I’m not always the most alert person. It takes me a while to figure stuff out. Like who people are, why they’re important, that kind of stuff.
I often stumble into a community—say I decide I’m going to learn more about some odd sport like kettlebell, for example—and I adopt the habits of the natives, just chugging along, when all of a sudden I look around and realize that I have no idea who, what or why any of these people around me are, only that I’ve learned to know a few key players.
And then the web unfolds and I find out I’m doing some complicated sport learned from Russians, and that there are leaders of different clubs who are in charge of handing down instructions in different formats and there’s a competition involved, where judges watch and base things on your performance, and hey, whoa, I was just doing this thing ‘cuz it looked like a fun thing to do.
Not to say I don’t adapt. I do. Not to say I don’t appreciate the lineage of hard work and apprenticeship and earning your piece. I hell of respect that. Most great skills take time, dedication and work to master. There’s a whole order to these things. Somewhere. I often don’t know it.
Here’s another example. Tattoos. I’ve always liked tattoos. Before I was old enough to get one, I observed the people around me who had them with envy. Oh, to be able to walk into a tattoo shop and get one of these stamps of cool, something to talk about with friends and show off when your skin was bare.
I got a couple, once I had the money. One of my friends owned a tattoo shop in San Francisco, and I lived a couple blocks away, so I popped in from time to time, getting random images, mostly on my forearms, some stars on my stomach. Nothing fancy. It took a while, because I suddenly realized how much money they costed.
Happened to be that the first major tattoo I got (read: big tattoo), was done by a tattoo artist who has become one of the most mentioned tattoo artists in every tattoo rag I read. But back then, he was just some guy. Now he’s at a boutique tattoo shop with a months long, maybe year long, waiting list.
It happened to be he also did a really good job.
Twenty-one years old. I didn’t know what I wanted from life, only that I liked tattoos. As an excuse to be in the shop, I walked in and said, “I want a tattoo.” The tattoo artists who now designs shirts, is on billboards, happened to be behind the counter that day, and I booked an appointment with him.
“What do you want?” he asked. I’d not thought that part out at all. Not knowing how these things worked, and not wanting to get a picture off the wall, I decided, on the spot, that I wanted some roses. He drew up some beautiful roses, old-school black and grey, with a neat drop shadow behind them. He was pretty proud of them, added them to his picture portfolio.
That’s how my tattoos went for the next few years. I wanted a tattoo. I walked into the shop and got a tattoo. People I know think and think and think about their tattoos. I mostly didn’t. I didn’t care. I wanted tattoos. I got them.
As the years went on, I met friends with various tattoos. Some had all this fancy back story. And I read some books by famous tattoo artists, describing all the memorabilia people get, pictures to commemorate their parents, pets, places they love. Pictures their friends and family drew. I started appreciating this aspect of tattoo culture as well, the tattoo that symbolizes something.
I mostly appreciated a tattoo that simply looked good.
There were many years where I did not get a single tattoo. I had no ideas, no urge. And then the itch came about two years ago, and I decided I wanted to add something else. My husband, who had a bunch of tattoos when I met him, and does a similar thing, kind of, “Just throw something on there,” to the tattoo artist at a shop he likes, recommended I get not one of the things I wanted, but four.
I asked an old punk friend where he got his tattoos, because I always admired his back in the day and he recommended a shop. I went to that shop one day when I randomly walked by it. The tattoo artist happened to be drawing a bird on someone that day, which is what I was getting (a common thing, really, not too outlandish), in a style I really liked. And he was super sweet. Not pretentious at all. I booked an appointment with him, and kept going back, haven’t switched main artists yet.
One night, when he was doing the tattoo, which took a couple of sessions, a guy walked in, good looking, compact, blue, blue eyes and a tiny cross near his eye. He seemed like somebody—you know that feeling you get when someone walks in a room and they’re super confident, and have good energy, and you know they’re different? This guy had that charisma.
“Let me see your birds,” he asked. I showed him my back. “You should get more birds,” he said. And after chatting with the tattoo artist who was doing the work, he left with his adorable little toddler in tow.
I didn’t think much about the dude, until I was researching tattoo history for an article I was writing, and stumbled onto a video that was an interview with him, citing him as one of the essential tattoo artists in this wave of tattoo artists, tying back to some of the quintessential tattoo artists from back in the day.
Turns out, he owns the shop I go to, and also another shop, and used to apprentice under some of the greats, like Ed Hardy.
I got a little bit of extra cash, which doesn’t happen to me that often, and wound up back at the tattoo shop getting some words on my wrist, same arm I got those old school roses on back in the day. In walks main tattoo dude, starts chatting with the different tattoo artist I’m getting the words from, and compliments the art work on my arm, says it’s classic. He asked who did it, and I told him, and they both recognized the name.
Of course, being me, and not ever holding back on anything in my head, not obeying lines of authority or lineage in any group or culture because I often don’t even notice them, I start babbling about how I watched his interview and I didn’t even know he was THE person he is.
He looked at me with those crystal blue eyes and said, “Did you like it?”
“What?” I asked.
“The interview. That’s the important question. Did you like it?”
“Of course. It was great.”
He left soon after, was super nice and down to earth. But it was one of those things that got me thinking. Should I care about these things? I never truly adapt the garb of any group, be it tattoo, punk, hippy, what-have-you, whatever scene or culture is going on. I generally stay on the periphery, observe, like writers do, learn, and then report back through my writing. If something strikes me, I’ll research it more, as I have both kettlebell Girevoy sport and tattoos, but usually, I bumble my way through things, not knowing which hands to shake, who is big stuff, why I should even care.
I generally ignore titles and names and hierarchies and judge a person simply by what they present. How they act, what the wear, what they say, if they’re nice or kind of a prick. If someone is nice, I want to know more. If they’re not, I usually don’t want to be around them.
I always get confused when there are all these social customs and rules I’m supposed to be following, takes me a long time to see them, because I never quite learned why they were important. Not to say that are not important–-we organize our cultures according to things that work at the moment for whatever reason—simply that I often don’t care, unless there’s something I want and I need to know. Big names don’t impress. Unless you’re a down to earth good person. And both of these tattoo artists were, which is why I appreciate that their energy drew me in, not their name. Because it’s easy to get confused.
I’m not knocking lineage, skill or tradition. Au contraire. If you have talent and know-how and are nice to boot? Hell, you’ve got it made in my book.