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Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink Paperback – June 8, 2010
Best Books of the Year So Far in fiction, nonfiction, mysteries, children's books, and much more.
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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
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Absolutely amazing and well written, Kept the reader engulfed and always had humor involved when needed. Read morePublished 13 months ago by GB
I have the hardcover copy of this with Jeff Johnson's artwork! This book rocks and it changed my life from a time where I was too in my head with the way my life was going. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Leif Hanson
I spent almost as many years in retail as Johnson has spent tattooing, and if my stories are better than the ones chronicled here (and they are) there are only two possibilities:... Read morePublished 21 months ago by Jennifer Grey
Learning about an unfamiliar subculture. I enjoy Mr. Johnson's "NO, REALLY!" style of character description and development. All in all, a good read.Published 22 months ago by jkp0430
Greatly written. I enjoyed this book so much I read it page to page twice in one night. The part about "the collector" spooked me....everyone will enjoy this book. Read morePublished 23 months ago by Mike Branley
Had this book for a while. Very tough to put it down after you open it. Humor, frightening, shocking, and informative. Days of a bygone era. This for sure, is an easy read.Published on March 17, 2014 by JOHN DOWDEN
If your a tattoo artist or just love tattoos you'll love this book. The stories are great and enjoyably funnyPublished on March 10, 2014 by Jason N. Yamasaki
And by that I mean, it is full of truth. JJ has given us a rare look into a fascinating world, and while I am no personal stranger to this world, I still found much that was noble... Read morePublished on June 4, 2013 by Kelly R. Bell
The tattoo business worldwide is experiencing some major changes with the influx of many new, fresh, and very talented artists entering the trade. Read morePublished on January 20, 2013 by Mr. Sean Hobden