The Secret Life of a Human Tattoo Machine

Why tats aren't just for Popeye, Mike Tyson, and Angelina Jolie anymore.


It wasn't long ago that tattoos were the exclusive province of Popeye and grizzled ex-cons. To sport a tattoo—the name of a drunken one-night stand, scrawled in a fading blur—marked the wearer as both low class and weak on impulse control.

Not anymore. About 25 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 sport tattoos, says the American Society of Dermatological Surgery, and that percentage is only going to increase as everyone from Angelina Jolie (who has scripted the longitude and latitude of her adopted children's birthplaces on her body) to Mike Tyson (portraits of Che and Mao complement a warrior face stencil) keeps upping the ante.

In Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink, Jeff Johnson gives a salty tour of the shops that nervous mothers once forbade their sons and daughters from visiting. As the co-owner of Sea Tramp Tattoo Company in Portland, Oregon, and a practicing artist who has wielded an ink-and-needle gun that "smacks the skin between 60 and 120 times per second" for decades, Johnson's got an endless supply of stories to tell.

There's the homesick Lone Star State G.I. who drew a copy of his state's flag from memory for the artist to create and then returned later shouting, "This ain't the flag of Texas, and I ain't no fuckin' Portugese!"

Musing on dozens of cases of surprise tattoos gone wrong, Johnson notes, "It's amazing how many people can't spell their spouse's name."

Woven throughout Johnson's funny, outlandish, and sometimes disturbing anecdotes about drug-addled tattooists who fall asleep while blotching the arms of customers, scam artists who promise sex for services rendered, and the still-at-large serial killer who embazoned his victims' names on his body, is an intricately rendered history of a once-marginal service industry.

The reason why old tattoos turned greenish-blue? The mercury necessary for a top-notch black ink was requisitioned for World War II. Thirty years or so ago, says Johnson, no one cared much for quality or cleanliness.

"The customers were drunks, bikers, weirdos, and college kids. But more than that, we the artists were predominantly fuck ups."

That's no longer the case, argues Johnson, whose affecting personal story from slacker to serious craftsman neatly parallels the rise of the tattoo industry from side-show to mainstream.

Indeed, Tattoo Machine helps explain why ink is on the rise. We live in an age in which we increasingly personalize our clothes, our coffee drinks, our Web browsers, our hair color. Why not our bodies?

The inks are brighter and longer-lasting, the designs more ambitious, and the shops today are clean and safe, says Johnson. At a few hundred dollars, "the quality of art is often better than what a middle-income person could afford to spend on a painting for their home."

And one thing's for sure. That flaming skull on your shoulder blade is a better conversation starter than a generic seascape above your fireplace.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of and A version of this story appeared in the Sunday, August 16, 2009 edition of The New York Post