Tattoo Artist Jonathan Shaw on Brawling With Bukowski and Other Wild Tales

Jonathan Shaw in New York. Justin Joffe for Observer

Well before we meet, Jonathan Shaw’s reputation precedes him. His old friend Iggy Pop calls him “the great nightmare anti-hero of the new age,” while Johnny Depp, whom he considers a brother, credits him as half of the inspiration behind Jack Sparrow along with Keith Richards.

As founder of St. Marks’ Fun City Tattoo, Shaw made a lot of friends around New York back in the late ’80s, when the city took pride in its crust, after opening his shop on the Bowery. At Fun City, Shaw kept a gun strapped to his chair and screened potential customers through a peephole in his shop’s armored door while they waited in a phone booth outside.

I find him vaping on a Soho stoop leading up to the apartment of renowned fashion publicist, author and reality television star Kelly Cutrone, a close friend with whom he’s staying on this visit to the city. Before we go inside to a breakfast spot around the corner, another old friend, Jim Jarmusch, calls him up to ask how his trip is going.

Shaw seldom tattoos anymore, preferring instead to focus on a writing career that forces him to reckon with his wild, illustrious past. He removes his jacket when we get inside restaurant, revealing a body covered in tattoos that tell the story of Fun City, which he founded in a much wilder New York. But Shaw’s looking back even further in his latest novel, Scab Vendor: Confessions of A Tattoo Artist, his first in a planned series of memoirs that catalogues, roughly, the first 20 years of his life.

Those are the years before his storied career as a celebrity tattoo artist began, before his formative time spent hitchhiking around Central America and working on ships. Scab Vendor goes back to Los Angeles as Shaw unpacks the fraught relationship with his late father, the clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, a seminal figure of big band jazz.

Shaw also recounts meeting Led Zeppelin, feeling freed by seeing Iggy for the first time, and worshiping at the feet of Charles Bukowski, who he allegedly got into a nasty fight with. Now clean off the heroin and other drugs that consumed so many years of his life, Shaw writes with a removed sense of lucidity that allows his glut of incredible stories to read as fiction, a shaman conjuring visions of his past into vagabond noir.

“I believe that the writing process, or any sort of creative process, is a form of amateur shamanism, or whatever you might wanna call it,” he tells me. “If you’re really working with a purpose, the whole idea is to remove yourself from an emotional attachment to a story. So there’s me and then there’s my story. In that sense, you can step outside of your ego persona and look at yourself with some degree of objectivity, then you’ll start to write about yourself as if you weren’t attached to that self, and that’s why my memoir writing reads like fiction.

“The story has to be told objectively. How do you tell a story about yourself from an objective point of perspective? The only way that can be done is to release attachment to that self. In other words, yeah, I did this, I did that, but who was the I that did all that? Is it the same I that’s sitting here? Of course it isn’t! It can’t be. If you’re writing about events that took place 20 years ago, it’s impossible for you to be the same person.”

The different people that Shaw has been include  not only the aforementioned writer, junkie and tattoo artist, but also sailor, biker, and protopunk.

Being born on Independence Day in 1954 meant that Shaw was just a teenager when the music of the ’60s hit his ears. “I was at the Whisky, I was 15 or 16 with my friend,” Shaw remembers. “He said, ‘Hey, that’s Jimi Hendrix over there! Here’s my Instamatic, take a picture of me, I’m gonna go sit down next to him!’ Jimi was at the bar talking to somebody, this guy just went and sat down next to him and I took the picture of him. One of my only regrets was that I didn’t ask him to take my picture, too.”

R. Crumb made Shaw look way older in the illustration adorning the “Scab Vendor” cover, which Shaw says is over 20 years old. Turner Publishing

But Shaw didn’t consider himself to be any sort of “flower child.”

Later on in Scab Vendor he remembers seeing Iggy Pop play for the first time, when Pop’s definition of himself as “the world’s forgotten boy” resonated deeply with him:

One warm Hollywood night, a guy called Iggy Pop was playing in this hole-in-the-wall called Rodney’s on the Sunset Strip. I’d never heard of him, but Ellen said we had to go to this show, so off we went, me and her and Paul. The place was a cramped dark little hovel. People were crowding around a stage the size of a tampon waiting for the show to start when all of a sudden this wild-eyed bleached-blond scarecrow came lunging out of the darkness screaming into a microphone. Holding a big deadly-looking knife in his other hand, he started cutting himself up and rubbing blood all over everyone!

On some level, I really related to this Iggy’s raw, violent angst and brutal urgency; maybe because I felt just like him. Bored. Pissed off. Restless. Volatile. Self-destructive. Doomed. Kids like Paul, Ellen, and me were like Punk rockers, years before there was Punk rock. We were social outcasts, anarchists, outlaws; outsiders, like Iggy’s Forgotten Boy. Whatever they wanted to call us, we were never anything remotely resembling “Flower Children.”

For us, that whole “Flower Power” thing was nothing but a load of bullshit media hype. I always thought it was all government propaganda contrived to discredit the growing social discontent and opposition to Vietnam. What better way to deflate a nationwide wave of anti-war protests than to portray it as the childish whining of pampered middle-class brats with flowers in their hair—rather than what it really was: a popular dissatisfaction with the established order. Meanwhile, my own sense of personal dissatisfaction was taking its toll.

Jonathan Shaw, back in New York. Justin Joffe for Observer

Shaw’s personal dissatisfactions may or may not have influenced what would become some of the defining pillars of Scab Vendor—his taste in music, his escalating drug use and his relationship with his father.

As the only child of Artie Shaw and Hollywood starlet Doris Dawling, Shaw felt a world removed from the romanticized, old Hollywood that his parents epitomized in their public lives. He also saw qualities in his father that he absolutely abhorred, as Artie had already been married six times before he and and Dawling tied the knot. They didn’t truly connect until the end of Artie’s life, after Jonathan got clean.

“What we take from our parents is wired into our DNA on some levels, and what we learn from those interactions is a lifelong study,” he tells me. “Who are my parents, why was I born into this particular situation? What do I take from that, what can I use from that to better edify my passage through life? Those are all questions we’ll be asking ourselves until they throw dirt on us, you know.

“I had an opportunity to interact with the old man toward the end of his life and take a lot of experience from him. Now it’s up to me to discern where that concerned me. Of course there are a lot of things about myself that I see in him and would not like to repeat. He was a sex and love addict. He was a classic narcissist, maybe even a narcissistic sociopath on some levels.”

“They guy was a genius, so like any human being, he had all different sorts of qualities that made up the totality of who he was in this life. Some of those qualities were very admirable and some were despicable, and as I go through my life I have to always try to live with discernment in my own actions, in my own attitudes, as to what I might want to cultivate that’s of an admirable nature, some of which might have been inherited, and what I want to try and recover from that might be of a despicable nature.”

Most people don’t know that Artie Shaw was also a talented writer, gradually withdrawing from music after his Navy stint ended in 1944 and going on to publish an autobiography, three short novels and several short stories. While he was working on a 1,000-page memoir at the time of his death that still remains unpublished, Jonathan’s planned series reads as a next-generation continuation of the contrarian ruminations on glamour that informed his father’s prose.

“Ya fight like a girl I useta fuck in a toilet,” Bukowski told him.

Then there are the colorful quotes that introduce every one of Scab Vendor‘s 81 chapters. “Well, that was an inherited thing, too,” says Shaw. “That was a thing my father used to do when he wrote books, and I didn’t even know. When I wrote my first book, Narcissa, I published it with all these quotes, and a journalist interviewing me said, ‘It was interesting that I put the quotes at the head of every chapter, you know who else did that?’ I’d forgotten completely, so that was obviously in the DNA, that was an inherited thing to do. And he was a huge reader, my father. I guess I’m a pretty big reader, too.”

Shaw caught the writing bug much earlier than Narcissa, though. He wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press in his late teens, and distinctly recounts the advice given to him by fellow Free Press writer Charles Bukowski, who had a column in the paper, in Scab Vendor. 

Shaw nervously approached Bukowski with a box of beers and a whiskey bottle while Bukowski plugged away on his old Royal typewriter and classical music played from a small plastic radio in the background. Bukowski eventually invited him in, and Shaw recalls the advice he was given:

I took a swig.
 He sneered. “So-ooo, yer a writer, h-aah?” 
I handed him the beer.
 Bukowski looked me over with an evil grin. “Well, if yer a wri-iiter, man, what ya gotta do is write, get it? What ya don’t gotta do is sit around talkin’ about it. Ya just sit down and write. That’s it, baby. But if ya got nothing to write about, yer just another bum with a ten-dollar typer and a lotta big talk and dog-shit fer bra-ains. And to be honest, you impress me as a sheltered little punk who needs t’ get out and go do some fuckin’ liv-iing.”

Shaw says he then called Bukowski an old fart, to which Bukowski replied he was a “cunt-lickin’ fish-lipped momma’s boy,” taunted him by saying he fucked his mother, and preceded to clobber him until he tasted blood. “Geez, kid!” he tells Shaw. “Ya fight like a girl I useta fuck in a toilet.”

Whether or not these events went down precisely as described is unclear, but consistent with all other lushy, storied accounts of Bukowski. When I ask about the young Brazilian boy who approaches Shaw for a tattoo at an old hotel in the Mexican port city of Veracruz at the beginning of Scab Vendor, though, he reminds me that it isn’t intended to be a linear, straight memoir, a fictionalized self-portrait. The boy, who’s relationship with Shaw prompts the bulk of recollection and reflection in Scab Vendor, didn’t really exist.

Jonathan Shaw in New York. Justin Joffe for Observer

“It’s an aspect of me, but it’s also, in its essence, a narrative device,” he says. “It’s another sense of self, and it has to do with a father-son, paternal thing. I’m talking a lot about my relationship with my father, so this guy could represent me as a father imparting experience, wisdom, whatever to a younger version of myself in a way that my father sort of tried to do with me in his own, fumbling and fucked-up way.”

Shaw refutes any suggestion that his years as a celebrity tattoo artist, during which he honed his neo-urban tribal style, contributed in any way to the visual-heavy nature of Scab Vendor‘s narrative. “Like any sort of physical representational art, tattooing has its limits,” he says, “whereas this writing style has much more to do with a cinematic sort of eye, you know, then anything to do with drawing or painting for me.”

His aesthetic legacy will also live on in an upcoming documentary film about his life, to which he’s provided countless pieces of ephemera he’s hoarded over the years.

“Sure, I’m a huge packrat and a huge archivist,” he says. “A really valuable ingredient in their process as filmmakers is the fact that I have boxes and boxes of shit that I’ve just hoarded and accumulated and saved since I was a child. They spent months photographing every photograph, document, object, letter, old journal, I mean, thousands of things in those boxes.”

“They’ve got all these photos from my childhood, seaman’s papers from Nicaragua, bail bonds receipts and old Dilaudid prescriptions and old fuckin’ heroin packages, all that shit. So there’s a lot of visual ephemera connected to my journey through this world that I luckily had in my consciousness somewhere to save. It was like opening a time capsule and finding all this crazy shit.”

The stories of New York will largely populate future volumes of his memoirs, as will his future attempts at sobriety before he eventually got clean. Shaw acknowledges that Ayahuasca, the Amazon root and vine that combine to catalyze the psychedelic drug DMT and help countless people realize their full potential as spiritual beings, played a role in his psychic change.

“Being clean for me means you have to have some big psychic change,” he says. “It’s not like just saying, ‘O.K., I’m not doing that anymore,’ and remaining the same person, but sober, as you were when you were drinking and taking all those drugs. You can’t, because if you’re the same person sober as you were when you were drinking, eventually you will drink again. So something inside has to change on a deep psychic level.”

“That was the foul wind that came along and blew the fruit off the tree, but if that fruit wasn’t ripe it wouldn’t have fallen even with a fuckin’ hurricane.”

He also rejects any attempts to recount or romanticize visions or trips. Shaw likens my own experiences with DMT visualizations to sensationalist bullshit. “That’s sensationalism and ignorance,” he says. “We’re talking about sacred, indigenous plant medicines that can heal what’s wrong with the human apparatus. It’s not a drug. A drug is something that stupefies you; this wakes you up, so it’s the exact opposite. To talk about it in terms of cheap thrills is just repugnant to everything I have come to understand over the years.”

Still, after a couple of hours with the man, I’ve only scratched the surface of what he’s come to understand.

Shaw spends more time at his homes in Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles than in New York these days, but in his explanations of dissatisfaction with the city’s bullshit, which came to a head post-9/11, comes perhaps the most humbling dose of real talk.

“New York, yeah, it’s great, the cultural center of the universe blah blah blah, but, you know, it’s really not,” he says. “It just thinks it is. It’s overfed, egocentric. If you had to define a city in pseudo-psychological terms, you could classify New York as somebody like Donald Trump. It’s not cool, man, Richie Rich. I see New York as this narcissistic, decadent, depraved, clueless kind of unconscious human being. If you took the whole of New York and reduced it to one personality, it would be a person with a very serious work ethic, a really bad drinking problem, with no time for anybody.

“I’d just had enough—[9/11] was a catalyst, but the fruit was ready to rot, so that was the wind that came along and blew it off the tree. That was the foul wind that came along and blew the fruit off the tree, but if that fruit wasn’t ripe it wouldn’t have fallen even with a fuckin’ hurricane. So I was long over it, the whole thing. I could sense it going in a direction that I wasn’t down with, and at the same time, I was tired. I was burned out, tired of being this registered trademark, this celebrity tattoo artist. I just wanted something more out of life.”