Tattoo artist turned author Jonathan Shaw is a student of Bukowski guided by cosmic destiny
By Christina Campodonico
Tattoo artist Jonathan Shaw may no longer regular work on the legs, arms or feet of celebs like Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch, but he’s still creating in ink.
After retiring from the tattoo industry 15 years ago and selling his notorious New York tattoo parlor Fun City — a hangout for his famous friends and mecca for tattoo enthusiasts — in 2004, Shaw turned to writing full-time. His debut novel “Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes” published in 2008. His latest book, “Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist,” is a memoir that looks back on his move away from the New York tattoo world after 9/11 and his chaotic childhood as the son of big band jazzman Artie Shaw and actress Doris Dowling.
Because Shaw is best known for pushing tattooing out from the underground and into the mainstream, he warns readers that “Scab Vendor” isn’t about the art form itself.
“I’m always shocked when people tell me they were disappointed with the book because it’s not about tattooing,” says Shaw over the phone from his Hollywood home. (An itinerant writer who penned his last book on a BlackBerry, he splits his time between L.A., Mexico, New York and Brazil).
“I’m like, ‘Well, you know, tough shit,’” continues Shaw. “It’s more about the development of a human being, who later would go on to become an iconic tattoo figure, but this is not a tattoo book.”
Rather, Shaw’s experimental autobiography veers from first person to third person and calls upon his experiences as a student of Charles Bukowski and adventurer of the world to follow his literary alter ego Cigano (“gypsy” in Portuguese) on a journey through his memories.
A survivor of drug and alcohol addiction, an “amateur shaman” of Brazilian rainforest spiritualism, the former editor of an international tattoo magazine and inspiration for both Depp’s portrayal of eccentric Capt. Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a New Yorker cover by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman, Shaw has lived many lives, but in many ways writing about his vast and varied experiences is just the beginning of a new odyssey.
Shaw says he’s got about five more books in him — guided by a divine force, he says, and all leading up to his whirlwind life as a celebrity tattoo artist.
“Everything that’s happened in my life, as I look back on it from the vantage point of 64 years, I see that everything sort of had its time and place and purpose for me,” Shaw reflects. “The tattooing fits right into that whole sort of cosmic jigsaw puzzle of circumstances that forms one’s destiny.”
Shaw discusses “Scab Vendor” with journalist Rex Weiner at Beyond Baroque on Thursday, Sept. 21.
The Argonaut: Why did you decide to leave tattooing and start writing full-time?
Shaw: It wasn’t so much a decision as a present demand. … It’s not like writing sort of appeared like a burning bush. I’ve been writing and around writing all my life. But, you know, it came back in a very compelling sense as a direct order from the universe to drop whatever I was doing and dedicate myself full-time to writing.
What inspired you to write parts of your memoir in the third person?
The book is inspired by … not to sound too “off,” but divine guidance. I think if a writer’s writing about the facts of his “so-called life,” in a linear sort of fashion, then it’s real important for that writer to not be all hung up on his story emotionally, because there has to be some form of detachment if the story is going to be told truthfully. That kind of attachment is aided by following certain directions. Some of those directions are to get out of myself and tell a story about this so-called self, as if I’m writing about someone else. That gives me a certain detachment that’s very important to be able to express oneself honestly and objectively.
Who is Cigano?
Cigano is a literary alter ego. My first book, “Narcisa,” which sort of became a cult classic, the protagonist of that book, his name was Cigano. A lot of writers that I’ve known or admired tend to develop these literary alter egos. It seems kind of like a natural sort of thing that happens with writers. They come up with these literary alter egos and that’s just instinctively or intuitively guidance they’re receiving to help them find their little detachments. It’s a character that represents an essential part of their soul. So, maybe that’s why that happens. It happened to me very naturally and sort of spontaneously.
Bukowski was a friend of yours. How did he influence you?
I was 17 years old or so when I met Bukowski. We become pals. I’d go over and visit him and we’d drink together and he would impart his ideas. I was a young kid and I was a writer and I would sort of soak up his wisdom like a sponge.
Why did you fall in love with tattooing?
As a kid I was fascinated with these sort of iconic, compelling little designs that vibrate with their own special energy and power. The whole primal process of carving design into one’s earthly body’s skin … that’s just something that probably appealed to me on a very primitive level as a child. That developed over the years through emerging conflict and circumstances. Eventually, it became an obsession and career.
What was your first tattoo?
My first professional tattoo would be when I was working [an] apprenticeship and some wino stumbled into this shop. We said, “Hey! You want a free tattoo?” He just let me put a rose on his arm.
What are your thoughts on today’s tattooing industry?
Tattooing has developed more in the last 30 years than it did in the last three millenniums. It’s very difficult to find a parallel in another art form or form of expression that has seen such a radical and quick, really fast development in such a short period of time. For somebody who came into tattooing in the 1970s, looking at the tattoo world in 2017, it would be almost like a guy from the 1600s suddenly being catapulted in a time machine to the present moment. It’s that shocking and that sort of overwhelmingly amazing. When I got into tattooing, tattooing was not a respectable, popular, mainstream art form by any means. It was a marginalized, sort of underground practice. It was considered [for] refugees, scumbags, ne’er-do-wells, criminals … and sailors. Outside the accepted norm of mainstream society. Tattooing was not trendy or fashionable at all. It was quite the contrary.
Traveling plays a huge role in your life and book. Can you write from anywhere?
I can write anywhere. I don’t need to sort of isolate myself. Some writers seem to need to sort of lock themselves in their room, away from the world to write. I’m just the opposite. I am in the world to write.
“Scab Vendor: A Conversation with Jonathan Shaw” happens at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. $15. beyondbaroque.org