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Check Out Legendary Tattoo Artist Jonathan Shaw’s Books

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jonathan Shaw.

Jonathan, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
You might know the name Jonathan Shaw as belonging to the first tattoo artist to ever appear on The Tonight Show with David Letterman. Or maybe you’ve seen my unlikely likeness depicted by Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman on the cover of The New Yorker. You might know me as the son of legendary Swing-era bandleader Artie Shaw—or maybe the tattooed thug giving Clint Eastwood beef in the movie Tightrope.

You may have seen the magazine I founded back in the early ’90s, International Tattoo Art, at your local newsstand. Or you might have read my novel, Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes, published by Johnny Depp’s HarperCollins imprint, or my recent visual archeological dig into the history of tattoo art, Vintage Tattoo Flash, on Powerhouse Books.

You may have already read my book Scab Vendor, the first volume of an ongoing memoir series I’ve published the first two volumes of, with several more in the works. Or maybe you only remember the name Jonathan Shaw as the infamous “Tattoo Artist to the Stars” who made headline news for being indicted by a New York City Grand Jury and charged with 89 felony counts of illegal weapons possession.

Or . . . maybe you’ve never heard of me at all. I’m going to assume that’s the most likely scenario and write a few short words about myself, and my present career as a writer and some of the books I write

For decades, I was a world-famous “celebrity tattoo artist.” Over the course of a long, surreal career, I became one of the most infamous and influential tattoo men on the planet. My client list included cops, criminals and captains of Industry, along with many famous names. Names like Johnny Depp, The Cure, The Velvet Underground, The Pogues, The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Joe Coleman, Johnny Winter, Kate Moss, and the notorious Great Train Robber, Ronald Biggs—not to mention Tupac Shakur and all his bitches. Even Vanilla Ice was lining up for an appointment – much to my embarrassment – but hey, it was the 90s, right? Strangely, I’m still one of the most well-known names in the tattoo profession today—despite having retired over 15 years ago from an industry with an absurdly short memory—an industry I was unwittingly instrumental in pioneering.

So, what to say about my latest book in an ongoing memoir series?

The long, cockeyed evolution of the second installment to my multi-volume Scab Vendor memoir saga has more to do with the long, cockeyed evolution of the long, cockeyed life that spawned it than with any high-falutin literary aspirations. All of the crazy shit contained in its pages is basically fertilizer for a humble chronicle of a life. My life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Homeward Bound spans roughly the second decade of this bizarre, stranger-than-fiction existence – my late teens and early twenties. The rest, as they say, is history. History, which will be covered in subsequent volumes, God willing.

My latest book, Homeward Bound, is very much a sequel to my earlier work, Scab Vendor, Confessions of a Tattoo Artist (available on Turner Publishing). While the overall storyline of the new book can easily be enjoyed as a stand-alone work in its own right, there are certain references in its pages to specific characters, places, and events that will be more fully understood and appreciated having first read Scab Vendor.

That said, I believe that, as human beings, we all come hard-wired with an inherent need to share our strength, weakness, pain, passion, despair, hope, love, hate and general personal stories with those of our kind, in order to help one another navigate our common human experience. In that sense, storytelling can be seen as a powerful evolutionary tool. And, like tattooing, it seems to be one of the most ancient compulsions of the human psyche.

I spent the best decades of my life tattooing, traveling the world with it and working alone by appointment too. I had the honor of working side by side with all kinds of notorious tattoo legends like Spider Webb, Crazy Ace, Zeke Owen, Bob Shaw, Colonel Todd, Gil Montie, and Filip Leu. I learned a lot from those interactions, till I was finally ready to take it to the next level Then, in the mid-‘80s in New York City, Jonathan Shaw’s World Famous Fun City Tattoo was born, flaunting—for the first time ever—an archaic law banning the practice within the city of New York.

Spawned out of my original clandestine Bowery basement location, it landed one day like a fucking flying saucer at 94 St. Mark’s Place, smack dab in an astonished public eye, blowing minds and turning heads.

Tattooing was still illegal in New York City. The new St Marks location was New York City’s first legitimate walk-in tattoo shop since the official prohibition was enacted in the early 1960‘s.

Fun City Tattoo eventually became the impetus for the legalization of tattooing in New York, after establishing itself as “the” East Coast landmark tattoo parlor, synonymous with the highest standards of tattooing in the fucking world.

Like any good walk in tattoo shop, tattoo flash covered the walls of the new place, along with other appropriate tattoo shop décor like hand painted signs saying “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport,” and a rusty old meat cleaver under a plaque reading TATTOO REMOVER. There was always a pistol duct-taped under my chair—just in case.

People used to tell me they could not sit in the place for an hour without learning volumes about tattoo lore, just by looking at the walls. And if you spent weeks or months in there and thought you’d seen everything, you could walk in again one day and suddenly notice something completely new. It was just that kinda place.

Over the years, the shiny new walk in shop would eventually degenerate into a filthy, morally bankrupt, toxic shit-hole. Kinda like me; a nasty old dinosaur. Toward the end of the road for me as a full time tattoo artist, I was just too soul-sick and burnt-out on liquor and drugs to even give a shit. My heart just wasn’t in the thing anymore. After decades in the game, tattooing had pretty much run its course for me. I didn’t care anymore. I ended up with a bunch of crackheads and junkies running the joint while I kept my distance from the scene. I was already gone, living back in South America, getting sober, and the place just sorta went to rats and ruin.”

Yeah man, the old Fun City of its glory days was long dead and gone. Good riddance, I figured. So I sold it to some local wannabee tattoo hipsters and got the fuck out. One of the guys who used to work for me ended up buying it from them, thank God, and did a really good job blending the old school with the new, turning it into a really cool environment with a deep respect for tradition, but more in keeping with modern times, ya know? I mean sure, tattooing has become a respectable gig nowadays, ya know. No place in the modern ‘tattoo industry’ for a crusty old dump like that. Whatever, was just glad to be done with the whole nasty mess. By the time I sold the place and split from tattooing, it was like waking up from some long, terrible, bloody nightmare. Getting out was nothing but a huge relief.

You gotta understand, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was essentially a small tight-knit community back in the day, and Fun City Tattoo played its own unique role in the scheme of things.

Yeah, man, over there, if ya fucked around, ya laid around real fast. We had bloodstains all over the walls in that shop and most of it wasn’t from tattooing, ya know…

My binge drinking, massive drug habits, and fast-lane lifestyle finally started taking its toll, shuttling me out of a mundane world I really didn’t relate to in the first place and burying me alive in some kinda hellish parallel dimension of bloody warring fragments and surreal nightmare visions, all raging away in my own battle-scarred deranged mind. St. Mark’s Place had become like a Vietnam minefield. No limbs went missing there, though. They were all just tattooed with these weird, complex, angry-looking tattoo marks: surreal dreamlike hieroglyphics of a fucked up underworld landscape… the tattoos I was putting down there really sorta personified a very weird time and place for a whole generation of New Yorkers.

And man, that place was fucking busy. We were working pretty much round the clock in there. I had a shape-shifting crew of world class pirates and outlaws tattooing in there doing production work, while I still took most of the big custom work back to the underground bunker on the Bowery where me and Filip Leu were working side by side. Some of those other guys at the walk in place, like Chris Garver, they went on to become some of the most famous tattoo artists in the world today.

Fun City was well-named. It was like this wild notorious Bohemian gathering place, a hectic underground Mecca packed to the rafters with all the crazed flora and fauna of what was still a real vibrant counterculture neighborhood: beautiful losers, visionaries, street thugs, cops, mobsters, artists, tourists, bikers, hipsters, high rollers, stock brokers, artists, junkies, strippers, and movie stars. Long days and late nights were just a part of Fun City’s surreal everyday dynamics. We usually stayed open till four a.m. or later, depending on street traffic, visiting friends, hot chicks, the combination of liquor and drugs flowing through my fucking veins, or the number of Hells Angels bikes lined up out front. Over time, the clientele got bigger and more demanding, eventually growing into a wild feeding frenzy of hellish proportions. The spot became a timeless twenty-four hour netherworld time warp of vital art and local weirdness. And with what was then considered this trailblazing abstract tribal tattoo work, I was also building a more demanding, sophisticated, and affluent clientele. Fuck. By the mid-’90s, I had sort of unwittingly become the world’s Numero Uno celebrity tattoo artist. What the fuck, right?

I mean that wasn’t what I was after when I first started tattooing. Never, man! I mean, yeah, the money was good and all that, but then, once the whole “World Famous” hype actually manifested into a reality, surprise surprise, it all just started getting kinda stupid, ya know. Hordes of all these real squaresville types coming in from all over the place, and they weren’t even coming for the quality of the work anymore, but just because I was the guy who tattooed all these famous people. It coulda been anybody, for all they cared. The good old herd mentality. Most of those fuckers didn’t know enough about tattooing to give two shits about the artwork, they just wanted the status of that whole ‘I got tattooed by the famous guy on the fucking Letterman show who did Johnny Depp’s shit.’”

In 1991, I curated this big high profile exhibition of tattoo flash art at the Psychedelic Solution Gallery in New York. The gallery was a very hip place, and it was one of the very first mainstream tattoo-related public events. They hyped it up in the Village Voice and word of mouth was like a fucking wildfire, so of course the show turned out to be a huge success. We were totally shocked and unprepared for the kind of massive crowds it drew. They had to set up fucking police barricades around the block to keep order on the night of the opening. It was insane. The press came out in droves, newspapers, TV, the works. I remember some reporter from Newsweek or Time Magazine asking me the stupidest questions and me telling them to go piss up a fucking rope with that shit. Didn’t matter. I could do no fucking wrong. That’s when I first began to see the kind of real power this stuff had to bring people out of the woodwork. Up till then, the whole thing was still pretty underground. The next tattoo related art show I did was about a year later on the West Coast, at La Luz de Jesus Gallery this super hip spot in Hollywood. Same thundering crowds, same mad interest. You had all these big movie stars and rock stars lining up to gawk at the artwork. Woo, hoo, Hollywood, baby! After that, it all just kinda snowballed into a scene.

The whole “tattoo journalism thing started with me being a regular contributor to Outlaw Biker, this kinda cheezy motorcycle mag with a little section devoted to tattooing in the back. After the publishers saw we were on to something with that, I wound up becoming the creative driving force behind another short-lived but real important magazine for them. We called it Art Alternatives, It only lasted a few issues, but it featured in-depth interviews and articles with amazing visionary artists like Joe Coleman and Robert Williams… today it’s seen by those in the know to have been the real predecessor and original role-model for super trendy and highly successful magazines like Juxtapoz and the whole lowbrow art movement that came with that.

Anyway, after all that magazine exposure, I was approached by some market-conscious rival publishers with the idea of starting a brand-new publication, something that would be dedicated exclusively to tattooing. Of course I jumped at the chance, and so International Tattoo Art magazine was founded in 1991, christened with an article by Jonathan Shaw, founder and managing editor. With slick production values and worldwide distribution, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to raise the bar another notch for tattooing, and right at the height of its new novelty status with an increasingly receptive public. And I really went all out to run with it in style. People who were tattooing back then all know that I had singlehandedly created a magazine that was the very first of its kind, and everybody wanted a piece of it. It was my beloved brainchild. and like everything I ever did, I was totally obsessive about this new creative project, ITA took the common grassroots tattoo-rag format and elevated it to the level of a real legitimate art magazine. It was really instrumental in changing the way the public would perceive tattooing forever. Everything that’s happened since with TV show and an avalanche of books and printed matter, mainstream tattoo culture, etc, a large part of this whole tattoo renaissance can trace its roots back to what we were doing with that humble first real mainstream tattoo magazine. To that end, ITA really focused in on tattoo history. I just felt it was my sacred duty to make sure that all this priceless folklore of information, and archives were not kept hidden away anymore to be hoarded by a few elitist folk-art collectors and academic eggheads. ITA seriously created and maintained the highest standards for what was still an emerging worldwide tattoo industry by showcasing world-class works of tattooing and tattoo-related art. In my first editorial I wrote: ITA proposes to edify, educate, and entertain its readers. And I really worked hard to stay true to the integrity of that stated purpose the whole time I was running the show.

But even with all those noble aspirations, man, when that fuckin’ rag hit the newsstands, the haters came out of the woodwork like a swarm of fucking locusts. It’s funny, I remember when I was first breaking into the business, Bob Shaw always warned me that was just the inherent nature of the beast. I’ll never forget him telling me, ‘These tattoo people are like a bunch of jealous old whores.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time but I sure found out after I started that magazine. Suddenly everybody in the tattoo community wanted to be my best friend. Of course, most of ’em wanted to knife me in the back at the same time.”

Even though I lived and breathed tattooing back then, on some levels there was always this perverse part of me that never let me feel I fit in with the crowd. Any crowd. It was no different with the so-called tattoo community I suddenly found myself in the center of. And that weird character flaw if you wanna call it that, that would eventually be my undoing, especially where the magazine work was concerned.

You gotta understand, I first got interested in tattooing way before mass-marketed tattoo equipment was readily available. It required some real perseverance and determination to break into the thing. The small handful of professional tattooers in the world back then were a secretive lot: closed mouthed, inbred, and fiercely protective of all their mysterious “trade secrets.” But being a persistent little fucker, I did learn. The hard way. Well, maybe not as hard as back in the early days down in Brazil scratching around with handmade machines with Luiz, trying to figure it all out on our own. After coming back to the States, I was really fortunate to have gotten a chance to apprentice with real tattoo legends like Bob Shaw and Col Todd I learned the basics from those guys, and formed a lifelong friendship with Bob Shaw up to the day of his death. The old man really schooled me in the basic foundations of the craft and instilled much respect for the game in me in general. There were countless hours and months of practice on drunken sailors up and down the old Long Beach Pike before they ever let me put one on a real paying customer. That’s how it was back in the day if you wanted to learn to tattoo. It started with mopping up puke and being a basic indentured servant to the working tattooers. Those guys were like little fucking gods to us back then.

Maybe because I was taught by the original masters of old-school tattooing, I always tried to run my shops like they had. Working in their shadows I always felt this awesome responsibility to keep it painstakingly traditional, authentic, and real down-to-earth. And, like the guys I learned from, I always tried to teach whoever worked for me the value of respect, carrying on those old-time carny codes of honor, the kind of consciousness that barely survives in today’s cookie cutter tattoo world.

After years sitting in walk in tattoo shops I learned a lot of tricks for dealing with the great beast of the Public. Smoke and mirrors. Cheap tricks to impress the thundering herds of ‘tattoo fans.’ That’s how I became “World Famous” in the first place. . Award-winning this,-winning that. Shit, man, all those fucking Best Tattoo Artist trophies were the first thing to hit the dumpster when I finally sold the shop and got out. All I wanted to do with the rest of my life was go back to South America and start writing all the books I knew I had lurking in the dusty old basement of my soul.

 

Do current events, local or global, affect your work and what you are focused on?
Artists, if they’re doing their work with integrity, are the conscience of humanity.

I believe that in a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.

Or, in the words of the great George Orwell: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.

I work very hard as a writer to tell the truth as I see and experience it as a conscious human being living in a decaying society with a good healthy dose of dark humor.

Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
Google my name. I’m all over the internet. I can be reached at jsfuncity@gmail.com. My Facebook page is also Facebook.com/jsfuncity, and I’m on Instagram under jonathanshawworks

Contact Info:

Jonathan Shaw 2000


Image Credit:

Black and white portrait of me standing, photo credit: Larnce Gold
Black and white tattoo photo credit: Marcus Cuff
All other photos: courtesy Jonathan Shaw.

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