You’ve worked with some of the biggest legends in tattooing. Do you have any specific memories of Spider Webb or Cliff Raven that you’d like to share?
Yeah, Cliff Raven was really helpful to me. That’s how I ended up working with Spider Webb. I wrote to Cliff, then I flew out to California and had him do some tattooing on my inner arms. I kind of begged him for a job, an apprenticeship, and he told me he had a full house; he really didn’t have any space for me. I showed him my artwork, portfolio, some of the tattoos I had done, and told him I was living in New York City. I was working underground, cause tattooing was illegal in the five boroughs at the time. Actually, when I started there were ten states in the United States where it was illegal to do a tattoo. He picked up the phone and called Spider Webb and said, “You’re gonna give this guy a job.” [laughs] So that’s how I ended up working for Spider Webb.
So he just called Spider and said he’s doing this, and that was that because Cliff Raven was the man?
He pretty much said, “I have this guy in the chair, and you’re going to give him a job.” So I went out, and called Spider. I knew that Spider had a really checkered reputation because of his kind of craziness and the whole porno scene that he was tied into. Al Goldstein was a good friend of his, Annie Sprinkle… the whole pornographic actor group used to come in and hangout at the shop in Yonkers. I’d thought I’d seen a lot of things, but I certainly got an eyeful and an earful working at Spider’s place for the short time I worked there.
That’s amazing. You know, it makes me wonder, considering the illegality of tattoos back in the day, did you ever have to run from the police because of tattooing?
Nah, I never got threatened by the cops. The cops in New York were pretty lax, you know? They couldn’t care less if you were doing tattooing. The problem was, you couldn’t hang a shingle; you couldn’t put a sign out front. I tattooed cops while I was working there. You know, it was like referrals through people, and then people would call the house—I was living in a loft on 26th Street—and I would have to go out the window, check them out, make sure that they weren’t in uniform, and then let them up into my loft.
Do you think your knowledge of history makes you a better tattoo artist?
[pause] Absolutely. I mean, look, it’s like any creative form that you choose—if you don’t realize that you’re standing on the shoulders of the people that went before you, you’re lost.
There’s a lot of disrespect for the real history of tattooing amongst the younger crowd, which is unfortunate. I mean I understand being a younger person and saying, “Who gives a good goddamn about these old guys? I want to do things differently.” We certainly did that in my generation, people who started tattooing in the mid-to-late 70s. We really challenged a lot of the old ideas. And there were women that came into the trade…
Tell me about that…
I remember Pat Sinatra working with me, and we went to a tattoo convention that was held in London in 1981 or 82. A lot of the old British tattoo artists were really pissed off that I had a woman tattooing in my booth. It was pretty insane. You know, this is the fucking 1980s, and these guys were griping, saying that tattooing wasn’t a woman’s thing. There were a lot of difficulties for women coming into the tattoo world, and they changed it completely.
I think bringing women into this group allowed for a different approach. Usually most tattoo shops, you were told to sit down, shut up, pick your tattoo, and give me your money. That was the deal. I think things softened up with people like Kari Barba and Kate Hellenbrand… Kate was around early on in the scene. But they were few and far between.
Towards the end of the 80s, there were a number of women who really made a difference. Suzanne Fowzer, Jacci Gresham from New Orleans… I could name lots and lots of them. I think that made a big difference.
How has pop culture, commodification impacted the way you approach tattoos?
I’ve always approached it from the same position. I understand that tattooing is a business, that it’s a craft you get paid for. But I always, first and foremost, understood that tattooing is a rite of passage ritual that carries with it thousands of years of history, ritual and magic. That is primarily what drew me into tattooing, it’s transformative power.
If you were going to pick something to tattoo on Donald Trump, what would it be?
Oh my god, I have no idea. [laughs] First off, Donald Trump couldn’t hack a tattoo. I’m sure he couldn’t sit through it. I grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of my life in New York, and I knew what an asshole he was long before he came into the political scene. I wouldn’t want to have any contact with him.
From your perspective, what is the relationship between tattoos and death?
I think that tattooing touches on mortality immediately. The greatest fear that people have about tattooing is, “Oh, if I decide to get this, I’ll have it for the rest of my life. It’s permanent, it’s forever.” I say to people, “It’s only as permanent as you are.” They don’t want to hear that. [laughs] They don’t want to hear that they’re not permanent. They don’t want to talk about their own sense of mortality.
But tattooing, I think, dips directly into these very primal places. And I think it’s relationship to the person getting tattooed. There is either an unconscious or conscious decision about what sense of mortality is in the tattoo…
You’ve previously talked about how tattoos represent linear proof of who you are and what you’ve done with your life. Do you personally consider symbolic tattoos inherently more important than ones that are purely decorative, or do they have the same power?
No, I can’t say that. The act is often what is most important for people. It’s just really the rite of passage ritual that is really the fundamental, primitive desire to be tattooed. I want to show the world that I’m different. I’m now an adult, I’ve suffered the loss of a spouse, I graduated from college… whatever it is, they’re trying to express to the world that they have gone through something and they’re now someone different. And that’s what leads people to get tattoos. So I think the weight of both tattoos is of equal importance.
Primal desire to show the passage is what the source of tattooing is. I don’t think that people are conscious of that, I don’t think people walk through the door, “Oh, I want to get a butterfly,” and they’re thinking in their head, ‘I want this rite of passage.’ No. But they’re driven to it right out of human consciousness development. That might seem a little lofty, but that’s just where it’s at.