Skip to main content

Taking proper care of a fresh tattoo is essential. There are many simple things a person can do to ensure their tattoo heals properly—avoid direct sunlight, keep it moist, don’t go swimming, don’t pick at it. You can add one more to the list—under no circumstances should you let a tiger step on your new ink.

“We were getting tattoos in Flint, Michigan, and I sat for nine-and-a-half hours,” John Finlay says about the prominent crocodile tattoo on his shoulder. “I was so sore and I had to do a magic show at the mall. I was one of the assistants Joe [Exotic] had, so I had to crawl in a little tiny space with me already hurting from the tattoo. And yeah, I got stepped on quite a bit while I was in there.”

Considering how incredible much of Finlay’s life has been, dealing with a tiger treading on a fresh tattoo seems par for the course. Before March 20, 2020, few people outside of his immediate social circle knew much about Finlay. Then “Tiger King” premiered on Netflix and everything changed at lightning speed.

In the first 10 days, nearly 35 million people immersed themselves in the strange world of Joe Exotic; the eccentric cast of characters riveted viewers. As he sat shirtless in an easy chair telling tales of his married life with Exotic, Finlay was especially captivating. His tattoos, his toothless grin, his Oklahoman drawl—there is so much about him to love. The narrative is so enthralling that it’s easy to forget Finlay isn’t a character in a scripted drama. He’s a real person who had his entire life thrown into disarray when he became a household name.

Photos via John Finlay

Photos via John Finlay

“It’s been pretty crazy,” Finlay says, “but we’ve been dealing with it the best we can. It’s been a wild ride. I never thought in a million years I’d be saying, ‘Talk to my agent about this.’”

In the years since the documentary was filmed, much has changed for Finlay. He’s no longer married to the Tiger King, he’s happily engaged to Stormey Sanders, he has a brand new set of teeth and, most importantly, he’s been sober for six years.

Newfound fame destroys countless people, but Finlay’s gentle soul has remained intact. If anything, his fame gave him a platform he never dreamed of. “I’ve been trying to do a lot more charity, like working with The Trevor Project [a suicide prevention initiative for LGBTQ youth],” Finlay says. “I’m trying to make an impact on people’s lives. I’ve been talking to college kids about drugs and how to change their lives, to not let that negative world bring them down. I’m not really in this for myself.”

Most documentary subjects end up having some issues with how they are portrayed on screen, and Finlay is no different. Most notably, the footage cuts in a way that makes it appear as if Finlay had been cheating on Exotic, but he contends that wasn’t the case. There are other small issues here and there, but he holds no animosity toward the producers, noting that they tried their best.

One curious thing viewers couldn’t help but notice was that seemingly every time Finlay was on camera he was shirtless.

Photos via John Finlay

Photos via John Finlay

“The producer kind of made me feel like I was the sex appeal of the show,” Finlay says with a chuckle. “Whenever he would talk to me on the phone or in person he would say, ‘Bring you and your sexy body with you.’ It made me feel comfortable being shirtless around him. But I did quite a few interviews where I had my shirt on, and for some unknown reason they didn’t show that. How they showed me and portrayed me was all a big surprise.”

Perhaps the overriding theme of the documentary is the powerful allure wild animals can have over people. During his time at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, Finlay spent a lot of time alongside lions, tigers, crocodiles and a whole zoo’s worth of other exotic animals.

“It was amazing,” Finlay recalls. “After a while it became something like normality, but I loved every minute of it because it’s something not a lot of people get to do in their life. I formed a lot of great bonds with tigers, monkeys and crocodilians, they were my favorite.” 

This affection for animals can be seen throughout his tattoo collection. He has the names of tigers he bonded with inscribed into his skin as well as the stripe pattern of one of his favorite tigers. Finlay also amassed a number of crocodile tattoos, including one perched over his shoulder like an ally and one with slightly more devious intentions. “I’ve got one on the inside of my leg that is kind of an inside joke,” Finlay laughs. “It’s photorealistic and its face is pointed towards my crotch, so it looks like it’s going to eat my junk.”

Photos via John Finlay

Photos via John Finlay

It’s impossible to speak about tattoos with Finlay without bringing up what became one of the most famous tattoos in the world—the script tattoo reading “Property of Joe Exotic” just above his crotch. On “Tiger King,” we saw Finlay begin the cover-up process. The documentary only filmed the first session of the process, leaving many viewers to believe that what they saw was the finished product.

Getting rid of that tattoo was a monumental moment for Finlay. As we discussed the process of covering it up, his fiancée yelled from the other side of the room, “It had to be gone before we’d get married!” With a laugh, Finlay adds, “You have no idea how badly ‘Property of Joe Exotic’ ruined my sex life.”

Now that the hubbub of “Tiger King” is starting to subside, Finlay has had some time to reconsider the life he’s lived so far. While there are many regrets—particularly when it comes to his drug use—Finlay appreciates that he never could have become the man he is now without the struggles.

“I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, but it helped me realize who I actually am, and to realize other people also need help,” Finlay says. “It was me who did the self-treatment, I got myself off of the drugs and got myself out of the bad moods and everything. Not a lot of people are going to help out. A lot of people are there to get what they want and get the hell out.

“But I wouldn’t change anything,” he continues. “That’s me. That’s who I am.”