“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

-Mary Oliver

I know this to be true for myself. I tattoo for my job and I love it. But I have always had an uprising of creative energy that I have often never given a voice to, a personal expression that isn’t necessarily available through the exercising of a craft.

I’ve had enough choking on the noxious fumes of my unused potential and am making changes to my life and the structure of it, to allow the muses to whisper in my ear and space for me to hear them when they do.

I hope those of you out there that know the feeling of not allowing the energy to flow can open up your pathways so that you will not live a life of regret, but instead live a life of satisfaction in work well done.

 

Just leave the money on the table

Let me tell you about how I lost my virginity, about that magnificent moment in a young mans life. It was just a continuation of a funky lifelong relationship to sex that started when I was just a young buck.

So, I’m 19 years old and I was a born-again Christian, dating another born-again Christian named Christy and not only were we not going to have sex until we were married but we weren’t even going to kiss until we got married. This of course was all in the name of honoring our Lord and Savior. The heathens around us could do whatever they wanted, but we were living sacrifices to Christ, yes, we wanted to kiss, but no, we would not. We wanted to be in the world but not of it. This is how you end up going down on your girlfriend while never once letting your lips touch her mouth lips, these lips would only touch her other lips, the aftermath was always the same – extreme guilt. If it was so bad why did it feel so good?

No one, that I can remember told us to do it this way, I must have read it in a book somewhere and thought it sounded good. This was around the same time that I was trying not to masturbate because my friends dad had told me – “you can profess your faith and tell me how much you believe, but what really matters is when it’s just you, Jesus and Satan sitting in a room together, which one do you choose?” So, hormones raging like a bull, I would constantly choose Satan by rubbing one out and then I would watch Jesus cry in the corner of my room, He was always so disappointed in me.

I was working at a Mexican restaurant in Milford, Connecticut, which can also be referred to as the fifth ring of hell. Christy’s brother worked in the kitchen and I was waiting tables. One of the girls that worked at the front desk was a stunner. Dark eyes and dark hair. The kind of girl that never even looked at me in high school. I had bleached hair, had a couple of tattoos and wore shoes with hot rod flames on them. I was a 90’s punk rock kid. I didn’t drink or smoke or anything of the sort, but one night after work some of the crew went out and I went out with them, it was good to love the sinners but not the sin after all.

Afterwards, I drove this girl home and she invited me into her house at which point my hands got really sweaty and clammy, I went with her, she lived at home with her parents who were asleep upstairs. It was a nice big house and we sat on the couch downstairs, she turned the television on crept up closer to me. I could feel the tension and the heat of her body, she kissed the side of my neck and nibbled on my ear and the next thing I knew we were making out. Oh God did I feel horrible! But Oh God I felt so good! I was like Ricky Bobby, I had no idea what to do with my hands, but she guided me around and slid them to the right spots. She whispered in my ear and said “I want you to fuck me”. People really talked like this!? I felt like I was in one of the porno mvoies I would watch and then feel horrible about. So I did, for a good minute or two and then I came.

Before I even had the chance to start beating the shit out of myself, she pushed me off of her and started to cry, she ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. I was in another world, a new one, I had tried so hard to hang onto this precious shiny virginity of mine and I just lost it. I had tried so hard not to kiss my girlfriend only to kiss this girl I ended up having sex with. I zipped up and walked towards the bathroom, I could hear her crying inside. I knocked on the door and she said “Leave me alone! I can’t believe you! Why don’t you just leave the money on the table and get out of my house!” I tried to get her to come out of the bathroom, she didn’t. So I left and as soon as I shit the door, I started crying.

I got in my car and started driving, all I could think of was killing myself and the lies and the receipt that laid ahead of me, my poor sweet girlfriend, what was I going to tell her and now Jesus was super disappointed in me, crying his eyes out over my lustful decisions. I thought about how I could attach a spike to the steering wheel of my car and drive full speed into a wall, I thought about it a lot on the way home, ending it all. Instead, I broke up with Christy shortly thereafter and had sex with the restaurant girl again. I only lasted a minute longer.

Success

A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me what my definition of success was, I had no answer. I had no idea at all.
I had heard other people asked the question, I thought I would have had an idea but I had fuck all.

It stuck in my brain, like when you burn the roof of your mouth and can’t stop your tongue from playing with it. My mind was swirling the question around, flicking it.

It’s different for everyone, of course, it’s personal. A hedge fund managers idea of success is going to be crazy different from a surf instructor in the town I live in.

I’ve got an idea now, it just means to be happy, to be consistently happy. I’ve been far from that for most of my life, I’ve had incredible moments and great times of happiness, but for the most part, my overall state has been miserable.

So that’s it, I have a goal now, and that goal is to be happy.

I can do that, I can achieve that, I just needed to know it’s what I wanted, now it’s a matter of mapping out how I can get there.

I’m working on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Hopes

I’m going to be 40 next month. I head into that year with the hope that I can finally achieve some form of stability. Some sense of confidence in myself, I am confident in certain aspects of myself, but not in my ability to stay up. 

There are things I’d like to have in my life. Stability is one of the main attributes I would like to attain. I’ve had so many mountaintop moments, so many moments where I thought I had it all figured out and that I wouldn’t fall back into the abyss of depression or apathy. But I always have. This doesn’t mean that I always will.

There are some issues I need to address. I’ve looked back over the past 20 years of my life and looked at what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone. I’m asking what has worked for me and what hasn’t. There’s a lot to explore.

This time though, I am going to come up with a battle plan. So that when the going gets tough, I know the way out.

 

On Tattooing and Trends

I began tattooing in 1998; a lot has changed since then. For the newcomers, these changes will never be self-evident. The world is interconnected in a way that must have been hard to imagine for Ed Hardy, or Sailor Jerry. When they made contact with Japan, could they have ever imagined this world in which we have instant access to the photos and information they had to work so hard to get?

Access to this information required great dedication and ingenuity. Prettyecious material and knowledge was passed on with secrecy and obtained with effort. Tattooers didn’t want the competition to see what they were working with. What they held close to their chest gave them power, that purple pigment of Sailor Jerry’s, that book of Chinese dragon scrolls or acetate rubbings from Brooklyn Joe Lieber were objects of power, they had the advantage, putting their competition at a disadvantage.

Before the digital age, I would take a photo of a tattoo that I’d finished and then I wouldn’t see it again until I got my film developed. When the tattoo was done it left the shop, if it was on locals or regulars I’d get to see the tattoo in their skin, I’d see if I put the color in solid or if my lines blew out. In those first years, I’d see people come back with red, yellow and crusty skin that was so irritated at my lack of knowledge and craftsmanship. I would do the work and it would go out into the world, not to be critiqued until the film got developed.

Once I got it developed, if I liked what I saw, I would make prints and write my name and shop info on the back of it, then send it into the magazines, and check over the next couple of months to see if it got published. If it did, there was a chance that other tattooers all over the country would look through and judge my work. Maybe they’d see the reference I used, or maybe they liked the way I approached a certain idea or the color scheme. Then again they might have declared it all a pile of fat steaming horse shit. It wasn’t possible to know what people were thinking or talking about behind the closed doors of their shops. Maybe they didn’t notice at all.

Today, with an interconnected world, we can see work from all over the world. Great tattoos being made in Buenos Aires or South Africa aren’t invisible because of their remote locations. We can communicate with other tattooers or potential clients in other towns or countries with minimal effort or cost. We can buy reference material on Amazon, eBay, or through numerous supply companies. I used to spend hours at Barnes and Noble, when I was back in Pennsylvania, using their books, sitting in the cafe and drawing for upcoming appointments. How much easier it is now to find the treasures of the craft, and what an advantage younger tattooers have now, with easy access to great books, documentaries, and great machines being built and sold with the click of a mouse. The need to struggle has been diminished. This explains why the learning curve has changed, why we see kids that have been tattooing for five years that are better than we ever were at ten or fifteen years.

Will Durant, a philosopher and historian said: “If progress is real, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.” We have the luxury now, of building upon a great wealth of information pertaining to our craft. The vast majority of this information is easily accessible and the potential is there for us all to be better because of it. Most of the work has been done by our predecessors. We are higher up on the pedestal than our forefathers and the newcomers are higher up still. This is the advantage of the young, they inherit the knowledge and work of those who came before.

It’s almost a necessity of humanity that we have to learn from our own mistakes rather than the mistakes of others, which leads me to thoughts on trends. It’s easy to look at the past and see that trends come and go. Tribal tramp stamps, armbands and twisted chrome bodies with no faces… are rarely tattooed today. Now, it’s easy to get a gauge on what people like and what they don’t like. But our ability to see what’s popular has greatly increased, by paying attention to the numbers of likes or the number of comments a post receives, we can gauge what’s hot and what’s not.

What’s trending now, will certainly look dated in ten years. It will be possible to look at a tattoo and say “ah, that’s from the 2010’s”. These crude line drawings that are so popular with the hipsters, watercolor style tattoos with no black that are destined to turn to shit and traditional tattoos with outlines as thick as sharpies will look as dated as that tramp stamp on the old lady in leopard print, with her bleached hair, and leathered skin. The tribal armbands and dolphin tattoos of the past are today’s bird silhouettes and infinity symbols.

I look back on what I was obsessed with and what was popular in the late 90’s and it looks so outdated. Joe Capobianco is a prime example, he was my idol when I was starting out, and highly respected, but he never changed his style, never seemed to progress at all or dip his toes into the stream of the past, and his work looks decidedly 90’s. He has, however, maintained his vision, his individuality, and has not veered away from his natural tendencies. Some people like what he does and I’m sure he does as well. After all, it pays his bills.

Social media has popularized trends on a worldwide scale, therefore we get someone in Australia doing the same style as someone in Brooklyn or someone in Manhattan mimicking someone in Sao Paulo. The craft has turned into a giant circle jerk. It would be hard for it to be any different since everyone is using the same reference materials and referencing one another, with no idea that the ideas do not come from the one they are referencing but from something that person is referencing ad infinitum. If we were to seek the roots and not the fruit we would find it’s possible to leave the orgy of popular thought and find our own way. Independent and built on a solid foundation. It might help to reflect on the words of Mark Twain, who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

It’s helpful to think of it in terms of the ocean: trends are the top layer of the ocean where the waves are in constant motion, crashing into one another, and swelling towards shore, a never-ceasing flow of energy. This is where the trends and current culture move about. As you dive deeper though, under the current, the water gets still and peaceful, it gets cool and serene, this is where the history of the craft is, this is where I believe it’s important to focus, in the stillness of time and history. In these still waters, in this depth things have had time to settle. It’s where the spirit of our forefathers lie, with their struggle and strife. It’s where we find the timeless approach. Which I believe to be the goal, creating work that is not stamped with a specific time. This is where a craftsman discovers how to use _all_the tools of the trade rather than just sharpie sized liners and Swedish made rotary machines.

What we do comes from history and becomes history. There is great joy in becoming a small part of something bigger than ourselves, of learning from the souls who struggled through the muck before us and fulfillment in disappearing into the abyss and becoming part of history. After all, we are destined to float along and settle in with the likes of Greg Irons, Cap Coleman, and Paul Rogers. Sometime down the line, others will be standing on our shoulders and our names will turn to dust. The likes we received on our latest posts, or the money we made won’t amount to anything at all. The tattoos we carved into once living breathing flesh, whether on trend or timeless, will be consumed by the earth and disappear into the void.

 

 

 

Via De Leche

I was on a riverboat heading to Iquitos, an Amazonian city in Northern Peru, with two Argentines I had met on a bus in the middle of nowhere. I was on a mission to try ayahuasca. The boat would take four days to get to the mysterious city I had heard so much about on my travels. We slept in hammocks, out in the open, along with thirty or forty other people on the upper deck. Down below, in the main cabin, there must have been two hundred hammocks hung up closely together. So many vibrant colors and skin tones filled the room. Families of every generation, lounged around, children ran around like wild animals through the maze of textiles and flesh. It was cramped and humid downstairs, it felt claustrophobic compared to the upper deck, but it offered a barrier from the sun.

 

I’d go down to get food three times a day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all included with the price of my ticket, I just needed my own bowl and fork. When it was time to eat, a cook would bang on the steel pipes and the sound would reverberate through the boat. Everyone would line up, all of us with our bowls in our hands. There was a transvestite working in the kitchen and when I’d get to the front of the line, he would smile at me and say some shit in Spanish that I couldn’t understand. The cooks behind him would snicker in the background. Then a sweaty, heavy dude behind the pot of food would plunge his hand in, grab a serving and slop it in my bowl. I thought of being in prison, lines of people waiting to be served their daily ration, in tight quarters … and there was a tranny.

 

Every couple of hours the boat would put in at small villages along the way to Iquitos. All of the villages had people waiting to get supplies. The villages were just small clearings in the jungle, a break in the tropical flora. I had learned that the town I was headed to was like these, they had only four hours of electricity a day and just a few houses, in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. When they started to load and unload cargo it was like watching an army of ants. They carried blocks of ice in burlap sacks on their backs, men and women alike, through the mud and up the hill into the village. The women were so strong, I had seen it in Ecuador as well, women carrying significant weight on their backs, like sherpas. Old men in old clothes would work along with everyone else, as if age held no chains on their actions. They would climb the hill that led up into their village, as others made their way down to get more supplies, like a snake eating its own tail.

 

It was so foreign to me. I had never thought about living with only four hours of electricity a day or of using an icebox instead of a refrigerator. There were cattle at the head of the ship, sectioned off in a pen. All day and most of the night, passengers would watch them to pass the time. Being a part of that scene, a heavily tattooed gringo standing there watching cows on a boat with some Peruvians in the middle of the night was one of the things that made me happy that I was traveling. On my last day, one of the cows had been trampled in the night, the others just stood on top of him as if he was already dirt. It felt important for me to see things like this, to experience these moments of boredom and discomfort. How else can you find out how privileged you really are? Go out and see how the rest of the world lives and it puts a lot in perspective.

 

At this point, I had been traveling for about six months. When I left Colombia, a girl from the hostel asked if I wanted some acid, she was leaving and didn’t want to take it with her. On principal, I never turned down drugs, so she gave me her thirteen tabs. The boat seemed like the perfect place to take some (a lot of places felt like the perfect place to take some). I offered some to the Argentines who on principal, also never turned down drugs. We each took a tab and waited for it to kick in while we smoked a spliff. I held the tab under my upper lip and I could feel my lip quiver. The Argentine who spoke the least English had a bongo with him, he drummed us along as we slowly floated down the river.

 

The water under us was the color of chocolate milk and it moved in ripples along the edge of the boat. The shoreline was much higher than the water level, crumbling cliffs of red mud, with roots breaking the surface, looking for water. There were people sitting up there watching the boat float by in the same way that I watched the cattle. With no electricity, the action on the river served as a distraction. I kept an eye out for the pink dolphins that were famous for living in the Amazon River. I had read that these pink dolphins had female genitalia similar to a woman and that men would fuck them;  then kill them to get their dick out because the dolphins muscles would not let go once homeboy was done. I saw them, but they were grayer than they were pink.

 

When I lived in San Francisco I was interested in trying acid. I was attracted to psychedelics and was intrigued as an artist… would it make a difference in terms of what I created? There were so many great examples of artists opening the doors to their subconscious using acid, with great results. I often thought about how Steve Jobs said Bill Gates would have been much more interesting had he dropped acid. I was too fucked up to try it though, I had too many demons and the fear outweighed the answers. Sitting on that boat, with no phone, no technology, minimal grasp of the Spanish language, floating along the Amazon River with a couple hundred Peruvians on a boat that I couldn’t get off of, I was filled with pride. I had made it. I had made it out of the scary, shameful places of my mind and into a world of wonder and faith. The acid started to kick in around sunset. I lounged in my hammock and watched the chocolate water, in awe of the change of light, the shades of jungle green morphed into layers upon layers, it was as if I could see each individual leaf independent of one another. Eventually, it all disappeared into the darkness.

 

My friends were in their hammocks next to me. We looked at each other in agreement; it was kicking in. My body tingled, my palms sweaty. We walked to the back of the boat, the Milky Way unveiled overhead, it was impossible not to get lost in it. We laid down on the deck and shared a spliff, the color of the cherry made my hand glow as I inhaled. The Argentine played the bongo and we were having a great time. Some gringo kids came over to listen to the music and I talked with a teenager, it was his birthday and he was on a missionary trip with a church group. I asked about his trip and how his birthday was going, I told him how I had been a Christian but saw the light and realized it was all bullshit. I wished that someone had that talk with me when I was his age, or that I would have listened when they had. I asked if he had ever smoked weed before, he said no. It was with great joy that I offered him the spliff. “Tonight seems like a pretty great first time” I said. He took the spliff and took a drag, blowing the smoke out into the night and into the Milky Way.

 

The night rolled on slowly, the kids went away and I laid on the deck, looking up at the millions of stars, into eternity. That up there, that’s what I’m made of, I thought. I was filled with incredible gratitude; gratitude that I was away from everyone and everything that made me feel safe, that I was without a phone or a computer, that I was alone and anonymous. Completely free from responsibilities; I had no bills, I had no job, I had nothing and it felt so good. I never felt so alone or alive. My past seemed to drift into the humidity and the wind, I looked forward to the mystery of what laid ahead, I was excited and curious about the future. I had been left alone at the bow of the boat, laying on that steel deck, which had carried so many souls along the river. I had my flashlight with me and I pointed it towards the end of the night, into the infinite abyss. I thought about how light travels on and I pictured that flashlight going on forever and ever and with that light, I wrote thank you into the sky.

 

 

Tattooed Heart

Tattooed in the center of my chest is an anatomical sacred heart with the word WISDOM written across it. I got this when I was around 21. I was a Christian at the time, I became one in high school. I walked away from that faith not long after I got the tattoo and I haven’t thought about it in years, other than looking at how it’s aged and softened. I also have a tattoo of Jesus whose eyes I later had scratched out and then a friend added pink bunny ears on top of the crown of thorns.

I was angry at God, with the idea of God… I was really angry with Christianity and all religion. I raged against it, in my early twenties and into my thirties. My mind had been locked down with the rules and the sin. Things were either good or bad and my humanity never felt good enough. For whatever reason, I always felt guilty. The idea that anyone who didn’t believe in Christ would go to hell, was such a bitter pill for me.

It was in Huntington Beach, around twenty years ago where I sat alone on the beach and let go of Christianity. I smoked a joint, and looked at the ocean, looked at the waves rolling in, strong and constant. I thought of how long that had been going on, that energy that has been pumping from the beginning of time.

Instead of thinking I knew how that came to be, and who made it, I thought instead about the wonder of it all. There was an entire world hidden away from sight, hidden under an unfathomable sea, where animals as big as buildings lived long lives. I saw the wonder, the magnitude of it all, and I said goodbye to the certainty of Christianity. It was a beautiful moment in my life.

It was just a couple of months ago now, I was being a gloomy cunt, I’d walk into the tattoo shop and change the whole environment, without saying anything, my tension and my mood could poison the well, I’d bring that home as well.
I had an answer to my question: I had come to where I wanted to live, to my own Shangri-La, and I was fucking miserable. One day I’d be great, the next everything would suck.

I walked down to the beach, and went in the water, I dove under the waves and screamed into the abyss. I came up and looked at the shore, looked at the trees reaching towards the sky, looked at the jungle, living, and breathing. “I don’t know what to do,” I said, ” I don’t know who the fuck I’m asking, but I guess I can’t do this on my own,  I don’t know what to do… Pacha Mama… God… whatever you are, I need some help, I don’t want to feel like this anymore, I don’t want to be like this.”

Now when I see that faded heart tattooed on my chest, through the hair that is slowly turning white, I can see a pretty constant theme in my life: a search for wisdom and understanding.  A search for connection. That’s what it was while sitting in front of the Pacific ocean 18 years ago, and what it was a couple months ago when I dove into it.