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Saturday, August 29th, 2009
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Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink

by Jeff Johnson

Tattoo U.

A review by Gerry Donaghy

I don't have any tattoos, and I don't really plan on getting any either. It's not that I have anything against them. It's just that I'm too lame to really pull one off.

However, I do admire those with the audacity and sense of permanence to get them, especially those that choose to go big. There is one woman I know who has such a beautiful and ornate sleeve of Asian dragons along her arm that I suspect she is secretly a Yakuza hitwoman. But then, I've seen third-rate scratchings that look like they were done by Stevie Wonder using an ice pick while having a seizure.

Good or bad, elaborate or spartan, what ties these folks together is how they choose to express themselves: with pigment that has been applied to them with a needle that punctures their skin sixty to one hundred times per second.

Jeff Johnson is the co-owner of Sea Tramp Tattoo Company here in Portland, Oregon, a city that has more than its fair share of inked individuals. In his memoir Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink, Johnson offers not only an introduction to the art, but details his own evolution from shiftless burnout and wannabe writer to dedicated artisan and no-nonsense businessman.

While tattoo parlors and their clientele are legendary in seediness and secrecy, Johnson's memoir is inviting and broadly expository. The demimonde Johnson inhabits contains the type of folks your mother warned you about, but he is also applying ink to customers as diverse as blushing brides, college kids, and high-strung attorneys. If your vision of a typical tattoo devotee is limited to Popeye and convicts, Tattoo Machine will be a pleasantly eye-opening experience.

As befits somebody who has spent a lot of time with a diverse group of people, Johnson has the raconteur's gift of gab. Whether he's describing some of the far out customers he's had to deal with, or reaching for explosive hyperbole to express his frustration, Johnson is never boring and always respectful of his reader. He's opinionated without being arrogant, edgy without being obnoxious, and informative without being patronizing.

In addition to revealing everything you (maybe) wanted to know about tattooing, Johnson's book is also a surprisingly useful primer for business survival. Early in Tattoo Machine, the author visits a newly minted competitor, staffed by "frat boys trying out for a TV show about San Quentin." As interest in a potential customer never materializes, Johnson, accurately, predicts the business's demise. When it comes to competition, Johnson welcomes it, so long as it doesn't sink into open warfare. But, when it does: "Subtlety counts. Creativity is paramount. A certain whimsical cruelty is to be admired." And when it comes to the employees in his charge, Johnson writes, "You protect your people, make them feel safe enough to be brave, help them grow and always learn from them."

Personally, I would rather see this on the career-climber's reading list than pandering malarkey like Who Moved My Cheese?. As a business guide, Tattoo Machine maintains a reasonable equilibrium between personal iconoclasm, the value of teamwork, and the motivations for success.

"Every profession has its anecdotes, its codes and superstitious," Johnson writes. While not giving away every secret, the author has crafted a compelling and engaging memoir -- one full of brio and humility. Tattoo Machine offers delights and insights that reach beyond the scope of its stated subject and will entertain the naked and the inked equally.

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