One man’s journey into the elite world of tattooing art and culture.
Buffalo knew that whenever you get a tattoo, you are inviting the artist to leave a touch of how he sees the world on your body. It is a uniquely intimate experience. In many ways your tattooer is like your priest, scraping the confession you choose to be reminded of every day into you flesh. So it made sense to Buffalo that this tattoo, and the story that came out of it—which you are about to read—began with Playboy.
BUFFALO’S GIRLFRIEND, THE ARTIST, MODEL, AND LINGERIE COLUMNIST KATRINA EUGENIA, was doing the follow-up interview to the nude shoot she had done for the December 2010 issue of the venerable mag with Rocky Rakovic. That’s when the spark of the idea was born. Katrina showed up to the office address Rocky had given her but was confused, as she was met by a metal sign that read INKED magazine instead of a placard featuring the iconic rabbit head. As it turned out, Rocky spent the vast majority of his time busting his ass at the editorial helm of INKED, the magazine that was closest to his heart and his pocket, and that was ultimately the stamp he wanted to leave on this world when all was said and done. Not bad work for Rocky.
“Oh my God!” Katrina shouted, loud enough to make everyone in the INKED offices pull away from studying needlework, when she learned of Rocky’s gig. “My boyfriend just asked me to design a tattoo for him that he wants to get on his shoulder. You should totally have him write a piece for the magazine about getting it!” This all made sense to Katrina. She was a big fan of “wombing her way through life,” as she put it. Of course she would meet the editor of INKED right after her boyfriend, John Buffalo Mailer, had brought up the idea of getting a new tattoo. Now, through this new connection, she could hook Buffalo up with an artist who would be badass. Buffalo—who had a couple of shoddy tattoos—did not know any elite tattooers himself. Nor that there was such a thing. When it came to tattoo culture, Buffalo was admittedly very much a tourist.
Rocky had actually heard of Buffalo. Vaguely. Buffalo had done a few articles over the years that Rocky had not completely hated. Decent writing and fairly interesting takes on the world, such as the state of New Orleans through the eyes of strippers after Hurricane Katrina and a piece on the best 24-hour cure for the world’s worst hangover after a three-day bender. One piece had been an interview about sex, with Buffalo’s legendary father, Norman Mailer. Rocky had enjoyed the father-son exchange, though he couldn’t remember what the son’s take on the subject had been to save his life. He just remembered that the old lion of letters had come across well.
Now, here was the latest Bunny-to-be suggesting he hire this guy to write a piece about getting tattooed in way too loud a voice. Rocky’s eyes darted around the room as he looked at his small, dedicated team trying to pretend that they were not curious as to how he was going to respond.
“What’s Buffalo been up to lately?” Rocky delicately asked her.
“Well, he’s got a big part in Wall Street 2, and he just started working for an Indian magazine, as one of their editors!”
That’s a strange combination, Rocky thought to himself. Wasn’t this kid born rich? Why would he take a job as an editor after doing a big part in an Oliver Stone movie? Is he altogether there?
But what could Rocky lose? It would cost him nothing to introduce Buffalo to one of the great artists he knew in New York and see what came of it. As long as Buffalo focused on profiling the artist, it seemed to Rocky that anything the writer brought to the table himself would just be sawmill gravy (amazing or bland depending on the expertise of the maker). What the fuck, he told her to set up a meeting.
In his e-mails, Buffalo was cordial but brief. Rocky didn’t even know if this guy really wanted to get a tattoo; maybe Buffalo just told Katrina that to get laid. As a responsible editor, Rocky knew he would have to make sure Buffalo’s intentions were sincere, that he was not just another celebrity kid with a chip on his shoulder and a sense that the world owed him something because his daddy was, hands down, one of the greatest American writers of all-time.
So they set up a meeting. Buffalo was there already when Rocky showed up a few minutes late at the little bar called Bill’s Gay Nineties, far from tattoo culture but in the heart of New York City’s publishing district in the east 50s. “Sorry I’m late,” said Rocky, who noticed that Buffalo’s drink napkin had more than a few spent cocktail straws on it.
“No worries.” Buffalo had a friendly smile, but you could tell that there was something sad behind his eyes. He gave Rocky a friendly shake and pulled him in for a hug. He was a hugger.
“I just got cast in a new production of Dracula,” Buffalo explained, pointing to his drink, “so I’m stuck with vodka sodas for the low sugar intake.” Rocky had done homework on Buffalo by this point and knew that he made his living as an actor, playwright, journalist, editor, and producer. But drinking with him now, Rocky realized that nothing he read had prepared him for what the guy would actually be like.
But the tattoo magazine editor and Buffalo quickly recognized kindred spirits in each other, and as they downed spirits for the next few hours, Rocky was actually touched by how exceptionally open Buffalo was about the fact that his mother was not doing well, and it looked as if she would be joining his father on the other side of the great mystery before too long. He was also surprised to learn that Buffalo’s mother, Norris Church Mailer, was a voracious watcher of Kat Von D’s LA Ink. Between the Indian magazine gig and the Off-Broadway staging of Dracula he had just committed to, Buffalo was worried that he did not have enough time left with his mother to be so overextended. Rocky nodded at all this. Not sure what to say, he brought it back to the goal of the meeting.
“So are you really sure you want to get this tattoo?” More than any other word, the really hung in the stale air above the bar like the smoke from a Newport 100.
“Great, well, I thought I’d hook you up with Josh Lord.”
“Okay,” Buffalo said as if this were not the big deal that it was. “Who is he?”
Josh first started doing professional tattoos at the age of 23, in Rochester, NY, and quickly moved to New York City, where, not too long after tattooing had been legalized, he got a job at Fun City, a parlor known for roughneck clientele and bold celebrities like Johnny Depp. And before you envision Lord as a crusty, elderly, smudged tattooer, remember that tattooing in New York City was illegal until 1997.
Roughly 30 months after this meeting at Bill’s Gay Nineties, Josh would explain the rest of the history of New York City tattooing to Buffalo as part of his education:
JOSH LORD: Electric modern tattooing was born in the Bowery, over 100 years ago. Sam O’Reilly came up with the first tattoo machine in 1891. It was inspired by a copying machine Thomas Edison had invented in 1876. After that, New York quickly became a mecca for tattooing. An influx of diverse day laborers lived in the hotels on the Bowery at this time. At night, the Bowery became an inexpensive street carnival, and tattooers were renting space in barbershops to meet the demand of these laborers who were looking for something to do on a Saturday night.
When tattooing became illegal in the early ’60s, the mass exodus of many great artists set the stage for tattooing’s Golden Age. All the artists who had perfected their skills on the Bowery went out across the world, spreading their style wherever they went.
The East Village was amazing in the ’90s. I worked every day from noon ’til 2 a.m.—4 on weekends—for years at Fun City, paying my dues. It was terrifying, but addictive. I would often find myself locking up, pulling out the tattoo table, sleeping for a few hours, then opening up, and starting again. St. Marks was just crazy, every day. I was right next door to where the iconic Led Zeppelin album cover for Physical Graffiti was shot, and on the other side, the Rolling Stones filmed “Waiting on a Friend” in the old St. Marks Bar and Grill. Fun City is the oldest storefront tattoo parlor in NYC that’s still running. It was opened by the nefarious Jonathan Shaw in ’91. Shaw was descended from the tattoo lineage of the legendary Bob Shaw, who learned from the even more legendary Bert Grimm in the ’40s. New York City in the mid-’90s was an amazing time in my life. A great time to be around in New York tattoo history.”
But Buffalo didn’t know any of this yet, so Rocky told him about Josh. After paying his dues at Fun City, Josh had opened his own shop, East Side Ink, in the East Village in early 2007. Sitting on Avenue B and East 6th Street, it was one of the busiest shops in New York City. In 2010, he also opened a shop called Graceland on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg. Outside the world of ink and autoclaves, he had a restaurant called Vbar St. Marks around the corner from East Side in the same location that once housed St. Marks Bar and Grill. In his spare time (which was not much, as Josh had a three-year waiting list for new clients) he was building a boat.
Buffalo liked all that and was beginning to grasp how lucky he was to be connected to Josh. The design he had asked Katrina to put together consisted of several philosophies he’d cultivated over the course of his 32 years—various inspirations and mythologies from which he drew strength. It sounded like Josh was the right person to help him pull it all together. Buffalo didn’t know it at the time, but he would ultimately ask Josh, along with his girlfriend, to design his sigil and permanently emblaze it on his shoulder.
He was fascinated with the medieval notion of sigils, symbols magicians would choose to represent various angels or demons they prayed to. Your sigil was a sign of fealty to your gods, a show of dedication to the team. The hope was that you would prove a good enough soldier to merit their aid when your own time of need was upon you.
Just then, Katrina showed up at the bar and found Rocky and Buffalo laughing as if they were old buddies from high school. Rocky asked her how her latest photo project was going, but Katrina completely ignored him, saying something instead to Buffalo on a totally different topic. That stung needlessly. Buffalo noticed this, and after answering Katrina’s question, informed Rocky that Katrina was deaf in the ear he had been speaking to. That’s why she was so loud in my office! Rocky realized.
As it turned out, Katrina was a few notches away from being considered to have a tiny touch of Down syndrome. Apparently being born deaf in one ear is a sign of Down syndrome. As is having the lines that go across your hands be straight instead of curved, the Sumarian Line it’s called, which Katrina had. This did not mean that she was mentally retarded. Far from it. Katrina was a voracious reader, was already beginning to make a splash in the New York art world, and was writing a monthly column in the Lingerie Journal. Katrina was special, no doubt about it. Her sensitivity was heightened in a similar way to how a child sees the world, or a college student on acid, even though Katrina did not do drugs. She was just born with this keen perception of people and relationships. One instinctually felt the need to take care of her in an almost parental fashion. Almost. For it was impossible to forget that this sensitive artist was also a 23 year-old Playboy model. Still, when around her, one felt the urge to keep her from getting jostled.
Rocky, being surprisingly sensitive himself, understood all this. Perhaps this was why, as a photographer, she has a unique lens on the world. They all clinked glasses and agreed that Rocky would put Buffalo in touch with Josh the next day, and that Katrina would shoot photos to accompany the piece in his magazine.
When he got home that night, after having had way more to drink than he had intended, Rocky lay in his bed and weighed the attributes of Playmates against those of INKED Girls. In his amorously drunken state, he contemplated calling a girl from one of the two camps, but realized it was exorbitantly late for a school night. So he put his phone down, turned off the light, and hoped he had not made a tremendous booze-fueled mistake in commissioning the piece. As the room spun around him, so did questions. Would Buffalo even go through with the tat- too? Would the pretty rich boy make an ass out of himself at the tattoo shop, sullying Rocky and INKED’s reputation with the upper echelon of tattooers? Or worse: Had Buffalo gotten him boozed up and roped him into literary masturbation?
Lord’s Eye is John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir that will be serialized in INKED over the next year.