Katherine Dunn Reviews Tattoo Machine
Katherine Dunn is the author of three novels, Attic, Truck, and Geek Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Read her guest review of Jeff Johnson's Tattoo Machine:
The topic is prickly, but Tattoo Machine is a charmer. Jeff Johnson is a sharp-eyed master tattoo artist, and an extraordinary writer. His own remarkable story of up-from-under redemption weaves through this engaging, gritty, and meticulous examination of the shadowed art of personal symbolism. As co-owner and manager of the famed Sea Tramp Tattoo shop in Portland, Oregon, Johnson has 18 years of hard-won insider knowledge. He presents that expertise with lyrical prose, savage humor, and enormous compassion. In the process he documents a seismic shift in cultural attitudes.
Thirty years ago, when I first started looking at tattoos in a serious way, skin art was commonly associated with criminals and drunken sailors. Cops assumed any woman with a tattoo was a prostitute. There were artists and mystics who flaunted the outlaw aura of their tattoos. But there was also a secret world in which engineers, business tycoons and surgeons hid elaborate tattoos beneath their suits and scrubs. A prim, strict trauma nurse of my acquaintance took years to complete the storm of Japanese plum blossoms that whirled around her torso. Only her closest friends knew what she considered her true identity.
Now, that secret world has exploded into the light. More than half the working adults in the United States casually sport at least one tattoo. Johnson gives us not just the why but the how of this transfiguration. He provides an entertaining dictionary of tattoo lingo, and a primer on what to look for and what to avoid in shopping for a tattoo. He explains what’s going on in the needle, the mind of the artist, the skin of the tattooed, and the back room, basement and latrines of the tattoo shop. He tracks the rapid evolution of the art and the fierce rivalry of different schools of design and technique. And he does all this with vivid characters, mesmerizing human tales-within-tales, and plenty of scabrous shenanigans. Tattoo Machine is informative, intelligent, and beautifully written. Marked or un-marked, the reader comes away with wiser, more generous eyes.—Katherine Dunn
From Publishers Weekly
Tattoo parlors are showcases for the socially disreputable, the brazenly nonconformist and the indelibly creative, all on display in this colorful memoir. First-time author and veteran tattoo artist Johnson has a million tales of the tattoo demimonde, who come to his Sea Tramp in Portland, Ore., as well as tattoo shops around the country. Into his shop walk scamsters and freaks; a gangster whose gun-toting posse rattles Johnson into misspelling their boss's tat; a punk femme fatale who lures him into a trap; and a probable serial killer who has the names and Social Security numbers of his victims emblazoned on his skin. Ruggedly individualistic artists are part of the show, as is Johnson himself: œI have no shoes and no driver's license and I've been smoking gooey Mexican heroin and snorting piles of coke off a switchblade for three days straight, opens one tale. (In a grungy management primer, Johnson offers tips on customer service, employee relations and the importance of bathrooms so clean that œsome daisy-assed pantsuit could feel safe and secure in them.) The book is little more than a collection of shaggy-dog stories, but Johnson's stingingly profane prose, storytelling chops and offbeat sensibility definitely get under the reader's skin. (July 14)
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