Tattoo Action Items from the Boss Man

My boss, Jeff – well, my boss’s boss’s boss now, but nevermind – my boss just walked up to me and gave me an action item. “Get a backpiece,” he said. The backpiece. I tried to find this on wikipedia and couldn’t (I should go add a page for it). Best I could do was […]

My boss, Jeff – well, my boss’s boss’s boss now, but nevermind – my boss just walked up to me and gave me an action item.

“Get a backpiece,” he said.

The backpiece. I tried to find this on wikipedia and couldn’t (I should go add a page for it). Best I could do was a page at BMEZine. They state it simply enough as ‘a large format tattoo substantially covering the area of the back from the nape of the neck to the buttocks, typically of a unified design theme or concept.’

That’s not the whole story though. Because for those of us who are largely covered, or plan or hope to be largely covered, the back is the showpiece, the feature. It’s The Tattoo.

The body is a strange canvas. It’s curved and elastic, it ages, it changes. It moves. This makes it a difficult surface upon which to paint a masterpiece. It’s both what makes tattooing so alive, so beautiful, and what makes the tattooists’ job interesting and difficult.

How often – monthly, weekly, daily – are they confronted with a request for a tattoo that simply won’t work in the chosen spot? Tattoos that are too big, or are the wrong shape; things that will break up or distort due to the skin’s motion. Things that don’t line up with the bone structure or muscles. How often does a customer come in with a design for a band that may work on a football player’s heavily muscled arms but which won’t fit on a bony bicep; which may work on a giant Samoan calf but won’t fit on a slender runner’s tapered leg.

The body isn’t symmetrical; arms and legs are not cylindrical.

Thus the tattooed, and the tattooist, try to fit what is desired, envisioned, requested, onto a space that isn’t the same as the artist’s canvas, the computer screen, the sketch-pad. We must wrap the last supper so that Bartholomew is next to Simon; we must turn the Aztec calendar from a disk to a curve, like a swordsman’s shield. And as artists, tattooists must also be 3-D modelers, turning a flat-rendered design into something that wraps and winds and lives in three dimensions.

But there’s one place that isn’t so much like this.

The back.


Oh, we have certain constraints. The back, like every other inch of epidermis, is alive. It moves, stretches, changes. It bends. There are bones to deal with, and of course, those lovely scars.

But the back is the body’s single largest, flattest expanse; unbroken, largely unbending. It is the body’s canvas. Thus – for some – the back is the holy grail, the treasure. The place we save, or wish we’d saved, for the greatest of all our tattoos.

The single largest tattoo most of us will ever have – the backpiece.

I don’t have a backpiece. I do have a small tattoo on my back; the classic mistake made by people who are new to tattooing, who have no plans to cover their bodies, people who are still thinking small tattoo is a good idea. So I’ve a tattoo, slightly larger than a silver dollar. But apart from this, my back is a blank canvas, marked only by time and sun and the scars one gets in a long life of clumsiness and normal use. Like no other part of my body, my back awaits the major artistic undertaking.

And so I wait – seeking the right image, the right artist, the right moment. Because you do not, above all, want to waste the back.

Yet – and I recall an article written by my friend Lex in a local paper – there’s a point where one starts to feel it’s been too long, that one needs to move forward. One hears a clock ticking. The skin ages, and the idea of sitting through the hours and hours of tattooing a backpiece requires seems less and less attractive. So for some of us, the sense of urgency climbs. He and I both turned 40 a few years back, and separately, both of us started to think about that back piece, that major tattoo undertaking. It’s time, we both said.

I do not know if Lex ever found his image; I see him rarely these days, different cities, different circles of friends, and a gap that seems wider than that, widened still more by a variety of social and emotional circumstances. And in a way, I’m afraid to ask him, until I have an answer for the same question.

And so I said to Jeff – yes. I need a backpiece.

I am ready – have been ready for a good couple of years now, but for the image. And on that, I am oh-so-close. For there’s an image I saw, momentarily, in a documentary on Maori tattooing. Not a Maori image, not a polynesian image at all, but a quick glimpse of something western in a show about the ancient tradition. An image from the early part of this century.

“So you’re a year away,” said Jeff. And I answered him that no, I was days away, if I ever can lay my hands on that image. “Exactly,” he said; “You’re days away from starting, which puts you a year – a full year – from completion.”

The only thing that stands between me and the start of my backpiece, aside from the money (which is considerable and yet irrelevant when one’s speaking of a tattoo of this size and magnitude) is the final image. Because my mind’s eye sees in soft and hazy pictures.

I know this – the images I desire are old, classic, and western. Not a japanese tattoo, like Ray’s amazing half-sleeve; not a polynesian design, as much as I love polynesian tattooing. No, it’s the tradition of the western tattoo, born and bred in sea ports and naval towns. It’s an image that blends my love of the sea with the military pedigree of the american tattoo. A number of images have spoken to my strongly. Mermaids, sailing ships, anchors and ropes, demons and monsters of the deep. I want to carry an image that speaks of the sea.

Which image? There I stumble. There’s a brilliant piece I saw in Skin Stories; when I saw it I knew I had my design. A piece drawn by Mac McKeaver on the Pike at Long Beach, CA, in the 1930s. It resonated for many reasons, not least of which was that my parents grew up there, in Long Beach, my mother telling me stories of trips to the Pike with her friends, teenage girls, much, much too young to be such a place at night, flirting with sailors. My father talking about drunken trips to the Pike with his friends, side shows and carny games and his own desire for a tattoo, anchors on his arms like Popeye had.

This image – sailing ship and mermaids, a banner that reads life on the ocean wave – spoke to me and I knew it was right. Yet now, I’ve no copy of it, have never been able to get a copy. And in my mind it’s gown so hazy that I no longer know if it’s what I want. Not until I’m able to get a DVD copy of this film, or until someone can get me an illicit picture of the flash itself, in a shop in San Diego that are, like all tattoo shops, hesitant to share images that belong to them.

And so other things fight in my mind; a Sailor Jerry image, possibly the best piece of his flash I’ve ever seen; a picture of the tattoo is on page 28 of Sailor Jerry Collins: American Tattoo Master , but more importantly, my friend Klem has an original pencil tracing of the design. Yet I’m not sure, as much as I love Sailor Jerry, that I want to give over my back to a tattoo in this style.

And so i consider; pirate ships; classic sea images; a brilliant painting of Klem’s inspired by Moby Dick (“The Sea Giveth…”); a design that’s been in the back of my mind since reading Sandman, of Fiddler’s Green and Davy Jones Locker, yin and yang, heaven and hell, good and evil; an image of the dark sailor’s grave and the peaceful haven.

I don’t know. And yet I feel it all pull at me, images fighting for position. Even as I type this I am talking myself into the Sailor Jerry piece, and at the same time, into the Fiddler’s Green/Davy Jones image (and to be very clear, this ain’t the squid-faced, high-pitched-voice version of Davy Jones that makes an appearance in POTC II; this ain’t a person at all, this is a concept of a dark and scary doom).

As Jeff says – I’m a year away, plus one day; the day I choose an image and begin. All I need is once more to see that Mac McKeaver drawing, to know for good if it’s the one; if it is, then I call one of my favorite tattooists and begin work on a drawing inspired by McKeaver’s flash. If not, then I start again, and let Sailor Jerry or FG/DJL or The Sea Taketh win the battle, and that year begins.

A grow tired of waiting.

12 thoughts on “Tattoo Action Items from the Boss Man”

  1. I have an image that I drew about six years ago, and as soon as I saw it (when it was done) I went “I need this tattooed on me.” Yes, six years ago. And now? That paper’s diligently moved around with me, been scanned dozens of times and tacked up or displayed any number of surfaces–save my skin. With its thick intersecting lines and soft but edgy flow, it’s the perfect neo-tribal backpiece. I won’t show it to just anyone, because I’m afraid it will get stolen before I have a chance to truly make it mine. But I know that after six years, there’s no other option. It’s a “someday” that way…

  2. You have the image my sweet Merrick, all that’s left is to start. Get thee hence, you KNOW there are good tattooists in yoru ‘hood. And send me pictures.

  3. Wow! And you have been talking about having trouble writing. Bullshit. I’m not even a tattoo fanatic- but you caught my attention and held it constant. Taught me more than one thing as well. I love this piece. I hope that you find the picture soon. I want to see it. I want to know that you have found your work of art- after having read about it.

  4. I’ve been offering my wife a deal where she gets a tatoo and I pierce one ear. So far she’s not going for it. Maybe your post will help talk her into it :). Very nice writing.

  5. Syl, the DVD isn’t availble via KPBS (and actually it also wasn’t available on VHS two weeks ago, that JUST changed). But I tracked down the distributor and they aim to have it on DVD ‘in the fall’. So we’ll see.

    I’d get the VHS version but I am so not set up to make a digital transfer of it so I can print it; so I’m stuck waiting for DVD. FWIW it’s a film that’s completely worth owning, one of the best tattoo dicumentaries I’ve ever seen.

    http://www.piccom.org/shop.php is where I found it. Though even then it’s not a great image of the flash for an artist to work from, it’s a weird ken burns style pan across the image.

  6. Just give it to a graphic designer friend for some Photoshop optimization of the image. They should have enough know-how to scew and tweak the image into a usuble, 2D format. I’ve reshaped photos of my own tattoo in such a way, so I know it’s possible.

  7. I love this story!!! I have a back piece that I started many moons ago and it remains to be finished….a different time, different life. Oh! And I found your image…but I have a feeling that if I keep reading through your archives I will find out that you did, too *wink*

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