Review: Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink by Jeff Johnson

I live in a college town and we have our fair share of tattoo parlors. There are 2 shops almost next door to each other on the main drag through town and a tattoo and body piercing place down at the end of a row of bars, near where I turn onto my street. That one has an interesting crew that hangs around outside — both people and animals — and Tattoo Machine made me want to stop in and hang out with these guys a little. It’s full of great stories (and you know a busy, urban tattoo shop has to have a million of them), inside jokes, and even some talk about the art of tattoos. Johnson makes it a wild and entertaining ride.
Johnson is at his best telling stories — and believe me, he has got some great stories. Lots of the stories involve drugs and, fortunately, some of the stories are about Johnson getting himself cleaned up. But when a story starts out…

I’m racing toward the Oregon border in some kind of bright red Japanese sports car. I have no shoes and no driver’s license, and I’ve been smoking gooey Mexican heroin and snorting piles of coke off a switchblade for three days straight.

…you know things are about to get interesting. If you’ve watched any of TLC’s reality shows on tattoo artists, Miami Ink and its spinoff, LA Ink, then you’ve got an idea what to expect, but Tattoo Machine is the wild, uncensored, NC-17 version. There are stories about the assorted ways that he made a mess of his life, the crazy people he worked with and the crazy people he worked on. I found the stories about the people he tattooed especially interesting; as he says in the book, there is no distancing yourself when you’re working on someone’s skin. He gets his introduction to working with oddities at the Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, when a woman comes in and wants a tattoo of her husband’s name and a heart on her flipper. Now, that’s not the sort of thing I see everyday at my office and I probably would have failed that test, as Johnson did the first time around. He was working with veterans, though, and he learned from his early mistakes. It’s apparently not uncommon for folks to want to decorate the very thing that you’d expect them to hide.

An obese woman came in years ago and got a portrait of herself as a little girl on her pale, bulging stomach. She insisted that there be no mouth in the portrait. She lumbered out with a tattoo of a young, pigtailed girl with smiling eyes and a flat expanse below the nose, a harrowing image when seated in its context. Every artist there that day had nightmares for months…

His stories are part of what I find fascinating about memoirs: they are a glimpse into a secret world. Whether the topic is tatoo parlors or politics or Arctic exploration, these worlds have their own language, their own traditions, and their own legends. After reading the chapter on Shop Talk, I will know that if a guy with a tattoo gun calls me a Swamp Panther, it’s meant as a compliment. I will also be able to snicker like an insider if I hear the guys talk about a Time Fighter that just pulled up in a Pee Pee Truck, who will probably turn out to be a Bonus Hole, with their luck. I’ve spent some time Googling the names that Johnson tosses out periodically, like they are people I should be familiar with…and I suppose that in his business, they are familiar names. Artists who laid the groundwork, like Bert Grimm, as well as those who are carrying the art form forward, like Guy Aitchison. And I have decided that if I ever want my worst nightmare tattooed somewhere on my flesh, I’m calling Paul Booth. Whoa.

Now – a little tattoo trivia! You know I like to put something special in the comments (feedback is love, after all), so here’s a little something about tattoo inks. Did your grandfather have an old Army or Navy tattoo? Mine did, and by the time I was old enough to check it out, it looked pretty bad. The red had faded away and the black was an odd dark green color. There’s a reason that tattoo looked green and it has to do with pelicans, the war, and Lucky Strike cigarettes. Want to know more? Check out the comments…
I won’t spoil the stories for you by telling too many of them here; I don’t want this to be like a movie trailer that shows you all the funny stuff before you get to the theater. (But I admit to a terrible curiousity about the story the test readers made him take out of the book.) Definitely check out the story of The Collector — that’s an episode of “Criminal Minds” in the making. Johnson’s introspective bits were less effective for me, but he is obviously a guy who has thought a lot about what he does for a living and a little philosophy and history never hurt anyone. Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life In Ink is scheduled for release on July 14th, but you can pre-order your copy at

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