Exclusive: An Interview with Tattoo Machine’s Jeff Johnson

The world behind the counter of a tattoo shop is one that most of us are only passingly familiar with — whether from sitting in the chair or watching it on TLC. It’s the kind of place we suspect is full of strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes frightening characters and events, but it remains a bit of a mystery.

Jeff Johnson’s debut Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink 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.