Listening to Jonathan Shaw’s stories, it may seem like he’s just a bottle of Dos Equis shy of being the Most Interesting Man in the World. From running one of the most high-profile tattoo shops in the country to surviving without a dime in his pockets in countries across South America, Shaw's life is nothing short of movie fodder (indeed, there's a documentary in the works). With his third book, memoir Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist (Turner Publishing), released last spring, fans of his work can read the highlights and lowlights of a life’s worth of debauchery.
“Charles Bukowski was a friend of mine when I was a very young writer,” Shaw, son of big-band legend Artie Show, says after pointing out that his Hollywood penthouse previously housed legends like Johnny Carson. ”He was the one who told me that I would never amount to shit as a writer until I had acquired a body of experience about which to write, and I didn’t really make any sense of that until I was about 40 years old. Now, I’ve lived a full life. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve fucked 1,000 chicks. I’ve been addicted to drugs and recovered from being addicted to drugs. I’ve built empires and watched them crumble or burn. I speak five languages fluently. I’ve lived by my wits all over the world and met all of these incredible people, so now I might have some decent stories to tell.”
As someone who’s spent time with everyone from Johnny Depp and Dee Dee Ramone to the Manson family, Shaw’s lifetime of experience and ludicrous past have helped make his writing career just as prominent and interesting as the decades he's spent tattooing. The prior owner of New York's legendary Fun City Tattoo, Shaw now primarily sees tattooing as a former career (and an occasional way to pay the bills these days) rather than one of his main art forms, even though it was the key that unlocked the door to many of the experiences about which he now writes.
“I don’t compare writing to tattooing,” Shaw says. “Tattooing is a fabric of my life because for 25 years I worked as a hands-on tattoo man. Over the course of that career, I developed and innovated styles that people took off of, and those styles became the meat and potatoes of the tattoo business that was to later emerge. Tattooing comprised a good chunk of my life for many years and decades, so a lot of my earthly experiences are woven into the fabric of my tattooing and tattooing is woven into who I am today. As far as tattooing and writing, that’s like comparing classical music to rock & roll. They’re different mediums of expression.”
Part of the reason Shaw doesn’t tattoo much anymore is because of how limiting the medium is. Lots of artists complain about how homogenized and mainstream the tattoo industry is these days, but creating art to meet the demands of a customer has never been what excites Shaw. Sure, it’s nice to be able to make some extra cash when he needs to, but tattooing has never given the world-traveling artist the freedom to express himself or his feelings as well as the written word has.
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“Tattooing is basically a commercial art — and that’s not saying that through the commercial application people can’t expand and develop styles that are amazing and innovative — but for me as a tattooist, I took it as far as I could take it,” Shaw says. “I needed to find a means of expression that could take things to the next level, and that was when I quit tattooing. Using [words], I can transmit emotions, feelings, victories, defeats and the whole spectrum of life that needs to be expressed through the creative process. I could never convey that through tattooing. I paint pictures with words, but I don’t have the technical skills to create pictures visually. I’m a poet at heart, but I don’t write poetry because that’s fucking gay. Through the context of a novel, I can express the essence of what’s going on in my soul, my philosophy, and my experience.”
Even as an author, Shaw says he’s still opposed to creating art just for the sake of profit. That’s not to say he’s unhappy with how many books he’s sold or all of the different languages into which they’ve been translated, but adding to his wealth has never been his primary focus. All of the promotion and appearances Shaw makes around his books are simply to get more people interested in the stories he’s been holding onto ever since he was a young man.
“The reason I want to sell books is not so much to get paid — because I can get paid tattooing — but because I have a mission to tell stories,” Shaw says. “These are stories that I’ve accumulated over 64 years on this earth, and they’re stories that need to be told and shared with my fellow human beings. I’m not a commercial writer. My books get published and sold at Barnes & Noble and Amazon all over the world, but at the end of the day, I write out of pure spiritual and emotional necessity. It’s essential to my soul.”
Signed copies of Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist can be ordered directly through Shaw by contacting him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.