The slowing


I haven’t been writing in this blog all that much these days. Part of that is because of that picture up there. I mean, not literally the picture is causing me to write less, but that little girl sitting on my knee is getting a lot of my free time.

Would you believe me if I told you that was part of the plan? When Cara and I began seriously talking about having a child one of the first things I realized was that here was an amazing chance to change my life. I am, by nature , the kind of person who likes to be alone. I have always been drawn to solitary habits and diversions; working in a photography darkroom, writing, painting, playing video games etc. what I didn’t do was hang out with groups if people, join clubs, tow the line, enjoy the game. My only interest in “the group” was how to get as far the fuck away from it as possible.

As you might imagine, this doesn’t make one a lot of friends and is a real drag on a relationship. It also goes from being a “that’s just how I am” sort of thing to a “ok this is pathological” really quickly.

So when we began to try for a baby it occurred to me that here was a situation where being a reclusive hermit was not a fucking option. My little girl demands and gets my attention, even when I don’t want to give it, even when I’d rather be alone, and I love it. Even when it’s exactly Not what I want to be doing
I love it! I do not, and will not, be the “absent dad”. Luna may one day wish that I would back the fuck off, but I will never knowingly make her wish she had my attention or love. It will be there without her having to ask.

One of the blessings that meditation has given me is the clarity to see my own bullshit, I simply can’t lie to myself knowingly anymore. I can’t rationalize my character defects, blame others for my life, or hide behind some constructed facade of tough guy ness. It has left me naked to the world and while I still have plenty of faults, I can’t pretend not to see them or explain them away. I knew, even before she was born, that I was going to have to make major changes to my way if dealing with the world lest I screw up my child’s development and sense of worth.

I welcomed it even as it scared the shit out of me. When were together the phone goes in my pocket, the games get turned off, and Sesame Street replaces Iron Monkey and BladeRunner. I like to sit on the floor with her, I pretend to gobble her feet up and she occasionally toddles over and gives me a big hug. I am here for those hugs, really here!

So I plan to keep writing here, but it will be whenever I have the time. Thanks for reading.

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How to use reference without stealing pt.2

In almost any art form directly copying another artists work, particularly if said artist has a distinctive look to their work, is considered wrong and a sign that the copier has both a lack of creativity and scruples. In tattooing this is made all the more distasteful because the work being copied is being taken from someone else’s body and then applied to another’s body! The “violation” is not only against the original artist, but also taints the wearer of the original work And the wearer of the copy!

Because of the ubiquitous nature of internet and the popularity of tattooing, people who do bite another artists tattoos are almost always caught and called out, and if the copier seems to be a serial biter a reputation for being a hack follows them. Believe me, the only thing tattooers love to do more than bitch about tattooing is to pile onto an unrepentant biter! Of course, some times synchronicity happens and very similar tattoos are created accidentally, but it’s pretty obvious when someone has made an exact copy of a tattoo and especially so when they have done it many times. Sometimes when called out the copycat will justify their thievery with some version of “it’s what the customer wanted” or ” this is what they brought me and wouldn’t let me change anything”. This excuse is ridiculous because as tattooers we always have the right to refuse to do a tattoo and in all my years of tattooing I have never met a customer who didn’t want their tattoo to be a unique creation for themselves. More likely is that the copycat is lazy and rather than do the extra work of telling the customer why they would be happier with a unique version of the art they brought in, I they just slap it on the light table and commence to half-assing it.

So biting other tattooers work is clearly bad, and yet. . . . Looking at other tattooers work is an important part of forming our own unique styles, of stirring that creative stew in our heads, and of setting a bar to aspire to. Tattooing in a vacuum often results in the “monkey house” effect. When one first goes into the monkey house part of a zoo the stench is overwhelming, shocking even, but after an hour you get sort of acclimated to it and it doesn’t seem so bad as when you first walked in. Tattooing while completely cut off from what other tattooers are doing often results in the artist doing mediocre work and not knowing it since they have no frame of reference, they have been Inside their own monkey house for too long!

So how do you use other tattooers work as reference without stealing?

One way is to look at the technical aspects of work you like but  feel are lacking in your own work. If, for example , there is a tattoo with a wing I am particularly taken by, I will try to understand why I’m so enamored of that design. Is it drawn a particular way? is it the way the wing fits in among the rest of the surrounding area? is it the placement on the body? In short, I’m looking for the key to how to take the technical elements I like  find a way to use it in my own work instead of stealing the specific image and reproducing it. Copying someone’s tattoo won’t make me any better, but understanding why I’m so taken with a particular element of the tattoo can help me to refine those areas in my own work I’m not in love with yet.

If I have a tattoo coming up and am not totally confident with my ideas I will often look at similar tattoos for a clue as to how I can tackle my own upcoming tattoo, but I only do this once my own drawing is already finished (more on this later). The idea is to use the other tattoo to tackle specific areas technically, not to copy the previous work wholesale. For example, if we stick to the wing example, lets say I have a chest eagle tattoo coming up but I’m concerned as to how to keep the wings heavily shaded but not to the level that they become muddy or look like a cover up, I might take a look as several other tattoos of chest eagles and examine the ones whose wing shading I like the most. In this example I am still looking at other tattooers work, but applying the technique to my own drawing, not lifting the actual drawing of the other tattooers wing.

What, then, do you do if the customer brings you a picture of an existing tattoo and wants you to do the same thing on them? Personally, I start right out by gently explaining “I know that you want an original tattoo and I can’t copy this directly, but I am excited to draw you something with the same feeling that is custom for you”. This allows me to start out with my line in the sand (I.e. I won’t copy another tattoo) but let’s me present it without insulting the client or expecting them to have knowledge of tattooings arcane etiquette about copying. The fact is that most customers don’t know biting is considered a bad thing, it is our job to teach them (kindly) while at the same time showing them that we can do better for them. If they are adamant that they will only accept an exact copy (which has never happened to me in 16 years of tattooing) then I would politely decline to do their tattoo. However,  I doubt this will happen to you, and even if it does, there are always other clients. You only have one reputation and sense of self-respect, it is never worth it to devalue both for money.

Ok then, how could one use the clients magazine/internet print~out as reference to create an original tattoo? At this point I actually have a “technique” that has worked well in letting me capture the essence of what the customer likes without (deliberately or accidentally) biting the original tattoo. First, I will take a good look at the original photo, for about a minute or so, study the elements the customer expressed the most interest in, and then put it away from me. I literally put the original picture face down and away from my drawing area, and then begin my own drawing. The rule I establish for myself is to never, from that moment on, to look at the original photo while drawing. What I am trying to do here is use the fact that few of us have perfect memories to allow my own style to mix with my fading memory of the original picture. I might have tons of other reference about the subject matter at hand, but no pictures of tattoos, any tattoos. At this point the process is about my sketching of an idea divorced from the influence of any existing tattoos.

So, If the clients photo is of a rose tattoo; I’ll study it, put it away, then use my reference pics of real roses, and start drawing. I believe that the original minute of studying the client source photo is enough to get the gist of the theme and from there my own imagination takes over, but with the general memory of the original tattoo added to the mix of influences. When it is time to apply the tattoo I will allow myself to look at the original picture to see if there are particular technical elements the customer wants which I can transfer to my own drawing. It is important to note, as mentioned  above, that at this stage my own drawing is already finished and I’m not pulling specific imagery from the original work. In this way a customer who likes a particular color combination or level of dark/light can get a tattoo that feels like the one they brought in, but is unique to them and will never be mistaken for a copy of the original.

I’ve done this for years now and what never fails to amuse me is how different my drawings are from the magazine/print out picture and yet, every time, the customer loves it! They almost always tell me that they like “their” version “better than the original”. I believe that this is because even if they don’t know that it’s a tattoo culture taboo to copy anothers tattoo that they still want an original with all the personal elements in it that a straight up copy of another tattoo wont have. You might make a customer “happy” by biting a tattoo but i don’t believe that you will form that connection with them the way that a tattooer can if we take the time and effort to personalize the tattoo for them specifically. The difference between tattooing a person once and making them a part of your clientele is making them feel your genuine respect for them and the art of tattooing.

Respect seems to be at the core of all of this. In general, biters seem to be lacking that respect; for the customer, for the original artist, for his or her client, and saddest of all, for themselves.

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How to use reference without stealing pt1

When getting critiqued most of us hear “you should use reference “, its right up there with ” needs more black” in the advice you will hear the most. Yet I, like most tattooers, live in mortal fear of being a “biter”. The best definition of “biter” I can give is “a tattooer who deliberately steals an image from another tattoo”, otherwise known a a plagiarist, copycat, or forger. What complicates the issue is that in our business the client frequently brings you a picture (from the Internet or a magazine) of the “exact tattoo” they want.

The way I see it there are two kinds of dilemmas surrounding reference; one is using non-tattoo sources to make our drawings and the second is how to use tattoo images as reference without copying the original material. Lets start with the easy one first, using non-tattoo reference in creating our own original drawings for a tattoo.

So, who needs reference when they are doing a drawing? YOU do. “But wait”, I hear you say ” I’m an artistic genius so I can see whatever I’m drawing in my head so I don’t need reference, besides what I’m drawing is my personal style so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like a real picture of whatever, and anyway if I use reference it won’t have my special signature style!”. Sorry to tell you, but these kinds of folks need reference the most, not the least, here’s why; reference is a way to enhance your personal take on an image, not limit it.

Argument 1:” I can see whatever I’m drawing in my head so I don’t need reference”

The world is full of what I like to call play-doh tattoos. Tattoos that resemble whatever they are supposed to be but look like they were made of dough. Sure the basic shape is there, but they always lack detail, a sense of solidity, and usually get specific, yet crucial, elements wrong. They look like an outline with nothing inside. The viewer (and customer) can almost see the unsteadiness of the artist trying to fill in that blank space without knowing what goes inside that general shape.

I can’t tell you how many koi fish tattoos I have seen with a giant fat headed koi with kissy face lips, eyelashes like a princess pony, a dorsal fin that goes from their (tiny) tail up to their head like a mohawk. Same for anchors which look like they were made of those balloons they make animal shapes with and daggers that look like some safety Halloween prop for a toddler instead of a weapon to stab people with. And oh the faces! Thousands and thousands of sad genetic mutant pin up girls and hairlipped inbred gypsy. . .uh. . .girls. . . I guess.

You need reference because our minds are designed to take in a general outline of the world, not to memorize minute details. If our caveman (cave person?) ancestors took the time to memorize the exact shape of a saber toothed tigers fangs, well, we wouldn’t be here because one of those fangs would be through his face. One of the reasons those rare autistic people who can draw entire gothic churches from memory are so impressive is because we can’t.

When you look at a photo or a real koi (to stick with that example, but feel free to insert anything you are drawing in that space) our brains pick out details that we would never remember, the right number of fins, the general shape, the proportions and relationships of one part to another. When you put that on paper the end result is still filtered through your unique lens into a drawing, it still looks like you (and only you) created it but all the bits are correct, this makes for a better tattoo.

Argument 2: “what I’m drawing is my personal style so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like a real picture of whatever”

Reference can be used for realism, it’s true, in fact that realistic tattooing is simply the art of recreating reference in a way. What about other kinds of art though? What about twisty chrome new school , multi layered biomech, or super simplified traditional? What about whatever the hell you call what it is that you do? What if you are so unique and your style so personal? Well, lets look at the non-tattoo world for a second, at the Dalis, the Picassos, the Blakes , Matisses and Freuds, the guys whose work was so out there and unique that they spawned entire artistic movements? They all used reference, in fact they all spend years in art school drawing live models, still life’s, and pouring over anatomy books! The wildest artists around had a firm grounding in reference before they could spread those metaphorical wings on flights of fancy.

Argument 3: “if I use reference it won’t have my special signature style”

When you draw something you are taking your memory of that object and transferring it through your hand, which is great except that there will always be elements of that object you would want in there , but you can’t remember. Your unique style is actually choked by the bottle neck of only coming from your inaccurate, generalizing, and incomplete memory. Don’t feel bad, we all have shitty memories! If you have a special signature style then reference will only enhance it the way spices enhance a meal, no chef thinks pepper dilutes her work because she sees it as just another tool to put forth their own unique take. Reference does the same for you.

Your style is what happens when creativity comes through your hand, all that you have seen and experienced in your life is part of that moment, if you are using reference then you are simply adding more accuracy to what you are going to render in your own style and everyone will notice it as an improvement, even you!

Ok so how do you use reference?

It used to be that you could tell how serious a tattooer was by the size of their library. In the age before google, and ready made tattoo reference material a tattooer would buy an entire book for one good photo! We would take a day off to go to the library and photocopy books of birds, ships, faces, swords, animals, anything that might some day be useful in drawing something. It kind of sucked! You would have some guy come in and ask for the one thing you didn’t have a book for!

Thank the tattoo gods for the internets! Using google alone can emulate a library of a million books, and since our phones and tablets are so ubiquitous we almost have no excuse to not use this incredible resource.

These days when I set out to draw I will try to find 2-3 images of whatever I’m drawing. More than that and I tend to get over-referenced and confused as to the bits I like best, less and you are limiting yourself to one view, pose, size, and details. Besides, we’re not copying the reference, we are adding it to the stuff our mind already knows about whatever we are drawing. By using multiple references we keep from getting too focused on reproducing the photo. I’ll lay the books/pages out around my drawing area and rough out my first draft, looking at the pages here and there to add elements that my eye likes, refining the proportion. Once I have more of a finished draft ill clean up the line work and look for areas that feel unfinished or empty, one look at your reference material is usually enough to spark an idea for how to tackle a problem area. I’ve been doing this for years and never once has my drawing looked like someone else drew it, nor has it ever looked exactly like the reference!

If I am drawing a pin up or a face I will often use images of old time (30’s-60’s) pin up girls or vintage stills of Indian actresses since the poses and expressions are much more dramatic than todays stilted, bored looking actors and models. Much like using an artists manikin this helps keep the proportions correct. In fact, if I used reference for no other reason, I would still use it for anything based on a human body, our brains seem especially sensitive to something being “off” when it comes to people.

Even when doing traditional imagery I find that looking at photos of a real rose makes my traditional roses look better and less like the 300th copy of a copy of a sailor Jerry rose. Real daggers and anchors and hourglasses make the drawn versions of these things so much better without ruining the “old-school ness”. The folks who gave us that wonderful bank of images, the Bert Grimms and Sailor Jerrys and a hundred more were using reference to craft their flash. Many of the old stand bys were actually popular advertising and illustrations of the time that the old timers of the era referenced and created in their own hands. And looking at a profile photo of a real woman will, I guarantee, improve those gypsy girl heads, the traditional guys who passed that imagery on to us were looking at images of popular actresses and models of their day when they drew them.

There are some tips I have learned specifically for Japanese tattoo imagery I’d like to share. Japanese tattooing is unique in that it is based on and still very heavily reliant on ukiyo-e woodblock prints instead of “real”images. In fact many of the greatest tattoo masters in traditional Horimono tattooing lift images directly from these ancient prints. It is not considered wrong or improper to use a Hokusai or kuniyoshi print, and even current masters consider it fair game. I recently attended a seminar taught by Horitomo whose Japanese tattooing is some of the best around today when a fellow attendee asked him “Do you get offended if a tattooer uses one of your drawings for their tattoo?” He answered “if you can’t draw a better one than me, then you should use mine”. Note that Horitomo was referring to his drawings not directly referencing one of his tattoos.

It’s seems clear to me and I think to any tattooer that reference can only be a benefit to our work. If we agree that each and every tattoo we do should be our very best effort then I think it’s obvious that we should be using reference for each and every tattoo.

Next time Ill give you my take on using other tattoos as reference without copying.

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

the New Multi-post 3000! many subjects handled half-assedly in a hurry. . . ,.

1) The book reading/signing with Brad Warner was awesome! Not only did we fill the place to capacity (30 or so by my reckoning) but Kevin Sousa treated Brad, Cara, and I to dinner at his  Salt of The Earth restaurant! It was really fun and I was happy to host one of the more important authors in my life. Sometimes we get to meet our “heroes” and even more rarely they are sometimes as cool as wed like to think they are.

jsn n bradSpeaking of Zen. . . .


2) It’s a given in the Zen world that every person who gets “involved” in zen comes into the room with the “wrong” motivation. We want to be peaceful, to have less stress, to love more, better, or with more honesty. We want to improve ourselves, we want “enlightenment” or wisdom, at the very least we want to be something other than what we walked into the room as. One of the wonderful things about zen is that even if you start with the completely wrongheaded idea, doing it long enough and regularly enough tends to “work” anyway! One of the funny things is that we come to Zen looking to fix a particular problem or set of problems and eventually we learn that not only will we not get the solutions we are looking for, but that we aren’t even asking the right questions!

In my younger, poorer years I neglected going to see a dentist for a long time. I had good reasons for this, I was broke,  dentists are scary, and my teeth seemed fine to me. One day I noticed a spot on a tooth that I couldn’t seem to brush away, “oh great, ” I thought ” A cavity so bad that it’s on the front of my tooth!” So I went to the local college school of dentistry which offered extremely reasonable rates since you get worked on by recent graduates doing a sort of residency. After taking x-rays and examining I asked what the bad news about the spot was and the hygienist said “oh that’s just plaque” and popped it right off with a pick, on the other hand the x-rays had revealed severe bone loss and a need for immediate surgery and aggressive cleaning if any of my teeth were to be saved from falling out! In other words what i went in with seemed like a huge problem for me until the dentist showed me that it was nothing and that much more sever, undetected issue was at hand.

Same with Zen.

I came into zen looking for peace of mind, a way to make the whole world not scary and to somehow take away all the bad parts of my life while leaving the rest of it basically untouched. Well, just like my dissolving jaw line, it turned out that all the stuff which was out of sight, undetected, was causing far more harm than all the surface stuff i thought was the real problem. I don’t care how smart, wise, or perceptive you are, until you sit down and stay very quiet with your own thoughts for a little while you really can’t see what is causing the suffering in your life. It goes way way back and our minds have gotten so used to shouting it down and covering it up with superficial problems that we not only don’t know whats really going on down there, we don’t want to know!

Why am I talking about this now? Well for one thing, even with 10 years of meditating under my belt new things continue to be revealed as I sit zazen. The other day I was sitting, my monkey mind just beginning to settle down after about 10 minutes when something, a thought or realization i guess, popped in and I realized “I do a lot of things to be validated by other people!” It’s almost as if I’m always performing for an audience in the hope that someone (apparently anyone) will recognize it and pat me on the head saying “you are very good!” I recognize that lots (maybe all) people do this to some degree I realized how strongly it affected my sense of self! As soon as I had this sort of light-bulb moment I also realized that it was harming me, getting in the way of being a genuine person and easing suffering, I can now begin the work of undoing the habit.

Once again, I didn’t come to Zazen with the knowledge that what was causing my suffering was the set of habits and conditioning that had begun even before i was old enough to talk, but sit long enough and they come up. Sit even longer and slowly, inevitably, they go away.


3) Trayvon Martin.

I try to keep this blog as inoffensive as possible, however occasionally something happens (like the Sandy Hook School shooting) and I feel like maybe I have something to say. I wont address the murder and trial of Trayvon, and I think anyone who doesn’t have their head up their ass will agree that it is a fucking shame when a young person loses their life for whatever reason. Rather Id like to address the ridiculous  notion that somehow this case was not about race, and the even bigger fable that race is no longer a factor in this country. The right-wing pundit corral has even claimed that to mention race in this event is the real racism.

It is, of course, a load of shit. I have my own opinions on the Trayvon Martin case, but I think aside from this specific case the notion that we in the US are somehow “Post-racial” or that racism is a thing of the past is ridiculous. Anytime you have a society with a past like Americas you are going to have long-term fallout, repercussions, and ripples by which events of the past still affect the present. When a race has been systematically suppressed and given second best (or third or worse) opportunity for education and advancement then that group is going to be saddled with that legacy for a long, long time. The idea that just because black people are now granted equality (or at least lip-service is paid to their equality) can’t erase the result of generations of second class citizenship anymore than we can expect the oceans to repopulate overnight just because we stop overfishing today. Time, whether we like it or not, is required to right our historical wrongs as a nation. No amount of self-righteous “I never owned a slave, don’t blame me” can change the fact that generation after generation of black American has been raised with one boot on their shoulder holding them down. Both in historically overt ways (Jim Crow laws) and psychologically subtle ways (equating black people with “inherent” criminality) have created a chasm between black people and the rest of American society and no amount of right-wing self-denial can bridge it.

The problem is, most of the racist people in this country don’t even know that they are racist. By accepting the “common wisdom” that “we” are not racist, we deny the reality that is all around us.

We are born into a society with its own history, behavioral cues, and a class/caste system in place that we are indoctrinated with birth, like it or not, we are fed a series of non factual cues and stereotypes (about everything, not just people) that we generally swallow so early and is reinforced by our parents, teachers, media, and peers so constantly that we seldom question them. Sometimes when forced to deal with the reality of this unrealistic conditioning we stop, look around and get a tiny glimpse of reality and modify our worldview. Far more often, unfortunately, we circle the wagons and declare our dedication to the “party line”. As reality seeps further and further into our world, as I believe it always does, that facade of bullshit gets more and more brittle. its defenders more strident, and eventually, finally, the truth bursts forth like flood-waters and the new “reality” asserts itself. What a shame that it has to take so long and be fought against by so many who would rather cling to a clearly mistaken idea than to be uncomfortable for the short time it takes to become acquainted with reality.

Whether you or I  like the idea or not, the Trayvon Martin case was also about race. I see  it is an opportunity to examine my own biases and behaviors, it has caused me to think deeper than I normally do day-to-day about my own acceptance of the conditioning that this society has trained into me since I was a child. When something terrible happens, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take that shock, sadness/anger, and outrage and use it to look at our own world rather than turning the blame outward, its much harder to do, but in the end it changes the world for the better.

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Great Unsung heros of tattooing (part 1)

If you are a tattooer chances are that you know the names of the people who paved the road of tattooing before us. Giants like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, if you have dug a little deeper you might know some of the slightly less famous folks like Cap Coleman or George Burchett upon whose shoulders we all stand. But most tattooers don’t really know about the people and inventions which have directly and pointedly changed tattooing into what it is today. These people and milestones aren’t just important because they left a legacy of artwork or an ethic we can aspire to, in many cases these folks literally invented the stuff we use daily and we don’t even know about it!

My first candidate is also my personal choice for the tattooer who has done the most for the technology of modern tattooing, Bill Baker.  Id be willing to bet that 90% of tattooers reading this right now don’t know who Bill baker is, note that i said “is” not “was” because he is still alive and still doing stellar work in Toronto at the Pearl Harbor Gift Shop. In the late 80’s and early 90’s He did the first real scientific testing on tattoo needles and eventually came up with a theory of needle manufacture that led to the first high quality, textured, really sharp pins available in various thicknesses. Today it is a given that needles made specifically for tattooing are available, but prior to Bills work the vast majority of tattoo needles were actually milliners needles or other sewing type needles.

That should be enough to consider him an unsung hero of tattooing, but he didn’t stop there, he founded a company to make and supply those needles called Eikon. Through this company he released his research for free online for any tattooer to study, also through Eikon he literally changed the way we all think of tattoo machines when he created the very first power supply that not only powered your tattoo machine, but told you real, heretofore unknown data about how that machine was running. What do I mean? Prior to Bill producing the EMS power supplies and meters it was commonly believed that a tattoo machine ran at about 25 to 50 strokes per second. Imagine our surprise upon hooking up those first power meters produced by Bills company and finding that our machines ran hundreds of cycles per second! Some power units could tell you how much voltage they were sending to the machine, but none told you how “efficient” it was (the percentage of time the needle was in the extended position vs. the retracted, Bills meters did. In short and overnight we went from a world of tattoo superstition and old wives tales to hard facts and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it turned out that most of the “common knowledge” out there was flat-out wrong!

So these things would definitely be enough to put Mr. Baker in our hall of fame if he had gone no further, but, of course, he did go further. In a series of “zines” put out by Eikon over several years Bill broke down the functions of a tattoo machine scientifically, tested, experimented, tested again and all the while he made this information public! He figured out exactly why and how a tattoo machine works, how to adjust it, and how to make it do all this efficiently and using repeatable, testable, information. Information that was only gather-able because of the meters he invented! He didn’t hide it like most “old timers”, he wanted to better tattooing as a whole, and he most certainly did. Because this blog is open to the general public I wont go into technical details, but rest assured that dozens and dozens of technical things about tattooing changed from the way they had been for decades! I can’t speak for other tattooers, but those zines were the Rosetta stone of tattoo machines for me, I could finally know exactly what I was doing when I built and tuned a machine, my tattooing got better almost instantly and a load of phony tattoo “lore” went out the window. The great shame is that Bill was forced out of the company he founded and provided the innovations for, if he hadn’t been sidelined by the ouster and ensuing legal battles how much more would he have been able to contribute to tattooing?

Every modern tattooer is using some piece of the knowledge that Bill Baker contributed to our world, if you use needles and a power supply to tattoo then something Bill created, modified, or perfected went into making them better.

To finish off this first episode of the great unsung heroes of tattooing id like to briefly mention the contribution of a piece of technology so common today that we seldom notice it, the Ink Jet printer. It’s almost impossible to imagine at this remove what it was like before cheap, highly functional photocopiers/printers were as ubiquitous as they are today. The fact is that even as recently as the late 1990s a copier was huge, expensive, and seriously limited in its functionality. One of the great advantages to the shop where I served my apprenticeship at was that it was half a block from a Kinkos copy center. I’m not kidding, this fact alone made us stand out from the more suburban places where the tattoo you got was the same size as the one on the wall and that was it! Today it is no problem for a customer to ask for a tattoo to be 10% bigger, but until the availability of the modern inkjet this meant either a trip to the copy-store or using some contraption to enlarge the image in order to retrace it.

Perhaps, then,  it is no surprise that since the advent of these copier/printers that tattoos have gotten larger and larger as the artist is able to take a small drawing and blow it up until it fits around (and with) the contours of the body. The irony is that a technology which made doing the same image over and over has actually helped steer clients away from flash and towards one-off client specific tattoos. The cheap copier made accommodating the customers preferences easier and helped to make custom tattooing the norm rather than the exception.

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Black Cat hosts Brad Warner!

We are pleased to announce that Zen teacher and author Brad Warner will be at Black Cat tattoos on June 21st. The author of Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up!, Zen Wrapped in Karma, dipped in chocolate, and Sex, sin, and Zen will be on hand to sign books and to promote his latest work “There is no God and he is always with you“. There will be a brief Q&A session and Brad will have books on hand as well. The event begins at 7pm and is free to the public. Donations are accepted but not expected and will go to help Brad offset the cost of his (self-financed0 book tour of the Northeast/Midwest.

BradWarner talk


On a personal level this is a great honor for me. Brad has mentioned in the past that when people tell him “your book changed my life” that he feels it’s too much credit to the book and not enough to the person whose life it is. I understand this and agree, but i have a hard time seeing how my life would have been what it is now (namely, awesome) if i hadn’t stumbled across Hardcore Zen at a particularly low point in my life. I was searching for something, something that wouldn’t be sated by numbing my brain with drugs or booze, something I wouldn’t have stuck with is it tried to force some superstition down my throat, and something that I wouldn’t have trusted if it came from some supposedly beatific guru in book promising rippling ponds, pretty lotus and the spiritual equivalent of elevator music. Basically i needed someone (or something) to hit me upside the head with the truth, presented straightforwardly and without  a hint of the kind of bullshit that my well honed cynics radar can pick out 100 miles away. When I read Hardcore Zen I immediately resonated with Brads approach, he told it the way he saw it and invited the reader to try it for themselves and either confirm it via their own experience or reject it. He didn’t care either way, and i appreciated that! In my own life I have found that folks who really, REALLY want you to believe what they do always come off like they don’t really believe what they are selling, as if the only way they can have any confidence in whatever snake-oil they are peddling is if everyone else repeats back the party line. Zen, and soto-zen in particular is the complete opposite of that, in it one is constantly admonished to think for oneself, to ask hard questions, to explore doubt thoroughly and to, in the end, reject that which doesn’t resonate with the truth, even if it means rejecting Buddhism itself!

In Hardcore zen, for the first time, I found a method to look at my own life thoroughly, more thoroughly than i even expected to! I was looking for something to give me peace of mind without being “too hard”, but of course I eventually found Zen changing everything, even the things I thought I didn’t want changed! I came into zen with some very firm ideas about the world and myself only to find 10 years later that everything has changed! They say “everyone gets into zen for the wrong reasons” and boy are they right! The funny thing is that even with that, if you do it long enough it tends to straighten out the things that are crooked, even the ones you didn’t know were a problem! Its like going into a Chinese restaurant and being served French cuisine. . . .and then finding out that French food was exactly what you needed to eat!

Anyway, the honor is all mine to be able to help Brad, even a little bit, to promote his new book. Whether he wants the credit or not, reading hardcore Zen those many years ago was exactly what needed to happen in my life, perhaps I would have gotten here anyway, but I truly appreciate the path that book helped me to use in getting to where I am today.

If you live anywhere near Pittsburgh you should definitely come!

Categories: Buddhism and life, pittsburgh | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Newness (shop and tattoos)

So the new shop is open. Its been about 3 weeks and already I feel like I’m settling in like we’ve always been there. In addition to Cara, myself, and Jesse, we hired our good friend and fellow new dad Matt Macri .  So while I have stopped doing walk in Thursdays, we still have at least one artist almost everyday who can handle walk ins, at least until they get booked up too! Another big change is that I am now taking thursday off to hang out with Luna and Cara is tattooing all day Thursdays. I feel so lucky that I get to spend so much time with my daughter and that I have such reliable friends working for me that I can give Luna all my attention and give her mom a much-needed break from baby duty, even it its only one day a week so far.

We had a great “grand opening” party, tons of friends showed up, Kevin Sousa provided the food and Full Pint Brewing donated beer and Cara and her good friend, local fine artist Thommy Conroy hung the crazy amount of art we moved over from the old shop.  I took a second out of the busy night to snap a couple of pictures which i stitched together to give you an idea of how much BIGGER the new place is compared to our Oakland locale..

party pic

I totally based the idea for the open floor plan and oak toolcarts that we tattoo off of my trips to get tattooed in New York, specifically on the Kings Ave. Bowery location. I really liked the open room idea, and it has already been conductive to a relaxed ability to exchange ideas and critiques as well as a more free flow of conversation between artists and customers. I’m a worrier by nature, and naturally moving across town into a building with a completely different format and with new people should have really set off my panic buttons, but this time I wasnt all that stressed out. I guess I knew that this was a step up for Cara and myself and I was confident that the new space would be a benefit to all of us in the Black Cat family.

I have been working on some really fun stuff and with a few more artists I have been able to focus more on the specific stuff I want to tattoo. It’s always tricky, because I don’t want to sound snobbish or picky, but at 42 years old I feel like its time for me to specialize in the kind of tattoos I can do a really good job on and let the ones that would be good but not spectacular go to people who would do a better job on them. I confess to feeling a little guilt because, if I’m being honest, I’m also a little burnt out on doing tattoos that are not in my area of enjoyment. I guess I have earned the right to pick and choose, others people certainly reassure me of this, but I still feel a little concern that by not taking any and all tattoos that I have somehow become a big-headed rock star. The mind is funny like that, as soon as you get what you want you either want something else or you feel guilty for getting it. Thats why Shunryu Suzuki called the untrained brain the “monkey mind”, jumping and running around this way and that, never stilled. One of the nice things about sitting for a few years is that I can see this monkey mind from a little distance, I still have the crazy running around thoughts, but these days I can watch them without having to pick them up and play with them, sometimes I start to go into that cycle and a little voice says , “ah, best not to go there, buddy” and I can back off.

Anyhow, here are a few recent things I’ve been working on.

alison back

A good friend and ray of sunshine in our lives has been talking about a back piece for some time. She has a special affinity for Ganesha but was torn between the elephant headed boy and a Medicine Buddha to honor her herbalist/holistic healer career. In the end we combined the two ideas doing a Ganesha but in the more Nepalese Buddhist style of art. Back-pieces are no fun for the customer 90% of the time, even folks with very heavy coverage and lots of years getting tattooed are surprised at how bad the pain can be. We ended up doing this outline in two sessions.

jim chadw dragon

I finished this dragon on a long time customer and we blended the background a bit up into some tribal blackwork we did a few years ago. I think I am done doing tiny dragons on arms, this piece is a great size and allowed us to get a lot of detail and readability. nurse gypsyI love doing traditional inspired tattoos like this nurse/gypsy, It might seem strange to do Japanese and traditional American t first glance, but in reality they are very similar in technique and graphic punch. They both have a long history of stories and meaning that a tattooer can draw on to add depth to a tattoo and if done correctly both will look good for the clients lifetime.

tricia owl

Some tattoos become popular and then fade never to come back, some are perennial favorites that have been around as long as tattooing and will still be getting done  generations hence. I have done owl tattoos for 16 years and they never seem to fade in popularity, like a lot of tattoos which have that kind of staying power, an owl tattoo has a visual power which affects everyone who sees it on a subconscious level, it goes beyond the simple image and into a symbol. When we see a heart we think of “love”, when we see a skull we think of “mortality, and when we see an owl we think of “wisdom“.

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What not to say to a pregnant lady.

Having a baby is a lesson. It is a lesson in patience and humility, it is a lesson in generosity and respect for the power of a womans body. Unfortunately it is also a lesson in the power of careless words and speaking before you think. Now that our amazing baby is almost six months old I can reflect on Caras pregnancy with joy and wonder, and also a little cringing at some of the dumb shit people would say to us about the pregnancy.  People often say hurtful or just plain stupid things out of ignorance or pure thoughtlessness, when you are saying these things to a person who is not only scared about all the many many unknowns of childbirth but also riding the waves of hormonal wackiness I believe a little more consideration might be in order. So think of the following blog as helping you to avoid accidentally saying some of the things that made me want to knock people’s teeth out when they thoughtlessly (though innocently) said one of those things one should never say to a pregnant couple.

1) The only thing to say about a pregnant woman’s body is “You look beautiful!”.

Lets face it, we live in a culture where women’s bodies are constantly and bizarrely open to public comment. The covers of countless shitty gossip rags are full of articles about how this or that person is “too” fat or “too” skinny complete with blown up photos of a cellulite thigh. Many women in our society were expressly told by their parents, friends, or boyfriends that their bodies were somehow imperfect, even the most independent and self actualized woman often harbors a fear of public comment about their bodies. So when some well-meaning person says “My god you look HUGE!” it doesn’t matter that said buffoon wa talking about her belly full of baby and may even mean it as a compliment, after 20+ years of being terrified of being called fat in public this comment carries a lot of psychic harm.

Consider that you are speaking to person whose body has radically transformed in months, not years, into something unrecognizable. A pregnant woman’s body looks different, feels different, occupies otherwise familiar spaces differently, also these bodies are producing tons of hormones that the mother is not used to, these may make the pregnant woman feel nervous, angry, protective, or depressed and the last thing they need is to deal with the fallout in their minds of a society that values woman primarily by their appearance at a time when that appearance is going crazy.

In short, if you must comment then keep the comment positive and accentuate the good aspects of the pregnancy on her body. Trust me on this, no matter how funny you think you are or how much “she must realize how big she is” you are going to get a pregnant lady karate chop to the throat if you go there.

2) We have already heard it.

What do I mean by “it”? I mean all of it. Any of it, and I guarantee that you are not going to be telling us something we fucking don’t already know about pregnancy.  She shouldn’t eat sushi while pregnant? we fucking already heard that shit 400 times. Oh my life is about to change? Thanks for assuming im such a fucking idiot that I don’t realize that creating a new life that i will be responsible for clothing, feeding, loving, education, and protecting  for 18 years might cause my life to change a little bit. Oh you read this great book? Thanks Bookie McReviewer, good thing you read my mind and realized I wanted to have yet more shit to read than the 5000 books every pregnant couple gets “gifted”. We heard what Dr So-and-so said, we heard about cloth diapers vs. disposable, we heard about what too much caffeine can do, we heard about playing music for the fetus, we read all about the hospital/midwife center/witch doctor that is a magical wizard when it comes to zooming babies out of the vajayjay and into a bassinet. Guess what, If we don’t Ask then keep your fucking nugget of wisdom to yourself.

Pregnant couples are already drowning is a sea of information, we obsessively read, watch, listen to any and all things relating to pregnancy. It’s like we dropped into a 9 month intensive college course where the final exam involves my wife pushing a live human out of her body, you don’t think were gonna do a little research on that shit!? So when you come up with this really important thing you saw on Ellen or on (that fucking) A Baby Story it is almost 100% of the time just adding another tiny little brick of stress to our lives.

oh and if the tidbits you wish to share with us is a fucking horror story about your or someone you knows shitty birth experience then. . . .

3) Keep your shitty birth experience story to your goddamn self.

You are not helping. You’re not. Telling my wife about your 500 hours of bloody fucking screaming labor, or how your poor baby had to have an extra toe removed from its precious goddamn skull or how the nurse laughed at you when you screamed for morphine and how you needed 52 stitches is not helping. It might help you to justify your pain and to process your traumatic experience, but you need to do that shit with someone who is NOT about to give birth in a few weeks or months. We already live in a culture which treats birth like a disease and there are actual television series (like that shit sucking A Baby Story) whose entire premise is “look how fucked up this birth thing is yo!” Our Doctors have already spelled out exactly how crazy and heavy this is going to be, we don’t need someone telling us about the horror story their cousins birth was.

Think of it this way, if your best friend was about to go on a plane and was terrified of flying, would you a) tell them it will be fine or b) describe about how your neighbors brother died in a fiery crash? Look, your experience is valid, and if you overcame some serious shit then you are a fucking hero (really) and I have nothing but respect for you, but can we talk about it after my wife has her own experience? Because scaring the shit out of us really is not a help at all, not even a little bit.

4) Don’t predict our doom.

Telling me that I have no idea about how shitty my life will be with a baby, sucks. Telling my wife that her body will be destroyed by birth or that she wont be able to handle the sort of birth she wants really sucks. Telling us that fraising kids is really hard and that maybe we wont enjoy our lives anymore (because they don’t enjoy theirs since kids came into it) sucks and is kind of sad. A surprising number of people seemed to take perverse delight in letting us know how naive we were and about how we would never sleep, have fun, travel, eat at restaurants, or “hang out” ever again. It turns out that they were all wrong, at least about our lives, maybe their lives suck that bad. I certainly hope not, but that’s what they seemed to be going through and confidently predicted we would too.

Maybe these people (and its usually guys) don’t like having kids, it certainly sounds that way. They have every right to feel what they feel but its a sad and desperate sort of attempt to project the fact that having kids is not their bag onto us before we’ve had a chance to try it for ourselves.  Perhaps I could have hated it too, maybe I could have regretted my “loss” of “freedom”, but it was our experience to have and the smarmy predictions of how miserable we would be just added more worry to our minds when it wasn’t really necessary.

Even worse was when we told people that we were going to have the baby at a midwife center with no drugs, oh the looks of “yea right, good luck with that, hippy” followed almost every time with “Yea you say that now, wait til you’re in labor!” Well my wife did wait til she was in labor, and then the proceeded to have a baby while standing up feeling and every second of it. Guess what? she tells me she would do it again in a heartbeat. She is a bad ass, but lots of folks who consider us their friends predicted that she would crumble like a cookie and it sometimes caused us to doubt ourselves when we should have been pumped up by those we love instead of torn down with bummer predictions.

Even if you are right, and even if your dire predictions are going to come true, why on earth would you want to put that onto us before we go into one of the biggest moments of our lives? Are these the kind of people who tell their buddies right before marriage, “well, no more having fun for you!”? Think about it, are you that unhappy that you need to project that misery onto other people before they have their own turn at this thing called “being a parent”?

So basically the gist of this article is to say that for Cara and I (and, I’m guessing, lots of pregnant couples) there was a surprising amount of thoughtless or outright ignorant comments and while many were well-intentioned, the final result was to cause stress at a point when more stress was acutely painful. Pregnant ladies are sensitive, their babies daddies are protective, and at a time when the world seems chaotic and unpredictable a few kind words will (and did) do wonders for our mental state. So, what should one say to a pregnant couple? Unless specifically asked, I would keep my stories and medical opinions to myself, I would tell any expecting couple that they will do great, that their experience will be awesome, that mom looks beautiful and that I’m sure they will have a great birth! Even if you are wrong, who wants to be the one who predicted a tragedy in a friend or loved ones life. Keep it positive or keep it to yourself.

Categories: fatherhood, random dumbness | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

New shop? New shop!

Because I have not written a blog in a long time I feel it’s tiny voice even in my sleep. Like a dog you thought would die if locked in the shed only to hear is mewling whines for weeks and weeks, ever quieter and yet no less there.

Sorry, that was a pretty heavy metaphor.

Anyway, having given birth to this blog I feel like I must, occasionally, feed it. But to be honest I haven’t had the urge lately, you see there is a new ” project” on the horizon and I tend to be the kind of guy who gets very hot on one thing and let’s it consume me for a bit. Right now most of my waking energy is spent thinking about my new baby girl and THE SHOP. The baby girl part is mostly thinking about how I can be less useless to my wife who I estimate is doing ninety-eleventy percent of the work currently, while letting me remain a selfish lazy crybaby. This requires a lot of work and self reproach fortunately I have a lot of practice at it and, like the master of judo who has hardened his muscles through countless hours of training, I too can throw my ego around using only its own (prodigious) weight against it. So I try to remember to change a diaper before being asked and to entertain my little girl as long as possible while my poor exhausted wife gets a shower, not as easy a task as it sounds since my breasts will, stubbornly, refuse to produce milk.

Perhaps we should all be grateful for that.

The other, and significantly less important, object taking up space in my mind is the impending relocation of Black Cat Tattoos from our current location to butler street in Lawrenceville some time in April. Cara and I have been looking for a new, larger location for some time and since the current lease on our spot on Craig street ends in April we were actively searching for a few months. Sadly most of the spots on Craig street were unsuitable (stupid expensive) or not a good fit (run down shitholes impossible for customers to find) and so we had to look in other areas more acceptable to hipsters like us.

Clearly we needed to look to Lawrencevile where the waxed mustache and ironic “who’s the boss” t-shirt still roam the plains in herds uncountable. Through great fortune and the keen eye of friends we found such a location that, uncannily enough, would become available right when we needed it. Also, being in the as yet mostly empty but clearly up and coming area of butler street near 34th street we would be over a mile from the next nearest tattoo establishment. In this age of Southside tattoo shops opening inside each others back pocket I may be a bit old fashioned, but I still feel that a respectful distance from other tattoo shops should be the (polite) right thing to do.

I will miss Oakland, I have tattooed in its dirty bosom for my entire tattooing career, I’ve smelled it’s O fries and told its bums to fuck themselves for nigh on 16 years. More specifically I will greatly miss the folks at Phantom of the Attic games. One could only dream of more pleasant neighborsm , truly, of all the changes to come, moving away from Geoff and crew is the only cause for regret I have.

Still, onward and upward! We will be in a nice, newly refurbished building with heat that works, ceilings which don’t leak, and with room to stretch out. We will also be welcoming a new artist, Matt Macri into the black cat family (I’m the dad). At this point all I can really do is plan and work on preliminary things like signs and what sort of chairs to have, fortunately the move will be far less of a build out than the current Black Cat location where we had to take a very raw space and build walls, lay floor, install plumbing and electricity, instead we will be picking out bookshelves and figuri grout where to hang the pile of great art from friends we have acquired over the years.

As of now the only firm info I have to share is that we will be in the new spot by May and that I will be updating you if e folk as I am able.

I’m excited!

Categories: Uncategorized | 4 Comments

(Dis) illusion

It is a sad cliche that our heroes often, in time, are revealed to be all to human. Sometimes this is because they espouse something that they can’t live up to, or because they commit some action that seems to be counter to everything they stand for. Very often it is because our own expectation and ideal of them is unrealistic and after a time it dawns on is that this person we held up in our minds as a hero is simply, disappointingly, human.

Sometimes though, our heroes stop being so heroic in our eyes not because they failed, or because we weren’t looking at them realistically, sometimes they stop being our heroes because we become better than they are. It’s difficult to articulate something like this and not sound like you are giving yourself a compliment, but being honest with oneself includes not only finding our own faults, but also in seeing our own progress. If you only ever think “I suck” then you are as deluded and full of horse poop as someone who only thinks “I’m the best”.

Many years ago when I first became a tattooer I devoured any kind of information on tattooing that I could. There wasn’t so much media as these days and the few books out there (aside from Ed Hardys excellent “tattootime” books) were dated and generally full of mediocrity. So most of the best stuff came from tattoo magazines, and the best of those came from Europe since almost all the u.s. magazines were full of biker shit and shitty supplier ads.

I picked up an Italian mag called “tattoo planet” regularly. The art was awesome, featuring guys like Filip Leu, Theo Jak, Permenant Mark, and others who I idolized. One guy in particular whose interview and pictures inspired me to the point that I set my plan for my entire tattooing career on his example. This artist was an American like me but had eschewed the street shop and “low com denom” flash ( as in; mediocre art which appealed to the greatest number of uninformed tattoo public) that was my world at the time in favor of having a private studio off the street, doing large scale Asian inspired work, and generally avoiding all the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. Despite the fact that I was a pretty bad to average tattooer at the time something in the this guys approach resonated with me and right then, a mere 2 years into tattooing I decided that someday I would be doing that kind of work in that kind of environment.

Pretty lofty for a guy who couldn’t pull a straight line or draw better than a high schooler, but I knew that the goal was something for the future.

After a long time I got better at tattooing, and eventually did open my own shop off the street, doing mostly larger Asian stuff, with few of the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. In short, I actually did reach the goal I set in 1997, I never forgot that interview, and I still don’t know to this day if my life would look the way it does if I had read that piece. I was, and am, grateful to that tattooer for their inspiration, I would occasionally look for their work in books or online, but nothing really new seemed to show up.

Enter Instagram. I saw this persons comment on another tattooers thread a month or so ago and was really happy, at last I would get to see their newer work! Maybe I would write this person telling them how inspirational they had been to me. So I clicked on their name and was shocked. There was a few nice pieces but in general it was pretty average, and surprisingly, it was worse than the artists stuff I had seen in the 90’s! I kept following their work for a few weeks but eventually “un-followed” them, I use Instagram to be inspired by people who are killing it, people who I may never be as good as, but who inspire me to try anyway, and this persons work wasn’t anymore.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying that this artist is “bad” or that I am better than they, I also still owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for showing me what was possible outside of the tiny fishbowl of tattooing I had lived in, but it was still a disappointment.

For little while anyway.

A strange thing happens when we have our illusions dissolved, even apparently beneficial ones like the inspirational illusion I had all those years ago. Assuming that we dont run right out and fill the void with another delusion (which is what we usually do) a space is opened up for the truth to sit where the illusion had been. I found myself suddenly inspired to draw a particular set of 1/2 sleeves that had been poking around in the back of my mind, I had a weird rush of new ideas fora big project we will be announcing soon, I suddenly felt at peace with my (slow but steady) progress in my own tattooing. In short, I like to think that letting that image go opened me up to new inspiration.

Illusions (and delusion) are a part of human nature, you can’t stop them for happening but we can learn to let them go. Sometimes we can do it quickly, like when we look at a menu at Arby’s and think ” that’s gonna taste good” and 10 minutes later feel like throwing up. Other times we have been indoctrinated with them from so early on that we don’t even realize its a delusion til something happens to shock us out of it (like realizing that getting a bunch of money and power still doesn’t stop us being miserable). But the end of an illusion is a wonderful opportunity, the humanizing of our heroes is a wonderful opportunity to be inspired by something greater and one person or ideal, it’s a chance to be inspired by the truth, by yourself, by all of us (which, coincidentally, are all the same thing anyway.)

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