The State of The Lizardman Address

It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from our friend Erik Sprague, The Lizardman, here on BME — and really, it’s been too long. The world is a much different place now (well, marginally different, at least), and it’s always reassuring to have him around as a bright green guide through the chaos that surrounds us. He and I recently exchanged e-mails over a couple of days, talking about the new American president, the rigors of life on the road and the difficulties of making the transition from sideshow to stand-up.

BME: The last time you wrote for BME, you were asked who would win in a fight between Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Falwell (you chose Hitchens). Who doesn’t love a hypothetical death-match? Let’s kick things off the same way: Who would win in a good old-fashioned Chicago-style brawl between Rahm Emanuel and Rod Blagojevich?

The Lizardman: I see Rahm taking this one — he is clearly cunning and a survivor. Blagojevich embodies the characteristics of the unstoppable undead and a turd that won’t flush, but lacks offense. It would be a long fight with many seeming victories by Emanuel, only to have Rod rise again before a final defeat.

BME: Blagojevich as zombie-poop? I think you just wrote several South Park episodes, my friend. Now, you were on tour throughout January, correct? For what were you out on the road? Were you able to take a moment to solemnly pour out a 40 for your boy George Bush?

TL: I was on tour for the last 10-11 days of January, and for the first 20 I was home after getting back from the fall Jagermeister Music Tour on December 23, 2008.  I was running around the far-too-cold northern areas of the U.S., beginning with my now 10-years-running gig performing at the Am-Jam tattoo expo (subject of one of my old BME columns some time ago) in Syracuse, New York.  From there, I had club gigs in Rockford, Illinois, at Kryptonite, and Washington, D.C., at The Palace of Wonders.  Fellow Austin stand-up comic Joel Keith was along for the ride, opening up the shows. 

I did not pour out anything for Bush, but considered doing so for Texas in somber worry for his return to the state. Even as a Texas convert (I moved to Austin eight years ago), I can spot his fake wannabe-Texan B.S. from miles away.  It still stands as one of his greatest deceptions that he convinced so many that he was Texan. You can make a case for WMDs, but not for that …

BME: From a make-believe cowboy to a “half-breed Muslin” — what a country. Really though, what did you think of Obama’s inauguration and the phenomenon that was his campaign in general? How healthy a dose of skepticism is necessary in order to not expect the world over the next four years?

TL: I think we need a massive dose of skepticism for not just the next four years but for the rest of our lives. As great a scapegoat as Bush makes, the truth is that everyone dropped the ball and he and his crew only got away with it by not being challenged enough. The solution is not, and never will be, blind obedience, even if it is to a message of hope. I’d like to see Obama succeed, but nobody gets a blank check.  For all of his soaring rhetoric and good intentions, Obama is still a politician and now president of the US — a beneficent dictator is still a dictator.  For someone like myself with a number of so-called radical views which are always in the extreme minority, I am forever wary of the majority’s designated player since his job is, in part, to further their goals — often over my rights. Putting the right people in charge is only the beginning and it does not absolve the rest of us from our roles. We have to help him get things done and get them done in the right way.

BME: Do you actually have faith in the American populace to hold up its end of the deal?

TL: That may be the last bit of idealism I have left in me. I feel with the system we have that even when the populace fails, a few good people in the right spots can save things. Look at an issue like black civil rights or women’s rights and you see cases where the populace overall dropped the ball horribly, but those who were right were able to use the system to kick the rest in the ass and fix things. Of course, the system fails as well at times, and then it is up to the populace to pull things together. I think that the American people, along with the Constitutional system we have, represent a good shot at making it and that we are still, overall, on an upswing — things are getting better. The last eight years only seem incredibly horrible because we lived through them, but from a historical perspective of what the U.S. has faced from within and without, it was barely a pebble in the road. History won’t vindicate Bush, but it will tell the rest of us to put our bitching in perspective. 

Random aside from these political musings: How great and how perfectly American will it be when we see the first gay shotgun wedding?

BME: I can’t wait. “Ain’t no lesbian daughter of mine gonna get turkey-basted outside of God’s good grace!” And then it’ll be filmed and played on PBS’s celebrity gossip show. This has been quite the decade. What’s your favorite cultural train-wreck of the modern era?

TL: I try to avoid getting into that whole train-wreck-watching scene; it can be mesmerizing and is generally used as a distraction from things of real importance.  However, schadenfreude is just so damn tasty, isn’t it? I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, but I do take momentary joy every time I see some douchebag who railed against gay rights get outed as a self-hating closet-case, or when an anti-drug bible thumper shows up at rehab.

BME: Let’s get back to talking about touring: You’ve been going out on the Jagermeister tour and other such things for, what, 50 years now? What are some of your favorite and least favorite things about touring?

TL: It certainly does seem like it has been that long sometimes. I have hosted the Jagermeister Music Tour since 2003 and it has been some of my more high-profile work.  I love touring. It is the perfect fit for me, I was made to live and work on the road … which is why for the last decade I have spent over 200 days a year on the road.  The best parts would probably be the travel and performing for new and different people around the world. If there really is a complaint to be made, it is like the lack of appreciation for the job. Many people seem to think it is just one big party, and while it is a job I love, there is still a lot of real work involved.

BME: So what’s a typical day/week/[appropriate sample size] on the road like? Also, do you have to bring your own cocaine, or do the venues typically provide that?

TL: The joy and the challenge of life on the road is that there is no typical day. Every city and venue provides a new different experience. For tours like the Jagermeister Music Tour, the cycle was often something like:
5-7 a.m.: Possible media slot, usually a morning radio show.
11 a.m.: Load-in to venue.
12 p.m.: Daily drop of production materials.
12 p.m. till finished: Production setup — poster hanging, VIP section setup, anything else that needs doing.
3-5 p.m.: Possible media slot.
6 p.m.: Doors.
7-11 p.m.: Show.
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Load-out to truck.
2 a.m.: Buses roll to next city.
Rinse and repeat — rinse being optional since showers are a luxury you grab when/if you can.
When not out with Jager or a similar national traveling production, I tend to tour on my own from one gig to the next.  These can be tattoo conventions, comedy clubs, private events, TV shoots, etc., and they are all different.  My days then tend to be media promotions, performances, and travel — all-day flights and/or marathon drives across the country. 

Cocaine, and other drugs, are pretty easily available across the board but who pays depends on the gig and your level of celebrity.  The quality varies and it almost all comes with the hitch of having to hang out with the provider more than you would like.

BME: Right. So when Metallica wants a bottle of pure Velociraptor semen, they can probably just request it in the tour rider, no questions asked. Hey, do you have a tour rider? If so, what’s in it? Have any of the bands with whom you’ve toured over the years asked for anything particularly strange?

TL: I have had a rider in the past and sometimes still do, but it is usually strictly for things I need for the show but won’t have the time or opportunity to get and/or traveling with would be difficult or impossible.  A few examples being fuel for fire acts, concrete blocks, empty beer keg, various ingredients for stomach pumping, live insects for myself or a snake to eat. The thing about riders that most people don’t realize is that you do pay for that stuff; during settlement, the cost of things on the rider will be taken out as expenses before you get paid. A rider is a convenience, since you don’t have the time to run out and buy new socks or get snacks for the bus, and often you pay a premium for them since many venues will gouge on the price. I have seen people try and charge $6 for a single diet coke or $30 for a case of water. 

In terms of weird rider things, I know of a band that specified no mixed color candies (like Skittles) because their OCD drummer, no joke, would sort them compulsively; he also had to have all the wingnuts on his drums lined up or he couldn’t play without stopping to fix them.  Another band had a lead singer who required a massage at a specific time before the show started or they got the option of canceling the show.  Weirdness on riders is usually there to make sure people are reading everything they should and paying attention to detail, or it is something that makes sense if you know all the details.

“It’s not that I can’t read,” says The Lizardman, “it’s just that I don’t follow instructions well sometimes.”

BME: Let’s talk about your act itself. Does it vary depending on the audience/sort of show? How has the act evolved over the years?

TL: I see myself as providing an experience for my audiences and making them active participants in that process. As a result, the show will necessarily vary, but there is still a certain form that it generally follows. In the past, I have tailored shows to any situation that I could manage to get myself booked into, but now I often try to use the show to manipulate the situation. I’m not sure how much sense that makes as stated, but it works in practice. 

My show has evolved and gone through many permutations through the years. It might seem subtle to some observers, but to me, not surprisingly, it seems like night and day.  Probably the biggest shift has been my move towards stand-up comedy and spoken word and finding a home in those genres. Back when I first started, I said that I would always do stunts, even if it was just in my living room, because no one would come and see, but now I find myself doing more and more of my stunts and rituals strictly for myself in private or semi-private situations because my work as a performer has taken me to a place where I am more a comedian/commentator. The audience is still there for the stunts (and I do still include some of my favorites), but as a performer I have moved away from doing them onstage — at least as the main draw.   

BME: That’s interesting. Do you feel like you’ve always been funny enough to do stand-up and just made a decision to not include it so much in the earlier days, or is that something you had to teach yourself along the way as well?

TL: With the exception of very rare cases, “funny” or “not funny” is not a natural inescapable state for people; it turns out that “funny” is interesting and insightful presentation. Think about one of the staples of humor (one which I personally try to scrupulously avoid): the differences between men and women.  Someone can say something that is beyond obvious to everyone, but make them laugh by presenting it with a personal insight and in a manner which engages the audience in a way they weren’t used to or expecting. Everyone has to teach themselves and/or learn to be funny — this is often called “finding your voice,” and it is the process of figuring out how to present your anecdotes and observations in a manner which people will not only accept but also crave. I have always had, and almost everyone does, the premises which are the seeds of “funny,” but it takes time to develop and refine them. 

In a way, the sideshow acts were a crutch — a way to draw and hold people through the developmental process of refining the comedy. I avoided some of the pain many stand-ups have to face through the early days by having an additional element that supported my work on the comedy/commentary and kept me in decent gigs. Now, I have well refined stunt acts and comedy that stands on its own without the stunts so, it is the best of both worlds.

BME: In the past, you’ve mentioned some inspirational sideshow/etc. figures. Who are some of your comedic inspirations?

TL: I think I have been influenced more in terms of philosophy than style when it comes to comedy. Some of the names that leap to mind for me are Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, and Don Rickles. Martin’s book, Born Standing Up, had a real influence on how I approached some things and look at performing. It hit me at just the right time when I was working through some things and really had me thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with each show.

BME: A recent review of your show stated that you were “offensive to many of the crowd, insulting Asians, women, overweight people, among others.” As a Jew, I’m rather offended that we didn’t make the list. To what sorts of things was the reviewer referring? And be as candid as you like, I can guarantee that nobody will have read this far into the interview.

TL: I love that review. In fact, I have been quoting it as part of a bit in my show since I first found it online. My best guess is that the reviewer was referring to a joke where I talk about chasing Japanese people pretending to be Godzilla, which is really a joke about me being delusional and/or under the influence.  As for the women and overweight people, he must be referring to a bit where I mention that fat chicks give the best blow jobs, which I think is a compliment — not to mention an empirical fact according to the evidence most men have collected. 

I apologize for not having offended Jews that night, but I had to cut a lot of material for time. That guy posted that review almost a month after the actual show and wrote almost entirely about me, even though I was a grand total of maybe 15 minutes out of a four-hour show that night. But he only wrote one line that wasn’t about me — I call that reaching someone. The rest of the crowd laughed and cheered but he waited a month to act indignant on a website.

BME: Now that you’re moving more into stand-up and storytelling rather than stunts, is it challenging to get audiences to take you seriously, what with you being “The Lizardman” and them potentially expecting a bunch of gross-outs or what have you rather than cerebral/topical humor? Do you think your appearance/”novelty” status could be a hindrance in this respect, or has it not been an issue?

TL: The great thing about club-level and alternative comedy venues is that the crowds are very accepting of anything, so long as it is good.  If you show up with good stuff, they get past anything else quickly. I think that being The Lizardman is an advantage so long as I use it properly.  My modifications make me memorable and provide me with an instant conversation starter. At this point, my biggest challenge may not lie with winning over new people but rather hanging on to those who were more into the stunts, but that has gone well thus far.  For instance, a couple years ago the lawyers for the Jagermeister tour decided the stunts presented too much liability, so I had to go to a purely stand-up hosting routine — which is probably one of the most difficult and hostile ways to do stand-up. But it ended up working out and giving me a great deal of confidence. After shows, though, people would come up and ask why I didn’t do any stunts, and after I explained they would generally say that it sucked that I couldn’t do them but they really enjoyed the show and laughed their asses off. On my own though, as I said, I do include some stunts — my favorites and the fan favorites.
So, thus far, I would say it has mostly been a non-issue, but I could see it becoming one if I continue to succeed because it makes for a harder sell. Breaking some molds is OK, but people are protective of others. When TV first latched onto me as the weird guy with an education, it was a sort of feel-good story challenging the preconceived notion of modified people as uneducated. Convincing agents and the like to give me a shot at being funny goes against their expectations in a way they don’t like to risk; they don’t have faith in people to get past the initial shock of my appearance. It also doesn’t help that much of my material is not TV friendly — I often hear, “We loved the show but we can’t air that sort of stuff.” But that is very much the story of my career, gaining little by little and winning over those I can get to take the chance.

Visit The Lizardman online at for tour dates, speaking engagements and various ephemera.

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Associazione Piercers Tatuatori Professionisti Italiani 2009

From January 18-20, 2009, Milan, Italy, played host to the Italian Professionals Piercers and Tattooists Association conference, of which BME was a sponsor. Rachel was there, and brought along a friend: Adam from This is Adam’s convention diary.

I was in San Francisco for two weeks attending some software training classes with my business partner when I received an email from Rachel. She informed me that BME was to sponsor an upcoming Tattoo and Piercing Conference in Italy (APTPI), but that she may not be able to attend due to a snowboarding accident; some skier had taken her out from behind and messed up her knee so badly that she couldn’t walk. She asked me if I was able to go instead and provide some coverage for BME. I had been to Europe a few times, and always wanted to check out Milan, so I figured, “What the hell?”

I changed my returning flight from San Francisco to return a day earlier to make it back to New York City to repack and jump on a plane to Milan. I’m a frequent and very spontaneous traveler, so I’m familiar with these types of travel conditions.

A few days leading up to the return to NYC/departure to Italy, Rachel informed me that her leg was feeling much better and that she would be able to go as long as she wore a leg brace. So now it was going to be the two of us heading out there. I welcomed the opportunity to get to know Rachel as a person and not just from all the rumor-mongering. I was hesitant, and kind of on guard, but I went with an open mind.

I arrived at JFK airport about an hour before we were to begin boarding. With my luck, it was a smart move: There was an “issue” with my ticket … awesome. I never found out what the deal was, but I got the pleasure of standing in two separate lines that both terminated with women that seemed pretty irritated that I got in their line. (Side note: I have amazing luck with having to deal with people that just seem to hate me from the get-go in the airline industry. I guess I’m just awesome like that.)

I got my ticket, proceeded through security, and then off to the waiting area where I was to meet up with Rachel. I saw her working away behind a laptop and fidgeting with her stuff. We said our hellos and moved all our bags towards the gate for boarding.

Our rows were called and we got on the plane. Our flight time was six-and-a-half hours. We left at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday and landed at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday (six-hour time difference). We must have had an awesome tailwind, because we shaved an hour off of our flight time. The first thing I noticed when we deplaned was the smell of smoke and a fire alarm going off. Perfect! We never found out what the smoky smell was coming from, but the alarm was turned off by the time we reached customs.

Now normally, I fly right through customs with no problems, and I was expecting the same here. Welp … looks like Rachel doesn’t have that luck. The customs guy picked up the phone and looked kind of pissed off. Great! If he doesn’t like her, he’s just going to love me.

Since neither of us spoke Italian, we’ll never know what he was going on about, but eventually he let her through and then I just sailed right through.

Brenno or Bruno (two of the guys putting on he convention) were supposed to meet us at the airport and give us a ride back to the hotel, but since we were an hour early, nobody was there. Rachel also informed me that they most likely wouldn’t be showing up anyway, because it was seven in the morning and they’re most likely passed out and recovering from last night’s partying. We opted to take a taxi to the hotel and hope to catch them before they left. To anyone that’s taking a trip to Italy, don’t take a taxi!! They’re expensive as hell!

We arrived at the hotel and tried to check in, but my room wasn’t ready yet, and I had to come back at noon. Even better than that, they had completely lost Rachel’s reservation. The dude working the counter with a pretty pimp comb-over was being a total douche to her about it, too. (I know it’s not nice, but I found it pretty funny.)

We dropped our bags off behind the counter and headed downstairs for breakfast. Rachel really wanted to pass out and was hoping to find someone she knew so she could go crash in their room, but there wasn’t anyone really there yet — just a bunch of businesspeople. Also, I learned that she doesn’t like to have her photo taken after being up for almost 24 hours.

We were told that the convention center was to open at 10 a.m. and that all the vendors could get in earlier to set up their tables. Rachel brought a suitcase full of shirts to sell, and we were getting kicked out of the dining room anyway, so we headed down to set up shop. When we got there, there were already a bunch of people lined up to buy their passes and just hanging about.

We dragged the suitcase downstairs and grabbed a table next to Rachel’s friends Jimmy and Jason. Jimmy, from Austin, makes some of the most amazing and intricate organic jewelry that I have ever seen. One of the media with which he works is Mammoth Tusk. Freaking Mammoth Tusk! You should check out his stuff. Some of it is sold through BME Shop.

Jason makes glass jewelry in a style that I have never seen before. His company, Gorilla Glass from Mexico City, makes all their jewelry by hand. He was explaining some of the processes used to create the intricate patterns in some of the plugs. Pretty impressive!

We placed all the shirts on the table and loaded it up with stickers. We were now ready for the masses!

They opened the doors to the public and the people came in to do some quick buying of wares before the first class was to begin. There were two rooms of vendors and they both filled up quite nicely. This was the first time the convention opened itself up to people outside of Italy, so they had lot more people than their previous events.

My Italian isn’t so hot … OK, I don’t speak a lick of Italian, so it made it a little difficult to communicate with everyone that was attending the convention. But me being the social butterfly that I am (still sober at this point, FYI), I tried to spark up some sort of conversation with everyone that was coming through. There were just so many cool and friendly people there that I wanted to at least get a “Hello” in. I mean, check out these two guys … how could you not want to say, “What’s up?”

When the announcement for the classes was made, everyone left the vendor spots and filed into the lecture halls for the speeches and workshops that were to be given. Most of the talks were done in Italian with a couple in English. They provided headsets that would give translations into their respective languages. Being the techo-geek that I am, I thought this was one of the coolest parts!

I’m not a piercer or a tattoo artist, so I didn’t follow along to the lectures. But I ran into a nice fellow from Germany that works for named Stephan who seemed to have a similar interest in tech. I asked him why he had an external D-Link WiFi card on his MacBook Pro with a smirk on my face. When he returned the smirk with an equally menacing grin, I knew we’d get along. (Ten points to anyone that knows what he was doing!) [Ed. note: Nerrrrrrrrrrrds.]

Around 2 p.m., I went back to the hotel lobby to get my room and put all my crap into it. Pretty painless. The most difficult part was looking at the bed on my way out of the room. Going on about 24 hours being awake, it was begging me to come lie on it. But no! I had to fight it. Must fight it! If I go to sleep now, I’ll never be in sync with everyone else, and the weekend will be ruined. Back to the convention!

When I got back downstairs I grabbed a Coke for the caffeine. (Coke in Italy doesn’t taste good … neither did the 7-Up, for that matter. Maybe it’s all soda over there … hmm.) We went back to the booth to relieve Rachel so she could go get her room all straightened out now. When I arrived, she was face down on a stack of shirts. I think someone probably got the “bonus” shirt with Rachel drool. (Just kidding … maybe.)

She grabbed her stuff and said she was going to go take a three-hour “nap.” Uh huh … next thing I know, it’s 8 p.m. and everything is over. I packed all the shirts away, and we all headed back to the lobby to meet up and go to dinner. I decided to wake up Rachel so she could come with us out to dinner. I asked the hotel clerk for her room number and she gave it to me (which I found odd). At this point, I’d been up about 30 hours and was kind of losing it. I got to the midget elevator (it’s like six feet high inside … I’m seven feet tall. Sucks for me), and there were two Asian girls in there that were immediately inquisitive about me. I chatted with them on the ride up and got off on the eighth floor. Crap … what was the room number? Ah yes … 813! I walked down the hall and knocked on the door loud enough to hopefully wake her up. Being the slap-happy moron that I am, I put on a stupid grin and song-and-dance stance when I heard the door opening. “Ta-Da! Whoops … my bad. Wrong room. Sorry!” Shit.

Back into the elevator, to the lobby, and I asked the lady again what the room number was that she just gave me. 815! So close.

Then she informed me that I can just call up from the phone right behind me. Why didn’t she say this the first time? I call. It rings. And rings. And rings. Nothing. Great, she’s sleeping the sleep of the dead. Back to the elevator!

Door opens, I go down the hallway to 815 and knock loudly. The door opens, and it’s her. Very groggy, and with “the look.” Not sure what it really means, but it’s kind of an, “I want to kill you, but with a fluffy bunny” look. Exhibit A:

Back in the lobby, we met up with everyone and then decided what to do for dinner. There were two parties: One was downstairs in the hotel restaurant, and the other was a group of people going out somewhere. After having to sit at a table by ourselves downstairs, we decided to meet up with everyone that was going out instead. We jumped in a taxi and were off! We had our own little room in the back, lots of food, lots of wine, and Jimmy threatening to butt-rape everyone there (in the ha-ha kinda way). Good times all around! Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera, but there were a lot of people that did, so I’m sure you’ll see some embarrassing photos floating around.

In the taxi ride back, I began to nod off. Almost there … must stay awake! It was around midnight and I was fading fast. Rachel took a different cab back and waited for me at the door to make sure I got back OK. Aww … how sweet. We agreed to meet up around 8 a.m. downstairs for the continental breakfast, said our good-nights and I headed up to my room.

I’m not sure if my pants even came off. I’m almost positive that I was asleep before I even hit the bed. Forty hours later and I’m out! Day one was over.

Day two began with the hotel maids. They just love to ignore the “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the door. The first time they knocked on the door (yeah, they came about three times) I woke up and opened the door thinking it was Rachel, telling me to get up. Surprise! It was two maids making gestures about how they want to come in and service the room while pointing at the sign! I just laughed. What else could I do? “No, no, no,” I protested, and then went back to sleep. The next couple times they came by I just shouted from the bed to go away.

I wound up finally getting up around 5:30 p.m. The sun was definitely gone. I got myself together and headed downstairs to catch the tail-end of the convention. When I got downstairs, I saw my new friends, Rachel and Stephan, hanging out and goofing around. Ahhh … my people.

Turns out, Rachel had the same though as me this morning, “I’ll just stay asleep a little longer, [Adam/Rachel] is probably already down there running the show.” Haha! We hung out for about an hour and a half until the end of the convention. The next item on the agenda was a fancy dinner banquet in the hotel. The unwritten rule seemed to be, go change into your evening clothes and then meet in the lobby for drinks. Rachel, Stephan, and I seemed have skipped out on the first part of that and just went straight to the lounge. It filled up rather quickly and everyone was in a great mood. To me, this is what conventions are all about. It’s a large gathering of similar thinking people that would normally never meet otherwise having an awesome time trying to talk in all kinds of languages.

Rachel and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t get stuck alone at a table this time, so we headed in first and grabbed a table. Unless everyone secretly conspired against us, we had good a chance of having our friends join us. The room filled up rather quickly and was full of cheerful talk, laughter, and some occasional hollering across tables. Everyone was in good spirits and ready for dinner.

Our first course was a mushroom and asparagus pastry with a cream sauce. I think it lasted about 30 seconds in front of me; it was damn good. The next course was a risotto. Ours wasn’t cooked all the way, and our table turned into the Top Chef judging table. It wasn’t the most delicious thing in the world, but it was good and I was hungry. I also had a feeling that I would not like the main course because the only word on the menu I recognized in the main dish was eggplant … blech! Sure enough, eggplant was delivered. It did have these two giant tater-tot things that were pretty good, but that was all I ate of it. A couple from our table decided to head in early, so we all had the great idea to put our food by their spots so it looked like they didn’t eat the food. It was brilliant!

While we were waiting for dessert, I went over to another table to mingle with a couple from Oslo. I mean, how often do you get to hang out with girls from Norway? While we were chatting, a guy asked me what his shirt said. Yesterday, two guys at the table purchased a shirt from the BME booth with a pictogram that says, “I Screw BME Guys.” Turns out, the “screw” portion of it didn’t translate properly, and they weren’t too pleased that they had been walking around wearing a shirt that said they liked guys. We poked fun at each other for a while about it, and then one of the guys told me that he wanted one of the shirts that I was wearing. I told him that it was impossible because it was the only one: I made it myself for my site. It wasn’t even a BME shirt. But, being the awesome guy I am, I told him that I would trade him shirts, but it had to be right then. He accepted. So in the middle of the dining hall we traded shirts. I think the few glasses of Jagermeister and wine in me helped with this process. Here’s a photo of a happy guy in my shirt:

I spent the rest of the evening in his shirt proudly proclaiming that I screw BME guys … ha ha. Amazingly, girls seemed to have dug it. Or maybe, Jager makes you think that girls like you wearing shirts that say you’re gay. Either way, we all had a great time and great conversations.

The cake came out, and the cheers came from the crowd to Bruno, Brenno, and Beppe for hosting the convention. I’m pretty sure there was even a, “Hip, hip, hooray!” After the toast, we all filed back to the convention area for an evening of entertainment. The hall filled up with everyone eagerly awaiting the sexy burlesque show.

The chairs were about a hundred feet back from the stage, so I took it upon myself to grab a bottle of wine and my camera and go plop down in the front. That seemed to have started a trend. Soon everyone that didn’t have a seat came running up to the front for a closer view of the show. There were three performances, a 20-minute break, and then a few more to wrap it up. The final showing was my favorite. Great use of giant ostrich feather fans. I mean, add a nekkid girl and how could it not be awesome?

When the show ended, everyone parted ways and for the most part went back to their rooms. It was about midnight or so (maybe later … no clue really). Rachel wanted to crash out, so she went to bed. Stephan and I on the other hand wanted to find out where the party was. Mission one: walk up and down the hallways and listen for a party. After three floors, we found nothing! I couldn’t believe it. Mission two: Head to the lobby and see if there were a bunch of people hanging out there.

As soon as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor, there was a girl standing there. Stephan, with his German charm, asks, “What room are you in?” Ha ha! She told us to follow her to meet up with everyone else. Worked for me. We hit up a couple more rooms and picked up a couple others that wanted to hang out and then headed back down to the lobby. Sadly, there was no one there to disturb.

Now we were down to our last mission: Alcohol. The bars were closed, and there weren’t any stores around open to buy anything. Then, like an angel from Croatia, our friend Ana showed up with a bottle of Jager, some vodka, and wine. Hells yeah!

I’m not sure who was all there throughout the evening, but overall, we had a great time! I think we may have gone over the top on the crazy side at some point though. There was a point where a cool Croatian guy was showing me takedown moves with the flick of a wrist, and a Slovenian girl grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos.

The end of the night is a bit foggy, but it was somewhere around four or five in the morning and all the alcohol was definitely gone. We all agreed that the night was over and exchanged our good-nights. Day two had come to an end.

For the third day, I figured I’d get up early. I rolled out of bed around 1 p.m. and went down to the vendor booths. We spent most of the remainder of the conference goofing off and playing with the stickers. Stephan gave us a bunch of “No Piercing Guns” stickers, and Rachel took it upon herself for us to advertise how strongly we feel about it. There was a chair involved so that my head would be in the photo.

Towards the end of the conference, a lot of photo-taking was going on. We all met a lot of new people and had great times sharing the space with each other. I don’t think there was a single person that left the conference without a smile on their face. Everything was just too much fun!

For our final dinner in Milan, Stephan took it upon himself to find a great (not merely “good”) restaurant. Again, with the taxi game of, “Who had the lowest fare?” we all made it to the place just in time before the kitchen closed. Unfortunately the menu was only in Italian, so ordering was a little difficult. Then came in our saviour, Christiano! He played interpreter for us all to the waiter. I accidentally ordered a lump of gelatinous cheese as an appetizer. It wasn’t the most delicious thing in the world, but it was kind of entertaining to eat. The main course for all the meat-eaters was a giant pan of steak and potatoes.

Rachel and I had to do a little convincing and schooling as to why we should order it medium-rare. Can you believe someone actually asked for it medium-well? Sheesh! It was cooked perfectly and had excellent layers of flavor. After the main course, a bunch of people ordered some desserts. Jason got a “special” dessert. We then went through a couple more bottles of wine and headed back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, we wanted to continue the festivities, so we all piled into Rachel’s room with a few more bottles of wine and some heavily demanded trail mix. All I’m going to say here is, don’t light the filter! Ha ha! We all hung out until at least 3 a.m. or so, laughing and carrying on. Jason got us in trouble a couple times because he doesn’t like to be shushed. He just laughs too loudly! And … we kinda kept prodding him to keep him laughing.

Rachel and I had to leave the hotel by 8 a.m., so we knew that we weren’t going to bed that night. Most people bailed around four in the morning to crash in their rooms. Our friends Didier and Christiano kept us company the whole night! They even came down to breakfast with us. Those are some true rockers. For anyone that knows me, staying up 30-plus hours at a time isn’t anything unusual at all, and apparently Rachel’s a big fan of insomnia and working insane hours too. Yay!

Close to 8 a.m., Rachel and I jumped in a cab and headed for the airport. We got through customs and security pretty easily. I guess not too many people were leaving Milan on a Wednesday that early in the morning. We even had time to grab a slice of pizza before getting on the plane.

Our flight back was just over nine hours (crap). I think Rachel passed out pretty much right after take off. I stayed awake just long enough for the free lunch and to watch Lakeview Terrace (which sucked). I then put on my headphones and passed out.

I was woken up by Rachel stepping on me trying to get over me to go to the bathroom. (She’s so mean!) We landed about 20 minutes later. I normally don’t sleep so well on airplanes, but I had no problem this time.

Rachel had to continue on to Austin, so I gave her a hug and said adios. I jumped in a cab and went home. Finally … three weeks later and I get to sleep in my own bed! I had an amazing time in Italy. I wish that I could have seen more of what the city had to offer, but time and weather just didn’t permit it. Maybe I’ll go back for the Milan Tattoo Convention in February. We’ll see!

I hope to meet more of you and build some awesome memories.

Take care everyone!

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BME’s Big Question #5: The Series of Tubes

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:

The Internet has obviously changed the body modification industry dramatically: The amount of information and discussion about it can be staggering, and more people are engaging in it than ever before. Some see this as a positive thing, while others may have misgivings about such an increased amount of attention, and perhaps a watering-down of the talent and art involved.

If you were working prior to body modification’s rise on the Internet, how did you adapt to its emergence? If you came around afterward, how large a role did the Internet play when you were becoming established in your field? And for everyone, what are the positives and negatives of having the Internet available, whether as a tool for research, marketing, or communication? Where do you think the industry would be without it?

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John Joyce
When I first started piercing, I wasn’t aware of any type of body modification community online. Without that online community, I took everything the person who was teaching me to pierce to be truth. What he said was how it was done, and I had no reason to think otherwise. I later found out about BME and IAM. Through BME, I found that there were many things that we were doing that weren’t really the best way to do things. Talking to other piercers online made me a better piercer, helped me improve myself and the studio I was working in.

Now there is so much information out there and so many great piercers, and body jewelry manufacturers online (just on this site alone) that it really irritates me when I see someone doing things half-assed. When I was starting out, you really had to search for information, now it’s right there ready for you to take, but a lot of the new piercers just aren’t taking it.

Derek Lowe
I see the availability of information to be a good thing. It’s not a matter of the information, or its availability, having a negative impact … it’s what people do (or don’t do) that is positive or negative.

As John pointed out however, it does make it extra frustrating when you see people doing things that make no sense at all. The information about various options is so readily available, there is really no excuse (other than laziness or just not caring) for doing things grossly below par.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic and romanticizing things, but I do think there is something to be said for the effort you had to put into finding information before the Internet was around. You had to go out of your way to find books or magazines, you had to actually pick up the phone and call someone or go hang out with them. It required a greater commitment of time and energy from everybody involved.

I think one benefit of the information being less accessible was that it forced people to do more critical thinking about their procedures; especially if it wasn’t a traditional procedure. Instead of hopping on BME or YouTube and seeing pictures/videos of procedures being done, you had to think through the process step-by-step and you had to evaluate what your different options were. You often didn’t have a “right way” to fall back on; you just had the way that made the most sense to you. And that way would likely change as you became more skilled/experienced.

Many younger piercers I deal with these days simply want to know how they are “supposed” to do it. They are often reluctant to consider various options and they just want to know what’s “right and wrong.”

Ryan Ouellette
When I started piercing I remember having to scrounge for any information I could get about piercing. I picked up Grey’s Anatomy and dog-eared all the pages on the ear, face, nipple, etc. It was much more of a challenge finding any useable information. The internet has made it so easy for any idiot to watch some other idiot do a horrible piercing on a third idiot. The Internet is great at helping good piercers become better piercers. But I think it’s used more frequently to turn bored people with no career into shitty piercers.

I grew into the Internet really slowly. I used to have this research folder full of any old article I could come across in print or online. I had to track down bits and pieces over months and years. By the time the Internet really started to trickle out the professional-level information I was already fairly established so I really just used it to learn other people’s little tricks of the trade. I’m glad that I had to work for it in the real world instead of just pulling all the info down off the Web.

I think my professional opinion is that I dislike almost everything about the Internet’s marriage to this industry, minus the publicity aspect, but at least it’s evolution. It started off as a community of professionals sharing information with people they felt comfortable with. There’s no barrier of good judgment or apprehension anymore, it’s all just public domain. I liked it more when people kept secrets and you had to work for it.

John Joyce
Oh man … I know what you’re talking about. The first day of my apprenticeship I was handed folders, and binders, full of random information. I was given an old Gauntlet seminar hand book, interviews with Keith Alexander, Fakir, Jon Cobb, the Modern Primitives Book, all kinds of things.

And when I started apprenticing Shelly, I did the same thing. I gave her all kinds of information and said, “Read all of this and then find your own.” I think it’s important for people coming into this industry to do their own research and not just look to a forum and say, “Hey, how do you do this?” without doing any of their own digging first. We’re always learning and always changing our techniques, so if we can get our apprentices to do their own research right from the start it will keep them being proactive throughout their careers.

Stephen DeToma
I started my own notebook of everything the guy teaching me said. A lot of that helped give me a point of reference as I continued to learn. When I was just cutting my teeth, Ask.BME was something I read often.

I still feel I’m many levels below everyone else on this panel. Hell, I read the writings of more than a couple of you years back. I think I found my way onto BME just after I began my apprenticeship and it’s been an invaluable communication and education tool ever since.

In terms of a glut of availabile information, I certainly echo the displeasure of being able to watch kids sticking each other with needles on the school yard. Not that I think experimentation in youth is a bad thing, I’m sure we’ve all been there. But seeing something on a video through the Internet often lends an air of credibility to the experimentation, allowing others to follow in line.

I remember one afternoon, less than six months of learning in, one of the regulars from the shop brought in a stack of old PFIQs — I thought I had hit the jackpot. Now, being able to pull up any amount of varied articles at any time, it’s certainly easier, but the thrill of the hunt has diminished …

Meg Barber
When I first started my “apprenticeship,” I was given the “Pierce With a Pro” VHS tapes, the “Hole Story” VHS tapes, a pile of old PFIQ magazines, and was told to read and watch.

There was no easily accessible info to be found online really at that point, as BME was still in its earliest stages. I have to agree totally with the above statement,
“Maybe I’m just being nostalgic and romanticizing things, but I do think there is something to be said for the effort you had to put into finding information before the Internet was around.” You had to work to find the info you needed. Anatomy books, medical journals, actually reaching out to other piercers by *gasp* going to their studios, and hands-on trial-and-error were all par for the course, and I think that is why the older set of piercers are better at what we do. We worked for it, same as any job. Chances are, you will never really excel at something if you are just handed it on a silver platter, which is how I see apprentices nowadays.

While I DO think that there is some GREAT info available online, and I see the Internet as a great resource for piercers and other mod artists, I also feel that it contributes to the the over-saturation of idiots in our industry. Perfect case in point:

Me to a client: How did you end up with such a horrible piercing?

Client to me: Well, my friend and I watched this video on how to pierce your own *fill in the blank* on YouTube…

And yes, while these YouTube-trained home piercers are not technically a part of our industry, they are putting out piercings. They are perpetuating the idea that piercing is ugly, full of risk, and a delinquent behavior. The videos are also, for the most part, scary to watch, and I get a ton of clients now that are more terrified than ever after watching them!

I just feel that, like anything, the Internet as a tool for us is both positive and negative. It has its high points. I mean, how else could projects like this be possible? But it has its low points. There is a greater amount of information available to those seeking it, which can be wonderful when that information is put into the right hands, but really, how often have we all cringed when we’ve seen the results of that put into the WRONG hands?

Allen Falkner
In 1979, my father purchased a dual floppy, wooden cased, DOS-based computer called the NorthStar Horizon. With no hard drive, a giant dot matrix printer and a tiny monochrome screen, this magical machine could run the tax software for his CPA firm, making the tedious task of written double-entry book-keeping obsolete. Although the device is now just gathering dust in my garage, at the time it was a tool that allowed his business to grow dramatically without needing to hire more accountants.

Jumping forward a few years … I started piercing in 1992, the World Wide Web didn’t exist and the only comprehensive online resource was the rec.arts.bodyart newsgroup. Yes, there were plenty of photos changing hands in those days, but the random body modification you might see was simply the byproduct of downloading porn. Yes, porn was passed around before the WWW. Crazy, huh? Sites like BME and SPC didn’t exist and the body modification community was inspired by images in printed materials, most notably Modern Primitives, of which many careers including mine got their start.

Back in those days I know the desire for body modification existed, but without the Internet to expose the masses, it remained an obscure art form. It was the practitioners that appeared in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that were the first generation to really cut their teeth simultaneously as the Internet began its influence. Some embraced the new technology and their careers grew and thrived. Others tried and ultimately floundered in the wake of the World Wide Web’s massive and sudden overexposure. Then a third group of modders either missed the boat altogether or purposely avoided the Internet, and who can blame them? For every positive thing posted there seems to be numerous negative and often hateful responses, especially in those days.

Remember the days of film cameras and scanners? Back then people had to take pictures, have them developed and scan them before they could ever be uploaded to the web. It was a time when Paul King was the MTV poster boy for navel piercings, and practitioners were changing from simple craftsmen to rock stars almost overnight. Tattooers may have earned that stature before the rest of us, but the Internet definitely played a key role in helping everyone working in the body modification industry to reach a new level of fame.

Back then if you put a ring in your friend’s penis using a safety pin, you might have been viewed as a hack, but take a picture and put in on the web and you were a pioneer and an innovator, and it didn’t stop there. One ring in a penis? How about two? Three? Heck, why not cut it in half? Half, shit, cut it off!

Now before the age-old debate of how far is too far begins, I will step back and say this: People are going to do what they want. Do photos on the Internet shape the viewer? To an extent, sure. Do these same images inspire people to reach for the next level? Yes, of course, but don’t blame the Web for people’s stupidity and poor choices. It’s like blaming rock music for murder. Giving someone an idea is far different than forcing their hand.

The Internet is a tool, nothing more. A very complex, multifaceted and often entertaining tool … but still just a tool, one that the body modification community uses more effectively than any other hands-on trade. Maybe it’s the fact that our industry blurs the line between craft and entertainment. In a sense we hit the reality crazy before the TV ever did. Want see the strange and bizarre? You can program your TiVo to find the shows or you can just turn on your computer.

So here we are, the subject of constant controversy from both inside and outside our ranks. The male ear piercings we found so shocking the ‘70s hardly raise an eyebrow anymore. Will two-inch lobes and facial tattoos be viewed the same way in 30 years? Who can say? There’s no doubt the Internet has helped body modification to thrive. Would television, film and print media have had the same effect? Probably not, but our growth may have been more controlled. Research would have trickled down slower. International communication would have been difficult at best. Marketing and exposure? Really I have no clue.

If there is nothing else I’ve learned over the years it’s that technology is ever changing. No matter what the field, all industries must learn to adapt and use what is available to the fullest if they hope to survive.

John Joyce
The first shop I worked in used to play the “Pierce with a Pro” VHS tapes in the waiting area. I hated it, but the boss thought it would be good for clients to see what they would be going through beforehand. We used to get this kid who would come in just to watch these videos. Then, guess what? About three months later that kid was piercing at a studio down the street. That was all the research he did. He continued to be a hack for a few years after, before disappearing.

And I agree with Allen that you can’t “blame the web for people’s stupidity and poor choices.” Remember when that picture of the stretched-up Achilles heel piercing was on ModBlog? I thought that was fantastic. It’s amazing to me what the human body is capable of and that there weren’t serious complications from that. I loved that it was on ModBlog because otherwise I would have never gotten to see it. Does that mean I’m going to offer Achilles piercings? No fucking way!!! People need to have some common sense, and take responsibility for themselves.

With the lack of hands on research and initiative, people also seem to be losing professional morals and ethics.

Allen Falkner
You know what’s funny? We were all hacks once, especially the old timers. My training came from a one day course by Fakir. This was before his school, and I was his second student after Erik Dakota.

So in a sense I was one of those hacks that knew very little and just set up shop. In a way I’m kind of glad I did it that way. Because I didn’t have any formal training, I had to work twice as hard to both learn and prove myself.

John Joyce
Right, but you worked hard to learn and improve. People seem to be losing that motivation. Almost 12 years later, I’m still working hard and improving. There are all these piercers now that think they have it all figured out, they are masters of their craft. I just don’t understand that mentality.

Meg Barber
“Because I didn’t have any formal training, I had to work twice as hard to both learn and prove myself.”

Hear, hear.

The kids that think they are master piercers, so to speak, after piercing for a year KILL me. There has been nothing earned, no sacrifices made.

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

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Sean Dowdell’s Opportunity

What Sean Dowdell misses most about the old days — and as of April, his “old days” will go back 15 years — is having his Club Tattoo crew be a tightly knit family that would spend damn-near every waking second together. Back then, it was him and four others, working out of Dowdell’s original Club Tattoo shop in Tempe, Arizona, that he opened with his friend, business partner and then-bandmate, Chester Bennington, now of Linkin Park. Those were days when there were eight tattoo and piercing shops in Arizona, total, as opposed to the 140 or so that one can now find in Phoenix alone. Dowdell and his crew would go out every night, hang out on their days off — closer than blood in some ways, he says. That’s what he misses.

But that isn’t to say he resents his current station in life. Over the last five years, Dowdell has opened up three more Club Tattoo locations in Arizona, expanding that family to 54 employees. Not as tight as the days when one might have found the eventual lead singer of Linkin Park painting the walls and laying tile, perhaps, but Dowdell stresses the importance of cohesion in the face of expansion: A person, any person, should be able to walk into any Club Tattoo and have it feel familiar, he says, and that includes employees.

And what better place to put to the test a mandate of cohesiveness than Las Vegas? On December 1, 2008, Dowdell oversaw a crew begin construction on the newest addition to Club Tattoo: a 3,300-square-foot shop opening up March 1, 2009, on the Miracle Mile in the Planet Hollywood casino, with a staff of at least 14 tattooists and piercers, plus clothing (Club Tattoo has its own clothing brand and recently launched a menswear line called Ve’cel) and high-end body jewelry. But don’t call it a tattoo parlor, Dowdell says: “I’m opening up a lifestyle store.” It’s partially because of this that he doesn’t see himself in competition with Mario Barth at Starlight or Carey Hart at Hart and Huntington, two other prominent casino-based shops in the city.

“Carey is a really good friend of mine,” Dowdell says, dismayed that Hart gets a bad rap in the industry for not being a tattoo artist, “and I want to keep it that way. I’m not looking at it like, ‘Oh, those guys tattoo also, so I have to hate them.’ I’ve never agreed with that behavior. It’s not a positive quality to have.” There’s also the fact that each casino is like an entity unto itself, and with 60,000 to 80,000 people walking in front of your store a day, one is less concerned with a so-called “competitor” down the street. Hell, with crowds like that, it’s almost like being on stage, and for a guy who used to think he’d be a rock star first and run a piercing shop on the side, it’s perhaps fitting that Dowdell would end up on the Vegas strip — at Planet Hollywood, no less.

In 1992, a few years before Club Tattoo first opened its doors, Dowdell played drums for Grey Daze, an alternative rock band fronted by Bennington. They weren’t unsuccessful, managing to score a handful of record deals over six or seven years, putting out three albums, and touring with the likes of Seven Mary Three, Candlebox and Suicidal Tendencies. “It wasn’t a little local band,” Dowdell insists. “We were playing in front 1,500 to 2,000 people every show, at least.” And when the pair started Club Tattoo in 1994, it was Grey Daze that helped put them on the map. Every show was an opportunity to promote the fledgling shop, an advantage that few young businesses have, and by the time the band had run its course in the late ’90s, Club Tattoo was a legitimate success. Plus, with Grey Daze having some cachet, the stage was set for Linkin Park, as well. “We still had our attorneys and everything,” Dowdell says, “and they were still excited about what we were doing, so they placed Chester with a few guys from L.A. and plugged in the machine that was there.” For Dowdell, it was actually a relief to get off the road. “I hate touring,” he says plainly. “It sucks. Seventeen hours of boredom, a couple hours of soundchecks and more boredom, an hour of fun, and then you go to sleep and do it again. There’s just not enough going on on the road.”

Funny, then, that Dowdell found himself touring another circuit over the past two years — and loving it. Having gotten high-profile magazine recognition for some large-scale microdermal projects he’d been doing, he started getting calls from tattoo convention promoters to teach a microdermal seminar. He’d never considered teaching, but after consulting with his friend Trevor Thomas of Urban Art Tattoo and Piercing in Mesa, Arizona, the two decided to give it a shot. Their first crack at it went well, and before long they were being courted by dozens of conventions across the country, drawing an average of 50 attendees per appearance, and typically garnering overwhelmingly positive feedback.

“I wanted to have two different aspects of doing dermals,” Dowdell says of his reasoning for wanting to include Thomas: Dowdell uses the dermal punch method, while Thomas works with an 11-gauge needle. “It’s kinda cool, because when we’re teaching — I wouldn’t say we argue, but we debate a little bit on techniques and why we think things work. It’s a fun situation.” After a while, however, requests for classes started coming from places too remote to justify the travel time and expenses. “I had a few piercers who wanted me to go to Calgary to teach, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s gonna take four days of traveling to get there,’ and it just wasn’t financially worth it — as much as I like to teach people.”

It wasn’t finances that put an end to the seminars, however. After a class over the summer — Dowdell forgets where, but, “Probably Atlanta or Philly,” he says — Dowdell jacked up his back during a game of pickup basketball, herniating two disks and relegating himself to couch duty; between the injury and the subsequent surgery and rehab, he was out of commission for four months. His status started to improve towards the beginning of December, but a relapse sent him back to the hospital for a week. Traveling had been out of the question entirely, so it was lucky that he’d already been working with Vanessa Nornberg, the president of the jewelry wholesaler Metal Mafia, on putting out the course as a DVD and booklet. For Dowdell, given the popularity of the seminars, putting out the DVD was a no-brainer, though the catch was that Nornberg would only sell it to shops with which she had a good rapport.

It wasn’t an accident that it was Metal Mafia to put out the DVD. A year and a half earlier, Dowdell had teamed with them to design and manufacture a new piece of microdermal jewelry. He’d had experience in the field: Around the time he opened up his first Club Tattoo shop, he also began making and selling jewelry under the banner of Fetish Body Jewelry, a company he sold three years later. “I definitely have a wide background in [jewelry making],” he says. “The alloys, what’s in the compounds, the metallurgy involved and how to cut, how to anodize, all that stuff.” So when he ran into Nornberg at a trade show a couple years back and told her the microdermals she was promoting at the time were terrible, it was at least partially out of professional courtesy. “They had this other dermal anchor they were pushing from another piercer named Ben Trigg,” he says, “and I’m sure he liked the stuff, but I hated it. I thought it was awful. And when they asked if I would take on their jewelry line at the shops, I said, ‘No,’ and told them why. I was not nice about it.”

Five months later, however, Dowdell got a call from Nornberg; what he’d said had resonated, and she wanted his help. “At the time,” says Dowdell, “I was not a fan of Metal Mafia, on account of the sub-par jewelry they were selling,” but after meeting with Nornberg, he was convinced that the company was truly dedicated to improving their product. He’d been speaking with other jewelry manufacturers beforehand, and was unimpressed with their philosophies and methodologies. “Usually, you’re dealing with jewelry companies who just don’t want to spend the money to make jewelry the right way — and that includes some of the bigger, more well known companies,” he says. “And I kept talking to these companies, saying, ‘Well, this would be better if …’ and they’d say, ‘Yeah, but it costs too much money, we’re not gonna do it.’

“Well, you’re not a piercer, and you have a piercer who knows what he’s talking about telling you that this should be better, and you don’t care because of money. That sucked.”

“Permanent” corset with microdermals by Sean Dowdell.

But Metal Mafia, he found, was different, almost repentant, and when he took that call, Nornberg essentially told him that she knew they weren’t an elite jewelry company, but she was prepared to spend the money to make sure they became one. “It was a very bold way to approach it,” Dowdell says, who hopes the trend of jewelry companies consulting with piercers when designing jewelry continues. “They can’t just produce poor quality jewelry and put it out there and expect to be respected.”

Dowdell is big on respect. At this point, he feels like he’s earned it, but being as successful as he is, he’s used to being trashed publicly. “With four large shops here in Arizona,” he says, “some of the smaller shops just think we suck because we’re popular. Well, OK. That’s just the way it goes in business, I guess — once you start doing well, you’re gonna have haters.”

But does he take it personally?

“If it’s personal, I do!” He laughs. “If it’s somebody running their mouth and they’ve never been in the stores, then no. But my shops have set the standard in Arizona, and that’s just the truth of it, whether they like it or not.”

It’s bravado, to be sure, but it’s well-earned — and probably a necessity with Club Tattoo’s upcoming Vegas expansion, a project that itself is nearly five years in the making, that began with Dowdell being approached by the Hard Rock about opening up a shop on the grounds.

“We came down to the finishing touches on the lease,” he says, “and then they jacked us pretty good. One of the guys ended up taking a bribe from another tattoo shop that got wind of the deal, and we ended up getting pushed aside so they could get those guys in there, even though we’d worked for months with them.” But of course, nothing in Vegas is ever that simple. “They have to do background checks in Vegas, and it turned out that one of the guys had a sexual assault on his record, so they couldn’t give them the lease.” The Hard Rock came back to Dowdell, who told them to go screw — he was being courted by another casino, called The Cosmopolitan.

“It was right around the time that Hart and Huntington opened up inside The Palms,” he says, “so we agreed to go with The Cosmo, which was supposed to open last year. Well, they went into bankruptcy after we’d already had our lease in place with them, and at the time, we’d already been delayed for a full year. We were tired of waiting.”

Luckily, Planet Hollywood had been keeping tabs on the situation, and once The Cosmo deal fizzled out, they made their move, and Dowdell has been thrilled with the results thus far. Planet Hollywood was one of only a few casinos with positive growth in 2008, Dowdell says, and its demographic — 18-to-35-year-olds — fit right in with Club Tattoo.

As the opening of the Planet Hollywood shop approaches, Dowdell’s days are only getting fuller. He still pierces (by appointment only), and typically visits at least two of his Arizona shops a day to check in with his artists and piercers, to make sure the jewelry cases are well organized and that all buying is up to date, and to deal with any complaints from customers. “Generally, there aren’t any,” he says, “but I like to deal with those first thing in the morning.” His afternoons usually involve a couple of meetings, plus, at the moment, speaking with the Vegas construction crew for at least an hour, and he tries to be home by about 6 p.m. to spend time with his two sons, aged 13 and eight. His staff may not be the small and symbiotic family it was 15 years ago, but having a family of his own makes those sorts of changes easier to deal with.

He prefers where he’s at now, the slow and steady shift from managing an independent shop to overseeing a burgeoning chain delivering plenty of satisfaction. He balks at the idea, however, that it was a natural progression. “I saw an opportunity,” he says. “You have to be prepared when an opportunity presents itself and make the best of it. Some people do and some people don’t.”

Club Tattoo partners, left to right: Sean Dowdell, Chester Bennington, Sean’s wife Thora Dowdell.

All photos courtesy of Sean Dowdell. Visit Club Tattoo online at

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2008 BME Year-End Awards

Some may find it trite to say things like, “Without the readers, none of this would be possible,” but with BME it could not be more true — each and every year, the community sustains us. Without you, there would be nothing here, and we’re routinely awed by the amount and quality of submissions we receive. This year, we published thousands upon thousands of new photos and experiences, to say nothing of guest articles, Ask.BME contributions and roundtable participation, and that, friends, is incredible. And now, on with the awards!



1. 8,707 images


2. 5,834 images
Kitano Karyuudo
3. 2,930 images
4. 1,476 images
Joao Caldara
5. 1,339 images
6. 1,027 images
7. 995 images
8. 979 images
Allen Falkner
9. 929 images
10. 903 images


1. 12 experiences

2. 10 experiences

3. 9 experiences
Deadly Pale

4. 8 experiences

5. 7 experiences (tie)

5. 7 experiences (tie)

7. 5 experiences (tie)

7. 5 experiences (tie)
Metal Faced Yazzy

7. 5 experiences (tie)

7. 5 experiences (tie)
Melissa Rose

7. 5 experiences (tie)

7. 5 experiences (tie)


Tiff Badhairdo
Ask.BME staff
Meg Barber
Roundtable member
Brian Decker
Roundtable member
Stephen DeToma
Roundtable member
Allen Falkner
Roundtable, Author
Russ Foxx
Ask.BME staff
Ron Garza
Roundtable, Author
Warren Hiller
Ask.BME staff
Derek Lowe
Ask.BME, Roundtable
John Joyce
Roundtable member
Paul King
Lexci Million
Ask.BME staff
Ryan Ouellette
Ask.BME, Roundtable
Sean Philips
Ask.BME staff
Shawn Porter
Ask.BME, Author
Efix Roy
Ask.BME staff
Joy Rumore
Lori St. Leone
Ask.BME staff
Steve Truitt
Roundtable member
James Weber


Phil Barbosa
Image processing, party
planning, mustache rides

Mike Brum
Server maintenance,
TOS banhammer

Jason Cartwright
Programmer, code-

RooRaaah Crumbs
BMEvideo guru, Mod-
Blogger, whimsy

Jordan Ginsberg
Managing editor, head
writer, dick jokes

Tristan Henry-Wilson
Graphics, T-shirt
design, lithe
Jen Savage
Customer service,
loud noises

Jonathon Marshall
Former programmer and
over-all tech genie

Rachel Larratt
Publisher, Editor-in-
Chief, BMEshop, HBIC




If you’re pictured above, BME will contact you privately. Thanks again, everyone, and we’re looking very forward to an even bigger and better 2009!

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Helsinki Sideshow Night

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Helsinki played host to a truly amazing night of sideshow performances, featuring appearances by Maleficent Martini and Lucky Mladineo, Operafication, Pain Solution, The Saviours and Swing Shift Sideshow. This is an account of that evening, written by Lucky Mladineo, with accompanying photos by Riina Aarrekorpi and Tatu Blomqvist.

On a chilly Saturday night in September, within the walls of famous rock venue Nosturi, sitting imposingly on the edge of the docks overlooking the Baltic Sea, the scene was set for the first Helsinki Sideshow Night. Before things got too hectic, I walked through the crowd. As with the general feel of Helsinki, diversity was present and every type, stereotype and non-stereotype you could pick was there to see what this Sideshow fuss was about.

As Jussi took some time to welcome the crowd and introduce the first act, behind the curtains everyone that was not a part of the Operafication performance left the stage. As the curtains opened, silence swept through the room. The Operafication show is not one you can really explain: it has that special quality that requires you to be there and experience it in the flesh. So all I can say is that the expression on the sea of faces in the crowd varied evenly between confusion, appreciation and awe, and in the end, applause was somewhat stifled by shock, as beauty and sadness were brought together with mainstream theatre story telling through a very abstract medium. In the end, an Opera star, on the most bizarre of stages, impressed the hell out of everyone, especially those sceptical, “What is this Opera shit” few. As the curtain closed for the 20-minute break, you could almost hear the collective deep breath out of everyone watching.

The break ended, and Miss Martini and I got ready to do the opening act we had come up with for the Sideshow extravaganza. I secured my fake beard, climbed into the prop-box and waited for the music to start and curtains to introduce us. Martini delicately stepped point-toe by toe onto the stage, while I was having a hard time pretending to be asleep in the box — I was so excited and wanted to watch! As I climbed out of the box, all our choreography went out the window but it didn’t really matter and it all came together when we got into a nice, old fashioned cat-fight. Some punches, ballet shoes and abuse was thrown back and forth, some hair was pulled, but in the end we reconciled, letting out a collective “Aw!” and fumbling our way through a dance routine to welcome everyone at the microphones, screaming together, “Welcome to the Helsinki Sideshow Night!”

I sat high up side stage for the best viewpoint to watch and take notes for the show, and I was also attempting to get some backstage footage. Spotting Jussi’s bunny ears above me, fumbling with my pen, notepad and camera, I leaned forward to make the artsy shot and just about fell onto the stage — oops. Eye on the job, not the Bunny!

Pain Solution took to the stage in their usual charming manner and got right down to some don’t-try-this-at-home instruction. A little glass eating from The Maniac and some comedic narration from The Headmaster (“Bling in your poo” — that was a good one, Håvve) and the crowd was up and clapping. Pain Solution’s stage presence and international appeal was evident within the first 10 minutes of their show, their re-creation of the all time classic Human Blockhead act into a Blues Brother’s dance-along is testament to their originality and style.

As I watched Håvve put out a giant torch in the trunk of his underwear, I wondered, was he born on stage? The smell of singed hair (or flesh?) floats in the air but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, and they were going wild. Applause and yelling quickly became screaming and downright vocal chaos, either from the half naked Headmaster with a torch down his pants, or at the introduction of Swing Shift Sideshow to the stage. Actually I think it was the latter, as I do remember hearing someone cry out “Las Vegas, FUCK YEAH!” from the middle rows at the mere mention of their name. But really, they had no idea what they were in for. Miss Kelvikta the Blade and Andrew decided to give them a little taste of the Swing Shift style, both swallowing flaming swords. And if the crowd thought it couldn’t get much better than swallowing flaming swords, the Headmaster proved them wrong, breathing fire onto the flames igniting massive fireballs and even more frenzied reactions. Everyone just started screaming maniacally and aesthetically a stage couldn’t really look any better — now the night had really begun!

The night was divided up seamlessly, and with an ease of flow that is not usual to first time events of this size. Pain Solution and Swing Shift commanded the stage interchangeably, to address, entertain and scare the hell out of the very enthusiastic audience. Both groups have pushed side show and showmanship creatively to larger than life status and both in somewhat different directions, but the two worked contagiously together. Bouncing from one to the other, stunt to stunt and having a total stranglehold on everyone’s attention by not giving them any kind of break and really setting the tone for madness. Each stunt had at least a few over-stimulated viewers covering their mouths and eyes, and many having to turn away completely more than once. The screams and Finnish cursing (e.g. “Vittu” = “Fuck,” “Ei Saatana…!” = “No fucking way…!”) were heard frequently from where I was sitting way up in the wings, and were definitely escalating as the night continued and the side show rolled on …

After all that excitement, it was time for a bit of a romantic interlude. Slow music hit the amplifiers as Helsinki boys, The Saviours, set up their stage of love. PooPoo the Bunny sat down at a table, looking his furry best, kicking back with a big bottle of liquor and pills, while Lassi, in his German-style get-on-it pants and ever so insinuating smile, casually tried to slip his arm around the uninterested though intoxicated bunny. The Saviours mimed their show and it translated effortlessly — you could feel the love from the crowd at their brand of dark, slightly romancing comedy, which is totally at home in Finland. Everyone knew just what was going on when Lassi took to his zipper and to a beer keg. As Foghat hit the chorus of “I just wanna make love to you” and the beat dropped in, Lassi dropped his balls to the sound of screaming fans. From my experience in Finland, people simply cannot get enough of Lassi and his penis. But perhaps PooPoo was a little disturbed by this gratuitous show of genitals, because a fight broke out between the two, and Headmaster Håvve had to come in and remove them, Lassi by the ear, PooPoo by the bunny ear.

Once order was regained, Headmaster set up his stage to start the audience on a journey to even more chaos. Håvve standing on swords and demanding at the audience, “So do you want blood?!” getting them ready for the next instalment of madness. When Andrew and Kelvikta re-appeared, the reaction was something like hysteria. Andrew S. took the microphone and once the small talk was laid out, he pulled out the big gun, or in his case, the big coil, and the excitement was unavoidable, Andrew never fails to impress within a few minutes of getting to know the audience. Again, I couldn’t decide what to watch, the show or the reactions of the crowd. Swing Shift were once again amazingly well received and this has a lot to do with Andrew’s much loveable stage presence, his very brave attempts at using Finnish under pressure, and of course, Miss Kelvikta is always a big crowd favourite. When she asked for a cigarette, she had a whole packet thrown at her. Are we sensing a theme here?

The feeling of “Oh my god!” had started to filter onto the stage by the second half of the show and exploded with Swing Shift’s first few death defying stunts. If there was a climax to this feeling being emitted from the audience, it was definitely with the 30-kilogram anvil eye lift. I just remember everyone screaming like murder victims as Andrew swayed the Acme-style anvil, and Kelvikta threw up the metal hand.

Shrieking, screaming, laughing and having to turn away completely, the audience were both entertained and a little tormented through the night, having their boundaries pushed and testing their limits and opinions of what’s shocking. More than a few found out the fun way at the first annual Helsinki Sideshow Night.

Photos by: Riina Aarrekorpi and Tatu Blomqvist

All photos are copyrighted. Full resolution versions and more photos are available. To obtain them, please contact the photographers via e-mail: [email protected] / [email protected].

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It’s Not Her Job To Make You Cry

When I call Kim Saigh, she’s just waking up. Hey, understandably — it’s 7 a.m. in L.A., and it’s a Sunday morning to boot. But this is the time she suggested, and she’s apologizing, trying to stifle yawns, insisting that she’s usually awake by now. I tell her not to worry; I’m three hours ahead in Toronto and I can still barely see straight. It turns out that in Kim’s world, 7 a.m. isn’t so bad. When L.A. Ink — the TLC show on which Saigh is a star — is in production (which, luckily it isn’t at the moment), Saigh is often up at 5 a.m. to make sure she has time for yoga before heading into the shop. “It’s such an important part of my life,” she says of yoga, which she claims is as vital to her as tattooing or any other kind of art. “It’s kind of my saving grace.”

For a sleepy woman who hasn’t yet had her coffee or done her yoga, Saigh can sure as hell keep a conversation moving, which is apparently one of the things a person learns to do after being filmed 50 hours a week for three seasons of a television show. When asked if she’d ever done anything like L.A. Ink before signing on, she responds with a hearty “Hell no.” Long before the show, she was the sort of kid who would cry if she had to read a book report to the class, but something about having one’s life broadcast to millions of people helps a person come out of her shell — helps a person stop being the type to jump out of the path of others on the sidewalk. “I don’t tiptoe around people anymore,” she says.

But these aren’t the benefits one might predict in such a situation, and it wasn’t an opportunity she initially jumped at. She was ten years into working out of Cherry Bomb, a small, private, off-street level studio she owned with Patrick Cornolo in Chicago’s then-ungentrified Wicker Park neighborhood, and life then was good — no employees, no stragglers strolling in just to check up — when she received a call from Juan Puente, a mutual friend of hers and Kat Von D’s. Kat was looking for girls for a show called L.A. Ink — a sister program to Miami Ink — and wanted Saigh to throw her name in. Saigh was reluctant. “No way,” she remembers saying, “I’d never do that, not in a million years. That’s crazy.” She and Puente argued back and forth, “You’re gonna do it,” “The hell I am,” and so on, until Puente finally told her that he was going to put her name on the list whether she liked it or not. Worst case, she gets a call and then decides to say no. Fine. Whatever. But Cornolo was even less accommodating of her indecisiveness, and told her, again, that she had to do it. Well, when he put it that way, Saigh couldn’t really think of a reason not to do it, other than being shy and scared. It could only do good things for her career, she realized, so if it was just her shyness holding her back? She had to get her ass out there and do it.

Joining the cast was not without its adjustments. Outside of the taping schedule, she’ll book her own appointments as always, but for the show, her clients are more or less picked out for her. She gets to do some level of pre-screening, and won’t often be saddled with something she hates entirely, but she doesn’t quite have veto power, either. In an early episode in the first season, she recalls tattooing a small symbol on a girl to commemorate the client’s battle with an eating disorder, a piece that probably took her all of five minutes, but that had a substantial enough story behind it to warrant inclusion. After the show aired, she got an earful from her friends. “They were calling me and were like, ‘What the fuck?’” Saigh says, “‘You don’t do that shit! What are you doing? It’s making you look bad.’ And I got really self conscious about it. But I also thought, first off, I’m a tattoo artist. I’m not above doing a small tattoo, even though that’s not necessarily where I want to focus my energy. But it definitely made me choosier about what I sign off on.”

The manner in which some requests get tossed out has indeed changed for a person with newfound international visibility. “I’ll look at my tattoo application forms,” Saigh says, “and be like, ‘Really, someone lives in Sydney and wants me to do a wristband.’ Chances are, they’re not gonna fly here. It’s different to eliminate people that way.” It’s the sort of trophy-collecting phenomenon that most “famous” artists will experience: People who want to get tattooed not because the artist is skilled at a particular style the client wants, but rather because they want to be worked on by “Kim from L.A. Ink.” The funny thing, Saigh says, is that people don’t pay as much attention as you’d think. “Some people will come up to me and say, ‘I really love that tattoo you did,’” she says, laughing, “and I’ll say, ‘Uh, Hannah [Aitchison] did that tattoo.’ Or, ‘Corey [Miller] did that tattoo.’ Or people will write in and say, ‘You and Pixie are my favorite artists.’ Well, Pixie doesn’t tattoo. It’s eye-opening in the sense that you really see that you can’t take any opinions too seriously.”

Regardless, Saigh doesn’t quite feel like a celebrity, though maybe that’s because, as she claims, she’s the least recognized of the bunch. “I wear long sleeves,” she says, “I hide my tattoos a lot. Not on purpose — usually, I’m just freezing.” She laughs. “I moved to L.A. and I’m still cold.” Recognition occurs most often at the airport, she says, when she goes through security and has to take off her sweater or coat, and notices people whispering all over. “It makes you a little self-conscious,” she says. It’s almost like people expect her to go over and say hi to them, rather than the other way around. “I’m not going to walk over and say hi to you,” Saigh says. “If you’re not staring at me for the reason I think you’re staring at me, then I’m gonna feel really stupid.” This isn’t uncommon at the shop — people standing near the door, wanting to take her picture, but being afraid to ask. She may come across as rude to some, she realizes, but she’s got her limits: To Saigh, being a celebrity just means somebody you don’t know knows your name. When she was on her own, she knew all of her clients, and they often came by word-of-mouth. Now the common denominator is that they all know her — or, at least, they think they do.

But just as clients assume they know her story, so too is Saigh supposed to learn about them — at least when the cameras are rolling. This can be challenging. For every season, each artist will do about 40 tattoos, 13 of which will make it to air, and it’s not going to be the ones the artists want, necessarily; it’ll be the hot girl, Saigh says, “or the really interesting, sad, touching story.” Such is a pitfall of the tattoo reality show genre: the idea that every tattoo must have a substantial and important story to it. “That isn’t what I’m used to,” she says. “I definitely think the show’s made people feel like they need to have a reason to get tattooed, which is not really what I want to promote. It should have significance, but I always tell people that you should get tattooed because you like tattoos. You do not have to memorialize someone by getting a tattoo — it doesn’t mean you love them less if you don’t.”

Saigh admits that she’s not always as apt to engage a client in the show’s preferred line of questioning as she should be, and then stops mid-sentence. “Oh my God,” she says, speaking of clients’ stories. “I had an awful thing happen the other day.”


“I don’t even know if I should tell you. I’ll only tell you if you don’t use it.”

I wear her down on this one.

“Fine,” she says, laughing and cringing as audibly as a person can. “I was tattooing this girl, this really sweet girl who was getting a really cool tattoo, and we were talking.” This was outside of filming hours. “She asks me if the producers have questions for me to ask clients, and I tell her they do, but that I’m bad at it — it’s hard for me to walk and chew gum at the same time, so they definitely need to prompt me a bit. I get really into my work, I tell her, and I’m not much of a talker. I mean, they already know these people’s stories, so if I’m not asking something, they’ll usually nudge me, because I’m just not nosy by nature. I’ll let them tell me, I say, but I’m not going to sit there and ask, ‘So, how big was your tumor?’

“So we sit there for a minute, and finally I ask, ‘Well, while we’re at it, what is the reason you’re getting this tattoo?’ And she says, ‘Well, I had a tumor …’”

Saigh laughs, but her mortification is palpable. Luckily, she says, the client was cool about it, but this is just an example of why the Q-and-A part of the job isn’t always her favorite. “That’s not what I feel like my job is,” she says. “My job is to do a good tattoo. I don’t feel like my job is to pull their demons out or to make ’em cry.”

This sort of exhibition is often cited by tattoo industry professionals who take issue with these sorts of shows — that they commodify the art-form, or that they give the wrong impression about what the tattoo industry is really like, leading to a glut of clients who are getting tattoos because they’re trendy, rather than because they truly love them. “Well,” Saigh says, “the people who are getting tattooed because it’s a trend? It’s like gluing a pair of parachute pants to your ass and saying, ‘I’m gonna wear these forever,’ because they’re the coolest things that ever came out, and those people are going to learn a hard lesson, unfortunately.”

But what about other tattoo artists who bag on the show? “I definitely think a lot of them are big babies,” she says. With the economy the way it is, Saigh reflects on the fact that people are still finding the time to come in and get tattooed, and that tattoo artists are fortunate enough to draw on people all day. “We’re not emptying trash cans, we’re not sitting in cubicles or cleaning bedpans — we draw on people. We have absolutely nothing to complain about.” She says that nobody on the show is full enough themselves to declare them the best in the field, and that they do try to retain as much integrity as possible, and take as much care as possible in terms of how they represent the industry.

As for how she is portrayed on the show, Saigh says that it “shows a side of me that’s very real.” She’s polite, she admits, and easy-going, and pretty happy in general, but there’s definitely more to her that doesn’t always make the cut. “I don’t talk that much,” she says, “and when I do, I’m pretty sarcastic and pretty dry. I like to say things sometimes that maybe I shouldn’t say — but maybe that’s why they don’t put them on there. I think I’m a lot more of a smart-ass than I come across as.”

And that’s a problem?

“Well, I think I’d rather have them make me look nice than make me look like an asshole.”

If there’s one thing the show misses, Saigh feels, it’s the interaction with the audiovisual crew. “That’s the thing that’s the most fun about the show,” she says. “I fucking love our crew. The people I’ve met, camera people, sound people, watching what they do and seeing how they put it together, watching what they look for, watching the monitors, just them being silly — that’s the best part of the show. And it’s the part that the viewing audience will never see.”

But the show has nonetheless been a positive experience for Saigh, if a little strange: Any good artist will notice progression in their work, but very few will have that progression documented and broadcast for millions of viewers around the world — especially when some of the subject matter may not be their first choice. “You have to let go of that,” she says, “and it forces you to take tattoos that may be kind of ehhh and make them exciting. Not that I don’t do that already, but I don’t like to force people to get something more than what they’re asking for. Sometimes, I feel like it’s my job to just be a technician.

“But I think the one thing the show makes you more aware of is that, yes, everybody’s going to see this, so they can watch you trace and color it perfectly, or you can take it to the next level.”

All photos ©TLC (The Learning Channel). Visit Kim online at, and to purchase art by her, visit

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The Education of Shawn Barber

As an art teacher, Shawn Barber had a reputation. Teaching damn-near every class offered at the Ringling School of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida, his alma mater, and later at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, he was often frustrated — frustrated and disappointed — at what he saw as a lack of dedication from many of his students. Not that they were unskilled, necessarily, but he didn’t see artists: He saw people who wanted others to think they were artists. And so he told them that.

“You should probably drop out now. Save your mommy and daddy some money, and wait. Go to community college.”

He felt comfortable laying that bracing honesty on his students because he could see patterns developing — many of which, for him, began in his own life. Barber himself screwed around during his first run through college, “partying, thinking I knew more than my teachers,” and ended up dropping out and wasting years. “I know who those kids are,” he says, “and I know they’re not doing themselves any favors by putting themselves in debt for no reason other than being lazy.”

It was the responsible thing to do, as far as he was concerned. Most kids, Barber says, don’t even want to be in school. They’re there because they’re supposed to be, or because their parents will cut them off if they don’t go. They didn’t want to produce anything, didn’t want to be told what to do, didn’t want to make progress. Barber felt that he had information to share and wanted to help people get better, “But I don’t want to be somebody’s daddy, I don’t want to be a fuckin’ babysitter, I don’t want to be a fuckin’ psychologist,” he says. And so he quit, in December of 2007.

Nowadays, if Barber’s teaching, it’s often for a different clientele: Tattoo artists. He hits on the order of 15 conventions a year, all over the world, and typically offers a three-hour portrait painting seminar, during which he’ll make a painting before the class while explaining the process and analyzing it as he goes along. This, far more than university-level teaching, is his bag. “The thing with most every tattooer out there,” he says, “except for maybe the last few years, is that many have never had any kind of art training. Maybe a class here or there, but not really art school, or a regimented, rigid, structured environment where you’re forced to make stuff for a number of years. They tattooed either out of a desire to just want to do it, or for money, and most of them are really good artists trying to make the best art they can — on bodies.” One of the results of tattoo artists exploring their options with more formal training, he says, is a greater expansion beyond tattooing and into the world of fine art.

Barber, meanwhile, is going the other way. Coming from a fine arts background and well established as a commercial artist, with clients including Rolling Stone, Rock Star Games, Saks Fifth Ave, American Airlines and Converse — “I’m doin’ alright!” he says, laughing — he’s three years into a tattoo apprenticeship under Mike Davis at Everlasting Tattoo in San Francisco, a path he couldn’t have quite imagined when he got to San Francisco four years ago. “I had an idea of tattooing when I was 17,” he says, “but not when I got out of school at 29. It definitely was not the direction my head was.”

Which is not to say Barber was uninvolved with tattoo culture beforehand. He’s been getting work done ever since he laid down for a Spiderman tattoo on his leg when he was 16, and has since become much more heavily covered. Perhaps most notable, however, are his “Tattooed Portraits” — an ongoing series of mostly photorealistic paintings of tattoo artists and other heavily tattooed people, some of which were compiled in a 2006 book of the same name. But even with a pedigree like that, Barber had to start his apprenticeship the way anyone else would — cleaning up everybody’s shit, setting up appointments, making needles, putting together tattoo machines. Even still, it may not have worked out so well were it not for the shop itself, and specifically its owner, Mike Davis, who is also a painter. “It just made sense. A painter who wants to tattoo, and a tattooer who paints. We just kinda connected, and could help each other out.”

In January of this year, Barber finally started charging customers and taking walk-in clients, currently working out of the shop three days a week, a process that has not been without its stresses for the man who would freely tell his students that they were not meant to be artists. “You’re dealing with so many different elements,” he says. “You have the awkwardness of not knowing the craft, and you have your own personal skills that you bring to the table, but there’s still this uncertainty, and you can’t commit to something permanent without being confident, or else that’s going to show. So it’s that balance between those two fuckin’ completely different dynamics. But when it works? It’s fuckin’ super cool. It’s really exciting.”

He’s not at the point where he’s trying to establish himself as the go-to for a certain style — “I’m not sure there’s anything I’d say I’m really proud of yet,” he says, laughing, “but maybe a few things that I’m happy enough with.” Though he does lean towards the subject matter of his non-tattoo art somewhat, working with mixing realism with traditional tattooing — heavily graphic with a lot of rendering, perhaps, but also graphic in the understood sense of tattoo tradition, and playing off of those two.

Oh, and skulls. Lots and lots of skulls. “Skulls are always cool tattoos, man,” he says. “You can’t really go wrong with a skull.”

While Barber may not be the first fine artist to transition into tattooing, he may well be emblematic of a developing trend, and he giddily describes this current era of tattooing as a “renaissance.” Now, more than ever, he says, tattooing is not the rogue operation it once was, and is even becoming a desired destination for students of fine art once they leave school. “I even had a few students in the past that were already tattooers,” he says, “working for a couple years, and they were doing both full-time school and tattooing professionally. That’s some fucking commitment, you know?”

These eras of exciting advancement and evolution come in waves, he says, maybe every ten years or so. He refers to the ’90s in San Francisco, to Ed Hardy and the emergence of others over the years: “You used to have a couple pioneers, and then there were a handful of pioneers. Now? It’s like a fucking tsunami or something.” Another upshot of this, he believes, is the (hopefully) friendly competition it’ll stoke — if the newcomers are highly trained, it should inspire the established artists to get even better, right?

Well, to a point. If there is a backlash, it’s likely to come from the older generation, he says, those in their fifties and sixties and beyond, who are so entrenched that the idea of formal art training may be something of an insult. When discussing this, Barber frequently breaks to ensure that he’s not coming off as condescending or a dick — his respect and admiration for the craft and his forbears is obvious in his trepidation when broaching a subject that could in any way be construed as negative towards the pioneers of the industry. So when he speaks of the “crudeness” of style of some of the older artists, it’s not a criticism; it’s a uniqueness and charm that Barber loves, but it’s also probably true that many of those artists don’t feel like they need to get any better. And collectors like Barber could not agree more. “Tattoos don’t necessarily have to look like the best thing in the world to be some of your favorites,” he says.


“I have a shit-house on my leg,” he says, “an outhouse” — the calling card of an old-time L.A.–based tattoo artist, Tennessee Dave. Dave recently required cornea surgery, but without any health insurance, was going to be in a tough spot, so a number of artists got together to raise money for him. Barber painted a portrait of him that was sold on eBay, with all of the profits going to Dave, and as a token of gratitude, Dave tattooed one of his famous shit-houses on Barber. “It’s a fucking cool tattoo,” he says,”and it reminds me of this moment in time, and it’s something we both could share. It’s pretty rad. And at the time he was working with one eye!”

As much as Barber may represent a certain skill-set–related shift, he seems to hold dear many of the culture’s customs, deriding legislation that forces new tattoo artists in some states to attend “tattoo schools,” or makes established artists earn some sort of accreditation. “It’s not necessary,” he says, “Why wouldn’t you stick with the traditions that work? The apprenticeship system works, and it’s a tradition that shouldn’t get lost. It’s a very human occupation — you’re dealing with humanity.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the premium on tradition in the tattoo community can lead to some resistance with regard to any changes at all, be they positive moves or the government just trying to bilk artists for cash. The industry, he says, has just been closed for a long time.

“But,” he says, “it’s also self-sufficient, it’s self ruling. There are standards that just about everybody applies to themselves. And they’re very careful. They know all the bloodborne pathogens stuff, and they do things the right way … though there are a lot of fools who don’t, and things will come back to bite them in the ass. A lot of shops don’t even have people fuckin’ sign a waiver. Crazy.”

As much of a part of the tattoo community as Barber is feeling, though, he still just considers himself an artist above all else. He paints every single day, at least six-to-eight hours a day — sometimes more. Even being on the road at conventions and gallery showings upwards of 15 days a month, he’s still sure to bring his equipment with him no matter what. Sometimes it’s an 8-inch-by-10-inch piece that he can burn through in a few hours, while others may be 80-inch-by-60-inch monsters. All told, he typically produces about 80 pieces a year, and claims to have painted over a thousand over the last ten years, all of which are made to show in galleries, and most of which are sold. (Or traded, either to tattooers, other artists, or galleries themselves.)

The medium for Barber seems almost inconsequential. Although he can see himself moving up to working four or five days a week as a tattoo artist, he refuses to say that becoming a full-time tattoo artist is the goal. “The goal,” he says, “is to become a better artist, both as a tattooer and a painter. Those are my two passions.” The satisfaction that comes from completing a tattoo is near identical to the feeling of finishing a painting, he says — art is art. And almost without exception, his reception from the tattoo community has been positive. “Unless I don’t know about it,” he says, laughing. “The haters don’t come out. You don’t always necessarily know who hates you. I don’t have time or energy for those people. If they hate me, they don’t know me. Most people hate because their lives are so shitty they don’t have anything better to do than talk shit. It’s just a waste, man.”

Upcoming Art Showings:

- 3 person show at Last Rites Gallery in New York City, December 2008
- Solo show at The Shooting Gallery in San Francisco, 2009
- 2 person show at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal, September 2009
- Solo Show at the Joshua Liner Gallery in New York City, 2010
- Solo Show at Billy Shire Fine Arts in Culver City, 2011

Upcoming Convention Appearances:

- Feb-March: Musink, 25 City US Tour, Tattoo Convention with Social Distortion and others
- May: Rome, Italy Tattoo Convention

* * *

Please consider buying a membership to BME so we can continue bringing you articles like this one.

Cut Both Ways — Yolngu Style

Ferg having his face painted

Napurr dhu gurrupan yuranawuy rom wawawal

We will give our brother admission to our law.

My name is Stephen Miller Ferguson, known to most around the world as Ferg. I currently live in NE Arnhem Land, a special place in the geography of Australia: touching the sea, north of centre, near the coast of both the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea. It was declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931 and thankfully the people known as “Yolngu” (often pronounced simplistically as “Yol-Noo”) have, for the most part, succeeded in retaining and maintaining their strong, local, Aboriginal traditions.

At the time of writing I have been a teacher in this small, remote Indigenous community for three out of the last four years. I have been adopted into the Garawirrtja clan group, my skin name is Narritj and my moiety is Yirritja. (Everything in Yolngu life is separated into two moeities: “dhuwa” and “yirritja,” a bit like the idea of “yin and yang” or “masculine and feminine,” but completely different.)

First of all I would like to give official recognition to the traditional owner Paul Wunungmurra, on whose homeland this was performed and thank him for giving us permission to do so. I would also like to formally acknowledge Yolngu ownership of this ceremony.

What follows is my own account as participant observer in a Yolngu Male Initiation Ritual performed on me. It is not secret; therefore, it is safe and appropriate to share the experience with others through photograph, film and writing. Permission was granted by the local people responsible for and who have ownership of, the ceremony to document it and discuss it. They share my hopes that this will benefit many people by being shared in a positive way with peoples of other cultures.

Ferg with local Aborigine Children


Cicatrisation, more commonly known as “scarification” has had a multitude of meanings to many people throughout our human animal history. Widely performed across Africa, Asia and Australia for hundreds, if not thousands of years, it conveys complex messages about the wearer, including identity, social status and hierarchy, religious roles, beauty and is also worn as a rite of passage. Its cultural significance is too often undervalued by us, the Western-influenced pale skins, raised in our concrete, technological oases. We have grown accustomed to doing everything we can to cover our scars as in our worlds they have come to represent ugliness, damage, imperfection and unfairly, one’s failure to maintain a grip on life. A quick flick through a thesaurus will yield more words with negative connotations that anything else when it comes to finding synonyms for “scar.” Hypocritically, some of those who decry visible marks from deliberate scarification will themselves use cutting, not to mention facial tattooing, (lipo)sucking, injecting, lasering, chiselling and implanting to beautify their own bodies, via plastic surgery’s quick fix of various degrees.

For me, scars went hand in hand with the fearless, “throw yourself off things” attitude I eagerly exhibited as a young child: I broke my right femur (thigh bone) jumping off a fence at three years old, spilt the back of my head open at four and had two deep, prominent forehead wounds by the time I was seven. At eight years old I had my first big visible scar from being rushed into emergency surgery one evening after a particularly painful burst appendix. As the hospital told us some time later, another two hours of waiting and I would have died of blood poisoning — lucky for me, a nearby ambulance was diverted to pick me up. The life-saving operation left me with a large, thick, six-inch track on the right side of my lower abdomen. I was proud of that mark and quite glad, if the truth be told, that it was such a big one. It was an interesting talking point, my brush with death, and I enjoyed showing it to people. I was back in hospital again eighteen months later with a concussion and a broken collar bone after falling out of a tree.

Roots on the beach at sunrise

From that young age, my body’s visible attempts at repair and the stories attached to each one became woven into who I was and how I related that to other people. My injuries were interesting to me, weird to the touch and in some way testament to my physical resilience, conveying a sense of risk-taking and adventure, but at the same time reminding me of my fragility.

In addition to the accidental scars that cover my body, I have also collected a substantial amount of deliberate scarification: part extreme performance art, part adornment. As noted by a wonderfully wise friend of mine, Marigold Francis, these kinds of deliberate marks only seem to underline the obvious lack of ceremony, preparation, reverence and group ritual in our Westernised cultural behaviour.


While working here in this remote community, away from my own culture, I have built up several good relationships with various families over the years, mainly through teaching their children. I also have my own personal friendships with a few of my school students. Whenever I travel to foreign lands I always send them a postcard or a poster or some memento to show that I have been there. Even at an early age some of them share my excitement with travelling the world.

In 2006, I worked with and subsequently interviewed a renowned Australian cultural anthropologist, Bentley James — you can read the interview here. The old photos in that interview eloquently show amazing horizontal chest scars on many of the young Yolngu men; these scars intrigued me greatly. Naturally wanting to know more about them, I asked two community elders who I know personally their thoughts regarding the mechanism involved in getting those marks. I was especially interested in their cultural significance and if anyone in this community still does it or has the same bold keloiding.

A common ceremonial journey is for all young boys to go through a “dhapi,” which is a circumcision ritual that marks their passage from boyhood into manhood around the ages of ten-to-thirteen years old. The chest cutting I was inquiring about is used to further mark a young man’s passage into adulthood. As is customary, a male, of age determined by his father, is initiated like this, with the community recognising his transition into manhood immediately afterwards.

According to my adoption and subsequent kinship relationships, one of the other elders — a man called Paul Garawirrtja — is an important figure. I spoke to this Paul first and he then put me onto another elder, Paul Wunungmurra, who did the actual cutting on the day. During my discussions with Paul Wunungmurra, the possibility arose for me to be allowed to participate in the ritual performed to obtain these kinds of scars.

Unfortunately, Paul Garawirrtja was called away to nurse his sick wife in a hospital in Darwin and was not able to attend. There were, however, younger members of the Garawirrtja family who did play a major role and I will be forever grateful for that strong family connection on the day.

Ferg with a native of the area

Yolngu culture is not as pedantic or obsessive about linear time as ours is. Paul is somewhere close to fifty-five but, as with many Yolngu people, precise numbers and birth dates do not seem to be particularly significant. Knowledge and experience makes him a respected member of his family, with many children and grandchildren, of the community as a whole and as a leader on the community council. For the past twenty years he has taken groups of young local Aboriginal men touring around Europe to perform traditional dancing at various festivals and shows. He knows a lot about the value of customs, knowledge and traditions and is keen to share some of that with the non-Indigenous global population. Paul agreed that it would be OK for me to participate in this particular custom and that he would ask the relevant people around the community their thoughts.

Over the course of the following six weeks I regularly spoke with him about what was happening. Things often move at a different pace in Aboriginal culture here than in our Western societies. For many non-Indigenous people it is difficult to let things take their natural course, especially when you are a guest on their land and in their lives. Our culture is so used to dealing with set timeframes and deadlines that we miss the beauty inherent in natural time. We want everything to go faster in our linear model: speed dating where once was just dating; speed dialling for those who cannot be bothered to press a few extra buttons; fast food, the list goes on. And so it was that my own propensity for Western time began to feel frustrated as natural time ambled along. Living up here forces you to get used to different ways of doing things. You have to recognise that fact and allow yourself the luxury of going with the flow, at whatever speed the flow decides to go. Paul had things to do and people to talk to. These things take time. They are done only when they are done. Me getting stressed out or frustrated about it won’t make “time” go any faster; it may in fact just have the opposite effect.

I had originally been contacted by the History Channel about the possibility of filming an Australian Aboriginal ceremony of some description after they had read my interview with Bentley James regarding Australian Aboriginal scarification. It was a simple step, then, to marry those two ideas together. Regardless of who wanted to film and when, I would not have been allowed to have been initiated by the local people had I not been given permission by the relevant elders. That permission comes from and is based on my relationships with people forged over the last three and a half years living and working in NE Arnhem Land.

History Channel film crew on the beach at dawn with Ferg and the others


The History Channel director and cameraman were staying with me the whole weekend. They arrived on the Friday morning and left again on the Sunday afternoon. It was to be a manic sixty hours or so filming with very little sleep the whole time. But the finished product was way beyond even what I thought was possible.

Part of the reason for doing this, which I discussed in length with Paul W. and is something that I will explore further in the next article, is to involve the younger generation in something that isn’t practised at this time by the people of this community. Yolngu culture is rich and varied and much of it revolves around songs and dances. Therefore it is of the utmost importance for younger family members to come and witness ceremonial dancing and singing by their older family relatives and elders so they too can learn how to keep this aspect of their civilisation alive.

For me, the initiate, there was no special pre-ceremonial behaviour that was required at this time, as there is in other male initiation ceremonies around the world. I prepared myself mentally and physically with some early meditation, to try to get a feeling for the nature of what I was about to go through. When the sun rises, warmly and slowly wakening the animals and plants of the local environment from their cooler night-time slumber, it is peaceful and pleasurable at that time in the morning, perfect time for a strong, hot coffee and a clear head space.

Once transport had been arranged on the Saturday morning, we loaded up all the necessary equipment, food and shelter, packed as many people into the three four-wheel drives as possible and headed out to the place where the ceremony was being held. Paul W. chose to have it on his homeland, a place on the coast called Yalakun. It is one of the few outstations around the main community that people often retreat to if they want a more traditional style of living and some peace and quiet. We took the males first and then did a return trip to pick up the females. All in all, approximately forty to fifty people made the journey, ranging in age from two to sixty years of age. The men set up an area on the beach, started collecting firewood and discussed the procedure while the women helped organise the cooking and looked after all the small children who had come along.

Woman and child on the beach

Yalakun is right on the water and when we got there the tide was out, but fast approaching our newly set-up camp on the beach. Just before sunset some of the younger kids took me out to look for mud crabs and small sea creatures. I reminisced about my own time at that age when my grandfather used to take me down to the beach at 4 a.m. off the west coast of Scotland to dig for cockles and mussels before the sun rose.

This time, though, the sun was setting on a beautiful Saturday evening. The fresh sea air mixed well with the crackling sound of fires built along the beach. As everyone was finally getting settled, fishing nets were brought out and the boys proceeded to catch dinner for the whole group: fish cooked in embers along with baked potatoes, with a little bit of butter. The sounds of Indigenous language and random didgeridoo playing rang out over the approaching tide. Life was good.


Now it was down to the serious business.

Age plays an important role in rituals and ceremonies like these. It separates the people who have been given certain knowledge from those who have not. You will often see older men or women directing the younger ones to whom the knowledge is being passed. Throughout most of the dancing and singing, Paul W. was at the head of things, directing the generation under him, who in turn were directing the teenagers and younger boys in their roles. I played a minor if somewhat slightly significant role.

Not having been an active part in anything of this nature before, it was difficult to know how and when things happen within them. Without any of the cultural cues or access to language, I, as the foreigner, had to let myself be guided by the group and energy of the moment. I was in a fortunate position, as I personally knew most of the people around me and so felt a little more at ease.

The men sat in a crescent shape on the sand with one person chosen to play didgeridoo during the whole night. Young boys and teenagers then practised their particular dances in front of them while the women and girls watched from a short distance away. This went on for about an hour, interspersed with me being brought into the group to dance alongside them. Dancing sober is a new experience for me (and most Scotsmen, I might add) and, if I am honest, not one I am entirely comfortable with given my past ridiculous attempts. But now was not the time for timidity or shyness. I threw myself into it with the same wild abandon and thick skin I revelled in as a small child seemingly intent on breaking every bone in my young body. People laughed at my attempts the whole way through but as I soldiered on they grew to respect my determination to keep going.

Ferg dancing

A huge fire was at the centre of everything that was happening on the beach and I was glad of that as the coldness of the night began to surround us. Now it was the turn of the women and girls to do their part. They followed much the same routine as the males, and again it was inspiring to watch the younger ones eagerly participating and trying desperately to copy the older girls in their group, all the while guided by their mothers and grandmothers.

The thing that really struck me at this point was how different these people were to the ones that I have been teaching in school for the past few years. Looking around at all my previous and current students who were involved in this, with the English names given to them by missionaries and teachers of the past, many of them straight out of the religiously colonial Christian holy book, it hit home how wrong it is for anyone to try to assimilate or change a culture as deep and vibrant at this one. Young boys and girls in school wear a mask put on for the purposes of learning in English. The real people were here, energetically taking me through these important customary steps only ever previously undertaken by Aboriginal people. They were kind and open enough to allow me to be initiated and trusting enough to let me document it all properly for others to see and partially participate in vicariously. This was their reality, their story, their life, their choices, their essence, their family, their language, their culture. If we lose important Indigenous identities like this to globalised homogeneity, then the whole world will suffer as a consequence. Diversity should be continually celebrated and every effort made to support and maintain it around the world.

I was then taken away by all of the young men, farther down the beach. All the time I watched everyone around me carefully for cues to follow in what I should be doing next. They explained to me in their language (Yolngu-matha) the secret part of the ritual which was to follow. I was to do a special dance with them as they led me back up to the main group. This was secret and only for us. I nodded and followed as best I could; any time I was moving the wrong way or not chanting correctly, I was quickly pulled into place or had the right sounds explained to me by someone. The boys then led me slowly back up to the main group beside the fire that was now blazing, dancing and kicking sand all the way, in time with the clap stick rhythm, didgeridoo playing and singing. My mood shifted from one of fascinated observer to full blown participant as the seriousness of the situation began to really sink in. It was important that I concentrated fully and took in as much of this as I possibly could, as this was going to be the only time I would ever be able to go through a ceremony like this for the first time. As far as I am aware, very few (if any) other white people have ever participated in this full Yolngu ritual, so it was very important that I did everything right to the best of my ability and that I was fully lucid and attentive to what was going on around and inside of me.

Ferg walking to the fire


The boys danced with me at the front of the group, up to the now raging seven-foot-high fire where the older men and all the women were gathered. Everyone was singing loudly and chanting with each step, animal noises according to which totem were at the front and a very definite general rhythm which felt like it was driving the energy of the whole experience. My “students” were doing an excellent job of keeping me in line. Here though, they were the teachers and I was the student.

(No one at this point was laughing at my failed attempts to mimic their fantastically fluid dances; just the fact that I was enthusiastically in there with them was enough to earn their respect. They already had my respect a long time ago.)

At the flames I was told to stand alone, but now facing the sea. The blaze swept close to my back and actually singed some hair behind my ears at one point. In front of me was an imposing figure, a strong, burly student of mine whose English name was Lukas. He has wonderfully strong facial features and an immense presence about him, even at school where he is much quieter than he was now. Even though our conversations are limited due to a lack of shared language, I feel a deep friendship with him. He is incredibly humble, warm and involved in his own customary behaviour — a true gentle warrior. Now he stood opposite me, stomping angrily in the sand and waving a thick six-foot, flaming piece of tree at me. The sounds from the group were rising and falling as Lukas thrust the flaming “spear” at my chest. I had to stand completely still as this was the part of the ceremony in which I had to exhibit bravery by not flinching while Lukas stabbed at me with the flames. Even though I knew he would not intentionally hurt me, the energy from the moment was lifting me up and carrying me along. Intense heat literally breathed down the back of my neck as I felt it simultaneously warm the front of my torso. Everyone was singing loudly and with each drive, making chanting noises that seemed to compliment the movement. Imagine the whole group letting out a raw “Ooooooo” as the spear was pushed towards me, then a more relaxed “Aaaaaa” as it retreated. I too let out a relaxed “Aaaaahhhh.”

Dancing by fire

I closed my eyes and allowed my consciousness to shift away from the present, just letting my body feel and hear the sounds, wind, smells, voices and temperatures, trying to imagine this authentic moment being performed on Paul’s homeland fifty or sixty years ago, when the last generation of Aboriginal people were still doing this. Creating a picture of the older generations of these people here with me now, with them as young children, watching a full cast of their extended family, no balandas (as white, non-Indigenous people are called in Yolngu-matha), no camera crew, just family doing family business, as it had been for thousands of years before we arrived on their land. The same singing, same dancing, same energy, same sharing of what it really means to be human beings, connecting with each other in some primeval and uncomplicated way. A reaffirmation of culture, identity and the meaning of life. For some people this manifests itself in how many houses you can own, for others it depends on whether your football team wins on the weekend or not, and for others still it is transitioning your fellow humans through their important cultural markers.

A hand grabbed my shoulder and brought me forward into the darkness. We danced around the fire like a serpent, the girls danced in front of us, dances that only women perform and the boys responded with their male-only moves. I have to say, after watching just a short piece of the film the History Channel was recording, that true to form, like most Scotsmen before me and probably all after me, I cannot dance to save myself. What was supposed to be an elegant, flowing copy of my Aboriginal guides turned into some disjointed chicken-like manoeuvre, much to the hilarity of everyone else. “You guys dance, we’ll stick to what we’re good at: keep making whisky and playing the bagpipes,” I thought to myself. And with that, it was sleep time. Tomorrow was going to be a big day in more ways than one.

A calm descended on the beach as the water lapped the sand close to where we all slept, women on one side, men on the other. Not really knowing exactly how things were going to pan out I drifted off to sleep under the stars, safe in the knowledge that whatever it was, it was likely to change me forever. I was not wrong.

Dancing by the fire


The sun came up behind us in the morning. People took a while to wake but the youngest children were up first running around and playing in the water. A few dogs wandered up and down the beach. Adults slowly appeared from under their blankets. Breakfast was given out as the two History Channel guys went about setting up their equipment. I sat quietly on the sand breathing in the exquisite, salty sea air.

Paul came over and told me that we had to paint everyone first — the smaller children and main participants would get the full face painting done while most others would have some body paint on. Usually for a ceremony this big, everyone would have the whole body and face paint done, but for the purposes of time, we would just go with what we were doing now.

I lay down in the sand, a young woman softly holding back my hair while she meticulously applied red, yellow, black and white dots to my face. I also had my forehead painted white and three bands across my lower face painted white, with coloured dots placed on top. This design belongs to the “dhuwa” moiety, who were the main group guiding this ritual for me, even though I am of the “yirritja” moiety.

Ferg in facepaint

Boy and girl

With the body and face painting all done, everyone was ready to go. Paul, together with the older men of the group, started off down the beach, headed west, along the water line. They were taking everyone to a patch of trees about one kilometre away where they would do the actual cutting, a place designated for men’s business. All the males under them formed the main part of the group now, with me in the middle. Behind me were the youngest males. Everyone at this stage was either wearing small branches with leaves attached to them and/or carrying the same kind of branches. The mood was one of excitement and sincerity. Behind us males were the females, youngest and smallest at the front of their group with older ladies bringing up the rear.

The boys can dance, let’s make no mistake. I tried in vain to match their speed of foot but failed miserably. Sand flies in all directions as people kick and flick it in time with the various noises going on around them. We edged slowly towards the trees, swishing the small branches in front of us as we went, then just at a small narrow passageway everyone stopped while Paul and a few of the older men went farther ahead to ready the site for us. Blistering early morning sun burned my blindingly white skin. Not wanting to spoil the mood with sun cream, I had gambled on us keeping a fairly steady pace. Now, my shoulders would probably have to pay that price later on but, to be honest, I really didn’t care. I just put it down to being part of my initiation, going through the added discomfort of sun burn, as part of my passage into real manhood. Hey, real men can handle a wee bit of sun burn. And drink whisky. Often both at the same time. (See “Scottish people abroad” for details.)

The procession continued moving forward, dancing and singing and chanting until everyone was now inside the area where the cutting would be done. It was at this point that the noise stopped quite abruptly. The women peeled off to the back area while the men surrounded me. Much Yolngu-matha was exchanged before I was grabbed on both sides, my arms extended outwards, and I was pulled down on to the sand. Lying on my back on the cool sand was welcome relief for the skin on my back. All I could now see were male faces and feet.

Procession on the beach


The singing and chanting started again but this time it was much more forceful. You could tell just from the noise that something big was about to happen. This was it. The moment of truth. Not knowing what was going on or for how long I just lay there and let my mind enter the atmosphere of the moment. As the noise reached deafening proportions it carried the energy levels higher and higher. I was being carried away with it, the sensation of cool sand on my back disappeared as I felt hands on both sides of my chest begin to hold me down.

Paul marked a line on my chest in brown earth to signify where the first cut would be. This was to be done in the traditional way with a piece of sharp stone. Now, different people have different ideas about what “sharp stone” actually translates into, so it was with some slight trepidation that I lay there waiting to be sliced open. My full trust was now with Paul and his expert hands.

Marking Ferg's chest

As the crescendo of sound increased, I had a moment of clarity. The noise at one point began to fade away as I found myself in a kind of dreamlike state, lying alone on the sand. I had no concept of who was there, how many people, where I was, what was happening — just that bare minimum, almost meditative state of Zen-like now. I had retreated into my inner self, yet remained aware of all that was going on around me at that particular moment.

Ferg's chest cutting

Suddenly, to bring me back with a bump (or a cut would be more appropriate) I felt that familiar burning sensation of sharp “something” through skin. Paul had begun to cut, or should I say rip, as the piece of stone he had chosen was a little serrated on the edge, so it pulled and tore as it was dragged across my scrawny chest. Ouch. I concentrated on stopping myself trying to wriggle free and breathed deeply. The noise had abated somewhat and I could sense that there was some concern as to how it was going to proceed. I glanced down at my chest and all was well — only a small score had been done, even though it was incredibly uncomfortable. But, the first ones are usually the worst, so I put my head back down on the sand and let them continue. I completely trusted that they knew what they were doing, even if this was the first time any of them had had to work with such pasty white material.

Due to the nature of the stone, two extra people were drafted in to help hold and stretch the skin on my chest to make it easier for Paul to cut horizontally. This made life much more bearable for everyone it seemed, especially me.

Ferg's chest cutting

The singing started again and we continued. I lost track of time, of being aware of time, but was still conscious of my thin, human hide being sliced apart. It not only opened my skin but also opened up a new relationship, a lifetime friendship. While being literal, it was also symbolic. Normally we associate cutting as something destructive: self-cutters know all about this stigma society has tarred them with — something I discuss in the latter half of this interview — or of ending something (cutting your ties or cutting yourself off from something), but I viewed this as a cutting away of boundaries and of cultural exclusion, a cutting through the white-skin–dominated past to show that there is just another human being underneath, one that wanted to let in Yolngu knowledge, Yolngu ways, Yolngu friends. I genuinely hope that was encapsulated in the symbolic gesture between the two groups on the beach that day; that we have both signed up to that.

Ferg's chest cutting

Paul did one horizontal line, then another one about an inch below. I glanced down again once he had stopped to see if there was much blood. None. Just sharp, clear incisions. I was then quickly pulled to my feet and moved to another place beneath some other nearby trees for the remaining part. All the males had gathered round to inspect the incisions and were excitedly showing the younger boys while all the time making sure I was OK. They laid me down again to rest momentarily as some of the older men collected leaves from a different kind of tree this time. A small fire was built next to me, and as the smoke wafted over my face I felt complete contentment with my world. My head was rested on someone’s leg and these new leaves, shinier and harder than the ones used previously were put in the fire to heat them up. Aboriginal knowledge tells us there is some chemical in the leaves that is good for stopping blood flow, I found out later. The hot leaves were pressed against my open wounds to stop any bleeding but, as it happened, this turned out to be more painful than the actual cutting. I shrieked in pain as the leaves burned my open chest — Let them bleed, I thought, I didn’t sign up to be branded as well. But again I laid there and took it like a man, like the new man I now was.

Ferg's chest cutting -- leaf cauterization

There were just two more things left to do for the transition to be complete. After the secret dancing, and trial by fire, after the procession to ceremonial area and stone cutting, and after the leaf cauterisation, I was now to be instructed of my new responsibilities as a man. The next part was all done in Yolngu-matha and I had it translated to me a little later on. A shell was scraped on the palms of my hands (to signify that a man should not steal), then scraped down my tongue (to signify that a man should not lie or speak ill of others). A small, leafy branch was then shaken over my stomach (to signify that a man should provide food for his family) and then down over my legs and feet (to signify that a man should walk with dignity throughout his life).

Lastly, the whole group of people, men and women, girls and boys, all formed a large circle. I was placed in the middle with the young family member who had instructed me of my new “manly” responsibilities and a final bout of loud singing and chanting formally welcomed me into the community under my new manhood status. I danced around in the middle going in the opposite direction to the main group and fell to my knees immediately when all the noise stopped. Exhausted but exhilarated. Tired but transformed.

Ferg's chest cutting

Everyone looked after me, all the way through: guiding me, encouraging me, acknowledging me and sharing with me. My new scars tell a story of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty and courage. They mean something to the community and something special to me. These marks are a permanent record of this day, the day our cultures met and walked hand in hand into the periphery of what it means to be a traditional, Yolngu, Australian Aboriginal person, albeit the whitest one so far in history. I graciously accepted their offer and will be forever in debt to the wonderful people who accompanied me on this part of my life journey.

Limurr ga nhina mägayamirr wangganymirr

We are together, we are one in peace.

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BME’s Big Queston #4: Training Days

Welcome to BME’s Big Question! In this weekly (hopefully) 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:

Particularly when you were breaking into the industry, how did you prepare when you were attempting a new procedure or method with which you were not experienced? Consult with other practitioners? Study images online or peruse anatomy books? Find a trusted client on whom to experiment?

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Joy Rumore
One word: logic.

Meg Barber
Back when I was starting out, yeah, I did all of the above. Now? Well, there really aren’t too many instances where I’m asked to do something I’m not familiar with.

But, if that DOES come up, I generally contact another practitioner, bounce ideas off of them, and then just put it to use on the client. I tend to think of myself as pretty logical when it comes down to it, and if I slow down, think about the dynamics of what I’m doing enough … I can figure out how to do pretty much anything thrown at me. That said, I only do piercing and scarification. If someone came in wanting something more involved, like an implant, I’d send them elsewhere.

Brian Decker
Like Joy said, I do count on common sense for most of what I do. A lot of procedures are very similar in technique, even if the work is completely different. I’m self-taught with most of what I do, but I definitely make phone calls to work out specifics of new procedures — quite often, honestly. I used to call Tom Brazda pretty often for his input and advice. I don’t think it was ever really anything about how to approach a particular procedure in general, but more so the specifics that could help better the procedure. Things like suture type and size, suturing styles, jewelry designs, etc. He was always very helpful. That man loves to talk.

I remember calling Shane Munce, whom I’d never spoken to previously, about his approach for the Nefertiti piercing before trying it. In the end, I’d already had the work mapped out very similarly to his approach, but I’m all for sharing ideas to make sure there’s nothing I’m overlooking. Hell, I even talked with Todd Bertrang online for a while about scalpelling piercings.

Years ago, I talked with Emilio [Gonzalez] about ear pointing and he threw me one idea that that made things much easier. Even though I don’t use the same technique now, I’ve definitely built from what I learned from him at the time.

When I started making the switch from tools to freehanding piercings, I talked to tons of people. Some ideas I was comfortable and some I wasn’t. Dave Gillstrap showed me the most satisfying holding position for tongue piercings ever.

Since I’m always open to new ideas (and asking for them), I have no problem sharing, either. I encourage it. When I was in Cincinnati, Meg asked for some input regarding skin removal in scarification, which she’d already done, so we set up a piece we could work on together so I could show her exactly what I do. Very rarely do I just shun people away. When someone has absolutely no idea what they’re doing and they just want me to tell them because they’re too lazy to do some homework, then I get frustrated, but otherwise I’m all ears.

Stephen DeToma
Whether the client asks me for something new or I wish to try something different, such as freehand V clamps, it’s important that it’s made perfectly clear that this will be new.

A lot of prep for something new starts with discussion with others and researching listed techniques. Often, it comes down to hands-on application, but that doesn’t always mean with a needle. When I was switching away from forceps for nipples and navels, doing a dry run with a cotton swab in place of a needle helped to give me the feel of the piercing without actually having to poke the skin or follow through.

Learning how others do something, even if you don’t end up applying the same methods in your own work is just as important, and that applies even to piercings that you’ve been doing for years. Traveling and being able to observe artists that I respect and admire goes a long way to help sharpen my own skills. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing how someone approaches an unrelated procedure to help blossom new ideas for your own work.

Brian Decker
I fully agree. When I first started moving away from forceps, I was piercing everything other than people to get a better feel for different grips. Paper, jeans, cardboard, bookbags … everything.

Steve Truitt
I pretty much agree with everyone else. Common sense can go a long way. When I was learning to do procedures, I thought about them for a while before doing them to map out the technique I thought would work best. Then I’d usually call someone I knew that had done that procedure before. Usually that was Steve Haworth, and he was very helpful.

I also normally started out doing the procedures I hadn’t done before on friends and regular clients that knew I was trying something new and were aware of the risks.

Meg Barber
Brian [Decker] has been really helpful to me with input, and he is who I turn to most often. I think he and I just work well together, and we respect each other enough I know he isn’t gonna call me a chump when I ask about something. I’ve also touched base with Ryan Oullette and John Joyce once or twice …

That’s when knowing artists who aren’t total rock-star douchebags comes in handy.

John Joyce
Whenever I was looking into a new procedure or a new technique, I’ve always researched the hell out of it before jumping in. Talking to more experienced artists, looking at photos, and whenever possible actually watching someone else do it.

A great example of this is when I first started looking into doing the punch and taper method for surface piercings. I had the general idea down, but before I attempted it, I contacted people I trusted that were already doing it. Tom Brazda was very helpful; he and I wrote back and forth many times before I eventually attempted one, and the first few that I performed after that were all done on friends only. I made sure they understood it was something new that I was trying out, and there was a very real possibility that they may end up with just two holes in them and no jewelry. Fortunately, that never happened.

Before punch and taper, I did the same thing when I was learning to freehand surface piercings instead of clamp and pierce. I talked to Luis Garcia, and a few other people about their techniques.

The Learning Forum on IAM is a great place for exchanging information between piercers, experienced or not. Unfortunately, I do think it’s underused by newer piercers. When I was first learning to pierce, there wasn’t a place like that where you could ask questions and get responses from so many great piercers all at once. It really makes getting information much easier.

Stephen DeToma
IAM in general is a great resource. Thank you, Al Gore.

John Joyce
I couldn’t agree more with Stephen when he said that, “Traveling and being able to observe artists that I respect and admire goes a long way to help sharpen my own skills.”

Scar Wars helped me sharpen my skills as a scarification artist tremendously. Even though I was there as a respected practitioner, watching other artists work made me think about the way I did certain things, and made me a better artist. This is another example of the newer artists not taking advantage of something amazing that could better themselves more than anything else. At the last two Scar Wars events I was really disappointed at the lack of the younger/newer “scarification artists” that made the effort to come and learn from the best of the best.

Stephen DeToma
I don’t even cut and Scar Wars was a great learning experience.

Steve Truitt
Yeah, I learned a lot at Scar Wars from watching people cut as well.

Meg Barber
I think that Scar Wars is easily one of the best learning environments that there has been for scarification, hands down. The ability to schmooze with and watch all of these skilled artists for a period of three days?! Yes please!

Ryan Ouellette
I think preparation is the best kind of research — does that make any sense? Whenever I’m around other professionals I’ll make sure to keep my ears open and ask a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s just that one small piece of the puzzle that brings everything together. I’ve learned so many little tricks (from a lot of people here on IAM) that has really advanced my work. If someone comes in and asks for something I’ve never done before I’ll typically refer them to someone else. If it’s just a different variation on a familiar procedure then I’ll inform them of my experience and it’s their choice to have me perform it. A good example would be when I tried a punch and taper microdermal on someone when I had only done freehand microdermals and punch and taper piercings. You can try new things on clients at certain skill levels, but if it is something outside of your field of experience it’s best to research and train, or refer to a trusted colleague.

But I don’t mean to make it sound like I’ve never rolled the dice on a procedure. Luckily my experiments have usually been on myself, or at least my friends. There’s always a first time for everything you’ve done. Experimentation is really important to advance the industry. I’m not a heavy mod practitioner, just piercing and cutting really. But my first flesh removal was on a regular client/coworker/friend … and it came out horrible. But I never would have been able to nail down a solid technique without getting my mistakes out of the way first. I think part of knowing how to do something right is seeing how to do it wrong.

Allen Falkner
I think everyone agrees that research is important and that clients should be fully informed prior to attempting a new procedure. So, I’m going to try and give an answer coming from a different angle.

When I first made the jump into suspension I knew zilch, zero, nada. The only person I knew that had hung from hooks was Fakir. He was helpful to a certain extent, but in general I stumbled into it blindly. For those that haven’t heard the story, my first suspension was an utter disaster. I understood the basic physics. Knew it was possible. However, the information, equipment and materials just weren’t out there. Well, at least not like they are now.

Looking back on it I see the first years of TSD as reckless. Granted, I tried to convey to people that my experience was limited, but ego and pride can really be one’s undoing. Yes, I learned a lot from working with other people and communicating with others online. But really my first two to three years of suspension were riddled with comments like, “Well that didn’t work,” and, “Yeah I guess that won’t hold.” Nowadays it’s easy to dismiss it all by saying things like, “There really wasn’t anyone else to ask” and “I was young and stupid.” These statements might be true, but it’s still no excuse.

Basically, in the beginning I was very headstrong and often attempted things that in retrospect I really wasn’t qualified to do. Do I regret these experiences? No. However, I was lucky. No one was ever seriously hurt and the lessons I learned really shaped who I am today. The main thing that came from this behavior is that I am much more cautious now. Do I still do stupid things without adequate research? Sure, but whenever possible I’m the first guinea pig.

Personally I think experimentation is a good thing, and yes reinventing the wheel should be avoided whenever possible. However, there is definitely something to be said for learning things the hard way.

Stephen DeToma
Absolutely, sir. Learning something the hard way can often times be the greatest teaching tool. If someone tells you the stove is hot, you may forget; but you touch a hot stove, you’ll never forget again.

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

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