It would not be accurate to refer to Jeff Johnson's collection of wryly-funny anecdotes and sometimes frightening tales in Tattoo Machine as simply a memoir. Instead, Johnson-the co-owner of Sea Tramp Tattoo Company in Portland-uses his life experiences to help tell the story of the tattoo industry itself (though he isn't quite sure when it became an "industry"). The reader learns about his turbulent childhood dabbling in drugs, and how he came to be the remarkable artist he is today through a series of lessons regarding different aspects of the business.
Johnson's tales also describe the fascinating (and occasionally terrifying) characters that he's come across in his 18 years tattooing. There were the large, stereotypically-gangster gun-toting men, whose leader wanted "Shaniqua" across his chest (the freaked-out and sweating Johnson had to quickly hide the fact that he'd accidentally written "Shaqu"). But the scariest individual who has walked into his shop was the tall, thin man who wanted a woman's name and nine numbers across his chest. The first thing that came to Johnson's mind was that it looked an awful lot like a social security number and when Johnson saw his back, he realized that this guy was covered in names and numbers. The next thing Johnson knew, there was a flash of white and the man was gone. The flash of white was the release form and the dude fled, taking anything he'd touched with him.
"I sincerely believe that this man was up to no good. It was so creepy. I still have bad dreams about that...Occasionally, you'll be tattooing a customer and they'll let something slip that makes you think, 'Ooh, there's something really unusual about this person,' but that was the only definitive time that I ever encountered someone that I thought, 'OK, this is absolute evil right here,'" Johnson said recently in an interview with the Source.
Yet aside from this man, he hasn't come across anyone else like him and is quick to talk about the wonderful people that he has permanently marked with his art. The stories are disgusting at times, like when Johnson discusses how he was "smoking gooey Mexican heroin and snorting coke off a switchblade for three days straight," as he writes in the book. In fact, Johnson tells the reader everything they don't want to know about their tattoo artist (the drugs, the crime, and the dishonesty)-but it comes as no surprise, as we expect the industry to be full of seedy situations. And yet, Johnson reveals a certain tenderness in the field when he talks about the bonds between the tattoo artist and his (or her) art-the living canvas.
"Any person that's interested in art has to be interested in people, because people are interesting. Yeah, that's one of the real, real fun parts of the job, is getting to listen to stories all day and tell stories all day as well," he said. It's when Johnson describes the relationship he develops with his customers that it's clear just how much he loves his job.
This is Johnson's first book, but it's evident that he has been writing for a while. He has had several short stories published in the last few years, and his next one comes out Monday, July 27 in Weird Tales. Johnson is also working on his next book, a crime novel set in a tattoo shop. He will continue to tattoo as well, but he'll be doing it a little bit less.
While it appears that more fiction writing is in Johnson's future, he has done an excellent job with non-fiction in Tattoo Machine. He has carefully documented the shift in cultural attitude towards the tattoo industry while weaving together captivating stories that will be sure to entertain his audience. But be careful, as you will most likely want to go get some ink done yourself after reading the book.Jeff Johnson
6:30 pm. Monday, July 27. Bend Public Library, Brooks Room, 601 NW Wall St.