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Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink Paperback – June 8, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 89 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; First Trade Paperback Edition edition (June 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385530722
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385530729
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,160,400 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kristine Lofgren VINE VOICE on May 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It would be easy to dismiss this book as another attempt at cashing in on the current "ink" craze, but Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink, isn't so easily set aside.

Written in staccato, dark, punchy language that reminds of Anthony Bourdain or maybe even a little Chuck Palahniuk, Tattoo machine isn't an expose of the industry or even a straight-forward memoir. Instead, it is something hovering somewhere in between, peppered as it is with advice, a guide to the lingo of the tattoo world, and stories - some the authors own and some that are not - that will grab you. I found myself reading this book as I ate lunch and sneaking it in during breaks from work, a sure sign that a book is an enjoyable read, and this one is.

Jeff Johnson doesn't attempt to paint himself as a tough guy (as I unfairly expected) or to create an idealized version of the tattoo world, he readily admits to his flaws, is honest about the ugly side of tattooing and is careful about his depictions - something that is lacking in some of the other tattoo books out there.

However, what truly sets this book apart from other books about tattooing is the writing. Jeff Johnson's style is easy to read, engaging and vivid and you feel as though you are along for a strange ride down some neon-lit highway, loud music ricocheting inside the car, while your driver half-shouts stories over the roar of the road and the stereo. If sex, drugs, blood and vomit turn you off, don't read this. But, if you are like me, and you have always wondered what goes through the mind of that person digging a needle into your flesh, or what goes on after you leave the shop, you must read this book. As your driver on this journey, Jeff Johnson has you in capable hands.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Tattoos, these days, have become almost mainstream -- but tattoo culture is still something left to the hardcore, the people for whom tattooing is more than just a status symbol or fad.

Jeff Johnson's Tattoo Machine is an interesting collection of vignettes about his life as a tattoo artist. The stories are generally entertaining, sometimes disturbing and occasionally far-fetched. We learn of Jeff's encounters with thieving punk chicks (one of whom bit him on his cheek after trying to rob him), begrudging heroism (he helped save a drunk driver's life) and the US Office of Immigration (his wife is Canadian), and it's all told in short, engaging chapters with prose that proves this tattoo artist also knows how to work with words.

Still, there's a seeming lack of depth to the book that makes it all feel somehow superficial. As someone who has an ever-growing collection of tattoos herself, I was looking forward to hearing more about Jeff's journey to becoming an artist, as well as about tattoo culture itself. Instead, though definitely enjoyable, his book was more of a slice-of-life work, shedding light on the goings-on at his own tattoo shop and throughout his life. But maybe that's just me, having expected a more linear narrative...

If you're into tattoos and tattoo culture, then Tattoo Machine is definitely worth the read. It's an easy read, and Jeff is a likeable narrator.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Jeff Johnson has written a fast paced, interesting look into the world of the tattoo shop. (I dont know if parlor is the right word anymore) He has included the token crazy dude, the drunk drude, the quiet one, and the blasted-keep-the-caffeine-flowing-till-dawn hardcore artist.

Along the way, we are treated to the working behind the tip counter, the countless hours of drawing flash, mixing pigments, a short history lesson, and a few odd encounters. Fresh and entertaining to read, this book gives you a glimpse at the people behind the tattoo machine. While many from society will be quick to cast them off as losers who couldn't get into art school- we see that the reality is different.

We are treated to mini lessons on management, how to balance books, emergeny customer interaction, humanity, and the Fear that every artist seems to face. While dealing with people, diseases, pimps, gangsters, power attorneys, and even police, Jeff seems to handle the situation with a no-holds-barred painful honesty. It is refreshing to read a book in which the author doesnt spend the whole novel telling us how awesome he is. Equal parts ego and humility are what sets Johnson apart from the rest of the crowd.

After reading this novel, I have a newfound respect for those who choose to do this as a career, and even more for those who manage to do it well. Sometime I need to take a plane trip to Oregon and visit the Sea Tramp tattoo shop. I might not get one (kinda not all into the pain thing) but it sure would be cool to see the place so well described in this novel that manages to entertain, repulse, and inspire all at the same time.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is not a perfect work of art, nothing is. Actually that sentiment is one of the topics covered in the book. However as a tattoo collector, and an avid reader, I found this book to be an entertaining diversion from my standard reading fare. Those who critique this book point to the idea that some of this stuff might be fabricated, but I do not find that a valid criticism. When a memoir has the words "Tall Tales" on the cover, you know that there is going to be exaggeration. Also Jeff Johnson's influence from the works of Hunter S. Thompson is readily apparent and he even admits to it in the third or fourth chapter. Thompson was a blatant liar, but we all still love his work.
The goal of any writer, and any artist is to show the truth of existence through fanciful fabrication mixed with real world experience. Mr. Johnson certainly achieves that goal in this book.
The prose is concise and fun, although at times slightly muddled. The narrator of the book is a likable person despite his "moral" failings, and the entire length of the book is a compelling read. I don't know if people who are not associated with tattoos or tattooers might enjoy this book, but I certainly did. At one point Mr. Johnson describes the armies of misfits who surround tattoo shops and develop relationships with the artists there, and I just felt that it perfectly encapsulated the relationship I have with my local shop. Some of the low star reviews that I have seen have said that the author is pretentious and does not care about his clientele, but it is obvious that he does. Throughout the book the relationship with tattooer and customer is visited upon multiple times. Mr. Johnson explicitly states that having such direct contact with his clients creates a very personal bond.
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