JP Harris Tells His Rags to Riches Story

Photos by Jac Justice

I was born shortly before Valentine’s Day in 1983 in Montgomery, Alabama, to a small town, southern woman and an Air Force brat-turned-handyman.

I left home at the age of 14 on a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night. Believe you me, one of the first things I was going to do when I got off a few days later was find a way to get a tattoo, come hell or high water, to solidify my new independence. My first was bestowed to me shortly thereafter in a park in California, traded for a pack of GPC Menthol 100s. A wingnut named Izzy, wearing purple-lensed shades, suit pants and a fireman’s raincoat gave it to me with a homemade machine, run off a 9V battery, with guitar string needles...“a fresh one for every customer,” he bragged.

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I never did cover it up. And just a few months later, at age 15, I found myself in a living room in Oakland letting an apprentice tattooer start practicing on me under the auspices of free work from her boyfriend in exchange. They broke up shortly after and there sat the scarred, blurry bullsh*t on my arm, but I wore it with pride.

I came up in a culture where the quality of tattoos didn’t matter so much as the meaning, or simply having them at all. This was the mid-90s, well before kids born in the 90s started getting their faces and throats done before they hit 25. This was back when the term “jobstopper” (hand or face tats) actually held true; older train-rider punks I knew got their faces done so they could collect Social Security income, as almost nobody would hire you. Equal employment laws regarding tattoos weren’t even a conversation yet.

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More than just thinking we were badass, these tattoos were identifiers for my crew at large, whether or not you actually knew each other: punks could scope Nazi skinheads across a parking lot at a show. Anarchist squatters could spot drunk-punks likely to steal your backpack in a park, and so on and so forth...sometimes the lack of tattoos was enough to signal that someone was an undercover cop, or just simply didn’t belong at a given place.

And so, many years ago, I adopted the sarcastic slogan “never trust anyone without a few bad tattoos.” Not that I’ve got something against people saving their money, putting real thought into what they want, and patronizing quality tattooers. Lord knows, I’m glad that the standards have risen in the last three or four decades. But a couple of scrawled, blurry lines tell me of a right of passage, of a time in someone’s life where an ideal moved them so firmly that they cared not for the permanence of its visual representation.

The essence of “tattoo culture” itself, to me anyway, involves a statement to the world. A statement saying, “f*ck you if you don’t like it. F*ck you if you think it’s ugly. F*ck you if you won’t hire me because of it. F*ck me for not giving a f*ck and permanently marking myself. Because in case it ain’t clear, I don’t give a f*ck.”

And, at the very least, this statement says, “Question your eagerness to judge based on my appearance. Because I might actually be a nice young man after all.” We exist in a society of first impressions, and tattoos to me aid in shattering that stigma.

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