Rennie Solis (photographer),
Adam Goldberg (writer)
I got my first tattoo in 1977 when a fellow second-grader accidentally stabbed me in the triceps with her pencil. It would be another 12 years before I would purposely mark my skin, yet that small but distinct pencil mole remained visible for many years until I unwittingly covered it up with one of my tattoos. It was 1990, and the idea had been brewing for a while. The kicker, I think, was an acting class exercise in which we were asked to create a character and his environment and extemporaneously act out a “moment alone.” Although I was a barely-pubescent-looking neurotic waif of 19 struggling to grow something that resembled sideburns—or perhaps because of that—I decided to portray a “badass.” I put one of those temp tattoos (of a pinup girl, I think) across my shoulder and triceps—and I loved it. I was fucked. So, after some deliberation and perusal of coffee table books, I ended up at Sunset Strip Tattoo, where an artist named Chester with a corncob pipe replicated the face from the iconic Edvard Munch painting The Scream on my right shoulder.
By appearances, I wasn’t the most likely candidate for a tattoo, just as I wasn’t a candidate for the mohawk I had at the age of 13, when I looked barely 10 and weighed under 100 pounds. In fact, I eventually—nay, immediately—regretted the mohawk and had the strip in back shaved in order to fashion it into a Carl Lewis–like flattop (it was the summer of the ’84 Olympics, after all). Many, or rather those who give enough of a shit to ponder such trivialities, seem somewhat confounded that I, a “typical neurotic Jew” (how I love that moniker), am covered by so many tattoos. Well, for the record, I am bat-shit neurotic, though I attribute that far more to my half-gentile constitution than I do the Jewish half. And not only can and do plenty of Jews have tattoos, but three of the most famous Bowery tattoo artists were in fact Jews themselves—Willy Moskowitz and his boys, Walter and Stan. On another note: It seems odd, I admit, for an actor by trade to have so much that identifies him as a real-life guy, but I think, for better or worse, my refusal to be defined by what I have done for a living, by “characters,” accounts for many of my tattoo binges. I have often felt that I’m “playing” an actor much more than I “am” such.
Like many, I’m made up of two very distinct sides. They’re often at odds, but perhaps they provide balance as well: One reflects upon everything and fears even more; the other is determined to try everything at least once—except for hallucinogens (I’m way too imbalanced, it’d be redundant … in fact, I’m hallucinating right now). So, by the time I was 19, I was a migrainous half-Jew afflicted with searing self-doubt and terrible IBS, but I also scooted around L.A. on a ’79 Honda CB650 with no helmet, a dangling cigarette, and a tiny tattoo on my right shoulder. And as many, if not all, of you know, it’s very hard to get only one tattoo.
But in the meantime, I made a meal out of the tiny screaming face on my upper shoulder. The first thing I did when I got home was cut the sleeves off of a few flannel shirts, and the next day I revealed to the world (or at least the clientele of Book Soup, the bookstore where I worked) that I was a badass not to be fucked with.
Of course I was fucked with. Often. “You got Macaulay Culkin tattooed on your shoulder?” people asked. To make matters worse, and I swear this, within the year (but not before!) The Scream became ubiquitous: greeting cards, key chains, and, the bane of my existence, the blow-up doll. Then there was that fucking movie.
But before The Scream craze took hold a friend of mine turned me on to Freddy Negrete, one of the pioneers of Angeleno black-and-gray fine-line tattoo art, and he added a body to The Scream’s head. (I could swear I asked Freddy to be wary of covering up my second-grade prison ink, but it disappeared that night under a gown of black.) Now I no longer had to cut the sleeves off my shirts; I merely had to roll them up extraordinarily high. On the set of Dazed and Confused I formed an unlikely friendship with Nicky Katt, who played Clint, my character’s nemesis (alter ego?). Nick had a Fu Manchu tattoo, his only tattoo at the time, on his left triceps. During the course of our bond we discovered that we both had our initial work done at Sunset Strip (maybe by the same guy?) but each had our work revisited by Freddy. “It was meant to be,” we mused. So next time you watch us roll around in the mud at the moon tower, know that it really was just two bros getting physical the only way they felt society could accept their love.
My next tattoo I got down the street from where I was living at the time, at Spotlight Tattoo on Melrose. There was something about walking down the street and getting a tattoo. It was a fairly lame heart (my fault, I asked for no shading) inscribed with “Blame It on My Youth,” the title of a standard that Chet Baker sings in the documentary Let’s Get Lost. I figured what was literal at the time would someday be ironic. I think that day has come.
Nick and I would take trips to visit Freddy’s shop, at the time in Santa Barbara, where Nick would get fully realized new work and I would ask for a little shading here, a little rose on top of the heart there. I still had only two tattoos but had been worked on five times by the end of it all. It was as much about the trip and waiting to see when and if Freddy would tattoo us and take a break from, for instance, demonstrating his bullwhip-snapping ability in the adjacent parking lot.