In his new book Tattoo Machine, Jeff Johnson does something I wouldn't have thought possible in a town as ink-saturated as Portland: He makes tattoos seem cool again. Johnson is co-owner of the Sea Tramp, the oldest tattoo parlor in Oregon, and his behind-the-scenes account of life in the industry is a swaggering, gossipy read.
Tattoo Machine is of a piece with Waiter Rant and Kitchen Confidential—similar glimpses at what life looks like from the other side of the counter. There's a narcissistic thrill to reading books like this, a chance to see ourselves, as customers, through someone else's eyes—and a chance to feel, at least for a while, like an insider oneself. Tattoo Machine doesn't disappoint in that regard: Johnson dishes on everything, from importance of keeping a clean bathroom at a tattoo parlor (paramount) to the subtle revenge that a tattoo artist might take against a particularly unlikeable customer.
The book's subtitle ("Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink") gives Johnson a bit of wiggle room as to the veracity of it all, and a skeptic might be inclined to doubt the particulars of some of his accounts—like the time he claims he tattooed a serial killer. One senses that these stories have been told and polished and told again over the years, but Johnson's fundamental intimacy with the world about which he's writing is never in doubt. Plus, the Sea Tramp's longtime relationship with the ever-shrinking seedy side of Portland makes this an incredible piece of local history in its own right.