101 Tattoo Artists Who Think They’re Rock Stars
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER
As you all know, elsewhere on this website is my “101 Most Influential People in the World of Tattoo” list. You know, the ten-at-a-time compendium of people who I have met, watched work, seen their art and edited their contributions to the magazine that I edited for nearly fifteen years. Or perhaps a better title might be, “The 101 People Who Came to Mind When Vanishing Tattoo’s Vince Hemingson Suggested the Idea” list. Some of these folks are dear friends, some are icons who deserve to be kissed on the hem of their garments and others simply pissed me off plenty. However, their contribution to the tattoo scene outweighed my initial animosity, so I included them anyway. Maybe that’s my problem: I tend to be fair. Maybe too fair.
One of the hallmarks of my magazine was, at least I thought, my objectivity. If I went to a convention and everything was A-O.K., except for the terrible food or the lack of parking or the too-loud music, I’d report it. Even when the promoter paid my way and gave me a free hotel room. In fact, the last review I wrote for SKIN&INK, a report three years ago about The Freedom Expo in Chicago, was so explicit that I had to debate with myself whether or not to submit it to my publisher. And, to make things worse, the person who put on the event was a friend of ten years, Dan Collins. Here’s a sample:
The hotel: The best thing about the Hyatt was its proximity to the Chicago O’Hare Airport. There was even a free shuttle, but, no matter how you cut it, its one-thousand-plus rooms were situated directly under the flight path of about two Boeing 747s every sixty seconds and, if you opened the window to let air into your room, the sound was deafening. The rooms themselves weren’t bad. It would have been nice to have a high-def television with more than twelve channels, but that was the least of our problems. Since the only other restaurant was at another hotel down the street and around the corner (Gibson’s steakhouse), we were pretty much confined to the fare at the grill downstairs. The dinner on the first night that we arrived was pretty good (prime rib), but, next morning, we almost broke a tooth on the granola and, next day, the salmon on the bagel was so passed being fresh that I was sick to my stomach the entire weekend. I reported this to management and was given a seventy-five dollar credit on my bill. I’d like to say that we made due at the convention’s cafeteria-style food line, but with their tasteless seven-dollar-and-fifty-cent Italian sausages on a roll and terrifying sloppy Joes, we mainly survived with protean bars from the gift shop.
And if that weren’t enough:
Sure, there were several excellent artists on hand—Boog Brown, Phillip Spearman, Larry Brogan, Uncle Tim Heitkotter, for example—but, for the most part, I’d never heard of most of the artists present and, considering I witnessed booths so crammed with people (three artists, three customers and a half-dozen witnesses eating sandwiches) that it was clear several of the participants didn’t know anything about preventing cross-contamination or practicing the sterile chain of events.
So, as not to exacerbate the situation any more than I needed to, I finished off with this caveat:
Well, Dan, I have to hand it to you. You are just a human being trying to make a living. You don’t abandon your friends, get defensive or make up a lot of stupid excuses. You took it like a man and are probably going to give it another try down the road. I also hate it that the final convention that I am covering for Skin&Ink had to be like this but, on the other hand, I thank you for reminding us that the dysfunctional world of tattoo is full of pitfalls and, unless you know exactly what you are doing, the tattoo universe is one gigantic black hole.
Which leads me back to my “101 Most” list. Each and every time that I sit down to add the latest ten, an evil—I guess it’s evil—thought crosses my mind: How about a list of the “101 Biggest Jerks in the World of Tattoo”? To hell with being fair. Even with the ass-kicking I gave Dan Collins, he wrote me a week after the review was posted and thanked me for my honesty, agreed he had blown it and affirmed his undying friendship and admiration. But what if the repercussions were different? Hey, the tattoo world isn’t entirely made up of apologetic folks like Dan Collins. There are mean motherfuckers out there: twenty-cups-of-coffee-a-day bikers, six-foot-ten basketball players who didn’t make the team, flipped-out divorcées and wild-eyed axe murderers, for heaven’s sake. And not all of them are as understanding and responsible for their actions as Mr. Dan Collins professed to be.
Better yet, how about a list of “Tattoo Artists Who Think They’re Rock Stars”? You know, the ones who, once they’ve had a modicum of success and public adoration, love to take… but don’t give back. That way, I could say practically anything I want (within the law, that is), and because they’re usually living on a cloud somewhere, miles from reality, I wouldn’t be hit by any rotten eggs they toss in my direction. Naw, that wouldn’t work, mainly because the segment of the tattoo world inhabited by artists who think they hang the moon has friends, or, more accurately, “excitable boys,” who jump at the chance to assist their less confrontational brothers and sisters… just for kicks. Take, for example, the run-in I had some time ago with a tattooist whom I will call “Mr. X” (mainly because I’m tired of giving him any more notoriety), who, at that point, I had known amicably for over a dozen years. Out of the blue, X wrote me a couple of scathing emails about an interview I did with the San Jose Mercury News, in which I was quoted as saying, “…More Americans than ever seem ready for ink. New shops are opening every day, and professional artists can make anywhere from $125 to $200 an hour, while the true elite can make up to $300,000 a year and have waiting lists two years long.” I might as well have said, “Mr. X wears women’s underwear with bunnies on it,” from the reaction I received. Consequently, my well-intentioned sound bite plucked from a forty-five minute newspaper interview became a red-hot debate on my Daily Blog. The objections were not, as you might expect, about the accuracy of the comment, but rather the assertion that I had exposed the never-to-be-divulged “secrets” of the tattoo world. According to X, I had single-handedly revealed sacrosanct information, exposing, for all to see, the veritable combination of the bank vault and the magical passwords for an industry where money is never talked about and who-pays-what-to-whom is never revealed. That’s baloney, of course, if for no other reason than you can walk up to any fourteen-year-old-girl in a supermarket and ask her how much tattoo artists make and she’ll probably answer, “Kat von D said on TV that she charges $1,000 an hour.” Or, better yet, telephone a tattoo shop and they’ll tell you.
But that was not the reaction expressed by certain members of the tattoo community; members who I’m not sure Mr. X, when he initiated his rant, thought were part of his fan club. Although he did say some borderline threatening things (“You don’t know what you started” and “Why don’t you do the tattoo industry a favor and shut the fuck up about what we make and how we make it?”), I’m not sure he predicted that I would end up on the wrong end of several disturbing threats of bodily harm, of which “I’m going to knock all your teeth out, you sonofabitch” is a typical example. There was also a death threat, but I’ve had those before. Remember, tattooed people are not all nuns from the Sisters of Perpetual Mercy. Some are just plain looking for a fight. Any fight.
Several years ago, I wrote an editorial stating my unhappiness with not having a cool tattoo name, like Gill “The Drill” Montie or “Crazy Eddie” Funk. As usual, whenever I make an assertive statement about my relationship to the “real” tattoo world (I am after all, only a mere reporter, not a tattoo artist), I get threats: everything from, “I’m cancelling my subscription to your fucking magazine” to “You don’t deserve a tattoo name, you asshole.” In this particular case, a well respected tattoo artist named “Uncle Tim” Heitkotter (another cool tattoo name) came to my rescue. “I have the perfect name for you,” he suggested. “Target.”
All that said and done, a “100 Tattoo Artists Who Think They’re Rock Stars” list would certainly not include Tim Heitkotter or, for that matter, Dan Collins. But Mr. X, having taken on the role of judge and jury for the entire tattoo industry, made a big deal out of a quote that, unless you lived in San Jose, California, and read the newspaper that day, you never would have noticed. X certainly merits a spot. For all the trouble it caused and the threats to me from his admirers regarding the physical health and safety of myself and my family, he might even make it to the rarified air of the Top 10, along with, I might add, Damien McGrath, who, in a back-and-forth about his unceremoniously tossing my photographer out of McGrath’s very own Toronto Tattoo Convention (after explicitly inviting him to cover the event), emailed me with (I’m quoting from memory) the admonition that, “I don’t care if I’m ever in your goddam magazine” and “I’m not only going to break your arms and legs, but also the arms and legs of your faggot son.” To which I replied, “Which one? I have three.” I’m sure Damien didn’t get the joke, or that he gets any jokes.
Hey, I have the perfect name for the most dreaded list of all—one that would include the aforementioned perpetrators, verbally-challenged finger-pointers, self-appointed do-gooders so fixated on righting the wrongs of the world that they don’t see the Big Picture and other thorny characters who reside in the tender backsides of the world of body art—”The 101 Tattooed People Who Don’t Get the Joke.”
As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.