that seeks authentic cultural experience that reassesses the value of individuals in hollow, massive and mostly anonymous urban societies that are still very repressive in many aspects. With more technology and freedom than ever, it has also led to a radicalization of the form of individualistic expressions that are allowed and that are practiced.”

Do you think the sort of trivialization to which you refer is perhaps an inevitable byproduct of this march towards widespread acceptance? Is this acceptance, in your opinion, worth the dilution and “superficial” nature of body modification you’ve observed lately?

DO: That’s a great question, but it doesn’t have an easy answer. I know this debate has been addressed on BME, and many opinions have been offered in regards to it, but personally, I think the answer lays in the core of not only body modification, but culture itself. I think body modification can be a form of art, and it responds to many of the same parameters as artwork, so maybe we can find answers if we reflect a bit on the main issues of the current aesthetic debate.

I’m familiar with literature, so I’ll place an analogy with literature. In the last thirty years, the amount of titles published throughout the world has been enormous. There have never been so many books being published. However, one of the main things bothering critics and other specialists is that the amount of good books being published has been scarce. What is considered a good book? Let’s just say that it’s a book that can say enough about language, life and art itself that it will withstand the passing of time. It has been very hard for scholars and critics to identify what the most important books of the last fifty years are, but it is widely agreed that the most relevant books of the twentieth century (titles by Proust, Joyce, Mann) were written early in its early years.

I don’t think the problem with this is that there are no good writers; there are several other reasons that can explain poor artistic production when compared to other periods of time. But one thing that has greatly affected literature is the fact that the market and the capitalist order have taken over much of literary production. This means that literature has become an object and if the market demands easy books, if people want to buy dumbed-down versions of books written two hundred years ago, publishing companies and writers comply. The purpose of a book is no longer to disturb or create intense feelings or say durable things, but to entertain. Books are no longer written because they need to be written, but because there is someone who wants to buy them, and authors care less about furthering an artistic tradition than they care about making money and selling books that say absolutely nothing new and will be irrelevant in five years.

A similar thing is happening with body modification. The problem is not that it is becoming mainstream per se, but that it is becoming mainstream in a society of trivial intentions. It’s the same with other subversive aspects of culture, such as literature, drugs and sex. I think the fact that we have a healthy publishing industry is great; I think that the fact responsible drug use has gained acceptance makes us more free; I think that sexual liberation is one of the most wonderful cultural transformations of the last fifty years; and I am in favor of making body modification available to the world, to anyone who wishes to learn from it.

The problem with this approach is that since we live in a culture where pleasure-seeking and “having a good time” are our main values, we’re bound to turn these freedoms into means for easy thrills. For instance: most drug users no longer use psychedelic experimentation as a means to expand their consciousness. For most people who take ecstasy at a club on a Saturday night, it’s just way to have fun and forget about uncomfortable issues in their lives. Sex is no longer done with the subversive or liberating intention that can be found in the prose of the Marquis de Sade or in Georges Bataille’s A History of the Eye, in which characters question and destroy their moral values through intense pleasure. Nowadays, sex has become less erotic and more like standard pornographic fare, more of a spectacle and something frequently done out of social pressure than something truly fulfilling. People fuck to impress, not to enjoy, and therefore sex becomes little more than a slightly better way of reaching orgasm than masturbation.

It’s the same thing with publishing houses that use the prestige of books to make consumers think that reading dumb bestsellers is somehow a more refined way of spending time than watching TV. In a society that thinks this way, there’s no reason why a ritual that was once sacred for Native Americans, such as suspension, can’t just be a cool way of spending a Saturday afternoon, as good or bad but slightly more exciting than going to the movies to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

There is no lack of talented tattoo artists in the world, but it surprises me that the amount of people taking risks when it comes to tattoos (and I don’t mean extreme eyeball tattooing; I mean simply getting tattoos that go beyond the icons of popular tattooing) is so low. One thing which really exemplifies this whole thing can be the growth of pun and joke tattoos. Tattoos that are meant to be funny and make reference to pop culture memes which will not matter in two weeks. I am not saying it is wrong to get a tattoo like this; it can actually be very subversive (a permanent expression of something impermanent). Actually, I’m not saying any of this is wrong, only that if these are the pervasive attitudes towards culture, we can’t expect much. I find it a bit odd that I can see thirty tattoos of puns, but no tattoos of poetry. Twenty portraits of pinup girls, but rarely do I find reproductions of fine art or art in general, however beautiful they may be. This indicates we live in a culture where the impermanent and the superficial have a much stronger appeal than the lasting.

Here’s where current body modification and literary trends can draw a strong parallel, because most readers and most consumers of body art probably find searching or innovating too arduous. It’s probably too hard to learn about literary tradition or too boring to wait to think of a tattoo concept, and much easier to get a tattoo that you know people will like because there are already a million people with one like it and it looks good, or read a book that won’t challenge you too much.

And I’m not only referring to people getting standard butterfly tattoos, praying hands, or yin-yangs. This extends to the bigger pieces as well. People want a sleeve and they want it now, and if they’re ready to pay, they can get it. Whether it’s been done a million times and is full of clichés is irrelevant to them, and artists only have so much say in terms of what they will put on their customers. That’s one of the biggest paradoxes about popular tattooing: so many people get tattoos to be different, and end up looking all the same. Basically, what this shows is how easy it is for consumers to have both body art and literature on a short leash. Consumers become a tyrannical force and can turn culture into something devoid of meaning.

But does this mean we’re doomed? I hardly think this is the case, much less with body mods. There will always be the artists who create because they need to create and the artists which will develop a style and take it to the limit. There will always be people who get mods because they need to get mods, as there will always be those who write not because of the money, but because they’ll go nuts otherwise. That will never change.

The body is probably the ultimate canvas, one of the most powerful means of expression we currently have. Some artists know this. For example, when I see the work of Emilio González (to mention just one of many of the artists I admire), I see something incredible, something highly profound and poetic. He has transformed people’s bodies and made them look like nobody and no body has ever looked before. In this I see a whole new concept and a new poetic of what the body can be. It doesn’t even matter what the customer’s reasons were, he has been transformed into something else. But I’m not saying that everybody should go for the heavy surgical mods or that heavy mods are the only place where artistic criteria can apply. I think there is still tons of room left for innovation within tattooing, piercing and cutting.

But even though body modification has never seen so many adherents in the West, and this is surely a victory when it comes to social acceptance of mods, whether this social acceptance helps preserve and increase the profound and life-changing aspects (as I already noted, the fact that more books coming out hasn’t really improved the quality of literature) of body modification is something worth questioning.

Read Diego online at 55° S. For more information about this year’s BME Scholarship, please visit

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