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BOWIE
STEVE SCHAPIRO

  • Bowie, photographs by Steve Schapiro, powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • A headshot of musician David Bowie, from the book Bowie by Steve Schapiro, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • From the book Bowie, photographs by Steve Schapiro, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • David Bowie photographed in Los Angeles in 1974. From the book Bowie by Steve Schapiro, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • A portrait of the great David Bowie, printed in the book Bowie by Steve Schapiro, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • A black and white portrait of David Bowie, from the powerHouse book, Bowie by Steve Schapiro. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • David Bowie, by photographer Steve Schapiro, from the book Bowie, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Musician David Bowie, from the book Bowie by Steve Schapiro, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • David Bowie photographed in Los Angeles, from the book Bowie by Steve Schapiro, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • The great David Bowie, photographed by Steve Schapiro. From the book Bowie, published by powerHouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.

BOWIE

PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE SCHAPIRO

At the very apex of David Bowie’s spectacular rise to rock ‘n’ roll fame and glory, photographer Steve Schapiro seized a rare invitation from Bowie’s manager for a private photo session with the pop star in Los Angeles in 1974. At that time, Bowie had already lived the life of Ziggy Stardust and launched Alladin Sane with albums Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs soon to come. A musical force to be reckoned with, Bowie was also widely regarded as a fashion icon, pushing the envelope of sexuality and style and having created an internationally renowned persona.

The mostly never-before-published images in Bowie (powerHouse Books, April 2016), reveal his most creative and inspired self, and present a glimpse into the intimacy that Schapiro and Bowie shared during their time together. “From the moment Bowie arrived, we seemed to hit it off. Incredibly intelligent, calm, and filled with ideas,” remembers Schapiro. “He talked a lot about Aleister Crowley, whose esoteric writings he was heavily into at the time. When David heard that I had photographed Buster Keaton, one of his greatest heroes, we instantly became friends.”

The first photo session started at four in the afternoon and went through the night until dawn. Bowie went through countless costume changes, each one seemingly befitting an entirely new and unknown Bowie persona. Most incredible, from a vantage point some 40 years later, was the costume and doodles of a particular session: Bowie dressed in blue slacks and cropped shirt, painted with diagonal white stripes, and scribbling what appears to be a diagram from the Kabbalah. They show up again in the video accompanying the song “Lazarus” on the Blackstar album.

All images from Bowie photographs by David Shapiro courtesy of powerHouse Books, 2016. http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/david-bowie-2/

PONYBOY:  Mr. Schapiro, please tell us how you first connected with David Bowie. Were you on assignment for a magazine?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  Actually, Bowie’s manager called me. I had worked with him before and he asked me if I’d like to do a shoot with David Bowie; and before he could finish the sentence, I said yes!

That’s how it all started really. We set up in a studio in Los Angeles in the morning, you know, lights and all, and he came later, around four in the afternoon. We were surprised, as we didn’t know what he would come as. We knew, of course, the Ziggy image from all the press at the time, which was very flamboyant. So, we were all wondering what he would come out of the dressing room dressed as.

He had actually borrowed a shirt from one of my assistants and went into the dressing room and came out twenty minutes later; and he had painted himself with these white stripes, these diagonal stripes on everything he was wearing. Even his toes where white.

And then he proceeded to draw these circles, these large circles on the background paper, and finally started writing in a little notebook, and drew on the background paper a Kabbalah graph, which was the tree of life. We didn’t  know what that was, or what he was drawing. And that was the start of our photo session.

He basically had a very strong idea what the session would be about. He brought a lot of costumes with him and I assume what he was doing was trying out different characters to see which ones would work in the future, in terms of characters for his music and tours.

PONYBOY:  Your first sitting with Bowie lasted several hours. Was it just hanging out as you snapped away? Or was it a bit more planned out?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:   It was a very relaxed session. Like I said, he came with a lot of outfits. And I would pick up my camera and want to shoot an outfit, but then he would say, “Wait a minute! I want to fix something!” and run into the bathroom and come back twenty minutes later wearing something totally different. And I would have missed the opportunity to photograph the first outfit.

PONYBOY:   From the photos in the book, we see his many fascinating personalities or characters. They seem very raw and authentic, unlike other photographer’s sessions or shoots that we’ve seen in the past.

STEVE SCHAPIRO:   I think most of the pictures that we’ve seen before were really rock ’n’ roll pictures. Most of the books really involved performance photos. I felt that this was a very personal shoot in the sense that there are a number of pictures in this book where he is looking directly in the camera, not as Ziggy Stardust the rock ‘n’ roll star, but as Davey Jones; and he seems to be exactly himself.

Basically he gave me what he really wanted to give me, and I just brought into light the things that he did. There were a few things that we collaborated on, because basically when you work with someone who is extremely talented as Bowie was, there is a collaboration, consciously or sub-consciously, unless they really don’t like to be photographed, in which case they just want to  get out of there. But in this case, it was a collaboration and I was just on the receiving end, trying to bring his ideas, you know, his persona into daylight.

Up to that point, most of what I had seen of Bowie was very much in character and very flamboyant, sexy characters. It was a surprise, a change. This basically is not a rock ’n’ roll book per se, it’s something that is much more personal to me.

PONYBOY:  Were you a fan of his music at the time? Had you ever seen him in concert or bought his records?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:   Oh, sure. Everybody in the world was a fan.

PONYBOY:  He was obviously destined to be a star, much in the vein of an Elvis or Michael Jackson. Did he have that star quality when he walked into a room? Did you feel that the first time you met him?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:   Yes, I definitely think he had that quality. Something I would say about David Bowie is that he constantly was changing. For example, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles gave us fantastic music.  But basically, in terms of their careers, and in terms of Mick Jagger, their performances were very much the same over the years. The backgrounds would change, and the music might be different, but the way Mick performs is pretty much the same, as well as the costumes he wears. They really aren’t that different.

It seems to me that Bowie, well I’m not sure if he got tired of doing the same thing or if it was a sense of personal growth, but he kept changing and growing constantly. When he felt he had done something, he would basically move on. And, you know, that to me is pure genius. It’s the way he developed his career.

For example, in the Lazarus video that he did, right before he died, he knew that he wouldn’t be around too much longer, and he went back to the same outfit. I’m actually not sure if it’s the same outfit or a reproduction, but I think it’s the two times that he actually wore that outfit.

He was very spiritual, it was obvious to me, being into the Kabbalah. A lot of this appears on Station to Station as well. Certainly at the very end he was obviously into a spiritual moment. So when I saw that he had appeared in the Lazarus video dressed that way, it just really touched me.

PONYBOY:   What are your thoughts on Bowie’s style?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:   I was surprised by the red and white stripe outfit that he wore at the shoot, which to me was a bit different. Everything to me seemed to be very directed, very disciplined in the terms of what he was trying to do with the outfits, like the motorcycle outfit. He obviously was creating a character with a specific mindset.

PONYBOY:  It’s funny you mention the motorcycle shot. That’s our favorite image from the book, him on the bike, with that pose and the headIights on. Tell us about that part of the session.

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  That motorcycle shot was the last thing that we did. The session started really at four in the afternoon and ended at four in the morning with the motorcycle shot. It was actually lit with the headlights of a car outside. And I do feel that the motorcycle series is very much into a character. We spent quite a bit of time with that outfit, taking quite a bit of photos.

PONYBOY:  We also love the black and white images of him in the trailer, with that backstage feel, him combing his hair. It has an almost Elvis quality or aura. Was that when he was filming The Man Who Fell from Earth?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  Yes, that was on the set. And the Rolling Stone magazine cover came from that. It was just a very relaxed setting, just relaxing outside. Oh and the pellet gun! He’s not someone who would normally walk around with a gun. So, yeah, the ones that were set in the trailer were from the set of The Man Who Fell from Earth, as well as the office from the house that he was living in at the time in Los Angeles.

PONYBOY:  The People magazine cover from 1976 is just so odd, especially for the time, with the green background and his somewhat strange expression. Of course, it’s genius in so many ways. But at the time, what kind of reception did it receive from the editors and staff at People, and the general public as well?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  Well, we were doing a series of headshots. And we both felt that a putrid green for a background color, in terms of a magazine color, would just be horrible. We said it laughing all the way. And then People magazine and other magazines used those images. So it was done in a joking way, though he was doing poses for it. It was all a joke, and it turned out to be used quite a bit.

People magazine liked it. They had a selection of pictures to use. Creem magazine had seen the pictures and used a picture, and some other magazines did as well from the session. It was just something that they had picked up on. And there’s no accounting for taste.

PONYBOY:  Ultimately, how many sessions or shoots did you have with Bowie?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  I don’t know, probably about four or five. Well, I worked on The Man who Fell from Earth and I did the Cher show and Space Oddity show for Dick Clark. I also worked with him in terms of putting out this program for his tour called Isolar.

PONYBOY:  Were there times when you were with him holding your camera, ready to shoot or shooting, and he would just shy away from the camera or tell you to stop, basically not in the mood to be photographed?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  No. It was always a very relaxed shoot. Basically, for most of it, I was like a fly on the wall in the sense that I was trying to shoot as quickly as possible to catch as much of what he was doing. You know he’s a performer, performing. When he was in front of the camera he was always very much in tune and aware of what he was doing. In the images he was trying to create a persona or character.

PONYBOY:  Was there a moment during a session with him where you caught him off guard and luckily snapped an image, like that famous image of Marilyn Monroe photographed by Richard Avedon, the final image from a very long sitting?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  Yes. The shoot where his hands were in the foreground, and also the last shot in the book, which I feel have that same quality. There’s a little of that also in the black and white portrait where he’s looking at me, when he’s in the office. So in those three pictures in particular, I feel he was giving me who he was. He was going beyond the costumes. When you get to the motorcycle pictures, he’s really giving you a character, being a character. And in a lot of the other situations, he’s being a character as well.

PONYBOY:  Did you consider him your friend? Or would you say it was more of a business relationship?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  Well, when you work with someone, basically if your’e on their wavelength, well, that’s the most important thing to be. I worked a lot for Life magazine, and you would tend to be best friends with someone when you were shooting; and you may never see them again. We didn’t play a lot of cards together.

PONYBOY:  When was the last time that you saw him or spoke to him? Were you aware that he was sick?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  No. I don’t think really anybody knew. He hid it quite well. I mean everyone knew that he had the heart attack and he sort of slowed down after that. But I don’t think that anyone knew, besides a very small circle of people. I felt that a little in October of 2015, when we were first putting the book out. We got this message back from him, from his assistant, that he wished us well on the project and that he hoped to see it in April of 2016.

I think it was in 1985 that he called me out of the blue and asked me if I would shoot his tour. And I had not heard from him for a while. And he called me literally fifteen minutes before I was walking to go out the door with my wife and son to go on a much needed, overdue vacation to Paris. There was no way I could do the tour. We were just about to get on the plane. I would have loved to have done it. But there was no way I could do that.

PONYBOY:  The book with powerHouse sold out in two days. And it’s already in it’s second printing, to be released in June. Had you always planned on having a book on Bowie? Did his death bring out the release of the book?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  I started planning the book in August 2015, and by October we were definitely doing the book. We were first planning on bringing it out in April, then thought of putting it out later in the year, in 2016. And then when he died, we immediately started putting everything together and the focus definitely changed much more to the Kabalah pictures. And I had received an email from Albin, which became the text for the beginning of the book, which brought into sight the spiritual side of him and his interest in the Kabalah. That immediately became the primary focus of the book, I would say.

PONYBOY:  You’ve photographed so many famous, extraordinary people from Bobby Kennedy and Marlon Brando to Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick at the Factory. Iconic images that remain embedded in our brains, like the image of a young Jodie Foster from the set of Taxi Driver. But what impact did David Bowie make on your life, from your sessions with him?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  The impact that he made on me is that he impressed me from the beginning as someone who had a very spiritual nature underneath the costumes and the performances he was doing. And he also seemed to have a timeline of what he was doing, to be developing in his mind a sequence of events, of characters. So, all of that very much impressed me. And his personality, of course, impressed me in a very strong way.

He was obviously very brilliant. It was just a joy and a pleasure working with someone who had all those qualities. You work with a lot of people where you have to pull pictures out of them, and where you’re not getting very much content, not getting a lot out of them.

The spirit of the person is what I’m after as a photographer. Bowie certainly brought that through. When you work with someone like that, it’s an exhilarating moment.

PONYBOY:  One last question for you, Mr. Schapiro. There’s an amazing black and white photograph that we saw on the internet of you running with 7 or 8 cameras around your neck and shoulders. Does that image sum up your life as a journalistic photographer?

STEVE SCHAPIRO:  That picture is from the Bobby Kennedy campaign. And, yes, that was pretty much my life. It was not knowing where you were gonna be from day to day. I was never on the staff of Life magazine, but I was probably working more than any of their staff photographers. I moved very quickly from one thing to another.

I worked with Sports Illustrated, the Mohammed Ali pictures. I did covers for most magazines, like Time, Newsweek, etc. You were a journalistic photographer and you did the best you could. Film rolls were sent overnight to the Life lab. And you wouldn’t see them until they were in the magazines, because you were moving around so much. You might not get your contact sheets back until much later. You did not know you were involved in history of any sort or anything like that. Your entire focus was on if the photos would run in the magazine the following week, if they were good enough, and if they would use them. There weren’t really any photo galleries at the time. It was a very different period of time.

The sixties were basically the great age of journalistic photography. You had access. There were no public relations people to get in your way. And, basically, the photos got used in a great way. There were a lot of great picture magazines, and you could find a lot that would support your work at that time. All of that’s changed very much.

VINTAGE TATTOO FLASH
JONATHAN SHAW

  • Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, published by Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Vintage tattoo flash from the newly released publication by Powerhouse Books, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Old school tattoo flash from the newly released publication by Powerhouse Books, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Old tattoo flash from the newly released publication by Powerhouse Books, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Tattoo flash from the newly released publication by Powerhouse Books, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Flash from the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • From the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Old school tattoo flash of babies, from the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Old school tattoo flash of a mermaid, from the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Tattoo flash from the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Old tattoo flash, from the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Tattoo flash of horses, from the collection of Jonathan Shaw's publication Vintage Tattoo Flash from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Old school tattoo flash, from the newly released publication, Vintage Tattoo Flash by Jonathan Shaw, from Powerhouse Books. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Personal photos of tattoo artist Jonathan Shaw. Ponyboy magazine NY.
  • Personal photographs of tattoo artist Jonathan Shaw. Ponyboy magazine NY.

VINTAGE TATTOO FLASH

JONATHAN SHAW

“Tattoo flash” is the term for the printed or hand-drawn tattoo designs found on the walls and binders of tattoo shops that walk-in customers can select from. Flash is either drawn by individual tattoo artists for display in their own shops, or traded for or bought from other artists and distributors. Once exclusively hand-drawn, original tattoo flash has largely been replaced by professional “flash artists” who sell prints of copyrighted flash at tattoo conventions and online. Vintage, hand-drawn flash is incredibly difficult to come by, and collectors and enthusiasts alike devour any new discoveries of long-lost original flash.

Renowned outlaw tattooist and author Jonathan Shaw owns one of the largest collections of vintage tattoo flash in the world, and Vintage Tattoo Flash is an incredibly rich overview of the early years of American flash art. Vintage Tattoo Flash spans the first roughly 75 years of American tattooing from the 1900s Bowery to 50s Texas, and from the Pike in the 60s to the development of the first black and grey, single-needle tattooing in LA in the 70s. The book lovingly reproduces entirely unpublished sheets of original flash from the likes of Bob Shaw, Zeke Owen, Tex Rowe, Ted Inman, Ace Harlyn, Ed Smith, Paul Rogers, the Moskowitz brothers, and many, many others relatively known and unknown.

Electric tattooing as we know it today was invented in New York City at the turn of the 19th century. In the first days of American tattooing, tattoos were primarily worn by sailors and soldiers, outlaws and outsiders. The visual language of what came to be known as “traditional tattooing” was developed in those early days on the Bowery and catered to the interests of the clientele. Common imagery that soon became canon included sailing ships, women, hearts, roses, daggers, eagles, dragons, wolves, panthers, skulls, crosses, and popular cartoon characters of the era. The first tattooists also figured out that using bold outlines, complimented by solid color and smooth shading, was the proper technique for creating art on a body that would look good forever. In the over 100 years since then, techniques and styles have evolved, and the customer base has expanded, but the core subject matter and philosophy developed at the dawn of electric tattooing has persisted as perennial favorites through the modern era.

Jonathan Shaw is a world traveling outlaw artist, novelist, blogger, head doctor, anti-folk hero, whorehouse philosopher, legendary tattoo master, and notorious innovator and creator of underground art. Shaw was born in NY to big band legend Artie Shaw and movie star Doris Dowling, and was raised in LA where he learned to tattoo on the legendary Pike boardwalk from old-school California masters. After running with the likes of Jim Morrison, the Manson Family, and Charles Bukowski, he fell prey to heroin addiction and a life of crime. He finally left 1970s Hollywood to travel the world and founded Fun City, the first street tattoo shop in NYC since tattooing was decriminalized in the 1960s.

All artwork and photographs courtesy of Jonathan Shaw and Powerhouse Books. http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/vintage-tattoo-flash-100-years-of-traditional-tattoos-from-the-collection-of-jonathan-shaw/  http://www.jonathanshawworks.com

PONYBOY:  Jonathan, you probably do not remember us, but we met you in the late 90s, when you were on your badass motorcycle, with a twenty-something-year-old babe on the back, perhaps on St. Marks street? Does this sound about right?

JONATHAN SHAW:  Sure. Sounds like a typical day in the life for me back in the New York days. I was usually on a motorbike, and usually with some chick hanging on the back. Still am, come to think of it (laughs).

PONYBOY:  When did you start collecting vintage tattoo flash?

JONATHAN SHAW:   Sometime in the early 80s, but it really picked up speed to become a minor obsession in the late 80s, then even more so into the 90s when I was traveling around the world as Managing Editor of a big tattoo magazine, interviewing a lot of the old time tattoo artists.

PONYBOY:   Did you initially just stumble upon it? And was it somewhat easy to acquire, or did it take a lot of digging and research?

JONATHAN SHAW:   It was mostly organic, being that I was around it so much back in the day. Over the decades of my tattoo career, especially working with the magazine and writing all these articles about tattoo history, I got to know many of the old school tattoo masters pretty well. A lot of them became close friends and associates. I ended up working with some of them in tattoo shops around the world, especially in the US, legendary guys like Bob Shaw and Col. Todd, Spider Webb, Crazy Ace, Gill Monte and so on. So the “digging and research” you refer to was really just part of my everyday tattooing environment. All in a day’s work, so to speak.

PONYBOY:  Was your intention of buying the flash for reference, as a tattoo artist? Or did you aspire to be a collector?

JONATHAN SHAW:  Like I said, it was basically just part of the scenery in my life as a tattoo man. Back in the day, old hand-painted tattoo flash like this was much more commonplace in the tattoo world than it is today. It was everyday reference material for most of us, and you saw it everywhere. The “collecting” just sort of happened over the years as the stuff became more scarce and sought after.

Tattooing is a popular art form, always has been. As such, the designs change and evolve according to public demand. The material you see on shop walls is basically dictated by popular tastes. New iconography started being introduced into the mix by newer upcoming tattooists sometime around the mid 70s, catering to the changing popular tastes of the time. The old stuff that had been the bread and butter for the old school tattoo guys for so many decades was quickly becoming obsolete. Much of this stuff was on its way to the dumpster when I started acquiring it. A lot of it was actually given to me, and even the stuff I did pay money for was sold at a very nominal cost. Most of these old school guys couldn’t get their heads around why anybody would even want it. To them, it was just obsolete shop material. Unsellable crap. You’ve gotta understand that for someone whose stock-in-trade is selling tattoos, if a design doesn’t sell anymore, from their point of view it’s basically worthless.

But I loved the old tattoo designs, always had, ever since I was a little kid. And I had a very strong intuition that someday it would make up a really cool, valuable archive. So I just started amassing boxes and boxes of the stuff, picking up more and more in my travels and interactions with the old timers and constantly adding to the collection. One day I woke up to realize I was sitting on priceless archives of vintage Americana, a really important documentation of folk art history. But I never consciously set out with that intention. Like most good things in life, it just fell together and happened on its own.

PONYBOY: The collection is quite overwhelming – the colors, the crudeness, and of course, the subject matter. Where do you keep your entire collection of over 300 pieces?

JONATHAN SHAW:  It’s actually over 3,000 pieces, and where I keep it is none of your fucking business! (Laughs). It used to be stored in Johnny Depp’s compound, but I moved it to a more secure location a few years ago. Let’s just say it’s under lock and key in a very safe climate-controlled storage facility, guarded by vicious man-eating Rottweilers and heavily armed thugs (laughs).

PONYBOY:  What would you say is the oldest piece of flash that you own? And who is the artist?

JONATHAN SHAW:    Most of the oldest stuff is from around the turn-of-the-century, going through the early 1900s. The rarest old stuff is by the famous British tattoo artist George Burchett, who wrote one of the most interesting pieces of early tattoo literature, a great book called Memoirs of a Tattooist. The oldest American tattoo flash mostly comes from the old Bowery tattoo shops, specifically from a guy named Ed Smith, one of the greatest early draftsmen in tattoo history.

PONYBOY:  I’m sure your collection is invaluable. Have you ever had it appraised? And if you don’t mind us asking, what would be the value?

JONATHAN SHAW:   Make me an offer of over a million dollars for the lot and we can talk. It would be a great investment for someone who could afford an expenditure like that, since it’s certainly bound to go way up in value in the years to come, especially given tattooing’s current popularity and acceptance by established art world opinion makers.

PONYBOY:   What artist’s work is most prominent in your collection? And can you name a favorite artist from the collection?

JONATHAN SHAW:   I already mentioned Ed Smith. There’s a lot of his stuff, and it’s definitely some of the best stuff, artistically. It’s also some of the oldest and rarest stuff. Smith was an amazing draftsman, maybe the best of his day. There’s also a lot of great old vintage tattoo flash from early tattoo masters like Bert Grimm, Bob Shaw, Ace Harlyn, Zeke Owen, etc. The prominent names go on and on, but overall, my favorite stuff is definitely drawn by Ed Smith from the old Bowery shop.

PONYBOY:  Do you have any plans on exhibiting this extraordinary collection?

JONATHAN SHAW:  Oh, yeah! That’s been the plan all along. We did a couple of very successful and well-attended art shows back in the early 90s at galleries in New York and Hollywood, back to back. I remember the first big show was done at a gallery in NYC. We were totally shocked and unprepared for the kind of crowds it drew. They had to set up police barricades around the whole block by the gallery to keep order on the night of the opening. It was insane.

That’s when I first began to see the kind of power this stuff had to bring people out of the woodwork. The next show was on the West Coast in Hollywood about a year later. Same big crowds, same mad interest. You had all these big name movie stars and rock stars showing up to gawk at the artwork. After those first shows, I got busy with other projects, tattooing and working with the magazines, traveling the world tattooing, and the work all went back into storage. And that’s where it’s stayed until now. We’re kicking off this new book launch with a 2-day only exhibition at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. It’s actually one of the original galleries where we did one the first shows back in the 90s. A lot of the best artwork from the book will be on display there on Tuesday & Wednesday, May 3rd/4th, and I’ll be over there signing books on both days from around 6-9pm. The legendary American painter Robert Williams, who wrote the book’s introduction, will be in attendance as well, along with God knows who else might show up. Should be an interesting event.

PONYBOY:  How did the idea of the book come about?

JONATHAN SHAW:  After the original art shows back in the 90s, there was much talk about doing a book. Robert Williams himself was one of the early supporters of the idea. There was this one guy (who will remain unnamed) who sat on the material for like 8 years, promising to get us a book deal with a big publisher, but it never happened. Then, Johnny Depp came along and said he wanted to publish it, and even offered to sponsor a traveling museum show. Ironically, right after Depp came into it, the other guy finally came back with an offer from Rizzoli. But it was too late. At that point I was already sick of waiting for him, so of course I made a commitment with Depp to do the thing, seemed like the best way to go at the time. Well, Depp ended up dropping the ball too, and then I was right back where I started. No book. Life went on. I was busy with a thousand other projects, so the book idea just went on the back burner and stayed there for a long time.

Meanwhile, I retired from tattooing and started writing other books. HarperCollins picked up my first novel, NARCISA, and released it under Johnny Depp’s imprint and that was a big deal for me as a writer, my first real mainstream success. That’s when this tattoo book idea came back into the picture. I’d finally signed with a literary agent to oversee the HarperCollins deal. After that was in the bag, he asked me what else I had and I told him about the Flash book. He shopped the concept to a few different publishers and came back with a decent offer from Powerhouse. I’d already done a couple of book signing events with them over the years for some of my works of fiction, and I knew them to be a good solid operation, so it all came together pretty effortlessly once the deal was signed and delivered.

PONYBOY:  At what age did you get into tattooing?

JONATHAN SHAW:  I first got into it in my early 20s, but I’d been fascinated with the art since I was a little kid. I didn’t start to work professionally fulltime until I was almost 30, but I’d already been steeped in the culture and the art for over a decade. I’m 63 years old now, so I guess you could say I’ve been in and around tattooing for most of my life – certainly all my adult life.

PONYBOY:  You made your mark as the premiere tattoo artist in the country in the mid 90s, tattooing celebrities like Johnny Deep and Iggy Pop. Were these friends of yours? Or did they just happen to stumble into your shop because of your name?

JONATHAN SHAW:  Well, the “celebrity clientele” wasn’t what I wanted when I first started tattooing. Never, man! I mean, yeah, the business was good and all that, but then it all just started getting kinda stupid, y’know. Hoards of all these real middle-America types coming in from all over the place, and they weren’t even coming to me for the quality of the work, but just because I was the guy who tattooed all these famous people. It coulda’ been anybody for all they cared. The good old herd mentality. Most of these fuckers didn’t know enough about tattooing to care, they just wanted the status of that whole, ‘I got tattooed by the famous guy who did so-and-so’s shit’.

But yeah, word-of-mouth got the ball rolling, and next thing I knew I was going on Letterman and getting visits from Iggy Pop, Johnny Depp, The Cure, Shane MacGowan, Dee Dee Ramone, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Winter, Kate Moss, Orlando Bloom, Kathy Acker, Tupac Shakur and all his bitches. The VIP list goes on. Even Vanilla Ice was lining up for an appointment, much to my embarrassment. But hey, it was the 90s, right? Everyone who was anyone – or thought they were – was clamoring for ink from me back then. Some of them I’d known before I became a brand name, people like Iggy and Johnny. Others I got to know through tattooing, like Jarmusch. A few of these guys became lifelong friends. There were others I never saw again. People tend to come and go around tattooing, which has always been an essentially transient art form.

The lifestyle is pretty much part of an outsider culture, at least it was back then. In that sense, there was always a certain bond of complicity between someone like me as this outsider artist and all these eccentric off-the-wall artistic minded celebrity types. Life in the fast lane and all that, it all just kinda went hand-in-hand, like beans and rice (laughs).

PONYBOY:  You retired from tattooing over fifteen years ago. What brought about this decision, to give up your very successful trade?

JONATHAN SHAW:  The answer’s pretty simple. I just needed a new outlet, a means of expression for all my adventures, thoughts, dreams, nightmares and visions; a vehicle for the kind of personal exorcisms and explorations most people can relate to at their core, but rarely have the balls, drive or talent to take to the limit. After over 3 decades in the tattoo world, I desperately needed a more authentic medium, artistically. You can’t do something halfway if you’re gonna be any good at it. I learned that from tattooing all those years.

So I set my goal to be a writer and I wanted to be a good one. I knew that would take total focus and dedication, No more time for tattooing, so I gave it all up to write. But I’d already had enough of dealing with the mainstream public and their increasingly corny, narcissistic demands. So after decades in the chair, it was just time to move on. Even though I lived and breathed tattooing back in the day, on some levels I guess there was always this perverse part of me that never let me feel I fit in with the crowd. Any crowd. It was no different with this so-called Tattoo Industry I suddenly found myself at the center of. See, I was pretty much orphaned by alcoholism in my family of origin, so from an early age I was kinda raised by wolves, running the streets of Hollywood and New York City, hitchhiking around the country and living on the edge. Eventually, I took to the road in Mexico and South America, working on ships and traveling the world, and I never really looked back. I was on my own from about the age of twelve, so my real family and school were always the streets, bikers, beatniks, winos, weirdos, druggies, hustlers, criminals and whores. Those good people were the only people who had tattoos back then, outsiders, y’know, and they taught me important lessons in the art of survival.

So I really didn’t come to tattooing so much for the art as I did because of the outsider lifestyle that surrounded the whole deal. For me, the artistic part came later. Much later. Eventually, it all just jumbled together and took over my life, like a kinda weird fucked up Frankenstein monster creation. But when tattooing started turning into a big mainstream “Industry” kinda thing, I knew it was time to put it behind me and really follow my dreams of being a writer.

PONYBOY:  Do you still own a tattoo shop?

JONATHAN SHAW:  I write and I travel. A couple of years ago I rode a motorcycle across South America all alone. These days I hang out with my girlfriend and a few other close friends in an artistic and spiritual community that I love and can relate to. But wherever I go and whatever I’m doing, my main focus is always my writing projects.

My last book was called NARCISA – OUR LADY OF ASHES. It came out on HarperCollins last year, and it did pretty well, got hundreds of 5-Star reviews on Amazon. Rolling Stone Magazine even called me “the next Bukowski” (laughs). NARCISA was a work of fiction, nothing to do with tattooing, which surprised a lot of people who only knew me as this famous tattoo guy. But I’m having a really good time with writing and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m a much happier person since I quit the scab trade and started writing these books fulltime. Suits my lifestyle a lot better. The first volume of a 5-volume tattoo memoir series is coming out early next year on Turner Publishing with a really cool original cover by R. Crumb. It’s called SCAB VENDOR – CONFESSIONS OF A TATTOO ARTIST. It’s eventually gonna be released in several volumes, should I live long enough to finish ‘em all. It’s been a real interesting life, to say the least, in and out of tattooing, so it would be almost criminally selfish of me not to write about it and share all those crazy fucked up stories and experiences with the world.

PONYBOY:  It states in your book that this is the first volume of Vintage Tattoo Flash. Do you plan on more books?

JONATHAN SHAW:  Oh yeah. There’s enough material in this collection to put out another 5 to10 volumes, so I guess we’ll just see how well this one does for the publisher. If it sells fast and makes them oodles of money, as I predict it will, I’m sure they’ll want to keep putting this stuff out there till the cows come home. And when they do, I’m ready to roll with it.

PONYBOY:  Finally, what are your thoughts on the state of modern day tattooing? It’s become so mainstream, and they say that perhaps almost twenty percent of the American population has a tattoo.

JONATHAN SHAW:  (Laughs) Before the whole Tattoo Reality Show thing started, some big Hollywood mucky-muck producer approached me with an offer to head up the first one. I turned him down flat. Some people would say I really missed the boat on that one, but hey, I didn’t wanna be on that fucking boat. For me, it was like being offered a luxury stateroom on the fucking Titanic. No way was I gonna waste any more of my life pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Tattooing used to be something cool and edgy, but when it became a respectable mainstream gig, it lost a lot of its beauty for people like me. Even as it attained greater levels of public approval, a certain mediocrity crept into the thing. You know, the public can be a real shit-eating monster. Just look at all the vapid horseshit they’re putting out on television and the movies these days! And the public just eats it up! It’s fucking pathetic. Shit, man, that’s basically why I got out of commercial tattooing, to get away from catering to the mainstream public’s overwhelming bad taste. Let somebody else do that shit. I got lots of really radical stories to tell, and like my old man always said, “time is all you’ve got”, so I decided to use what’s left of my time on earth doing something better suited to my soul’s demands than slinging scabs on a basically moronic public for cash and prizes. I’m sure I’m not gonna make a lot of friends by talking like this about the modern tattoo renaissance, but hey, I’ve paid my fucking dues and, what the fuck, you just had to ask (laughs)…

BOOK SIGNING:

La Luz de Jesus Gallery  4633 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027

 May 3rd & 4th, 2016 from 6-9pm.

Click here to view the press release.
For more information, please contact Jonathan Shaw at jsfuncity@gmail.com