offers a “peek under the skirt” of the life of a tattoo artist (Johnson is co-owner and manager of the famed Sea Tramp Tattoo shop in Portland, Oregon). But be warned; this book may make you want to get inked. Here, he discusses why it isn’t a memoir, what sci-fi legend Robert Sheckley did to influence his career, and how he finally came up with cover art that worked.
Flavorpill: What made you decide to write this book?
Jeff Johnson: Well, I’ve been writing short stories for years now. When I felt like I was ready to tackle a larger project, I reviewed my options and talked it over with friends. I go to the same Christmas party every year, and people always want to hear colorful stories about the tattoo shop. I figured, what the hell? It seems like as good an idea as any. Maybe even easier than some, because I’ve already told these stories. It was just a matter of writing them down.
FP: You note that the book is not exactly a memoir, was that what you set out to do or did it just evolve that way?
JJ: The first hurdle I faced was the really big one: Tattooing for me in the ’90s was boring, so a strictly chronological approach was out. I made a list of the kinds of things I thought the reader might be interested in, and when I looked it over I realized that dividing the concepts thematically was a great way to skip over the stale parts.
FP: There are a lot of personal stories and industry details in the book. Did you ever worry that it might affect you professionally?
JJ: Nah. All my customers already know what kind of guy I am.
FP: Over the last several years, portions of the tattoo world have become more mainstream. How do you feel about that and the image of the industry that they portray?
JJ: You know, I don’t really watch TV. I have seen Miami Ink a couple of times. It seemed good, I guess. I’ve heard through the grapevine that those guys are actually really nice, dedicated professionals. There was another show I heard about called Tattoo Wars that was supposed to be really good. I guess in the end tattooing has emerged as something large enough to be examined from many angles.
FP: Is it your art on the cover?
JJ: Ah, the cover. Now there’s a story. The first cover idea I was presented with left me cold. I hated it and so did my agent. The publisher was really nice about it, however, and allowed my art team to take a crack at it. We came up with over twenty new ideas, spent countless hours grinding away in Photoshop, working with photographers, and got nowhere. The final cover was a good compromise, showing art from various generations of tattoo artists, something I talked about in the book. Bert Grimm designed the sailor girl. He started tattooing in 1916. Don Deaton did most of the mermaids. He’s in his seventies now. I did one of the mermaids and the water. Matt Reed designed the shark, Billy Jack the anchor, and Eric Quale the nautical star. So the art spans almost a century!
FP: You mention visual arts as an influence. Who are your biggest inspirations?
JJ: That changes every day. Last week I saw the water color work of a cook at the cafe around the corner from my house. It was a brilliant collection of mayonnaise jars. They all looked like they were underwater. Art is everywhere!
FP: Robert Sheckley lived with you for a time. Is there a sci-fi book forthcoming or something else coming down the pipeline?
JJ: I do have some science fiction and modern urban fantasy stories coming up. In fact I have a story, The Garbocologist, coming out in this month’s Weird Tales. No science fiction books in the foreseeable future, but you never know. I’ve just finished the latest draft of Lucky Supreme, a crime novel set in the tattoo shop. That’s what I’m running with now.
FP:Now that you’re officially a published author, would you ever consider giving up tattooing?
JJ: I think there’s room enough for both. When I was writing Tattoo Machine I was still working full time at the tattoo shop. Some of those weeks were 80 hours long as a result. I’m not pushing myself like that anymore, but I still work seven days a week. And it’s not hard at all, because the work is fun.