No Superfluous Flummery: An Interview With Bob Roberts

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

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

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

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

BR: Los Angeles, California.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BME: You got kicked out of New York?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BME: When have you refused to do a tattoo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

BME: Do you like the convention atmosphere?

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

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

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

BME: How often do you tattoo these days?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BME: For better or worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Your Lobes: An Interview With David Kitts

A little while ago, we got an e-mail from a man named David Kitts. Having been around the body modification community for about a decade, he’d stretched his lobes to two inches, but recently underwent surgery to reconstruct them to their original state—the idea and process of which has left him conflicted at best. He felt like his story could be useful as a cautionary of sorts, and so we spoke to him. In our interview, he discusses why he went the surgery route, what the procedure itself entailed, the effects it’s had on him mentally and more—after the jump.

BME: First off, just for some background, what do you do for a living?

David Kitts: Well, I’ve been in and out of piercing and performing some of the heavier mods for about eight years now, working straight jobs when I couldn’t afford to work at shops. I have been, for several months, working for myself rehabbing old bikes, mopeds and motorcycles, and just got a decent job at a large-box sporting goods store.

BME: So, at what point did you realize body modification was going to be an important part of your life?

DK: When I was about 16, I heard about a local 4:20 shop in Lexington, South Carolina, that also had a piercing shop. I started hanging out mainly because of my parents’ hatred of piercings, and I read a book they had there—I can’t remember the name, but it did have a “pierced” cover with a large CBR—and was fascinated. (This was back in 1999-2000, before it really became fashionable to have “belly” rings and all that.) The day after my birthday, I got my ears pierced at 10 gauge and bought a set of eight gauges for when I could go up. There was a guy there named Lonnie who had a ton of facial piercings and a set of early monster CBRs that were a half-inch and 10.3 ounces each; I have them now. I loved the way it looked, and the impermanence of it was kinda nice. It didn’t hurt for as long as a tattoo did, but it still made the wearer, for the most part, beautiful.

Since then, I’ve had 257 piercings (I’ve kept track), including cheeks, three bridge, eight nape (that were 1.5-inches long point-to-point) and 1.25-inch-long surface bars vertically in the back of my arms, three each side. Also, the one that freaked the piercer out was a two-inch-long, 10-gauge madison done with Tygon.

BME: Now, the photos you sent in recently showed your ears post-surgery after having your two-inch lobes closed up. First of all, how long did it take you to get your lobes to that size?

DK: I got to one inch in a bit under two years. I got stuck for a while, because of jobs and lack of jewelry, but one day I tried to shove something in that was bigger and they went fast as hell after that. I went from a little bigger than a Coke cap to two inches in six months. My ears stretched on their own, probably because I played with them (unconsciously) during the day and slept with the earrings in. In fact, the large tunnels I had that were my “goal,” I wore for a week before they fell out.

BME: How long ago did you get your lobes up to that size?

DK: About eight, months or so. I got to two inches and was happy as hell; that was a “size goal,” as it were. I was already heading past it when I had surgery.

BME: It sounds like this was something into which you’d put some effort and of which you were proud, but we’re talking today because you’ve since had your lobes reconstructed. What led to this?

DK: Well, regarding that “goal” of two inches, I said that I’d consider getting them put back to “normal” after. So, when I got there, ironically, I was introduced to one of Charleston’s top plastic surgeons. We got to talking and he agreed to do the work, way before I realized what exactly I was doing, but I had a few months to decide whether or not to go through with the surgery due to schedule conflicts, so no big deal.

I had been out of a “real” job since December, and no one would hire me because of the piercings. The tattoos on my hands and arms were fine, the bats on my neck were OK, even my stretched nostrils were passable, but not the ears. And hey, I’m almost 27, so I sat down one night and went over everything: How I felt about how I looked versus “mainstream” people, and the future. This was a chance that I couldn’t pass up—having my lobes redone, that is—but I didn’t know if I could live with myself if I did. I felt like I’d be giving in. I’ve always been a fighter for individuality. I tried to make sure I stood up for people who expressed themselves differently, be they transgendered or just heavily tattooed, I didn’t care—it’s a choice. I just happened to go a little more into the deep end, as it were.

So, for about three weeks, I struggled with whether or not I would be OK with myself afterward, if my friends would be, and what would happen. For all I knew, I could do all this and never get another real job and be severely pissed because of it. But, I figured I could always redo the ears if time allowed, and that I’d be an idiot to not give the surgery a chance. So I went for it. It’s been hard dealing with day-to-day things now. Harder than I expected.

BME: Just to backtrack for a minute, you said that beforehand, you considered shrinking your ears back down to “normal” once you reached two inches. By “normal,” do you mean a smaller diameter, or closed up as they are now? And what was the motivation to reach two inches if you had already decided it could just be a temporary thing?

DK: I was referring to getting surgery when I got to two inches. I knew it’d take a while to let them shrink, and I think I was well past being able to go back to something “socially acceptable.” I wanted them forever—it wasn’t a temporary decision. When I got to two inches (I figured it’d be quite a while), I’d evaluate my life and see if anything needed to be done. If life was good, I’d keep them. If not, I’d figure something out—either let them shrink as much as they’d go, or surgery. Basically, I’d get to two inches and see where the lobes fit into my life and deal with them accordingly.

BME: Got it. So obviously, they were interfering in a way that was complicating your life. How did you end up meeting the surgeon who did the procedure? Had he done that specific kind of work before?

DK: A friend of mine introduced us at some function; we got to talking about it and he said he’d be willing. Not too sure if he had done this specifically, but he had mentioned he’d worked on some people who had ripped lobes (like little old ladies). But, he provided me a good service. He’s strictly a facial surgeon—he does a lot of charity work for children with cleft palates, making them more “normal” and all. He works from the neck up, and there’s another doctor in the office that works from the neck down.

BME: Was it an expensive procedure?

DK: It cost me $1,300, and I got a good deal.

BME: What did the procedure entail?

DK: Well, at least one week before, he wanted me to take the jewelry out so that the lobes could relax some. (I didn’t label them like I wanted, but in those pictures, the ones where my lobes look all fat are the day of, right before surgery.) When I went in, pictures were taken and I was led to a “recovery suite” to wait. When we finally went up to the O.R., it was all very quick. After being covered and cleaned, he injected a shot of local anesthetic in each lobe that had a vascular constrictor in it to slow blood flow. I couldn’t feel anything past that.

He started by taking surgical scissors to the right lobe and just cut 80 percent off. I may have had about a quarter inch on each side left. He had to cauterize the right lobe because the constrictor wasn’t fully effective yet, but the pain killer was (thankfully). After some measuring, he trimmed the ends a bit (where he already cut) and skinned my inner lobe into an upside-down “U” to remove the skin that used to sit on the saddle of the jewelry. That was done so that when he sewed me up, there wouldn’t be any little holes where healed skin was left. He repeated the same steps for the left side, but the skin in the front of my lobe near the tragus was thinner than the right lobe, so it went faster with a lot less trimming needed. I think it’s the more normal-looking of the two.

After all was cut, he sewed me mostly with dissolving stitches—about eight in each ear, I think he said. He did add one stitch from my lobe to my neck to promote them healing “down,” and he forgot to test the area on my neck to see if it was numb before that. It wasn’t numb, but the pain wasn’t bad. Afterwards, beyond NeoSporin, there were no special instructions. They healed almost completely in a week, and I went to the beach in a week and a half. And thats it! Fun. The weirdest part was being awake the whole time and hearing the scissors cutting. It sounded like cardboard.

BME: That seems pretty straightforward. And how long ago did you have it done?

DK: Two weeks ago, and I got hired to a good position at a sporting goods store after putting in two applications on Thursday of last week. So yeah, I’d say it worked.

BME: So you feel comfortable attributing that quick turnaround to the surgery, then?

DK: Oh, yeah. I asked about a job before and the manager rejected me and told me why. Then I came back after the surgery and he said he wanted me to work there now that my lobes were back to normal.

BME: But even still, you say it’s been hard to deal with.

DK: Yeah. More personally than anything.

BME: How so?

DK: Well, for years I’d had these stretched ears. I always got the, “Did that hurt?” question, and had come-backs for just about anything people could throw at me. I also had a reason when people stared at me. I knew why, but when I went out without the lobes, people still stared, and it felt like I lost my shield. I felt defenseless, and it scared me. I still feel the same way, and it bothers me now more than ever when people give me weird looks. It used to be easily written off—now, not so much. And when I look in the mirror, I’m not happy. It looks like a fake me, like someone else, and it really bugs me. It was such a big part of my life, now that they’re gone it really bothers me. I’ve lost a few friends too, and now I have to go through explaining to everyone that knew me before why I did this. And I still get asked if it fucking hurt.

BME: Without getting too Dr. Phil about this, why on earth would you lose friends over something like this? That seems ridiculous.

DK: I know. But to them, they viewed me as a sellout. In one’s words, I “turned my back on them,” which is B.S., but whatever.

BME: B.S. indeed. Before the surgery, did you expect your personal adjustment would have been easier than it has been?

DK: Yeah. I figured I’d miss the “old me,” but I didn’t think it would be anything like it is now. You know the biggest insult I’ve gotten so far? “You look so much better now!”

BME: So, between not quite feeling like yourself minus your stretched lobes and having others call you a “sellout,” what do you think? Do you consider yourself a sellout or anything like that?

DK: A tiny bit, yes, because I don’t think I should have to change for a job. I’m still as good an employee with the lobes, and I feel that I, and everyone else, should be accepted for who we are. It’s not like I got all this shit done to not get a job, you know? I just wanted to be beautiful, the way I saw it. I could still sell stuff or do any number of jobs, but because of the way I looked, I was prejudged as a “bad person” and unemployable. There are only so many Hot Topics in an area, and working as a bouncer kinda sucks. But I am doing what’s best for me and my future now that I’m a little bit older and wiser.

BME: Knowing what you do now and how things have turned out, do you regret stretching your lobes that big in the first place?

DK: Not at all. The friends I’ve made, the conversations that have been started with them—hell, I even won a trip to see the Jerry Springer show because of them. I hope to have opened some people’s eyes to this type of modification. I’ve spoken at some schools on the right way to get pierced, and the importance of waiting (pre-surgery) and plan on doing the same after. My ears did get me a job at a few haunted houses. Imagine a 250-pound, six-foot-tall tall guy with running chain-saws attached to his lobes running at you.

I will continue to advocate modifying yourself as you see fit, so long as it is in a safe environment. And I will still get modified in other ways. There’s plenty left for me to do, and now I can say I’m an amputee of sorts—I nullo’d my lobes [laughs].

BME: Before we wrap up, anything you’d like to add?

DK: Sure. The main reason I came to you to put this out there is because I know there are a lot of young readers on BME, and this experience is for them. People like Allen Falkner and Erik Sprague don’t need to hear this, but the ones that go on ModBlog and who do see the glory and beauty in modification, there can be a harsh reality that, if you don’t plan on it, can come back and bite you in the ass. I just want people thinking about doing this to know there are consequences, but I don’t want to divert anyone—I just want to show both sides. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done at all. I loved my lobes when I had them, and I miss them and am dealing with the emotions without them now, but I stand by my choices.

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Live From Oslo SusCon: Interview With Havve and Christiane

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports for us from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

To give a better insight into the 2009 Oslo SusCon, I thought an interview with organizers Christiane and Havve might be interesting.

Havve Fjell is a freak-show artist/fakir performing under the name Pain Solution both in Norway and internationally. He runs the Fakir Academy in Oslo. Christiane Lofblad is a body piercer in Oslo, running the successful Pinpoint Piercing studio. Together, they are responsible for the Wings of Desire organization, which arranges the Oslo SusCon and smaller suspension events throughout the year.

Alexander Trowell: This is the eighth incarnation of the Oslo suspension convention. Can you briefly tell BME readers how the convention has evolved over that time?

Wings of Desire: Well, the first year we aimed for too much. We were in a big warehouse with no sinks, and partied every night. There were performers and bands and things like that, and although the suspensions were supposed to be the main part of it, they weren’t. We soon learned that we needed to keep it more to the point, focusing less on the unimportant stuff. Then the second year, we had no crew and trained everyone who participated. What we didn’t think of was that some people didn’t want a workshop, they just wanted to hang, so from there we changed. The third year, we had our first lectures, courtesy of Allen Falkner. We have grown in that direction since, accommodating guest speakers, and having a dedicated crew to handle the action.

AT: The convention sees members from all over the world and seems to be widely recognized among much of the body modification community. I know from personal experience that this is due to hard work and good organizing skills, but has it come as a surprise at all how popular it has become?

WOD: It has been something of a surprise, but we’re good [laughs]. We both have friends, within both the body mod industry and among performers, so it has kind of grown from that. Plus, of course, Allen Falkner helped spread the word.

AT: I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the last Oslo SusCon. Do you feel that the level it’s at now is good, or do you want more/fewer people for future events?

WOD: From last year, we decided not to increase it much. There’s a really good atmosphere at the Oslo SusCons now, and we get a lot of positive remarks in that regard; we don’t want to lose that. The way the crew and team leader system works means all suspendees are followed by a set of crew members, which we have also been told is a nice way of doing it. That connection between crew and participant could be difficult to maintain if the convention grew too big.

AT: Obviously you guys travel to other conventions and body mod-related events around the world. How do you feel this has affected your own practices, and do you consider it reciprocal—do you find you get to influence other suspension groups’ practices?

WOD: Well, we do learn a lot of little tweaks from other people, and we are able to help others out too, so yes. There is a kind of social consensus to share good methods and technique, and the community seems good at that. Most people who run groups seem to do so for the love of it, as opposed to financial motivation, so most people want to expand and share their knowledge base.

AT: You guys appear to have excellent communication with local government, to the point where the local council provides you with some funding. I think it’s safe to say that this is quite rare in this subculture. How has this “partnership” formed, and what advice would you give to other suspension groups that want to function more dynamically with local government?

WOD: We are really lucky. We are really lucky, because legislation is quite relaxed and open in Norway. Scarification, subdermal implants and things like that aren’t banned, and it’s relatively easy to communicate with the council. We have the approval of the local council in Oslo to do this event, so that’s cool—they’ve inspected our protocol and are happy. In other countries, the situation is completely different, so if you don’t think you’ll get approval for suspension events, don’t ask [laughs]. Funding-wise, it’s very much intertwined with networking again. Havve has ties to cultural and art agencies, so that’s where the funding comes from.

AT: The Oslo SusCon sees well-established practitioners from Europe and America function as team leaders. It has piercers from all over the world that all seem to work very well together, and the convention no longer has the workshop feel it had in the beginning. Is this a result of wanting to include more people and suspensions, and do you feel this is the direction you want to keep moving in?

WOD: Well, from the beginning, we have communicated with piercers internationally because the “scene” was quite small to begin with and not that many people were available locally. The way it’s run now, with experienced team leaders in charge, is very good, and when we do workshops, we do smaller events. We still try to teach our crew continuously of course—it’s an evolving field. But yes, we do plan to continue in the same way forwards, since the recipe works well.

AT: Thank you very much for the time guys, I look forwards to coming back next year.

That’s all folks, now it’s time to start partying. Pictures will be on the way soon. Until then, I spy with my little eye, a branding iron…

– Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Live From Oslo SusCon: Day Three, Plus A Roundtable Interview (Of Sorts)

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports for us from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

On this third (or fourth if you count Thursday) day of Oslo SusCon (OSC), the atmosphere is quite relaxed. The weather is good and the suspendees are still going strong. Here’s a list of the suspensions for Sunday:

Christiane (2 point resurrection), Norway
Bena (coma & 2 point suicide), Sweden
Oscar (superman), Sweden
Stein (angel), Norway
Sanny (suicide/spinning beam), Germany
Stephan (suicide/spinning beam), Germany
Martin (suicide), Norway
Lea (crucifix), Slovenia
Kristin (lotus), Norway
Ida (seated), Norway
Becky (superman), US
Angst (4 point suicide), Norway
Nancy (6 point angel), US
Tracie (chest), US
Alice (knee), UK
Havve (angel), Norway
Stine (knees), Norway
Tommy (knees), Norway
Oddbjorn (single point chest), Norway
Line-Therese (knees) Norway
Lucky (2 point resurrection), Finland
Jussi (metal), Finland
Andreas (Angel), Norway
Zumo (suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Enrico (suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Bastian (suicide w/rib hooks), Germany
Morten (knees and ribs), Norway
Alex (calf), UK/Norway
Michele (suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Daniel (suicide/spinning beam), Norway
Ana (crucifix), Croatia
Ninak (suicide), Norway

For those with a keen eye for details, you’ll notice a few of us were able to hang twice this time around—a nice byproduct of the efficient team effort of the crew. By the way, this list may be somewhat wrong in terms of nationalities and such, so sincere apologies to anyone who has been mislabeled in any way shape or form..

In other news, we had our first fall today when Obbe did a one-point chest suspension. A tear occurred within a minute of his going up, and as Christiane noticed the formation of the tear and started lowering the rig, it was already too late. Being that he was on his way down anyways, Obbe managed to land solidly on both feet, and was repaired promptly with sutures by flesh-seamstress Christiane.

Aside from this, the convention has been very incident-free. Well, incident-free, but not event free. So many beautiful suspensions, so many beautiful people. A friend of mine pulled me aside a little while back with a little secret to share, which I had no choice but to include here, purely for the sake of comedy. Integral to the story is that OSC opened its doors to the general public for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. It was during this time our friend was doing a suspension of some variety. She really enjoyed going up…like, really enjoyed it. At some point, mid-air, she ended up climaxing—in my opinion, a hell of an advertisement for suspensions…

I guess the bar is set for how much fun it’s possible to have while suspending, but I hope you all go forth and try to top it, although I struggle to see how that would go down.

It’s Monday, and my intention of interviewing Havve and Christiane came to a halt last night due to them being extremely busy all day. Nevertheless, I am sat with Ben & Alice from the UK, Muffe from Denmark and Bena from Sweden, so why not do an impromptu interview with them, right?

Alexander Trowell: Guys, you all have a lot of experience with suspensions, and are all part of the standard OSC inventory at this point—how do you think this one has compared to previous versions?

Bena: Since 2002, the convention has improved hugely. This time we have water running and stuff, you know? [Laughs]

Alice: It’s been really accident-free. There are usually a few hiccups, but this one has been really good.

AT: Have you got any particular memories from the SusCon, either from this year or previous ones?

Bena: [Laughis] You remember being tea-bagged, right Alex?

Alice: Yeah, and you remember me biting your ass so hard it left a huge mark?

AT: I think it was pretty great watching Allen Falkner swing hard one year from a two-point suicide and his hook failing. He landed quite miraculously, and seemed quite unaffected by it.

Alice: I think the tea-bagging effort has been really poor this year, so we all need to sharpen up for tonight!

AT: There was no ass-suspensions this year. What happened, Bena?

Bena: Ah, that’s so 2005, you know? Plus, my hemorrhoids… There were a lot of knee-suspensions this year, and a lot of angels. That seemed to be the theme this year.

Alice: The two Italians on the spinning beam was a highlight though.

Ben: Yeah, 20-kg weight difference and crazy spinning! [Laughs]

AT: I am the worst reporter in the world, I can’t even think of any more questions to ask.

Bena: I’m worse. I went to a tattoo convention with a press pass, and ended up taking 10 photos over a span of three days.

Alice: Muffe, you haven’t said anything in this interview, how about some words?

Muffe: Bollocks.

I think that caps it off nicely. Now, it’s just a waiting game for the proper interview with Havve and Christiane, and, of course, the gang-bang.

– Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Live From Oslo Suscon 2009: Day Two

Rolf doing a coma suspension.

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports all weekend from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

It’s a slightly wet Saturday. There’s a bit of Norwegian press here currently covering Ben and Ronnie who have just gone up on a spinning beam, and are pushing it harder than dead or alive. Meanwhile, Ron Garza is doing another seminar in the chill-out area, passing around a huge-ass skewer he brought.

I thought I’d include a list of suspensions today, so as not to exclude anyone, and here it is, in typical Microsoft suspension template style, i.e. name, type of suspension and nationality. My biggest apologies if I miss anyone out – feel free to teabag me later as punishment. (I can tell you that teabagging is one of those dark secret rites that always seem to take place once the Jager and various other liquids have been broken into at the after-party, which itself seems to have gotten the nickname “The Gangbang” (for reasons I would be neutered and lobotomized for exposing). Come to Oslo SusCon—it’s a scene, man!)

Ellen doing an angel suspension.

Alan (coma), Norway
Marte (2 point resurrection), Norway
Fabian (2 point suicide/spinning beam), Sweden
Marco (2 point suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Bard (6 point resurrection), Norway

Alice doing an angel suspension.

Ellen (6 point angel), Norway
Rolf (coma), Germany
Line Therese (suicide), Norway
Andrea (crucifix), Italy
Lari (suicide), Finland
Alice (angel), UK

Yours truly taking it from Ellen and Cere. Gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Pirre (suicide), Sweden
Christer (resurrection), Norway
Mads (suicide), Norway
Anita (superman), Norway
Enrico (angel), Italy
Daniel (lotus), Sweden
Jesper (lotus > suicide), Sweden
Anders (suicide), Sweden
Emma (suicide), Sweden
Saskia (resurrection), UK
Hillary (seated), UK/US
Zumo (2 point chest), Italy
Lasse (suicide/chest), Norway
Christoffer (suicide), Norway
June (2 point suicide), Norway
Klem (resurrection), France
Julie (venus rising), France
Enrico (resurrection), Italy
Ronnie (2 point suicide/spinning beam), Norway
Benoit (2 point suicide/spinning beam), UK/France
Stine (2 point suicide), Norway
Jonathan (2 point suicide), Netherland/US
Rakel (seated), Norway
Tommy (angel), Norway
Ingunn (knee/suicide), Norway
Marius (crucifiction), Norway
Alex (2 point suicide), UK/Norway
Stine (suicide/spinning beam), Norway
Hilde (suicide/spinning beam), Norway
Lasse (lotus), Norway
Steve (performance), US
Tracy (performance), US
Saskia (resurrection), UK/Norway

June doing a two-point suicide suspension.

As you can tell, there is a lot going on here. According to Christiane, there are going to be around 70 suspensions this year, give or take a few. It does seem that crew meetings are more frequent and better organized this year, this being reflected in the convention running smoother than James Bond on Xanax. [Ed. note: Or should that be Ex-Lax?] A few new beautiful rigs have been brought in, and Industrial Strength‘s Jonathan has sponsored again this year, bringing some super-sharp needles to make the prep work that much less traumatic. Since I’m being a big fat name-dropper, I’ll mention that Pinpoint Piercing, The Manefisken Venue, Pain Solution and, of course, BME are all proud to sponsor the convention. Well, it’s time for me to dig into some of the vegetarian cuisine and recharge my batteries—more writing to come.

Anita doing a superman suspension.

Just wrapped up a 2 point suicide myself, so I am feeling somewhat hormonal and unable to write anything that’ll be even remotely worth posting. It’s open to the public here at the moment, so I’m going to go mingle with some outsiders and have a coke I guess. More blogging tomorrow, or tonight if I feel ambitious!

Lea doing a funky suicide/one knee combo suspension.


– Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Live From Oslo SusCon 2009: Day One

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports all weekend from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

So, after a morning of paying extortionate amounts of money for a boarding pass, arguing with airport security about the importance of sticking my toothpaste in a see through plastic-bag and then finally arriving on Norwegian soil (only to sit next to a person who was clearly intent on waging gaseous warfare on my tender nostrils for a couple of hours), I finally arrived at Oslo SusCon.

I was very pleased to see that I was not alone in having made the trip an annual tradition. Familiar face after familiar face kept popping up in front of me as I made my way into the solid epicenter that was the eating quarters. After getting some much-needed grub and a hasty cigarette/coffee, it was time for the official introduction to the weekend. I say “official” because I know many of the crew, volunteers and participants have been busy making all the cogs fit together since Thursday—big thanks to you all! In fact, word on the proverbial streets of the SusCon is they already managed to fit in five suspensions yesterday; my suspicion is they’re planning to gradually make it an all-year event, stretching the time-frame and participant numbers just a touch every year. Havve started the introduction in his usual informal comedic fashion: Warning us to watch out for whatever may be worth watching out for, to be nice to each other, and to treat the venue with respect. A sort of support group round of introductions to crew and participants alike was quickly ventured, and I’m sure I remember at least five per cent of who’s hanging when and from what part of their lovely inked bodies. (Not a bad job at all if you ask me.) Next, it was time for Ron Garza to present an interesting lecture on suspension culture before the action was set to kick off. I don’t even know where to begin quoting and paraphrasing it—though, to be fair, I couldn’t do it justice, so I won’t even go there.

I realize I’m not a very good reporter so far, because frankly I am not 100 per cent on whether it was six or eight people that went up today—hell, it could have been 12 and I’d be none the wiser. But the people all seemed to enjoy them and there were even one or two first-timers, at least one of which seemed to enjoy it lots!

An awesome new rig was tested out by a couple of folks, and it made for some pretty pictures that I’ll try to submit tomorrow. So all in all, a smashing start to a weekend that carries great potential which I’m sure it will smash!

It’s bedtime now—need to be bright and shiny and whatnot for the morning. Please pardon the tongue-in-cheek approach to this first entry; tomorrow I’ll take it a bit more seriously and get my facts right…

– Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

And Here Is Your 2009 BME Scholarship Winner

Initially founded by Darrin Fowler and now run under the supervision of Mark Anstrom, the 2009 BME Scholarship winner has been decided. Here’s Mark’s write-up, followed by the winning essay. Huge thanks to all involved, and congratulations to the winner on an excellent essay!

Each year, the IAM community comes together to award $1,000 USD college scholarship to a deserving member of our community. Available to all IAM members worldwide, this year marks the fourth year we’ve been able to help a promising student cover the costs of college.

Donations to the BME Scholarship Fund can be made through our website:

The IAM College Scholarship is scored each year based on a variety of factors, ranging from school grades, community involvement, and the individual’s role in our community. Candidates each year are also asked to write an essay on a selected topic related to body modification.

The last several years have seen a marked change in the acceptance of body modification in the workplace. As members of the WWII generation are retiring from the workplace, members of Generation Y are stepping up to replace them. For this generation, piercings and tattoos are mainstream; however, for their Baby Boomer coworkers, they are not. Especially in this tough job market, being modified presents challenges and risks to people in the workplace that unmodified people do not have to face.

For this year’s scholarship essay, we asked applicants their thoughts on career management and navigating the workplace as members of the modified community. This year’s scholarship question:

“Many kinds of visible body modifications have yet to gain general acceptance within society. What things should visibly modded people keep in mind when starting a professional career? Do visible modifications necessarily exclude people from any careers? Feel free to discuss any aspect of this question, including choosing a profession, handling interviews, dealing with co-workers and management, the expression of personal identity in the workplace, or any other aspect.”

This year’s slate of candidates was particularly strong. While all candidates this year were well qualified, and each showed unique strengths, in the end there can be only one winner of the BME Scholarship. So here it is…

It is with pleasure that I announce and give congratulations to this year’s winner: Sidra Mahmood!

Sidra is a student at the University of Toronto, majoring in environmental policy and practice, with minors in biology and women and gender studies. Sidra has served the modified community by conducting workshops and demonstrations on play piercings, blood play, use of proper equipment, and safety/biohazard education. Sidra has also served as a volunteer counsellor for Camp Oochigeas, a Toronto-based organization for children living with cancer, and has volunteered with many other worthy organizations as well.

Here is her winning essay:

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Sidra Mahmood
May 1, 2009

The Halo Effect: A Guide to Career Seeking for the Visibly Modified

While attitudes towards more mainstreamed forms of body modification have evolved positively in the past decade or so, it is fair to say that visible body modification has yet to gain full general acceptance within Western society. Rules surrounding the standardization of how an individual is supposed to physically present are inherently embedded in society and are driven by the mass media.

Body modification culture acts to reject these standards. It does this by providing an alternative to the heavily gendered, classist, and often unrealistic standards of beauty typically embedded in contemporary culture. This is not to say that mainstream culture inherently rejects all modification. In fact, it is able to enforce identities on individuals by imposing what type of body modification is acceptable and unacceptable (e.g. lobe piecings on women), thus stigmatizing appearances and behaviour that differ from this norm. In this case, this applies to more extreme forms of body modification which in turn, affects the ability of modded individuals to be given fair consideration when seeking a career on the basis of how they choose to present themselves.

With this essay, I aim to provide some insight on why individuals with body modifications may face substantial difficulties in getting involved in the working world, and shed some light on how they can overcome this. In the first part, I discuss reasons why visible body modification is stigmatized in the professional world, and in the second part, touch on ways that the modified individual can operate against these discriminatory practices.

For this essay, I conducted a number of informal interviews with business owners who have varying attitudes towards hiring employees with visible body modification. I also spoke with some modified individuals who have been discriminated against or have undergone negative experiences at their jobs relevant to their decision to be visibly modified. It is important to note that the names of those interviewed have been changed in the interest of privacy.

Concerning Employment
We cannot deny that in the mainstream, there are certain connotations attached to individuals who choose to modify themselves. These connotations range far and wide, and almost every modified individual has likely experienced difficulty where they have been judged unfairly on the basis of their modifications.

Interestingly, body modification culture encourages an individualistic idea of ownership over one’s physical self by way of adornment and ritual, acting to reject impositions of normativity. Since it is an experience that is arguably so inherently integrally connected to an individuals spiritual and mental well-being, it is rationally difficult to consider this to be an impediment in the abilities of an individual to be engaged in the career they choose for themselves. However, discrimination against modified individuals in the workplace tells that not all employers feel this way, and there are a number of reasons for this:

There are stigmas attached to specific forms of body modification that may lead potential employers to judge an individual unfairly. These stigmas can be damaging because they may cause speculation in the potential employer to as to how a modified individual may carry themselves in the workplace, their priorities, and their ability to work under authority.

The mainstream working world has a tendency to strip individuals of uniqueness to enforce a hierarchy of power. Indeed, there is an almost Orwellian insistence on sameness in the workplace – the very sameness that body modification culture rejects. Individuals who choose to introduce elements of individuality in how they choose to present themselves may subsequently be perceived as disobedient or a threat to the organization’s infrastructure.

Because body modification rejects the imposition of mainstream standards of beauty and normalcy, it threatens the values of individuals who are comfortable with the normative social structures they already live within. These threatened individuals proceed to make judgement and create false allusions to paint individuals who are different then them. This may sound familiar; homophobia, racism, and xenophobia are the results of similar thinking.

First Impressions and the Halo Effect
Consider this scenario: Job Seeker A applies for an administrative secretary job with a relatively conservative insurance broker, and attends the interview dressed in modest yet professional attire. She has a visible nose piercing. Job Seeker B attends the same interview dressed appropriately, but she does not have any visible piercings. Both candidates possess comparably impressive credentials and perform well on their interviews. Who gets hired?

Initially identified by the psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect is defined as a “cognitive bias” that occurs when a strong trait in an individual influences how their other traits may be perceived, regardless of how true or false those perceptions may be. Someone who is tall, for example, may have perceptions attached to them that portray them as strong, confident, and sometimes intimidating. Similarly, someone with visible modifications as Jennifer*, a small business owner I spoke with mentioned, may look like they are “[a] troublemaker, affiliated with the criminal system… might be involved in drugs… doesn’t follow rules very well…potentially violent.”

The type of modification an individual possesses can also lead to incorrect and biased perceptions of that individual’s character and affiliations. These perceptions can be further augmented by the agency with which individuals choose to modify themselves: Sarah*, a secondary school student who is employed part-time with a popular clothing retailer recalls how a male colleague was asked to remove his nose ring when he was hired. Two other members of staff had visible nostril piercings as well, but both of them were women. When asked why he had to remove his piercing but the other staff members didn’t, he was not given a clear explanation. Instead, the employer mentioned that it just “didn’t give the right impression on customers”. We know that the garden-variety nostril piercing likely has no effect on the way this employee serves customers and completes his work-assigned duties, so the vagueness of the employer’s explanation can likely be linked to a number of reasons that can range from perceptions surrounding the employee’s sexual identity to his mental and physical health- keeping in mind that many uninformed individuals often liken body modification with self-harm.

In 2001, the employment website conducted an internet survey, asking employers to offer up how tattoos and piercings influenced their impressions of potential job candidates. Almost 60% of employers surveyed said that they were less likely to hire someone with tattoos and piercings. The reasons offered by these employers defending their hiring practice included concerns regarding the candidate’s morals, mental well-being, ability to follow rules, and potential criminal affiliations. Many employers also mentioned that they wanted employees to represented a professional image of the company, and that this was not possible with employees who had tattoos and piercings.

When I asked John*, a local coffee shop owner about how visible modifications would compromise the ‘professional’ image he was attempting to give customers, he mentioned that he found that “[modifications] look unrefined… ‘tribal’. People with them don’t look very educated.” John added that as the coffee shop caters to mostly retired clientele, the ‘[older] clients don’t like those looks”, and that these attitudes did affect his hiring practices. John took care to mention that he personally had no agenda against individuals who chose to modify themselves, but claimed that hiring visibly modified people would compromise the reputation of his establishment against his clientele.

So what’s a Modded Person to do?

Know your rights. Depending on where you are, an employer cannot legally fire you on the grounds of visible body modification. However, be aware of the fact that you can be reprimanded on the basis of not following a prescribed dress code (which may ask you to remove or cover visible piercings and tattoos). Visible modifications may also prevent you from getting hired in the first place.

Present well. During the interview stage, be prepared, well-spoken, respectful, educated and enthusiastic. When at work, be punctual and responsible. These qualities will present clearly and most employers will likely pick up on them, and you may find yourself being a catalyst for change when you challenge people’s negative ideas about modified individuals.

Ensure that what you have does not compromise your safety in what you do. 1” lobes may not matter in a public consultation job, but this may be different in a factory environment. The last thing you want is to have something ripped out painfully because it got caught in a skid. Working with young children may carry similar risk when it comes to visible piercings, as infants typically adore grasping and tugging at dangly items.

Remember, the ability to modify your body is a privilege and not a right. While progressive employers will recognize visible modification for its aesthetic and sometimes spiritual merit, many others continue to see it as a show of rebellion and your employability may be affected by associated stereotypes. With the current stagnation in the job market, finding employment is fairly difficult to begin with, and if you are fortunate enough to be provided with an opportunity, consider compromising and covering up if need be. This is the ‘as-long-as-you’re-under-my-roof” model of reasoning.

Be willing to accept responsibility for what you decide to do. Come to terms with the fact that certain forms of modification such as facial tattoos will likely compromise your ability to get work, so measure out your priorities and decide how, when, and where you modify yourself accordingly. If you are a young person, remember that the process of getting a part-time student job versus finding a career can be substantially different, and that you may not be a Suicide Girl forever, so it is best to review your desired modifications in accordance with your future aspirations.

Remember that modification itself can be a career too! However, speak with established tattooists or piercers in the area to learn about what is involved. You will likely hear learn that it isn’t as easy, or as financially rewarding as Miami Ink may make it look, and that typically, apprenticeships involve long, unpaid hours of doing very little that relates to direct tattooing or piercing in the first while. Additionally, you are expected to participate in necessary health and safety training that you may be paying for out of pocket. There is no doubt, however, that the job is rewarding for the right people. Lastly, patience, good interpersonal abilities, decision making skills, and artistic talent go a long way, no matter where you work or what you do.

Considering working for progressive companies. Do your research beforehand, and if you need to, bring up the issue of acceptable visible piercings or tattoos during the interview if the dress code is unclear about this. Retailers and companies catering to alternative subcultures are also a good choice. Similarly, working in academia can also be a great career choice providing you have the interest in and commitment to what you are studying. Some other industries that seem to be less concerned with body modification as an impediment to your ability to work include web development, software engineering, research, beauty and cosmetics… the list is seemingly endless.

Consider self-employment. Possess a skill, product, idea or technology that you think could cater to a specific market? Have patience, and organization skills? Start-up funds? Consider working for yourself. Owning a small business can be rewarding, and you can work without worrying about compromising your ability to express yourself through your modifications to satiate someone else.

Consider management or higher-up positions. With this, In addition to challenging stereotypes regarding the abilities and capacities of modified individuals, you may be given the privilege of implementing the dress code in the first place. 

Become a rock star.

In Summary:

So why is it that individuals who choose to visibly modify their bodies are stigmatized to this extent in the working world? Especially since this treatment does not apply to all body modification: breast enhancement and liposuction are seen as a perfectly acceptable forms of body modification – has someone ever been denied a working opportunity on the basis of them having had a facelift?

It seems ironic, especially since body modification is not a particular tenet of any one such subculture. In this day, great-grandmothers are just as likely to get tattoos as are members of bike gangs. Middle-aged professionals are just as likely to sport visible modifications as are teenaged skateboarders. Modification is illustrative of an individual’s vitality and creativity and employers are doing themselves a disservice when they fail to recognize this.

Finally, one simple browse through the membership of IAM, BME’s community portal, tells us that individuals who modify themselves come in all sexes, ethnicities, sexual identities, shapes, sizes, education levels, and socio-economic backgrounds. The members of IAM include PhDs, sex workers, models, artists, doctors, hair stylists, small business owners, educators, tattooists, dog trainers, writers, musicians, chefs, and much more. Body modification culture does not discriminate and one can look to the cultural and ritual significance of body modification throughout history and around the world to understand why it has always been an important tenet of any society’s development.

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Working-Class Cyborg

People are angry at Rob Spence. It’s April Fools’ Day, and his prank of choice was to make a morning post on Facebook that a battery exploded in his eye and that he was in the emergency room awaiting…well, whatever sort of treatment such an accident requires. But he’s quick to shift the blame.

“That was your idea,” he scolds Kosta Grammatis, the brilliant 23-year-old aviation electronics engineer who’s been living in his home office for the last two months. Kosta laughs him off and goes back to his dinner. We’re sitting in Harry’s (along with BME photographer Phil Barbosa), a bar near Rob’s home in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood. Less than an hour ago, we were in Kosta’s makeshift bedroom while he assembled a prosthetic eye for Rob—a clear, rounded silicone case housing a small red LED light—to give us an idea of the technology with which they’re experimenting. To be fair, his April Fools’ joke seems entirely plausible.

When Rob was 13, his right eye was damaged in a shooting accident on a family member’s farm. Six separate surgeries were performed over the years to repair the eye’s vision, but each time it regressed, and the eye grew larger, turned white, and became increasingly disfigured and painful. “I’ve had a doctor stick a needle straight into my eye about 10 times,” Rob says, “and I was thankful for it. Like, ‘Please stick the fucking needle in my eye.’” Several years ago, the ophthalmologist father of a friend of his told him he had to prepare to let go of his eye, and after a year and a half of deliberation and anxiety, he decided it was the right move. “It’s a hard thing to let go of a part of your body,” he admits, “but it was time for that garbage to go.” Three years ago, he finally had it removed. Now, Rob, 36, a filmmaker and videographer, wants to make good use of the vacant lot in his face: He’s trying to build a miniature video camera to wear as a prosthetic eye in the empty socket.

This is where Kosta came into the picture. He contacted Rob after hearing about his project and realizing, hey, he was more than qualified to run point on this. (Or, at least, he was no less qualified than Rob.) The two met in San Francisco while Rob was there visiting his father—Kosta, at the time, was squatting in a coop warehouse—and found they shared a similar vision. Kosta came to Canada and took up residence in the back room of Rob’s house, and the two have been teammates since, trying to devise a working prototype. The main difference between their operation and a proper lab, of course, is funding; that is, they have none.

Rob is broke, he says. His credit cards are maxed out. He borrowed $500 from his little sister earlier in the day. Plus, you know, he’s trying to build the world’s first miniature prosthetic eye camera, and now he’s pissed off a whole lot of people with this April Fools’ stunt. Now, thinking about the LED he was just wearing in his eye, he realizes the whole joke could have thoroughly backfired. “Imagine if the battery really had blown up in my eye tonight after I’d cried wolf on Facebook?” he says. He remembers, though, that his brother-in-law had a good point. “Do people think if I’d really blown my eye apart, and I was sitting in the emergency room, that I’d be talking about it on Facebook? It’s come to the point where people feel like sitting in the E.R. with my eye bleeding profusely is a perfectly reasonable time to update my Facebook status.”

Except, if anyone were to do such a thing, Rob would be a prime candidate. Ever since the initial accident, he’s developed a talent for drawing attention to himself. “When you’re a kid,” he says, “and you have a dramatic accident, it’s like the origin of a super hero. When I came home from the hospital, I’d turn to my little siblings and say, ‘My eye really hurts, can you get me a glass of lemonade?’ And they would actually fuckin’ get it for me.”

The Tiny Tim act only lasted so long, though, and, with his current project in mind, he realizes investors won’t be refilling his glass if all he has to offer is a sympathetic story. This is the part of the job Kosta calls “skepticism management.” According to Rob, the typical engineer mindset is that a person should build a prototype of an invention first, be modest about what he’s created, and then start showing it off to people. Not him. He’d rather create excitement for the project among the people working on it, the people expecting and, ideally, the people financing it.

“I’m all about the sizzle before steak,” he says, grinning, “because sizzle can buy you steak.”

Kosta perks up at this. “We shouldn’t even be building anything,” he says. “You don’t even need me.” Kosta is equal parts easy-going, sun-kissed southern Californian and genius scientist; it’s a disarming combination. And, to be sure, Rob does need him. The pair have two working prototypes for Rob’s camera-eye, success Rob attributes largely to Kosta, due to both his technical skills and his ability to seek out the right people to do the jobs they can’t. Thus far, they’ve built devices that create wireless NTSC signals—the sort of standard wireless signal a television uses—and are now working on getting this to work in sync with a miniature camera and a battery, all attached to a printed circuit board, all of which has to fit inside a prosthetic eye.

What about what we saw earlier in the evening, though? Rob sporting a glowing red light in his eye? Does that count for anything?

“Oh,” he says, taking a draw off his scotch, “that’s just bullshit for press like you.”

“Yeah,” Kosta adds, “that’s just for your entertainment.” Right. Sizzle before the steak and all that. And all of a sudden, they’ve just driven a truck through the fourth wall. It’s an admittedly respectable sort of transparency: Phil and I thought we’d captured something unique for our article (which we had), and Rob and Kosta thought they’d done due diligence in drumming up some more attention for themselves (which they had). They’re not approaching this project like seasoned veterans of the scientific community: They’re trying to make a breakthrough on a shoestring budget.

“Can you write, like, ‘Rob and Kosta looked emaciated, as if they hadn’t eaten for days’?” Kosta asks, laughing.

“Hey!” Rob says, pointing a finger at Kosta. “You look emaciated. I look fuckin’ fine.”

In the search for funding, they scared off National Geographic by requesting $75,000; apparently, the publication thought they could achieve their goal with closer to $10,000. This is a common experience, Rob says, and one that betrays a sort of myopia. He compares it to Alexander Graham Bell’s first success building a telephone: “How much more money do you think he needed to build a robust version that worked all the time?” Even as far as video devices go, he thinks he’s being reasonable. “People tell me I’m crazy if I want a hundred grand to build the eye,” he says, “but the standard high-definition camera they shoot with on T.V. is worth about $120,000 to buy. How much do you think it cost to develop?”

So in the meantime it’s bullshit red lights for guys like me, but even stunts like that can be beneficial—that’s the sort of sizzle that earns them credibility with the cyborg culture. This, it seems, is something of a concession for Rob. Support is welcome regardless of the source, he says, but this is a segment of society with a bit of an identity crisis. Lots of people have fake eyes, so what’s the difference between a cyborg and someone who just has a prosthetic?

“Someone with a wooden leg is not a cyborg,” he says, “they’re a pirate. Meanwhile, I have a fucking eye patch on…but if I take off my eye patch and you see a red light, then I tap into the cyborg culture that you know and love.” This, it seems, is the extent of the difference. “That’s really what a cyborg is. A fake eye with a red light in it is different from a fake eye.”

And therein lies the problem with the amorphous definition of “cyborg.” Clothing, he says, technically makes you a cyborg, because it enhances a human’s ability to live in the world as a naked animal; the same goes for glasses, pacemakers, breast implants and any other invention people use every day that’s been welcomed into the mainstream. “It’s adding shit to our bodies within the context of popular culture,” Rob says, that makes a person a cyborg.

“That’s why we went for the Terminator eye,” Kosta admits. “It’s quickly identifiable.” But the truth, he says, whether or not he’s just trying to sell me sizzle, is that once funding comes through, the possibilities for Rob’s eye are endless. He talks about an idea for installing a laser in the socket that he could bounce off mirrors and panes of glass, and with the right piece of technology, the reverberations off those surfaces could be translated to hear what people are saying in the rooms in which said glass could be found. “We could make you a bionic eye-ear! We could have a little transmitter that transmits audio into your ear.”

Rob belches in response. One of his dreams is to be able to screen movies from his eye. “What I want to do eventually,” he says, “is walk around always shooting Breakfast At Tiffany’s onto a wall, because chicks love it. And Dukes Of Hazzard, because guys love that. That’s why I’m mutilating myself and letting Kosta stick batteries in my face—because mostly, I want people to love me.”

He’s joking, but there’s a kernel of truth there. As much as Rob doesn’t deign to treat the loss of his eye with much seriousness, he admits to the difficulties in adjusting to life after the surgery. “You don’t feel quite right,” he says, “you don’t feel like you’re as attractive as you used to be, you feel like you’re not quite the man you were. It might sound stupid, it’s not like I lost a leg or something, but you don’t feel quite as confident as you used to.

“But,” he says, “if you start to feel like you can actually be cooler by replacing the shit you lost with something better than other people have access to, then that’s when you start to feel pretty good about yourself.”

“There are already scientists working on connecting [prosthetic eyes] to the optic nerve,” Kosta says, “so imagine if, all of a sudden, having a night-vision eye was possible and available to people who were missing an eye? Wouldn’t you be like, ‘Fuck, I want a night-vision eye’?”

And so is presented a modern predicament. For years, it seemed like the ostensible purpose of prosthetic limbs was to as closely resemble the original appendage as possible. Recently, however, this has been uprooted by a focus on mimicking the function of the missing part (and, in some cases, exceeding the original’s capabilities), with aesthetics becoming a secondary concern. Now, these two paths are converging; limbs and organs that look “normal,” but that carry possibilities far beyond what the human body can accomplish in its natural form.

Rob foresees a disturbing trend. “One day,” he says, “I might have a grandkid that will actually want to remove an eye voluntarily, and I would tell that kid not to do that. But, I know that kid would just say to me, ‘Well, grandpa, you did it!’” For him, there is a significant difference between him augmenting himself because he lost something, and a person purposely chopping off a limb with the intention of “upgrading” it. He worries that what he’s doing, playing the role of “Eyeborg” and whatnot, will make people think that he thinks it’s cool to remove parts of their bodies. “Which,” he says, “it’s not at all.

“But,” he admits, “I’m open to the idea that that’s where things are going.” He goes on: “I think the main point is, how can our kids shock us? My kid could be a gay punk rocker and I’d be like, so? I don’t give a fuck. Gay punk rocker—big deal! The way they’re going to shock us is, ‘Dad, I’m gonna get a new fuckin’ hand.’ And we’re going to say, ‘Well, I’m not sure you should be doing that.’ But we’ll be the worst offenders, because we’re all in the movement. We won’t like it. Even though we’re already buying into it, we won’t like it.” It’s the duality of the conscientious cyborg: How do you balance a desire to improve your own life—and find someone to give you hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so—with not wanting to set a precedent for future activities of which you already disapprove?

But maybe this is all just so much navel-gazing without grant money in hand. Until funding comes through to ensure Rob will be able to cement his legacy as Grandpa Hypocrite, there’s still the matter of living his life as a one-eyed man—which is not without certain high points.

“When he sees other people with eye patches, they give each other high-fives,” Kosta says, laughing. This reminds Rob of Steve Fonyo (“Terry Fox light,” as he calls him), a Canadian who lost a leg and, in the spirit of Terry Fox, ran across Canada; unlike Terry Fox, however, he made it the entire way.

“Except,” Rob says, “he was a drunk, and so was his father driving the van. They made it the whole way across and he never died, but he never gets any credit. And I did an interview with him, and I asked him, ‘So, Steve, did you get laid? When you were running across Canada with your one leg, did you get laid?’

“And he goes, ‘Oh yeah.’ And then, after a pause, ‘Big time.’”

Rob isn’t quite as shameless, but he’s got what seems like a go-to maneuver nonetheless. “When you’re at a party and you’re wearing an eye patch, girls are thinking, ‘Are you vulnerable? Or are you mysterious? Or are you a bad boy? Or are you all three of those things?’” he says, cracking up the table and breaking into a snort-laugh of his own. “They’re curious, so all I do is say, ‘Well, I’m curious about what your boobs look like. This is my raw fuckin’ naked eye here, it’s vulnerable for me and I don’t feel so great about it. So, maybe it would make me feel better if you showed me your breasts.’ And inevitably, it’s a fairly good deal.”

Kosta, the sidekick, is picking up life lessons. “You have to have some kind of emotional experience,” he theorizes, “because they’re going to have a unique emotional experience.”

“That’s the thing,” Rob says. “If you’ve got an eye out, and you show someone the flesh inside, it’s almost like you’ve got a pussy in your head. That’s what it feels like. They always want to see it. ‘Pull your patch aside and show me what’s in there.’ And when I do, it’s the same look as a 13-year-old boy who wants to see a pussy for the first time.”

All photos © Philip Barbosa / 2009. Video is coming soon!

Visit the Eyeborg project online at Rob can be found here, and Kosta can be found here.

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New Article Posted! (Markus Cuff interview)

Even if you don’t know Markus Cuff’s name, you’re probably familiar with his work: For the last 15 years, he’s been one of the chief photographers for Tattoo magazine, as well as an accomplished travelogue and live concert photographer. He recently spoke with BME about traveling the country visiting tattoo shops, the anatomy of a great photo shoot and why he’ll probably never get a tattoo.

To read Markus Cuff’s Got a Head Start, please click here.

[Ed. note: Comments on this post have been disabled. Go tell it on the mountain in the forum attached to the article. Thanks.]

Markus Cuff’s Got a Head Start

© Markus Cuff Photo 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Rubendall / © Cuff

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

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

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

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

The Dutchman / © Cuff 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Weatherholz / © Cuff 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Wait…100? What the hell happened to 103?

Dawn Purnell / © Markus Cuff photo 2008

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