Over the course of a year, INKED will be serializing John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir. If you missed the first three installments, visit Lord’s Eye, Part 1, Lord’s Eye, Part 2, and Lord’s Eye, Part 3.[divider]
PART 4 OF ONE MAN’S JOURNEY INTO THE ELITE WORLD OF TATTOOING ART AND CULTURE.
Back at East Side Ink, John Buffalo Mailer was sobering up quickly and trying to continue an interview as tattoo artist Josh Lord worked on his arm. “Now, do you think you’re going to do this forever?” Buffalo asked him. The multitasking of being in the head of an interviewer while also being in the head of someone who is having his body permanently altered turned out to be, once again, more of a trick than Buffalo had anticipated.
“I would really like to,” Lord answered as he put some more white into the new cherry blossoms on Buffalo’s shoulder. “Saying I’ve always enjoyed it doesn’t even do it justice. I love tattooing! Tattooing is really what’s led me to all the other things I love doing and am successful with.”
“Can I have a pickle?” Katrina asked. They had brought their leftovers back from Beco. A little backup nourishment, Buffalo had thought to himself when they were leaving the restaurant. Not for him. He was high on the adrenaline of booze and getting more ink. No, this was for his girlfriend, Katrina, as Buffalo certainly did not want to break one of the three golden rules of keeping your woman happy—in this case, satiating her hunger. He was proud of himself for thinking ahead and making sure there would be more to nourish them than whiskey and beer for the next several hours. He figured she would not be too cold or too hot in the shop.
“You can have all my pickles.”
He turned to Lord, trying not to lose the train of the interview. “So how did tattooing lead you to find all the other things you love doing and are successful with?” Lord stopped working on the piece for a moment, collecting his thoughts.
“There’s great painters, drawers, or sculptors—all kinds of other art where if someone is driven and they love what they do, if they’re not too much of an evil critic to themselves, they can get somewhere. For me, I just know that if it weren’t for tattooing, I never would have gotten to the level of perfectionist that I would be happy working with every day. If I tried painting, I would have held it up to the standards of people that there was no way I could have possibly achieved the equal to without spending my whole life devoted to it. And then I would have talked myself out of finishing a painting. I would have just brutalized myself as my own personal critic. But as a tattooer you don’t have a choice; you have to finish what you start. And because it’s such a difficult, technical task to even do one tiny little line that looks good, you can’t think of the whole piece. You have to just think about the limited section of the piece that you’re doing. And then you take someone like me, whose mind spins probably too quickly, I’m thinking about a thousand things constantly, constantly. It’s hard to get your mind to slow down long enough to actually do those things. So tat- tooing was the perfect industry to force me to complete things with perfection, without any attachment to the overall image during the moment I’m making that individual line. I think of tattooing as if it was a lifeline. It taught me how to take that time and do that. Now I can transfer that; I can paint now. I’ve only done, like, five paintings, but I can do it if I have to. I’m sure I could probably sculpt. … I actually think I could fake my way into most artistic professions now because I can’t imagine any of them are much harder than the physical act of tattooing.”
“Have you ever fucked up a tattoo?” It was a helluva time to ask.
“Ungh, we all have.” Lord kicked his gun back on and continued to work as he spoke. “But what’s fucked up to you and me are totally different. Now when I see a little line that’s shaky, I see that as an example of where my mind wandered. So if you were looking at one of my tattoos under a microscope, you could pretty much read my mind.
“You could see where I was just doing the tattoo, where someone distracted me, where I was thinking of bills, where I was thinking of someone I owe money to, or someone who owes me money. All the thousand things that can come into your mind whenever you’re doing anything all day long.”
“I feel the same way,” Katrina said.
Lord smiled and went on. “Tattooing properly is just an act of physical meditation, where, if you’re doing it fully, your line looks pretty good. Or your shad- ing looks pretty good. It’s never perfect. You can never really make it perfect, ’cause it’s skin. You’re not a computer. So you get as close as you possibly can with it. It’s the same for writers or musicians or other artists. A lot of the time it’s either you’re trying to express something to people or you’re trying to perfect your art. And I would fall more into that latter category, of someone who is always trying to perfect their art.”
“Well, there’s also the responsibility of skin versus canvas,” Buffalo offered, not sure where he was going with this, once again. “That’s the leap in terms of the difference between tattooing and all the other visual arts, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely.” “I mean, if you sneezed while the gun was on a client’s arm.” “Oh my God, yeah.” Buffalo suddenly felt superstitious. “I don’t know if that ever happens,though. Perhaps the tattoo gods don’t allow it.” He hoped. “Something like that.” Lord did not like this strain of talk. Buffalo sensed that and tried to steer it another direction. “Although, I think about the guy you told me about who wanted you to put a swastika on his neck. Maybe that person gets a sneeze when they’re getting inked.”
Lord gave a noncommittal laugh and then turned serious as something occurred to him. “Well, you know what’s awful? Sometimes, if I’m working on somebody—and this is very rare, because I actually almost always like my customers—but if I’m working on somebody with an awful sense of entitlement and I find myself annoyed by the customer, when that happens my first instinct would be to rush through this. But then what happens instead, because I thought that, is I actually end up doing the exact opposite and working even harder on that person, so that no one would suspect that I did something malicious on purpose. It’s like a lawyer who defends their guilty clients harder than they do the innocent.”
It was not lost on Buffalo that Lord had been working on his tattoo for over six months at that point. Hmmmm. “Why would you not want anyone to know that you don’t like the person?” Buffalo asked in his most innocent voice.
“Well, as an industry, we can’t really express that tactfully.” “It’s a dangerous, slippery slope of power, isn’t it?” Lord switched up the needles, ready to do some dark shading. “It is. Plus, it’s a different day and age. We’re not the tough-guy tattooers of 10 to 20 years ago.” “How many tough guys come in to get tattoos in the East Village? Like, how many Hells Angels?” “We don’t get any of those guys. They have their own shops that they go into.
They used to come in a lot to Fun City, where I worked. And they run the New York City Tattoo Convention. And that’s all I’m saying about them on the record.” Lord was not fucking around about changing the topic. Buffalo didn’t blame him. He’d encountered the Hells Angels when he was 19 and interning for BlackBook magazine. He had been assigned to do his first story, a piece on leather pants. To spice it up, he had planned to interview someone in the Hells Angels about what they thought of all the Chelsea boys rocking the leather pants look. This was the late ’90s. After no one would tell him where their headquarters were located, Buffalo finally stumbled upon the building and was met with a 300-pound bouncer in sunglasses and an open leather vest with no shirt on underneath. He did have a fantastic tattoo of an eagle right over his heart.
He was one of the most badass dudes 19-year-old Buffalo had ever tried to get to agree to an interview. After he made his case, the bouncer told him they were not interested. When 19-year-old Buffalo pushed it a little further, like a good journalist should, the man slid his sunglasses down an inch and looked the kid right in the eyes. “We’re not interested.”
Fortunately, 19-year-old Buffalo, while young and dumb and naive, was smart enough to listen to the man and walk away, ultimately handing the piece over to another intern with a less rock ’n’ roll take on the matter. So he was not surprised at Lord’s hesitancy to say one word more about the Hells Angels.
Instead, Lord said, “It’s always a little bit rough going back in. But here we go,” and he started working on the parts that had already received a good amount of ink at their previous session. “Did we both agree on these being thicker lines? Let me know if it’s real bad when I go back in.” It actually hurt much less than Buffalo had anticipated. Lord had a feather-like touch. “Is that a normal amount of pain, or worse than normal?” Lord asked him.
“Normal amount of pain.”
“Okay. A little bit of traffic is coming in here, but I like the chaos.” Buffalo looked up and saw Patrick Conlon, who had returned with the other tattoo artist named Josh who worked there. Their roommate was with them. He looked to be about 23, and was one of the skinniest kids Buffalo had ever seen. The kid had decided to get a spontaneous tattoo on both his arms, and Patrick and Josh were more than just a little eager to cover their pal in ink.
Over the course of a year, INKED will be serializing John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir. If you missed the first three installments, visit Lord’s Eye, Part 1, Lord’s Eye, Part 2, and Lord’s Eye, Part […]