Lord’s Eye | Hoping For Philosophical Roughnecks

Over the course of a year, INKED will be serializing John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir. If you missed the first four installments, visit Lord’s Eye, Part 1Lord’s Eye, Part 2Lord’s Eye, Part 3Lord’s Eye, Part 4, Lord’s Eye, Part 5 and Lord’s Eye, Part 6.


JOSH LORD’S schedule had been even busier than usual, as he was trying to finish up several pieces that had been lingering for months. Somewhere on that list was Buffalo’s shoulder piece, which he had started eight months prior. Today was meant to be the day they were to finish.

Although she had attended all the previous sessions and documented them for the magazine, and although Buffalo had given her a good deal of shit for not coming to this last session, as he did not understand the logic of that, Katrina refused. She was Italian and stubborn and something inside her told her that there would be no tattooing happening on this freezing November afternoon for her to photograph.

So, Buffalo was there alone this time when Josh showed up late. He took one look at the centerpiece tattoo that had been the place-holder for this larger piece for the past 15 years, and quickly deduced that Buffalo would need to get at least one session of laser removal done before he could work his magic and finish the piece.

That really sucked. When Buffalo had taken this assignment from Rocky, Inked’s fearless editor [(fearless) editor’s note: Is keeping myself in masturbatory? Perhaps, but it also demonstrates that Buffalo is complimentary and on a first name basis with everybody he meets.] he thought the whole thing would be done in a month.

Now here he was eight months in, two-thirds of a tattoo on his shoulder, and accepting the grim reality that it was going to be a hell of a lot longer before Josh could finish it.

Rocky had completely forgotten about the assignment by this point.

Unable to get any work done that day, the two men agreed that the best use of their limited time would be spent next door at the bar, as Buffalo still had no clue how he was going to write this piece and was desperate for more interviews with Josh in the hopes that the answer would present itself. Of course, he had no intention of expressing his fears to Josh, as placing your trust in a writer to capture the essence of who you are, for a national audience dedicated to the very craft you make your living in, was roughly equivalent to placing your trust in a tattoo artist to permanently alter your appearance.

After all, once you took the leap, both paths would lead to you being judged by the world based on the results.

The transcript of the conversation between Josh and Buffalo at the bar was as follows:

JOSH – “So, how are you going to write this piece?”

BUFFALO – “I’m gonna pray to the writing gods and hopefully they will show me the way to tell this story. This is almost like a joint profile of the two of us, or I think that’s what Rocky wants. It’s a very strange piece to write. I don’t begin to know how to tackle it.”

J – “You should let me write the last line.”

B – “Now you’re pushing it.”


B – “But I’ll tell you this, if you don’t let me ask you some fucking questions while we sit here and drink, the gods are not gonna be very happy with me.”

J – “What do you want to know?”

B – “How are you doing on your list of clients? Made any headway since last I saw you?”

J – “This is off the record, but I will start taking new appointments again in January.”

B – “You’re going to start taking new appointments again? You’re like the fucking John Edward of tattoo appointments. And he communes with the dead! I had to get a goddamned assignment from Inked to get a tattoo from you! And I know I’m already getting a nice big shoulder piece here, but discovering what a truly rare privilege it is to get a tattoo from you, the whole time I’ve been trying to figure out how I’m going to get you to do the other shoulder?”

J – “You’ll have to write another piece for that.”

B – “Well, I’ll make you a deal; if this one goes well, I’ll write a book about you if you promise to put the Tree of Life on my right shoulder before either one of us kicks the bucket.”

J – “No, my situation has actually changed for the first time in a long time, which is really interesting. I stopped taking appointments for a year because somehow, and I didn’t see it coming, I just got way busier than you can be and actually tattoo people in a timely manner. So, all of my customers were suffering. People who were getting started couldn’t get back in to finish things, and eventually I didn’t realize how many people I had started on, until I was booked up for over a year and I couldn’t possibly get anyone new in. Nor take a vacation.”

B – “Isn’t it insane to know what you’re going to be doing every minute of every day for a year?”

J – “I don’t like that aspect, honestly. And it comes across as very obnoxious when you say it, but I guess I was always a freewheeling person, who even though I was a workaholic, would take time off. I would work really intensely for 10 months and then take that money and go do something. Once I became a shop owner and a business man, and booked up a solid year… If you think about it, my job is intensely responsible for a short time, but you don’t take anything home with you. You have to be responsible and present only when you’re tattooing. The rest of the time I had no accountability.”

B – “Is having OCD an advantage for a tattoo artist?”

J – “Oh, absolutely. If it weren’t for tattooing, I don’t think I ever would have found something in my life that brought my skill set in a happy productive way. Without the responsibility of finishing things on somebody else, I think I never would have really followed through on the artwork aspect. Being beholden to somebody, that forced me to dig deep and do my best, and my OCD combined with that responsibility is what makes me do my best. And if you don’t have something that makes you do your best over and over and over, do you progress? I don’t think so. The idea of practice makes perfect is flawed. Perfect practice makes perfect. So if you’re practicing intensely, you get good at doing something well. If you’re practicing haphazardly, you get good at doing something averagely. So, I credit tattooing as being maybe the one thing in my life that brought out my skill set, otherwise I was probably destined for a life in the service industry maybe.

No slur on the service industry, I love the service industry! But it would have eventually killed me. All that socializing without producing something would have driven me crazy.”

B – “Be very honest with me now. If you didn’t have an outlet for your art, which in many ways, even from the example of your first tattoo, saved your life. You could be a real thug roughneck, couldn’t you? You could be in a position where you have no choice but to kill people, and come to the conclusion that that’s just the way life is.”

J – “I imagine I probably would have become a hit man for the mob. I’d be Natalie Portman in The Professional. It’s an interesting idea you bring up. I think that ties into tattooing. In all of us, maybe we have to have that Incredible Hulk reason for doing something. If you need to do something difficult, it’s different than just wanting to do something difficult. If you are protecting someone or something you care about, of course you’re going to bring more to the table than you thought you could.”

B – “So, because your art form is one in which, if you fuck up you effect someone permanently in a negative way, you have no choice but to bring your A-Game every time, and it is the repetition of bringing your A-Game to the table every day, that allows practice to make perfect. Is that right?”

J – “Exactly. So if you practice enough, even at your very worst, you still can bring the level of professionalism you need to get the job done.”

B – “I would say therein lies the difference between someone who is very good at what they do, and someone who is a master. Because a master is not someone who is satisfied with their A-List. A master is someone who knows what they’re striving for, knows that they’ll never hit it perhaps, but is never fully satisfied with their performance. You shouldn’t be.”

J – “Absolutely.”

B – “Even though your worst might be better than other people’s best.”

J – “You should never believe your own propaganda.”

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