By Matthew Bishop
New York, NY, USA
Son of jazz great Artie Shaw and movie star Doris Dowling, Jonathan Shaw has always been surrounded by the famous and infamous (even his childhood pet was a gift from Marilyn Monroe).
As a teenager in the counter-culture scene of 1960s Los Angeles, Shaw hung out with Jim Morrison, punched it out with Charles Bukowski, crashed Frank Zappa parties, drank with film director Sam Peckinpah, and had a passing acquaintance with Charles Manson.
At the end of the Sixties, emerging from the depths of heroin addiction, Shaw left L.A. and began a life “on the road.” Long fascinated with the world of the tattoo artist, he picked up the trade while traveling around the world as a merchant seaman, learning from old school masters an art that was then highly secretive and generally shunned by polite society.
Returning to his native New York, Shaw opened Fun City Tattoo in the mid-1980s, where he became the leader of the burgeoning tattoo scene, inking Tupac Shakur, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Iggy Pop, and Jim Jarmusch, among many other local hipsters and luminaries. Due to its fame as the premier tattoo parlor on the East Coast, Shaw’s Fun City became the impetus for the re-legalization of tattooing in New York City.
In 2001, when the Twin Towers fell, Shaw was at the height of his fame and once again in the depths of addiction. He put down his tattoo gear, got on his motorcycle, and headed for points south, eventually ending up in Rio de Janeiro, where he devoted himself to writing. In 2008, his novel Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes was published and soon became a cult classic, translated into several languages. The book was recently republished under Johnny Depp’s Infinitum Nihil imprimatur at HarperCollins. Shaw is also the author of a volume of poetry, Love Songs to the Dead, and two books on vintage tattoo flash art.
Shaw’s new book, Scab Vendor, Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, is a multi-form memoir that moves back and forth through space and time using first-person journal excerpts, third-person narrative, personal correspondence, and writings from family members. The book takes us deep into Shaw’s personal history, searching for the roots of what he calls “the Curse,” the seed of addiction that plagued his family for generations. Along the way, we encounter friends, lovers, family members—some famous, some infamous—all too many lost to him forever.
I recently met with Shaw in New York to discuss his new book.
MATTHEW BISHOP: Though essentially a memoir, Scab Vendor is built around a novelistic device: the character of Cigano [the Gypsy] who tells his story to a young fan who has commissioned a full-body tattoo. What made you chose the third-person form as the anchor for your personal narrative?
JONATHAN SHAW: That’s an interesting question. I think it might have something to do with my need for detachment. Writing a memoir can be like conducting an autopsy. My brother artist Joe Coleman compares my work to someone vivisecting his own soul. To do that, I needed to find as much emotional detachment as possible in order to write honestly about highly personal, emotionally charged events. Examining the past is a challenging subject for a writer, especially a past with so much baggage and damage attached to it. The Cigano character is my literary alter-ego. This fictional framework gives me a certain literary freedom to explore the past without getting all caught up in “my story.” It's enabled me to write with objectivity, humor, and compassion about certain tragic events that might otherwise be clouded with subjective elements.
MATTHEW BISHOP: Your mother is a vibrant, haunting presence in the book. Not as well known as your father, but a force to be reckoned with. How did her influence shape you as a man and as a writer?
JONATHAN SHAW: How not? If it ain’t one thing, it’s the mother [laughs]. Our characters and destinies are shaped in so many ways by our parents. My mother was a brilliant woman with the heart and soul of an artist—albeit a very confused and frustrated one—but tortured by the plague of alcoholism that also tortured me, years later. I believe alcoholism is sort of an inherited curse. Its poisonous influence slithers through the generations in so many weird, subtle, creepy ways. I made a deep study of that demon seed in this first book [Scab Vendor], and that exploration goes even deeper in subsequent volumes of the series. Stay tuned, it definitely gets weirder [laughs].
MATTHEW BISHOP: Reading Scab Vendor, I got the sense that you were exorcising your personal demons and liberating yourself from the bonds of your past through writing. Was that your purpose in writing the book?
JONATHAN SHAW: Definitely. I’ve said it before. There’s nothing more cathartic and potentially healing than examining your life’s journey with a fine-tooth comb. People spend thousands on therapy trying to get to the roots of their stuff, ya know? Through writing I found a way to cut out the middleman [laughs]. And it literally saved my life. My old friend and mentor, the late Hubert Selby Jr., used to say that before he found his writer’s voice he was like a scream looking for a mouth. I can relate to that.
MATTHEW BISHOP: You were born into fame. It was kind of wired into your DNA. Eventually, you became famous yourself as a tattoo artist and now you’re starting to see some real recognition as a literary figure. A lot of your book talks about your associations with the famous and infamous. What can you say on the subject of fame? What did it mean to you then and now?
JONATHAN SHAW: Growing up around Hollywood royalty, I saw the ugly side of it from an early age. My childhood experiences were filled with people desperately trying to hide their alcoholic suffering and dysfunction under a veneer of glitz and glamour. I never wanted any part of it. I wanted to get as far away from all that Hollywood bullshit as possible. And I did. In my late teens, I took off for Latin America and lived as an outcast in third-world countries for decades. But no matter how far you go, like you said, you can’t outrun your DNA. It’s like a hidden roadmap of your destiny. So yeah, I ended up becoming famous myself. After a long, bitter struggle with it, I’ve finally come to terms with the whole fame thing. Today, I see fame as a double-edged sword. You better be very well grounded emotionally, spiritually, if you’re gonna play with those kinda forces. You better make sure your motives are clean and clear, or fame will fucking eat you alive. We’ve all seen it. The archetype of the self-destructive celebrity is a prominent fixture in this bastard culture. We tend to put certain talented people up on altars and worship them like little fucking gods. Then we stone them to death after they publicly crucify themselves in a greed-fueled frenzy of sex, drugs, and debauchery. It’s an old story, and an ugly spectacle, but I see it as inevitable, given the overall decadence of modern-day pop culture in general.
MATTHEW BISHOP: A good deal of the content in Scab Vendor comes from your journals. At what age did you start keeping a journal? Was it always in the back of your mind to be a writer one day?
JONATHAN SHAW: From around the age of 14 I wrote obsessively and it was always my dream to write a book. But as a fucked-up teenager I had no real focus, and then life took me in another direction for many years. The first big distraction was drugs and a generally wild lifestyle. But even during those times, I still wrote a lot of free-form poetry and ranted almost daily into journals. After the liquor and drugs rendered me totally dysfunctional and incapable of staying in one place, I found the next big distraction by taking off on the road into Mexico, destination unknown. All through my travels I kept journals, but still without any real focus, just spewing my experiences out in a random stream of consciousness—or more like unconsciousness [laughs]—until the next big distraction came along, in the form of tattooing. After circling the globe as a traveling tattoo man, and eventually becoming the founder and managing editor of the world’s first big mainstream tattoo magazine in New York, I eventually burned out on the whole thing and got clean and sober. At that point, the only door left open to me was to shitcan the whole tattoo career and move back to South America to dedicate myself to real writing, full time. At some point I resurrected all those old teenage journals and started piecing them together, like fragments of some weird archaeological dig into my own past. And they became sort of building blocks for this ongoing memoir project.
MATTHEW BISHOP: Reading your work, especially your descriptive passages, I’m reminded of the jazz improvisations that influenced the Beats. As the son of one of the world’s most famous jazz musicians, and a friend to such well-known musicians as Iggy Pop and Keith Richards, what can you tell me about the impact of music and musicians on your work in general and how it influences your writing?
JONATHAN SHAW: It’s funny, ever since my first book came out, I’ve been bombarded by readers’ comments about how “lyrical” my writing is. I have no way to judge that kinda stuff for myself, but I keep hearing it from readers. If that quality is there (and I can’t honestly confirm or deny it), it has to be on a purely subconscious level. I guess it must go back to what we were talking about before, that good old DNA thing [laughs]. How else to explain it? The only other thing besides literature that has consistently moved me to laughter and tears in this life has been music. I guess that’s just in my blood. How else to explain that I came to speak Spanish and Portuguese so fluently that native speakers think I’m a native speaker myself? And without any formal study or training? I mean, yeah, my father was a musical genius, a real visionary jazzman, so I guess that special sort of ear for phrasing and rhythmic cadence must have been passed on to me somehow—even though I never really lived with the man. And since I’ve never played any instrument proficiently, it had to come out somewhere. So why not in my writing style? DNA, can’t escape it. That’s as close as I can come to explaining any musicality in my work.
MATTHEW BISHOP: Also, given that you first became famous for writing on people’s skin, do you see any correlation between the tattooist’s art and that of the writer?
JONATHAN SHAW: Not at all. Two completely different animals, far as I’m concerned. The only correlation that exists between the two practices, for me, is that all
of tattooing comprise a large part of my life experience. And since life
experience is a writer’s palette, at least for the kind of personal,
introspective writing I do, in that sense there’s a significant correlation.
But other than that, no, I don’t see any connection between the two art forms.
Tattooing is a non-verbal form of expression. That’s why it’s historically
always been popular with marginalized segments of society, people who really don’t
have any other venue to express their feelings. Real literature’s another kinda
deal. As a writer, I deal with language. And for me it’s a much more precise
endeavor. Creating pictures with words enables an artist to reach much deeper
insights. At least that’s been my experience. If I felt I could’ve expressed
all the things I wanted through a basically commercial art like tattooing, I
never would’ve quit. God knows the paycheck was a whole lot better [laughs]. Writing
these books has been a thankless task in terms of cash and prizes. But I just
came to a point where it was like “write or die.”
|Jonathan Shaw (Rio de Janiero)|
MATTHEW BISHOP: Scab Vendor primarily covers your life up to the time of your departure from L.A. in the early 1970s. What lies ahead in your memoir series? Do you have plans to publish subsequent volumes in the near future?
JONATHAN SHAW: Funny you should ask. I just sat down this week with the same great publisher that put out Scab Vendor and signed a three-book deal for the rest of the series. Book 2 is basically already written. And I’m pretty far into Book 3 too. This memoir saga might not end there, though. Depends on what’s left to write about after Book 3 is in the bag. I suspect there will be more. I’ll probably be telling these fucking stories till they throw dirt on me [laughs].
(Jonathan Shaw (Rio de Janeiro) photo credit: Lucas Barros)
Matthew Bishop is a screenwriter who divides his time between Rio de Janeiro and New York City. He is currently working on a novel.