You know when there are certain people so legendary that you sometimes question if they are even real? People whose life story is just so mind-blowing that you are kind of surprised they are even still alive. Bukowski once said to him, “You're just a fucking punk kid living in Hollywood. Who wants to read about that? You need to get a fucking life so you have something to write about
.“ And oh man he did!
Jonathan Shaw is a legendary tattoo artist and writer and a true icon. I won't even delve into a dictionary to find the words to describe him, since Iggy Pop’s “the great nightmare anti-hero of the new age” and Johhny Depp's “author, artist, connoisseur, madman, thug, pirate, villain, Buddha, sage, Satan, gypsy and most solid of brothers” summarize everything perfectly.
Long story short: Shaw is the son of big-band jazz star Artie Shaw. As a teen he was a heroin addict who vandalized the streets of Los Angeles, later on got clean and started his epic journey. Shaw hitchhiked to Central and South America, where he spent the next ten years working as a tattoo artist. In the late 80’s he moved to NY and opened a Fun City tattoo parlor in LES on Bowery (tattooing at that time was illegal, but he still did it).
Shaw describes: “Fun City Tattoo was an illegal tattoo parlour behind a boarded-up storefront on the Bowery that you had to walk past bums and addicts to get to. It had no sign or anything – you’d call from the corner and I’d come and let you in.”
In 2002 Shaw sold his tattoo parlour to focus more on writing (he had some writing beginnings as a teen in LA as well). In 2008 he debuted with his first novel Narcisa - Narcisa was the name of one "junkie whore" Shaw once knew in Tijuana. And this May Shaw is releasing another book. This time is not writings, it’s tattoos. “Shaw owns one of the largest collections of vintage tattoo flash in the world, and Vintage Tattoo Flash is an incredibly rich overview of the early years of American flash art. Vintage Tattoo Flash spans the first roughly 75 years of American tattooing from the 1900s Bowery to 50s Texas, and from the Pike in the 60s to the development of the first black and grey, single-needle tattooing in LA in the 70s. The book lovingly reproduces entirely unpublished sheets of original flash from the likes of Bob Shaw, Zeke Owen, Tex Rowe, Ted Inman, Ace Harlyn, Ed Smith, Paul Rogers, the Moskowitz brothers, and many, many others relatively known and unknown.”
When did you start collecting vintage tattoo flash?
Sometime in the early 80s, but it really picked up speed to become a minor obsession in the late 80s, then even more so into the 90s when I was traveling around the world as Managing Editor of a big tattoo magazine, interviewing a lot of the old time tattoo artists.
Did you initially just stumble upon it? And was it somewhat easy to acquire, or did it take a lot of digging and research?
It was mostly organic, being that I was around it so much back in the day. Over the decades of my tattoo career, especially working with the magazine and writing all these articles about tattoo history, I got to know many of the old school tattoo masters pretty well. A lot of them became close friends and associates. I ended up working with some of them in tattoo shops around the world, especially in the US, legendary guys like Bob Shaw and Col. Todd, Spider Webb, Crazy Ace, Gill Monte and so on, so the “digging and research” you refer to was really just part of my everyday tattooing environment. All in a day’s work, so to speak.
Was your intention of buying the flash for reference, as a tattoo artist? Or did you aspire to be a collector?
Like I said, it was basically just part of the scenery in my life as a tattoo man. Back in the day, old hand-painted tattoo flash like this was much more commonplace in the tattoo world than it is today. It was everyday reference material for most of us, and you saw it everywhere. The “collecting” just sort of happened over the years as the stuff became more scarce and sought after. Tattooing is a popular art form, always has been. As such, the designs change and evolve according to public demand. The material you see on shop walls is basically dictated by popular tastes. New iconography started being introduced into the mix by newer upcoming tattooists sometime around the mid 70s, catering to the changing popular tastes of the time. The old stuff that had been the bread and butter for the old school tattoo guys for so many decades was quickly becoming obsolete. Much of this stuff was on its way to the dumpster when I started acquiring it. A lot of it was actually given to me, and even the stuff I did pay money for was sold at a very nominal cost. Most of these old school guys couldn’t get their heads around why anybody would even want it. To them, it was just obsolete shop material. Unsellable crap. You’ve gotta understand that for someone whose stock-in-trade is selling tattoos, if a design doesn’t sell anymore, from their point of view it’s basically worthless. But I loved the old tattoo designs, always had, ever since I was a little kid. And I had a very strong intuition that someday it would make up a really cool, valuable archive. So I just started amassing boxes and boxes of the stuff, picking up more and more in my travels and interactions with the old timers and constantly adding to the collection. One day I woke up to realize I was sitting on a priceless archives of vintage Americana, a really important documentation of folk art history. But I never consciously set out with that intention. Like most good things in life, it just fell together and happened on its own.
What would you say is the oldest piece of flash that you own? And who is the artist?
Most of the oldest stuff is from around the turn-of-the-century, going through the early 1900s. The rarest old stuff is by the famous British tattoo artist George Burchett, who wrote one of the most interesting pieces of early tattoo literature, a great book called Memoirs of a Tattooist. The oldest American tattoo flash mostly comes from the old Bowery tattoo shops, specifically from a guy named Ed Smith, one of the greatest early draftsmen in tattoo history.
What artist’s work is most prominent in your collection? And can you name a favorite artist from the collection?
I already mentioned Ed Smith, there’s a lot of his stuff, and it’s definitely some of the best stuff, artistically. It’s also some of the oldest and rarest stuff. Smith was an amazing draftsman, maybe the best of his day. There’s also a lot of great old vintage tattoo flash from early tattoo masters like Bert Grimm, Bob Shaw, Ace Harlyn, Zeke Owen, etc. The prominent names go on and on, but overall, my favorite stuff is definitely drawn by Ed Smith from the old Bowery shop.
Do you have any plans on exhibiting this extraordinary collection?
Oh yeah! That’s been the plan all along. We did a couple of very successful and well-attended art shows back in the early 90s at galleries in New York and Hollywood, back to back. I remember the first big show was done at a gallery in NYC. We were totally shocked and unprepared for the kind of crowds it drew. They had to set up police barricades around the whole block by the gallery to keep order on the night of the opening. It was insane. That’s when I first began to see the kind of power this stuff had to bring people out of the woodwork. The next show was on the West Coast in Hollywood about a year later. Same big crowds, same mad interest. You had all these big name movie stars and rock stars showing up to gawk at the artwork. After those first shows, I got busy with other projects, tattooing and working with the magazines, traveling the world tattooing, and the stuff all went back into storage. And that’s where it’s stayed until now. We’re kicking off this new book launch with a 2-day only exhibition at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. It’s actually one of the original galleries where we did one the first shows back in the 90s. A lot of the best artwork from the book will be on display there on Tuesday & Wednesday, May 3rd/4th, and I’ll be over there signing books on both days from around 6-9pm. The legendary American painter Robert Williams, who wrote the book’s introduction, will be in attendance as well, along with God knows who else might show up. Should be an interesting event.
How did the idea of the book come about?
After the original art shows back in the 90s, there was much talk about doing a book. Robert Williams himself was one of the early supporters of the idea. There was this one guy (who will remain unnamed) who sat on the material for like 8 years, promising to get us a book deal with a big publisher, but it never happened. Then, Johnny Depp came along and said he wanted to publish it, and even offered to sponsor a traveling museum show. Ironically, right after Depp came into it, the other guy finally came back with an offer from Rizzoli. But it was too late. At that point I was already sick of waiting for him, so of course I made a commitment with Depp to do the thing, seemed like the best way to go at the time. Well, Depp ended up dropping the ball too, and then I was right back where I started. No book. Life went on. I was busy with a thousand other projects, so the book idea just went on the back burner and stayed there for a long time. Meanwhile, I retired from tattooing and started writing other books. HarperCollins picked up my first novel, NARCISA, and released it under Johnny Depp’s imprint, and that was a big deal for me as a writer, my first real mainstream success. That’s when this tattoo book idea came back into the picture. I’d finally signed with a literary agent to oversee the HarperCollins deal. After that was in the bag, he asked me what else I had and I told him about the Flash book idea. He shopped the concept to a few different publishers and came back with a decent offer from Powerhouse. I’d already done a couple of book signing events with them over the years for some of my works of fiction, and I knew them to be a good solid operation, so it all came together pretty effortlessly once the deal was signed and delivered.
At what age did you get into tattooing?
I first got into it in my early 20s, but I’d been fascinated with the art since I was a little kid. I didn’t start to work professionally fulltime until I was almost 30, but I’d already been steeped in the culture and the art for over a decade. I’m 63 now, so I guess you could say I’ve been in and around tattooing for most of my life – certainly all my adult life.
You made your mark as the premiere tattoo artist in the country in the mid 90s, tattooing celebrities like Johnny Deep and Iggy Pop. Were these friends of yours? Or did they just happen to stumble into your shop because of your name?
Well, the “celebrity clientele” wasn’t what I wanted when I first started tattooing. Never, man! I mean, yeah, the business was good and all that, but then it all just started getting kinda stupid, y’know. Hoards of all these real middle-America types coming in from all over the place, and they weren’t even coming to me for the quality of the work, 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 these fuckers didn’t know enough about tattooing to care, they just wanted the status of that whole, ‘I got tattooed by the famous guy who did so-and-so’s shit'. But yeah, word-of-mouth got the ball rolling, and next thing I knew I was going on Letterman and getting visits from Iggy Pop, Johnny Depp, The Cure, Shane MacGowan, Dee Dee Ramone, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Winter, Kate Moss, Orlando Bloom, Kathy Acker, Tupac Shakur and all his bitches. The VIP list goes on. Even Vanilla Ice was lining up for an appointment, much to my embarrassment. But hey, it was the 90s, right?
Everyone who was anyone - or thought they were - was clamoring for ink from me back then. Some of them I’d known before I became a brand name, people like Iggy and Johnny. Others I got to know through tattooing, like Jarmusch. A few of these guys became lifelong friends. There were others I never saw again. People tend to come and go around tattooing, which has always been an essentially transient art form. The lifestyle is pretty much part of an outsider culture, at least it was back then. In that sense, there was always a certain bond of complicity between someone like me as this famous outsider artist and all these eccentric off-the-wall artistic celebrity types. Life in the fast lane and all that, it all just kinda went hand-in-hand, like beans and rice (laughs).
You retired from tattooing over fifteen years ago. What brought about this decision, to give up your very successful trade?
The answer’s pretty simple. I just needed a new outlet. A means of expression for all my adventures, thoughts, dreams, nightmares and visions; a vehicle for the kind of personal exorcisms and explorations most people can relate to at their core, but rarely have the balls, drive or talent to take to the limit. After over 3 decades in the tattoo world, I desperately needed a more authentic medium, artistically. You can’t do something halfway if you’re gonna be any good at it. I learned that from tattooing all those years. So I set my goal to be a writer, and I wanted to be a good one. I knew that would take total focus and dedication, No more time for tattooing, so I gave it up to write. But I’d already had enough of dealing with the mainstream public and their increasingly corny, narcissistic demands. After decades in the chair, it was just time to move on. Even though I lived and breathed tattooing back in the day, on some levels I guess 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 this so-called Tattoo Industry I suddenly found myself at the center of. See, I was pretty much orphaned by alcoholism in my family of origin, so from an early age I was kinda raised by wolves, running the streets of Hollywood and New York City, hitchhiking around the country and living on the edge. Eventually, I took to the road in Mexico and South America, working on ships and traveling the world, and I never really looked back. I was on my own from the age of twelve, so my family and school were always the streets, bikers, beatniks, winos, weirdos, druggies, hustlers, criminals and whores. Those good people were the only people who had tattoos back then, outsiders, y’know, and they taught me important lessons in the art of survival. So I really didn’t come to tattooing so much for the art as I did because of the outsider lifestyle that surrounded the whole deal. For me, the artistic part came later. Much later. Eventually, it all just jumbled together and took over my life, like a kinda weird fucked up Frankenstein monster creation. But when tattooing started turning into a big mainstream “Industry” kinda thing, I knew it was time to put it behind me and follow my dreams of being a writer.
Do you still own a tattoo shop?
Nope, and I don’t tattoo commercially anymore either. Whatever tattoo work I do today is by appointment only, and only on serious fans and tattoo aficionados, or friends who know what they want and why they want me to do it. There are a million good competent tattoo artists out there doing good solid commercial tattooing nowadays, so if somebody approaches me for a tattoo, it’s usually because they really want one from me, specifically. So, I still do special requests for people who want work from me, but it’s not a fulltime gig anymore, that’s for sure.
Since you’ve retired, how do you fill your days and nights?
I write and I travel. A couple of years ago I rode a motorcycle across South America all alone. These days I hang out with my girlfriend and a few other close friends in an artistic and spiritual community that I love and can relate to. But wherever I go and whatever I’m doing, my main focus is always my writing projects. My last book was called NARCISA – OUR LADY OF ASHES. It came out on HarperCollins last year, and it did pretty well, got hundreds of 5-Star reviews on Amazon. Rolling Stone Magazine even called me “the next Bukowski” (laughs). NARCISA was a work of fiction, nothing to do with tattooing, which surprised a lot of people who only knew me as this famous tattoo guy. But I’m having a really good time with the writing and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m a much happier person since I quit the scab trade and started writing books fulltime. Suits my lifestyle a lot better. The first volume of a 5-volume tattoo memoir series is coming out early next year on Turner Publishing with a really cool original cover by R. Crumb. It’s called SCAB VENDOR – CONFESSIONS OF A TATTOO ARTIST. It’s eventually gonna be released in several volumes, should I live long enough to finish ‘em all. It’s been a real interesting life, to say the least, both in and out of tattooing, so it would be almost criminally selfish of me not to write about it and share all those crazy fucked up stories and experiences with the world.
It states in your book that this is the first volume of Vintage Tattoo Flash. Do you plan on more books?
Oh yeah. There’s enough material in this collection to put out another 5 to10 volumes, so I guess we’ll just see how well this one does for the publisher. If it sells fast and makes them oodles of money, as I predict it will, I’m sure they’ll want to keep putting this stuff out there till the cows come home. And when they do, I’m ready to roll with it.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the state of modern day tattooing?
It’s become so mainstream, and they say that perhaps almost twenty percent of the American population has a tattoo. (Laughs) Before the whole Tattoo Reality Show thing started, this big Hollywood mucky-muck producer approached me with an offer to head up the first one. I turned him down flat. Some people would say I really missed the boat on that one, but hey, I didn't wanna be on that fucking boat. For me, it was like being offered a luxury stateroom on the fucking Titanic. No way was I gonna waste any more of my life pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Tattooing used to be something cool and edgy, but when it became a respectable mainstream gig, it lost a lot of its beauty for people like me. Even as it attained greater levels of public approval, a certain mediocrity crept into the thing. You know, the public can be a real shit-eating monster. Just look at all the vapid horseshit they’re putting out on television and the movies these days! And the public just eats it up! It’s fucking pathetic. Shit, man, that’s basically why I got out of commercial tattooing, to get away from catering to the mainstream public’s overwhelming bad taste. Let somebody else do that shit. Life is too short, man. I got lots of really radical stories to tell, and like my old man always said, “time is all you’ve got”, so I decided to use what’s left of my time on earth doing something better suited to my soul’s highest purpose than slinging scabs on a basically moronic public for cash and prizes. I mean tattooers ain’t exactly curing cancer, y’know. I’m sure I’m not gonna make a lot of friends by talking like this about the modern tattoo renaissance, but hey, I’ve paid my fucking dues and, what the fuck, you just had to ask (laughs)…