Marisa Kakoulas (writer),
Dustin Cohen (photographer)
You can come out of retirement for that!
Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s funny because I come out of retirement a lot. Anywhere I’m at, I’m asked to do a free autograph tattoo. I’ve been doing it for 15 years or something. One guy came up to me and said, “I get so goddamn tired to roll over in the morning and see your name on my old lady.” There are also people with my portrait tattooed on them that I’ve signed. What I got a bang out of is, one time, a woman got so mad at me, she went out and had my name laser removed. That’s a real peacock feather in my hat!
Why was she mad?
She erroneously thought that I had said something about her at a convention. Someone must have told her a lie, which started off as me being drunk in a bar. I drink. I usually start around 12 noon, but I don’t get drunk.
You mentioned conventions. I see that you’re still going around the convention circuit a lot and teaching seminars.
I’ve been doing seminars on machine building for 10 years. I’m an amateur machine builder. I don’t have a factory or anything. I build them for my entertainment. But I’d never thought that I’d be teaching anybody sitting in a classroom and divulging secrets. In the past, it would be unheard of.
But you have done a lot to preserve tattooing’s past. Tell me about your museum collection. What are some of the highlights?
Well, for one, there’s my Edison autographic printer. It was made for cutting perf [perforated] patterns. They punch all these holes in a piece of paper following a design to transfer the artwork, so it was used as a stencil to make copies. It wasn’t invented as a tattoo machine, but it was the first electric handheld device with a reciprocating motion. You don’t need much penetration to go through paper, but to tattoo a person, you have to have a much longer stroke. So in 1891, Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish tattoo artist who became well-known in New York, came up with the idea to increase the stroke to make it more powerful and penetrate the skin. He’s credited as the inventor of the electric tattoo machine, but Edison really was. O’Reilly only made a modification of the autographic printer. That’s the granddaddy of all tattoo machines even though it was not designed for it. Edison in all his stuffiness would probably have frowned upon tattoos.
Have you ever thought of writing a book?
A literary agent asked me once, “Why don’t you write a book?” But something stuck in my head that I heard someone say: “To write is not to live because you’re reliving.” Why rekindle an old relationship when you [can] go out and make a half a dozen new ones? On Benjamin Franklin’s [mock] epitaph—I don’t remember the exact words—was something like, “Here lies Ben Franklin, like the cover of an old book with its pages torn out…the story will be written again in a greater and grander edition.”
In your 80 years on this earth, what personal doctrine or ideology have you developed?
“No sweat.” Don’t ever sweat over anything and don’t let anyone make you sweat. I have it tattooed on the back of my leg in kanji, but they couldn’t translate “No Sweat” exactly so it reads “Perspiration No.” I’ve been at Chinese places and pulled my pant leg up and they stare at it, beyond their comprehension. I’m actually just seeking to find one truth. If I find one, then maybe I will find the second one. Man is always looking for the secret. I’d like to know one goddamned truth before I die.