“Off the Beaten Path”

Off the Beaten Path

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The tattooist too, as he gains experience and skill, begins to look toward bigger work almost invariably. The dreams of creating large-scale work become a distinct possibility as his speed and dexterity increase.

Tattooing as a whole is very firmly rooted in tradition. Each tattoo tradition has its focus, soul, and essence. The Japanese tattoo tradition is based on the body by definition. It is, in its fully realized form, a complete body tattoo. It is a vast system of main imagery that is set against a natural background that combines itself with the foreground to create a powerful synergy.

When I was eighteen I hit the road with my band. We got in the van which we bought with a small amount of cash the band pooled together, and which my grandfather had worked on extensively outside our bass players’ house while we practiced relentlessly inside, preparing for our big adventure, our big getaway, our dream come true. You needed a few things to prepare for the miles ahead. I had a memento from a girlfriend, cassette tapes for the car stereo, and a good book to pass the time. I chose Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

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He mentioned a couple things in that stream of consciousness blast that was written on one continuous roll of butcher paper with not much punctuation and a lot of power and love and visionary seeing of the soul. These were things that I had never heard of before. If I had, they were just words, with no substance, just titles, with no meaning to me. The words flowed like the interstate ahead of me, they fell like the rain on the plains, and they roared like the mighty Mississippi, pouring off the page and into my psyche to transform me evermore, just as the road was doing to me at the very same time. Experience was the word of the novel. Grab it, live it, experience it, it’s yours! But the point of this diatribe were a few choice words Kerouac shared, they were: Buddha, Buddhism, Shakyamuni, dharma, arhat, bodhisattva, and zen.

All these words pointed a poor boy’s imagination towards the east, not the east of New York city’s Lower east side where we played our music off Rivington street, not the east of Washington DC where I strummed guitars in Mount Pleasant, not the east of Northampton Massachusetts where we bedded down for a while at an all girls college dormitory and ate free food that the girls parents were paying for in their cafeterias, and that , not incidentally, I had tattooed myself with a needle and thread after a long night and watching the sun rise from the rooftop in the cold air with the snow on the ground.

It was there I got the call that my Grandfather had died. It was on a payphone in the hall, the girls were walking by, and I was slumped on a bench with the phone held to my ear, but I rebounded so quickly, filled as I was with the invincibility of youth, even when confronted with the mortality of my own blood.

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But further east than that had the finger of Kerouac motioned. All the way east, all the way gone, further and further out to Japan! Here was the home of zen. Here were the bodhisattvas of wisdom and compassion. Here was the orb of enlightenment, satori, the ceasing of the wheel of cause and effect.

Checking out books at the Fort Worth library when I had finished reading On the Road, and had come back from the road myself, I found myself in sections of the library I had never even seen before. The musty books on the tall shelves that had an air of not having been moved for many years, or perhaps, were waiting there for me from day one. Yes I needed to read more about Neal Cassady, sure, but really it was the zen that I needed to seek out. I found it, and found it to be rather over my head, and yet, so down to earth.

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Opening the large vermilion gate to Japan, Nihon, Yamato- how could it not lead down the alleyways of old Edo- and therefore, straight to the art of Hokusai and Hiroshige, for starters? Haronobu, Eisen, Utamaro.

Now living in D.C., I would go to the library and grab teetering stacks of twelve or thirteen coffee table books at a time. The Japanese print was revealed to me page after page. The artwork so embodying the zen I had only recently become interested in. The work was so surreal, realistic, and dreamlike, all at the same time. I came to understand then that these works were called “pictures of the floating world”.

Other days, I would tattoo my friends from other bands on the front porch of our home, in the same hand poked manner that I had received my first tattoo in.

These tattoos were nothing artistic or special but they were symbols that imparted some meaning to the wearer. Each tattoo had some piece of power, some act of self determination that had will behind it, and follow through to last a lifetime. In that light, these small talismans were very similar to the work I create today.

What has become a strange thread, no pun intended. You will get it if you understand homemade tattoos. It is fact that this hand poking of primitive tattoos set me up to receive the teaching of the traditional Japanese hand tattooing method which is called Tebori.

This happened twenty four years into my professional tattooing career. The act of piercing the needle into the flesh with only the motion of my own hand was very familiar to me, even after all of those years.

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Another synchronicity had served me well in my journey to Tebori tattooing. When I began tattooing in 1995, many things were still done the old way. You put together your own machines, you copped clean condiment cups from restaurants for inkwells, and you purchased single needles in bulk, soldering them together into groups arranged for tattooing using jigs that were made for this purpose.

You then soldered these groups onto needle bars, which you had desoldered the old and sterilized needle off of just moments before. It was common to smoke cigarettes while doing so. And so, the caustic flux would be constantly burning in the back room, mixed with the smell of generic cigarettes, the silver bearing solder and the wisps of smoke unceasingly issuing forth from the tools and the cigarettes alike. The tattoo flashes on the walls yellowing by the minute.

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At any rate by around 2004 it had become more cost efficient and time efficient to simply order these needles premade from a supply house. Reluctantly, at first, I joined in this endeavor. It had kind of built up slowly in stages, and earlier offerings were less than desirable. However, I found now that I could get high quality needles, and I didn’t have to turn away tattoos because I needed to take the day to devote to needle making. Years went by and my soldering iron was only used for the electrical components of the tattoo machine. This is a rare occasion, soldering parts on a machine. And so, I almost forgot about that old Weller iron.

Now when it became time to enter into the sacred art of Tebori, it was necessary for a needle to be had. This needle is an item that you cannot just order by mail. Not here in America, not in Japan either. It is a handmade craft. It is special. You have to build it. It takes “gaman”, patience. It is a process.

Using my trusted soldering iron,  I roll a group of needles together. I pick them between my thumb and forefinger, and tack them together.

The flux sizzles as the iron floats just above it. The solder jumps off onto the stainless steel and an instant bond is formed. My fingers have the sensation of holding something extremely hot, for a moment. The smoke clears. I look down. I just drew a perfect bead of solder. All of those forgotten years of experience are revisited upon me in a single stroke of the soldering iron. Just like riding a bike, I was able to get back into the practice that tattooing was before one could simply order high-quality needles to complete a work of body art.  The traditions of the past had prepared me for my future as a traditional Japanese tattooist or Horishi, working in the traditional method of the Tebori tattoo.

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