The Tattoo Chronicles >> Archives >> Chronicle #19

Tattoo Chronicles #19 ~ A Life in Ink (Episode 1)

By Bob Baxter
Lyle Tuttle says that tattooing began when primitive man accidentally poked himself with the sharp, burnt end of a stick he had plucked from a fire. And the stick left a mark. An accident that, subsequently, left its brand for over fifty million years. It seems, as Lyle tells it, the next day, the primitive man left his cave, encountered a saber-toothed tiger and slew the terrible beast. Since this was something this particular Neanderthal, Piltdown Man or monkey man or whatever had never accomplished before, his sudden prowess was attributed to the powerful, magical mark left on his skin. The one left by the carbon on the stick. The one left by the tattoo.

My first tattoo was also a mistake. An accident. I was in the fourth grade at San Mateo Park School, back when Eisenhower was president. Back before the current tattoo phenomenon. Back before I knew anything about tattooing. Back before I knew who Lyle Tuttle was. Or cared.

Lyle Tuttle. Early man tattooed by accident? Larry Flynt

My tattoo was emblazoned on my knee, the result of my goofing off with a ballpoint pen and unexpectedly jamming the sharp end into my kneecap. My tattoo, as far as I can reckon, lasted for over forty years. Three times longer, in fact, than I served as the editor-in-chief of SKIN&INK, a magazine some say was the most respected tattoo publication on the newsstand. The fact is, when I was asked by the infamous Larry Flynt (universally dubbed “the king of porn,” in case you didn’t know) to take over SKIN&INK, a magazine he had owned and operated for about seven years, I didn’t know shit about tattoos.

Sure, I’d heard and overheard talk about convicts and sailors returning from Word War II with dragons on their arms with the word “Mom” inked onto their biceps. But, other than that, I was victim to the same rumors, guesswork and fictions that most people were. Those of us that came from a middle-class, white, California-born-and-bred America, that is. Actually, the first time I really started to notice tattoos was when my daughter, Holly, who was about fourteen at the time, showed up with a tattoo on her shoulder of a crescent moon with a face on it, accompanied by a couple of five-point stars, at which the Moon Man was gazing. Since I had fathered a small band of clearly artistic children (ultimately three boys and Holly), I wasn’t terribly surprised, but, on the other hand, I must admit to trying to summon up the kind of reaction I thought a respectable, responsible parent should have. You know, how other, “normal” fathers act. After all, my kids, when they were little, were brought up in a house full of music. I was a guitar teacher, performer and even hosted a musical television show on CBS, back in the ’70s. I ate, slept and worked my butt off in the music business for nearly twenty years. The kids grew up with Elizabeth Cotton, Rev. Gary Davis and The New Lost City Ramblers in the living room. We lived in Topanga, where the bluesman Taj Mahal would drop by on his way to the post office in the morning. Where Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Burl Ives, Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot played Will Geer’s Topanga Theatre. Where the 1961 Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest started at Ian Thiermann’s Friendly Acres. All this amid a forest of oak trees and mountain tops, just a hop, skip and a jump from the hustle and bustle of downtown Santa Monica and smoggy Los Angeles.

So, when Holly pulled up her sleeve and showed me her tattoo, I started to say something parental, but stopped, thanks to her reminder that, “Hey, Pop. That’s your logo. The one you use in all the guitar books you wrote.” And, sure enough, it was. My publishing company was “Baxter & Sons” and my instruction manuals all had the crescent moon on the title page. I remember Holly’s first reaction, when she was old enough to figure out that kind of thing. She wanted to know why there were two stars, and I told her that they represented her two brothers, Jesse and Riley (the logo was created and those particular books were published before Holly was born). I immediately saw her disappointed little face and immediately upgraded the design, adding, in any future editions, an additional, third star. And, after it was added, I said to her, “And who do you think the Moon Man is looking at?”

Holly & Riley Baxter. Sunset Strip Tattoo 1960's

“I don’t know, Pop,” she answered.

“You,” I said. “He’s looking at Holly’s star.”

And that’s why she had the crescent moon logo tattooed on her shoulder.

I’m not quite sure who did the actual ink work. It could have been her brother Riley or, on the other hand, it could have been Bob Roberts, whose shop Holly was somehow familiar with. It was all kind of blurry back then, what with my kids becoming involved in the tattoo culture and, at the same time, my being shielded from the fact—much in the same way that kids try to hide that they’ve got an ounce of Maui Wowie hidden in their closet (in the shoe box on the shelf on the right-hand corner, if I remember correctly).

I guess I should have paid more attention, but, to me, it was about art, and that was good. When they talked around the dinner table about visiting Spotlight or Sunset Strip Tattoo, it was if they had said, “We saw a Modigliani exhibition at a gallery on La Cienega Boulevard.” No difference, to me. But my first real exposure was when I was invited to a party put on by Riley’s and Holly’s friends. You know, one of those invitations that are extended to parents, out of politeness, but the parents never come. Well, we did. And when we got there, the one-story ranch house, somewhere in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, was packed with partying teen agers, and most of them were gathered around Riley, who was sitting on a stool in front of another boy with no shirt. I knew that Riley tattooed, but this was the first time I actually witnessed the event. But no one was more uncomfortable than Riley. When he saw me, his expression went from mild elation to something approaching flop sweats. I guess he thought I had arrived to clamp down on his artistic endeavors. It took a solid round of smiles and thumbs-ups to slow down his breathing and let him concentrate. I hadn’t yet met Zeke Owen and heard about the Sterile Chain of Events or what the ethics and laws were against tattooing in someone’s living room in the San Fernando Valley, but I was to learn.

Riley Baxter's work

Just like the ballpoint pen in my knee, what happened next was an accident. Sure, I can look back and piece together the events leading up to my editing a world-class tattoo magazine but, at the time, I was just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to make a living and gathering small doses of the tattoo lifestyle from my kids.

I guess the big news was when Riley rushed in and told us that he had hired to work at Robert Benedetti’s Sunset Strip Tattoo, a tattoo hotspot across from the famous Ciro’s nightclub in the heart of the action in Tinsel Town. Small, with a big dummy rail to separate the artists from the lookie-loos, the shop was everything I’d imagined a tattoo parlor to be: energetic, efficient and tons of art on the walls. There was always a crowd, there was always a buzz in the air. There was always that trademark smell. A fragrance, I was later to learn, that was a combination Vaseline, tattoo ink and green soap. A scent I would later recognize as one of the most seductive perfumes the world has yet created.

As the story goes, Riley had tattooed several of his friends and, consequently, gathered together a portfolio of his work that he felt was ready for prime time. He had worked for someone named Tattoo Bob in Venice, California, for a short time, but working at a primo shop like Sunset Strip, alongside Greg James and other world-class artists, was a dream come true. As Riley tells it, he walked into Sunset with portfolio in hand and asked for a job. Now, everybody knows or at least has heard that this is a ridiculous request. Tattoo shops are besieged all day with young upstarts who wander in, some with samples of their artwork, others with nothing but some jive and shuck about how great they are. In most cases, if not all, the applicant is told to “come back when you learn how to draw,” “try so-and-so down the block” or simply “hit the road.” Whether it was Riley’s quick charm (which, in the past, had gotten him out of several serious scrapes with the law and irate boyfriends) or the promise exhibited by his drawings, their response was quite unexpected. I’m not sure if it was Benedetti who said it, but it went something along the lines of, “When the next customer comes though the door, tattoo him. If you do a good job, you’re hired.”

Now, in any other man’s league, this is called a “brush-off.” It’s like the time a musician friend of mine, Fred Sokolow, was visiting me in Topanga, when Byron Berline, Alan Munde and Roland and Clarence White were up at the house and Fred walked in. Sporting a Dobro, I asked the boys if Fred could join in on their picking session. “Sure,” said Byron,” trying to dust off the newcomer by suggesting a song with chord progression that would be nearly impossible for a neophyte to follow. “How about ‘Nola’? he said. With it’s seventy-jillion chord changes and speed-of-life delivery in the hands of Berline and the White brothers, this was the kind of quirky tune that would certainly separate the boys from the men or, in this case, Fred Sokolow from perhaps the greatest bluegrass ensemble ever assembled. No problem. Fred never missed a note.

Same, I guess, with Riley, because the next person through the door was some gigantic, scruffy biker that looked like he spit nails. “What can we do for you?” asked Benedetti.

“I want a dragon. Here,” said the biker, pointing to prime real estate. His left bicep.

“Okay, Riley,” go to it, said Benedetti.

I wasn’t there and he wouldn’t tell me, but whether he sweated bullets or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that he went right to work, set up the station, plugged in his machines, filled his ink cups with pigment, plopped down a wad of Vaseline with a tongue depressor and transferred his sketch of a snaggle-tooth dragon exactly where the customer had asked. So far so good.

Again, I wasn’t there, but I do know that everyone who worked at Sunset watched a serialized version of a tattoo dragon take shape on the man’s bicep. Each artist sneaking a peek as he walked by, being sure this unknown quantity, this charismatic young rocker in back leather and pompadour, wasn’t screwing things up or in over his head. Actually, no one said a thing. Not one suggestion. And all this with the possible threat of an angry biker being very pissed off, if it wasn’t perfect. In fact, when it was done, the Vaseline and blood and ink wiped clean and the work patted dry, everyone came over to have a gander. Big Mike, Little Mike (Mike Messina), Greg, Rockwood. Everyone in the shop. There was a lot of small talk, to be sure. Lots of “cool” and “right on, kid” and “nice work,” but the words that cut through the noise and the confusion, were the two that were uttered by Benedetti himself.

“You’re hired,” he said. And thus began my family’s involvement, and mine, with the mystical, magical… dysfunctional world of professional tattoo.


As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at baxter@tattooroadtrip.com.

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