Jonathan Shaw is a multi-faceted artist living the proverbial gypsy life, based in Brazil, but seemingly on a perpetual adventure. The son of Artie Shaw and Doris Dowling, his life was never to be one of mediocrity, and associating with the likes of Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, the Manson family and Bukowski, the scene was set for a life of travelling, debauchery, consumption and creation.
In his 25 years as a tattooist, Shaw cemented his importance in the industry gaining prominence as one of the most progressive artists redefining the notion of tattooing in the West. Apprenticing under Spider Webb, he worked through the prohibition era, and conceived the legendary NY shop, Fun City, and was the editor of International Tattoo Art magazine, which, at the time was known for its intelligent articles with an anthropological and historical leaning.
Having retired from tattooing, Shaw has pursued his dream to write: his first novel, Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes is, to his credit, is a complex and dense masterpiece and is lauded by fans ranging from Jim Jarmusch to Iggy Pop.
We catch up with Shaw at his office on a rock in Copacabana, where he is seemingly enjoying the sun, surf, coconut water and women, whilst writing his autobiography, Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, amazingly, on his Blackberry. His stories are testimony to a man with a million experiences in a million lands...
Are you kind of disengaged from the tattoo world now?
"I was never that close to the tattoo world even when I was the top dog; I was never actively involved in the tattoo world."
Do you find it annoying when people mostly associate you with tattooing?
"Yeah...but y’know, it happens, and then some people just don’t understand. Like, “Why did you stop tattooing?” Like, I had committed some kind of crime! I was like, “never mind”; I don’t even bother trying to explain."
And you sold Fun City?
"Yeah, it was done, like when you finish drinking the water out of that coconut, you are going to throw it away…but if someone comes along and says “I’ll give you a hundred dollars for that” you say, “Sure, take it!” So, that is how Fun City went, it was gone and done. Now I have to write about it and honour the history."
When do you expect to publish everything?
The book that I published called Narcisa. Afterwards, I did a year and a half rewrite of it, and by the time I was done with the rewrite with the editor, the publisher had folded. And so then I found another publisher wants it, but they haven’t told me when they want to put it out. I figure in the next year. But nothing is for sure in this business.
In the meanwhile I’m writing Scab Vendor, and that is a big book. I’m close to being finished with the first draft of the first third of the book. A book in three sections - it doesn’t mean its’ going to be three books, but there is going to be part one, two, and three. Part two and three; I just have an outline for it. I have a really very tight draft of the first third, it covers my life from when I was born to my mid-twenties and barely started tattooing."
What’s your lifestyle, are you in Brazil half the year?
"No, no, I’m here all the time. Over the last several years I started travelling a bit. I would spend a few months away from here, NY, LA, meeting with publishers, doing book signings; I just started doing that the last couple of years. Before that, I was here solid, talking with other writers. I will expect I’m doing more of that as time goes on."
How did you end up in Brazil the first time?
"I was in Suriname, to the North of Brazil: near Brazil, but it’s not Brazil. I got drunk and fell asleep in a whorehouse, and the ship left without me in this place in the middle of nowhere. I went with some smugglers who gave me a ride to the north of Brazil…some adventure!"
How did that lead to you tattooing?
"I was just learning to tattoo by hand - I was interested in learning to tattoo, but only made them by hand. But I was interested in the idea of tattooing and when I got to Rio…that was when I first learnt to tattoo."
So when you were with Bob Shaw, was that an apprenticeship?
"That was after. First I came here and started tattooing like a scratcher, an amateur. I had no professional experience but I had an idea about the process. Then I said, “This is what I want to do as a profession”, so I went to the States to learn how to really tattoo, and went to try to get someone teach me how.
One thing led to another and I met Bob Shaw and he said, “Come on”, so I worked with him for several years. Then after I learnt what I had to, I came to Brazil and started tattooing with some other people. Then I went to New York and worked with Spider Webb."
So you were in NY during the prohibition days: was it out of an apartment?
"Sort of. It was a tattoo shop."
Did anyone actually get arrested?
"Not from tattooing: Spider Webb did once because he wanted to. He called all the press and then he said he was going to make a tattoo on the steps of city hall and he wanted them to arrest him. It was a publicity stunt, but nah, it wasn’t a criminal thing; it was more like selling hotdogs without a license."
Y’know when you were tattooing the yakuza, what were you doing on them?
"Completely freehand, abstract. They were the best customers I ever had. If everyone was like them, then maybe I would have never quit tattooing. Because they would just say, “Do whatever you want”. So I didn’t even use a pen, I would just take a tattoo machine."
How did people react to your decision to live in Brazil?
"When I moved, people are like, ‘He went crazy and moved to Brazil; he is living with the Indians in a grass skirt, sitting in a tree, playing the flute’. And then I came out with the first book and the first book was like, ‘What the fuck?’ It wasn’t about tattooing, it was a violent, crazy love story set in Rio de Janeiro.
All this violent stuff - favelas, drugs and prostitution, debauchery - not tattooing. I have different fans today. I don’t care much for my fans from the tattoo days - I thought they were stupid. But the fans of my books are really smart, so I must be doing the right thing - I chose doing what I love.
I wasn’t happy with myself as a tattoo artist. I was pretty good, but I was good ‘cause I had a vision, but there were people much better than me, technically. I had vision, and I tried to put that into the tattooing, so that is why it is different.
Most people didn’t really appreciate that; they didn’t know what I wanted to do. At the end they just wanted to get tattooed ‘cause I was famous. So, I was like, ‘Oh, you want to get tattooed by me for all the wrong reasons, so give me a thousand dollars, I’ll do you a fucking little tattoo’…and they would!
I got addicted to that; I became a pirate, just taking their money, and I did that for ten years and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I had some money so I came to Brazil and I lived off that money for about 9 years till it ran out. I wrote books, and wrote and wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I helped a lot of people too, and then the money ran out, and I’m still writing the books. I just signed a contract for a new book which still isn’t finished, but the publisher gave me an advance, enough to live on."
How long were you doing the tattoo magazine?
"I pretty much started the first tattoo magazines; it started with an existing biker magazine to give it a more tattoo vibe. So they hired me to be their tattoo liaison, and I did that for a few years. Some publisher came to me and they said, “We want you to start the first tattoo-only magazine, and we want you to manage it, to be the top editor and for it to be your baby”, and I said, “Sure”. And I did that one, which was International Tattoo Magazine, and I did that for about three years."
Did you sell it?
"No it was never mine, it belonged to the publisher and I was the managing editor and I was supposed to have complete editorial control. But I was always an underground guy, I was a tattoo artist, working from a handshake kind of thing, so I had no corporate experience, and they fucked me, ‘cause that is what they do. I didn’t have a lawyer, I didn’t have any of that shit; I just did it ‘cause I thought it was cool. They wanted to change the editorial policy, to this and that, and I was like, “No, that is against my principals ‘cause I am an old school tattoo guy.” And they were like, “This is money”, and I was like, “Fuck you”, and they were like, “Fuck you, and you have served your purpose, and now we are taking the magazine away.”
Do you miss the cyclical deadlines?
"That was the thing about tattooing also…immediate gratification, that is the big difference between that, and what I do now, ‘cause what I do now is write, and write."
Have you been to jail?
"A few times, but not recently…not in this reincarnation. In the States, a few times when I was a teenager; I was always in jail as a teenager. I was a troubled, confused kid. Later in my 20s, I used to drink heavily and take a lot of drugs, and back in those days I would have run-ins with the law, but not since I was sober, for the last 20-something years."
What’s the most difficult thing about keeping sobriety?
"When I first got sober, it was everything. I drank for the effect because I didn’t like the world or my perception of the world when I wasn’t fucked up, and I didn’t like myself very much. The world wasn’t acceptable to me when I wasn’t drunk. I had to stop that ‘cause it was killing me. I didn’t know anything about living in the world without altering my perception and being ok. So that was like really having to die and be reborn and learn life from zero. At the beginning it was difficult."
And does the writing help?
"For me it’s the key. Because it’s a journey of self-discovery, it’s a spiritual practice to me: it’s religious. To discover whatever I can and share it as well as I possibly can for the benefit of everybody, but especially myself, to find my place in a universe where I was lost. So the writing is the key."
Do you ever get writer’s block?
"Yeah, I had it for 20 years. Now I never have writer’s block again and I hope I never do. For me, writer’s block is the worst thing that can happen to a writer!
It would be like if you were a surfer who had surfer’s block, a photographer that had photographer’s block. The writer’s block for me was like a curse. A spiritual curse, and I had to go through some personal changes, big changes, almost die and be reborn to overcome that, and I don’t think it’s coming back."
Why is writing so effective as opposed to painting?
"Everybody is different. We are on a path of discovery, and I feel fortunate to discover what works best for me. It’s not the only way, but its the best way I found to practice these principals in my life and it’s almost like alchemy for me, in my conscious and life experience and in my unconscious and my memory and my past and life experience, there is a lot of fucked up shit. Being a drug addict, coming from a home of alcoholism and drug addicts and abuse, being on the street from very young, and living as a homeless teenager, and being a criminal.
All that stuff has roots and upholds darkness, so I have all these memories, I have all this history and baggage and most of it is ugly and poisonous and bad. Through the writing it is a magical process of alchemy where you can take all this shit and turn it into gold."
Can’t Buy Me Love
"Only one out of a hundred came with that respect for the art, not just for me. One out of a hundred would get incredible tattoos; the other 99 would get the same that you could get down the street ten times cheaper.
Because I was famous and could charge 500 dollars for a 50-dollar tattoo, people would come to me for the wrong reasons. After a while you lay down with dogs, you start to itch with fleas. And I started to feel like a real prostitute, a whore, ‘cause I was whoring out my soul for money, and eventually there wasn’t enough money to make me feel good about myself."
"Now what I do, I don’t do for money; quite the contrary, I spent all my money and only now in the last couple of years have I seen some support that tells me to go on.
But I’m not doing this for money - I would do this for free. If I won a billion dollars tomorrow in the lottery, I could sit back on a yacht and jerk off for the rest of my life; I would keep doing exactly what I’m doing…the money wouldn’t change that at all..."