101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 7)—Vyvyn Lazonga
LUCKY NUMBER 7
I have known Vyvyn Lazonga for over two decades. I loved her from the start, just as soon as I departed the plane and took my first, long, deep breath of crisp, clear Pacific Northwest air. I was there to interview the artist, who, in my cover story for Skin&Ink, I dubbed “The Stevie Nicks of Tattooing.” Yes, Vyvyn is decidedly ethereal, dressed like Stevie and had blond tresses, but, at the time, I was thinking more of Nicks’s stature as “Queen of Rock,” to match my perception of Vyvyn as “Queen of Tattoo.”
Vyvyn’s shop was and still is located at Pike Street Market in Seattle, although she recently crossed the street, enjoying a lovingly refurbished location, without the hassles of a life; no longer divided between making art and babysitting posers.
A perpetual victim of a loving heart (her own), Madame Lazonga (her stage name), has returned to her do-it-alone days. Her new workplace better fits her personality and creativity. If you ask me, it’s about time.
My wife, Mary, never had a tattoo, until we met ten years ago. I would never entrust that pretty back of hers to anyone but the best. And that was Vyvyn. So, without hesitation, there was Mary, laying on her stomach for four five-hour sessions, using the occasion to bravely bond with the artist. The tortured and the torturer; an unlikely pairing for sure. But one that has endured and will continue to endure, just as long as those bright, orange poppies.
So, there you have it. Vyvyn has reinvented herself once again.
As for a retrospective, here’s a recollection of her years in San Francisco in the ’80s, written by Vyvyn herself. Another example of just how articulate, how talented—artist, writer, teacher, ambassador of good will, inspiration to all—the woman we have come to know as “Madame Lazonga” truly is.
THE SAN FRANCISCO YEARS
I was thinking back and it occurred to me that not many people know very much about my life in San Francisco, when I moved there in the ’80s. Since we hear a lot about all the men who really opened up the tattoo world and their lives in the Bay Area, I thought a female perspective might be interesting to those who like learning a little tattoo history. I thought I might add my own experiences to the mix, because they were important to my becoming the artist I am today.
I guess I had become disillusioned with Seattle and the sudden flood of street people, especially teenagers roaming the streets along with the mentally ill pushed out of their state-paid-for asylums. It felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall. Nobody had any money. I couldn’t figure out why and took it personally. I thought I must be doing something wrong. Little did I know that getting a tattoo at that time was not a necessity and people were just not spending the money like they used to in the early 1970s. I was young and naive and needed a change, so I thought San Francisco would be a good place to become a better artist and tattooer. So, in the early ’80s, I had this shop in Outer Mission, the part of the Mission District where families bordered on the commercial and the clandestine affairs of drug dealers and addicts. You’d hear gunshots go off every weekend. I had always done my art and took pride in creating new approaches. I thought I could bring a part of that to this district.
But after living there for a while, I realized how pervasive the Latino culture was and came to truly respect their mythology, religion and loyalty to family. I began to slowly melt into their culture with a hate-love attitude. I loved the small businesses in my neighborhood but hated all the junkies and crime. Being as naive as I was and trusting, I got ripped off by junkies and then began to wise up. It was a good education for me. After some guy was stabbed to death in front of my door one night, I realized that I had become immune to it all and knew better how to survive. After a year, I was still working on new drawings, but started doing more Chicano art, the classical religious designs and even some gang symbology. It was really amazing how I became part of their culture, not the other way around.
At that time, there were only a handful of tattooers in the city and only one other woman tattooing, beside myself. I think she tattooed out of her apartment. We both used to run around down on Valencia Street, posting flyers and cards in businesses that would let us. She would put cards up and I would take them down. I would put cards out and she would take them away. Thinking back, that was a really funny way of promoting oneself and sabotaging the competition.
There was one thing that was really fun during those years. We, meaning the tattooing community, used to get together for different events. Lyle Tuttle would have parties and would host famous people occasionally, so of course, all of us would show up. This one time, Kuronuma (Horiyoshi II) showed up and was promoting his new book, Japan’s Tattoo Arts; Horiyoshi’s World, in collaboration with Don Ed Hardy. I was so honored to meet Kuronuma, but felt bad because I couldn’t afford his book (it was going for $300). Now I have a reprinted softbound copy of it. Thank God for reprints of the masters! When I saw the copy that now lives in my shop, it was like coming in contact with the bible of Japanese tattoo art. In my opinion, his designs have always been the definitive work for traditional Japanese style. He was and still is my all-time favorite tattoo artist (though he’s now deceased).
Tattoo groupies were another new thing for me while I was in San Francisco. They frequently crashed our parties. These women would find out about our gatherings and hang out right outside the door, hoping to sneak in. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. My boyfriend and I used to visit Henry Goldfield a lot and he would warn me about the groupies and their sick mentality. He told us about the ones that would go around from shop to shop, trying to play us against one another. I didn’t really get it, until years later, and at the time couldn’t understand why these women would do such a thing. I guess that’s because I’ve never had the groupie mentality.
Goldfield was very genuinely supportive of me at the time. I met Henry right after Sailor Moses left for Biloxi, Mississippi, and I remember Henry saying that Sailor Moses would always try to put wings on everything he could. It put a new twist on a traditional-style tattoos like a black panther and was a good selling point. I think one of my favorite memories was when Henry, Inney (my boyfriend) and myself would meet up and go to this Vietnamese restaurant around the corner on North Beach and spend hours chatting, and laughing.
The community also used to do a lot of different things that were fun and creative. We had festive events at nightclubs and all kinds of tattooers would come from all over the Bay Area to participate. We would have Taiko drummers and Capt. Don doing his fire breathing, sword-swallowing act. A lot of people from all over would show up, and I even got to meet the legend Charlie Cartwright at one of the events. I was totally thrilled. You could almost say that the locally-sponsored conventions are a lot like the events we threw and participated in back then, albeit much larger and more organized. Once, all of us got together to promote tattooing in Santa Cruz. Many people from San Francisco showed up to participate: Bill Salmon and Betsy, Dan Thome, Henry Goldfield, Inney Lee, Erno, Filip Leu and many others of the entourage. All of us set up our own little areas in this gallery and tattooed all day, joked around, shared art and had a blast. With the support and help of the mayor, tattooing became legal shortly thereafter.
Don Ed Hardy was always very supportive of me, too. I always admired his art and his business savvy. Of course, he did my largest work. He is one of the very few people, especially at that time, that had a healthy balance of both aspects. So, any bits of information he would tell me I would take it to heart and put it into practice. I remember going over there once when Dan Thome was working. Dan was the only person in the U.S. in the early ’80s to be tattooing in the original hand-poked, Polynesian style. Filip Leu was there too, and we talked about tattoos and sat around and watched Dan work. I remember Filip had classical, sailor-type tattoo flash covering the walls in his work area and I couldn’t figure out why. At that time, I think he was probably only 17 or 18 and. As the years have gone by, it’s been so amazing to see a young fledgling like Filip metamorphose into the legend he is today.
You know, looking back seems so endearing to me now and I’m grateful to have had those experiences. Compared to now, back then there really was a tattoo family. I guess there still is but a much larger one that keeps getting larger all the time.