Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: Tattoo Machine by Jeff Johnson

Subtitled Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink, this is exactly the quirky kind of memoir to which I am drawn. I personally wouldn't get a tattoo in a million years (the needle phobia sort of rules them out) but I'm intrigued by people who are so passionate about them. Johnson, who co-owns a venerable shop on the West Coast, would seem to be the perfect person to write about this then.

Divided into distinct parts composed of mostly related essays, this is not a memoir in the linear sense. For that matter, many of the essays address the state of the industry rather than specific happenings in Johnson's shop or life as a tattoo artist although there are more personal bits as well. The reader is certainly left in no doubt as to Johnson's opinions on everything from the retro art trend, to artists who want to draw directly on skin, to the importance of clean toilets. Johnson himself claims to be a sort of middle of the roader in terms of artistic talent so the reader doesn't have to wade through boasting to get to the meat of each related essay.

However, there are times where it seems as if the author suddenly remembered that tattoo artists have this reputation as bad-asses and he must reinforce that at least ever so slightly. To this reader, his asides about needing to masturbate after doing a pubic tattoo or about sexual favors offered (and in some cases accepted) seemed forced, simply for the effect, or perhaps just not flowing seamlessly with the rest of the narrative. I don't doubt that these things happen(ed) but in most cases they weren't particularly interesting to read about. The most engaging parts of this book for me were the essays where we met some of the eccentric folks that either work in or hang out around tattoos shops and when Johnson gives us one of his infrequent anecdotes from his working life. The least engaging bits were when he tries to get philosophical or the extended meditations on what makes for a good shop versus a bad one (although perhaps this latter is more interesting and pertinent for people without my needle phobia as they might consider a tattoo). An interesting enough read, it didn't hang together as well as I'd hoped.


  1. I don't think this is a book I'd enjoy, though the premise is interesting. Thanks for the review.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  2. I am thinking about your sinking boat adventure. I think about it every time I come to your blog.

    I do not know anyone else who has ever been in a sinking boat.

  3. I love memoirs like this too. It sounds fascinating, even though I'm with you - I'd never get a tattoo either.

  4. I interviewed Jeff about this book several years ago. Fascinating. And it is a lot more about life than simply tattoos!


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