book review: Tattoo Machine


No matter how tired of and disgusted with growing popularity (and shallowness) of tattoo culture we may get, there’s at least one positive side effect of it – more books on the subject published.

Since I’m always curious of what is going on behind the scene of any sort and whenever I’m at any tattoo shop I wonder what it really is like, what customers come and go, what people want to have tattooed on them and what the reality of tattooing looks like, I knew I’d read ‘Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink’ with at least some interest.

The book isn’t big, barely 249 pages, but it’s packed up with interesting stories, anecdotes, memories and pieces of advice from someone who’s spent most of his life at more than just one tattoo shop and obviously has a lot to tell about it.

Since I’m a sucker for history and people behind the (not only tattoo) scene I definitely liked that the author, Jeff Johnson, managed to smuggle in a few allusions to the history of tattooing in the US, briefly describing not only evolution the modern tattooing underwent in the 20th century but also mentioning people that made a huge impact on the industry (Bert Grimm being one of them). It never feels like fake names dropping and shows the author’s deep interest in the past.

Nowadays it seems like you must have a big ego and no sensitivity to become successful, so it’s a nice change to read that tattoo artists are more than just fake wannabe TV stars who claim to be awesome artists and party animals all in one. Johnson makes it clear that to be successful in this field one must work hard, spend countless hours on polishing their drawing skills and that there’s always someone else that’s better than you. Being humble and industrious is not a shame, so big thanks for this sound attitude!

The title of the book suggests it’s tales and stories only and that’s the case most of the time. Johnson recounts interesting events from his professional (and sometimes private) past with humor and passion of a real storyteller and he admits that he ‘likes stories. He likes telling them and he likes hearing them.’ Page by page he describes co-workers he came across during his career, customers that sometimes are creepy and sometimes tragic and sheds a really bright light on the life of his shop the way you won’t get to see on ink reality TV.

Johnson’s work, however, is not only about stories and tales and sometimes he throws in a piece of advice for customers, so if you’re interested in what tattoo artists find important on customer’s side and how not to embarrass yourself during a sitting, you can find useful tips here, too. There are also some of his reflections on the current state of the industry which only adds to the contents.

The only thing I didn’t like much about this book is uneven writing. It seems as if Jonhson couldn’t decide whether he wanted to write his book in an everyday language, juicy, live and teeming with slang expressions, or to go for a sophisticated style verging on being pathetic (‘warm, pink arc of living canvas’? ‘plates of unnamed silver washed in and out of the surge’?). He’s a real, down-to-earth guy with lost of experiences under his belt, though, so most of the time he is sharing his stories in a rough, everyday language of men who must act tough to keep things and people under control.

A small warning to those who expect that books about tattoos must be colorful and packed up with images – not the case this time. The book’s layout is very simple and black-and-white only. The main focus here is on the stories taking place at tattoo shops and, for some reason, the author and the publishers didn’t find it good to add any images. I didn’t mind it although now and then even I caught myself at wishing to see a picture of Johnson’s first tattoo or a back piece he was just describing. Contents are good enough, though, to feed your imagination, so the book is enjoyable to read the way it is.

Jeff Johnson, Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink, Spiegel&Grau 2009;