You don’t know me from Adam.
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.
Not long after, I got a job doing a short-lived TV show called Double Rush. I became close with the show’s star, the late Bobby Pastorelli. Bobby was the guy I wished I was: New York–tough, had been there, been back, and had beautiful work. It was a renaissance. Bobby was the guy who turned me on to tattoo as art rather than, say, tattooing art on your shoulder. He had this beautiful Angel Michael. And the artist was Mark Mahoney. Bobby introduced me to Mark, who was in between shops at the time. Mark was so cool he could scare Brando square. The first time he tattooed me, it was in the back of some silk-screening shop on La Brea or something. I was covering up my first tattoo, The Scream. I wanted something like Bobby’s angel and found, in a similar style, a sculpture of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. It seemed fitting, given what a dichotomy it was that I was getting tattooed at all. But I was never really satisfied with it. I wanted some original work by Mark, and covering up an essentially solid black tattoo was not the way to yield the fine-line detail that Mark is known for and that I so badly wanted. But for a while it did the trick. In fact, for many years I had just the Eros and Psyche, the Blame It on My Youth, and a third small tattoo of a shot glass I got spontaneously (generally a bad idea) in New York flying high on both the completion of the first film I directed, Scotch and Milk, and, frankly, a lot of coke (you wouldn’t think I’d need any, but there you go again). It was around 3 or 4 a.m. on St. Marks. The artist is famous. And the artist is a douchebag. He charged us (my production designer got the same one; his was a lot better), like, I don’t know, three or four bills—more than I had paid for hours of much more complex work—for this dinky piece of shit because he was big-time and we were a couple of coked-up last customers. A-holes all around.
Yeah, it wasn’t until years later that I took the big plunge and got something on my forearm, this time in New Orleans. “Dignified and Old,” a Modern Lovers song—you know, because it was playing in my friend Rio’s bar, and I loved that song. Bad move. Shitty tattoo. No offense, my fault, bad concept: red and green lettering, a rose sticking through it. I had Mark try and redo it, literally going over the tattoo and redoing it Mahoney style. Years later I would try to sear the whole mess off with several laser treatments, which made me feel a fuck of a lot tougher than getting any tattoo. Jesus Christ, the agony. Eventually it just bleached my skin and Mahoney covered it up with some horses. It’s now my biggest tattoo. Why hadn’t I learned my lesson? Just go to Freddy or Mark in the first place and get fine-line, black-and-gray stuff. Invariably I’d regret every tattoo I’d ever get that wasn’t a Mahoney, save perhaps for the writing on my chest that Freddy’s son did one time when he was just a kid and Mark no longer worked where I had last seen him and the owner wouldn’t tell me where he went (tattoo code, etc.).
So, where are we? Okay, it’s 2001, I’m 30 now, we’re up to four, and I’ve broken my forearm hymen. But I still don’t have an original Mark. I was working in New York at the time but was visiting L.A. and booked an appointment with Mark. I was doing another TV show, playing a stockbroker (really, the forearm?). I had been pining for this piece of vintage Tennessee Dave James flash, your standard Sailor’s Grave type of thing. But, Jesus, man, what Mark did with what was already a cool, albeit thick, four-needle design with a single needle was stunning. To this day, I’m proudest of that design, and one other of the Los Angeles Theater, one of the great still-standing movie palaces downtown. Mark, who is about as self-effacing as it gets, even shows the L.A. Theater off when I come in. He took a huge, two-page photo from a book of old L.A. I have and shrank it down to part of my left biceps, all single-needle, two days of work, replete with tiny cars and tiny men with tinier hats.
It was around the time of that tattoo, 2004, 2005, that I finally started to really appreciate the art of tattooing on a much deeper level—its history, the Bowery stuff. I was obsessed a bit manically with it all, to the point … where … I … started buying tattoo equipment. First, cheap shit off the internet; then, eventually, a collection a fellow artist and friend of Mark’s was selling. Serious stuff.
I’d tattoo oranges, this fake skin stuff they sold online, and then, finally, my left shin. Did I mention that I can barely draw? Or that the writing in my journals looks like the Sanskrit of a maniac? Actually, the first time I tattooed anyone or thing it was after I got tattooed in New Orleans (another New Orleans trip, another mistake, still not getting that tattoos as souvenirs were not a good fit for me) and the artist oversaw my tattooing a very basic piece of sailboat flash on her husband’s already nearly covered leg. It actually wasn’t awful, but she practically hand-held me through it. Then I tattooed a square on a good friend who, until then, had sworn off any such thing—an actor truly dedicated to shape-shifting roles. But we were celebrating/mourning the last night I would spend in my old house that I sold him for about what I paid for it. Idiot. Another story.
So, yeah, my shin looks like shit. It’s just illegible and amorphous trial and error. I’m a terrible drawer and worse tattoo artist, but I was immersed. Flash, books, machines, defamed orange peels everywhere. I even talked to Mark about opening up something together in New York. Then I remembered that I wasn’t rich. I did get a bit better at drawing flash and designed an addition—praying hands, falling flower petals—to the memorial portrait Mark did of my beautiful dog Jack. By then Mark and I had forged a friendship and collaboration that transcended and too often provided an excuse for another tattoo. It became clear I was far more suited to document Mark’s art than to practice it. I would eventually direct a short pilot, this sort of quasi-documentary, which weaves in “reenactments” from Mark’s storied time as an artist and a liver.
In no small part this deeper connection with Mark goes back to Bobby Pastorelli, who died of an overdose in 2004 after years, presumably, of being straight. When it happened, I had just gotten back in touch with him—actually, we reconnected while I was in Mark’s chair celebrating the completion of my second film as director, I Love Your Work, with a tattoo of the Greek mythical figure Daedalus (but in a suit on a barstool under an old streetlamp). Bobby called Mark, and Mark put me on the phone with him. I had lost touch with Bobby after a horrific tragedy had befallen him a few years prior. I say befallen because that’s how I choose to think about it. The truth is mired in mystery and speculation, and presumably led to his OD after years of refusing even a beer. When I heard he died, I went straight to Mark’s shop, and eventually we both got matching tattoos to commemorate our mutual friend; they were based on a piece of super-old flash I found in this great Taschen book—heads of angels flanking Christ on the cross. Mark drew up the heads, and his mentor, Mike Brown—who was guesting at Mark’s shop, Shamrock—did the tattoos. Exquisite detail. Bobby’s tiny initials tangled in the hair of the angels.
The second video from my record The Goldberg Sisters solidifies the connection I have with Mark. It’s for the song “The Room,” the title of which I took from Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr.’s book of the same name. Bobby had introduced me to Cubby back in the ’90s, right before making Scotch and Milk. (Cubby, alongside Bobby, plays a barfly sage whose improvised dialogue would elicit tears each time I’d edit his scene.) I based the song on Bobby’s death. And to complete this trinity of cool and meta reflection I asked Mark to play “the guy” from the song in the video—to, in effect, play Bobby. The 16mm film is pretty dark and drips pretty heavily with an acrid nostalgia. I’m not entirely sure how healthy the whole thing is, but on some level it must have been cathartic.
Thinking back, it would have been hard to imagine as I stood there in second grade, weeping and screaming at that poor girl whose pencil was stuck in my triceps, that the tip she left behind would only be that of an iceberg.