A Thursday night at the Sea Tramp Tattoo Company is as unpredictable as any other night. It can be slow, fast, or a jerking mix of stop-and-go traffic. But like every shift at a street shop, it can be a time when madness and motivation swirl together with the endless spectrum of emotions, to form a human stew so random, with ingredients so widely varied, that it will never be sampled again except in memory. I have a lot of these memories. Some are like lost rings from a sunken Spanish galleon found laying in the sand, some like a band-aid found in a gyro. Still others, the most preciously rare, have the power to alter the course of a life, to touch some deep stone in your foundation and leave it different. These are moments of engineering, and I have one such involving a train.
When an old friend I'd worked with many years ago stopped by I was happy to see him. His wife and kids were out of town and he was roaming the city. When he passed the Sea Tramp he apparently decided to pop in for old time's sake. When he saw me sitting there, much later in the night than I generally worked anymore, it must have felt like he'd walked through time. Looking up and seeing him, I felt the same way.
The years Matt and I worked together had been good. We were younger then. We didn't own tattoo shops.We were in our 20s and making art and loving it. It was a simpler time. Every Friday we went out after a double shift to a cavernous Creole place under a bridge a quarter mile away and ate massive blackened steaks, piles of oysters, and drank pints of bourbon. I'd done some design work for the place, so many times we didn't pay anything but a tip. Then we'd hit up the train tracks for a free ride back to the tattoo shop, clinging like monkeys to the outside of a passing freight train.
I was just getting off work, so we decided one more ride might be in order. This time we took Don Deaton, the former owner of the Sea Tramp and our old boss. He was in his late 60s at the time and had never joined us a decade ago, but when we told him about riding the train it fired something in him, and he was game.
It was late, but we ate anyway, and drank quite a bit, as well, though maybe not as much as we once had. Over dinner I noticed how time had creased them both in the intervening years. My own hands were larger and scarred. I had my first shock of gray hair. My back hurt a little after working all day. But in the low light and in the mirth of the place, I was transported back and soon forgot about any of this.
After dinner and drinks we walked out, and as if on cue a train rumbled by, heading north. Like a pack of little boys we ran for it.
I got there first and caught the central ladder on a car. Following our old pattern, Matt caught the ladder on the next one. Don followed our example and caught the third ladder and then we were rolling through the night, the wind washing over us. I let the sound and the rhythm of the train take me back: And then I did look back.
Matt was watching the passing city lights. It was too dark to see his face and guess what he was thinking, but there was a rigidness in his body he'd never had in the old days when we dangled drunkenly from trains. He might have been thinking about his kids, and perhaps how what we were doing was unwise. Beyond him, Don howled at the moon.
As we approached our jumping-off point, the train was picking up speed. I didn't recall them ever accelerating in the city before, but it had been some time.I launched into the gravel and realized for the first time that night that I was wearing expensive shoes, unsuited to this task as my old engineer boots had been, but I stayed upright.
Matt jumped next as he passed me and I helped him to his feet. His landing had been good, but the train was really picking up speed and it was dark. We both watched in horror as Don whipped past us.
"Oh God," Matt said.
"Think it'll stop before the border?" I asked. Matt shrugged.
A fast hundred yards down the line the tough old bird leapt off the side of the train and tumbled over the rocks. We sprinted to him as he struggled to rise holding his head. It was the end of an era. We'd managed to kill our treasured old boss.
"That was fuckin' fun," Don said. His old jeans were torn and his knuckles were bleeding, but a fierce grin of delight peeked through his pirate's beard. Matt and I looked at each other, and we knew, we both knew, that tomorrow was going to be a good day. As the train roared past and vanished into the night, it took some of our worries with it.
Like any vibrant art in motion, tattooing is always changing. It evolves and subjects you to the Darwinism of its momentum, where only the fit survive. A career has its own arc inside of this. Your work gets bigger and more complicated under your personal response to the great flow and the time spent in it, and that alone is enough for some, a race upstream in a fast flowing river. And still others wind up with their own shop, where on top of it all you deal with everything a business owner does; the inspectors of every description, insurance, sweating the totals in the face of rent and bills. And of course you have to keep a calm house, where artists can feel safe enough to give every last bit of themselves in an attempt to rise, or just stay afloat. All this can be powerfully exhausting.
But once an old man howled at the moon and tumbled over the rocks, as he had so many times in so many ways. He had passed through these fires after long years of enduring the heat of the furnace, and it had not weakened him. It had done something entirely different. Matt and I were halfway there, and while we couldn't quite see the other side, we could see... possibilities.
You can stitch together words plucked out of the grand ether of language and tell stories that don't mean a damn thing, but sometimes they light the frames of engines too distant to see clearly, that leave something to the imagination. This was one of those rare times, the ones that leave a scaffolding to climb up into the best part of yourself.
Tomorrow we would do the best tattoos since yesterday, and we wouldn't be stopping there. The train had left the station.
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Jeff Johnson has been tattooing professionally for eighteen years and is the co-owner of the Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, Portland, Oregon's oldest tattoo shop. This is his first book.
Books mentioned in this post
Jeff Johnson is the author of Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink