ALTHOUGH INK isn’t required to work in a restaurant, tattoos are a display of dedication and grit, both of which are necessary to survive a commercial kitchen.
The kitchen has long been a stage of bravado: the fire-and-knives boys’ club, where one’s swagger is measured by the length of his cleaver. And while the ladies are certainly starting to reach the top of the longtime hyper-macho culture and change it from within, they’re just as apt to display ink as a visible emblem of their brass.
Of course, not all chefs go for the butterfly-on-the-ankle of kitchen tattoos (the chef’s knife). Nor do many opt for chef Andy Ricker’s elaborate tribute to Thai cooking: a vibrant botanical gauntlet of rice, durian, tamarind, chiles, shallots; the herbs cilantro, culantro, and green onion; plus a mortar and pestle with the Thai characters that spell “Pok Pok.” Most tattoos are somewhere in between, and hold personal meaning to the ones wearing them.
Levi Greenacres of Skeleton Key Tattoo on SE Hawthorne says he inks lots of people in the restaurant industry (full disclosure: he’s my artist as well). He says most line cooks he’s tattooed get some version of that aforementioned knife popularized by Anthony Bourdain, or some other kitchen implement. (If they get a work-related piece at all—many don’t.)
Greenacres himself wears three food-related tattoos: Andy Warhol’s banana and a cluster of three cherries in his armpits, and an immaculate corndog Madonna in a “corndog-shaped void” on the back of his leg. The corndog is one of particular significance to him: “When I first came to Seattle I had a bag of clothes, 20 dollars, a six-pack of cream soda, and a box of corn dogs.”
I asked Greenacres what’s the coolest food tattoo he’s ever done (a tie between an artichoke and the beet from Jitterbug Perfume), and then I asked a few other restaurant folks in Portland about their own gastronomic ink.
Here are their stories.
Tattoo: Bowl of pho on hip/thigh
When I was a little girl, my family and I would go on our weekly Sunday outing of Asian market and getting pho at our favorite spot, Pho Hoa, in New Orleans. I believe it’s still open now. My mom would only make pho for special occasions because it’s an all-day affair. The bowl of pho tattoo reminds me of my roots and who I am and why I love to cook. I’m currently planning on getting another food tattoo next year: a half sleeve on my right arm of a crawfish boil laying on a Portland newspaper.
Mi Mero Mole
Tattoo: Cuban coffee pot on forearm
Growing up Cuban, it is tradition that once you are off breastmilk your parents start putting coffee in with your milk in your bottle. So every morning since I was a baby I remember that smell and taste [of] coffee. This one on my arm is the coffee pot that my grandmother gave me and it’s around 30 years old. I took it in with me when they did that tattoo to have it replicated on my arm.
Tattoo: Stand mixer paddle attachment (she, her sous chef, and chef de cuisine got matching tattoos)
We wanted to get kitchen tattoos and had the kind of constant low-level conversation/argument that you might have in a kitchen over what they should be for several months. We didn’t want knives or spoons. We liked how it looked like a shield or a crest. I didn’t realize that so many people wouldn’t recognize what it actually is.
Måurice, Pizza Jerk, and Fenrir
Tattoo: Coffee plant and espresso gear with quote
One is ‘Suspicimus Artis’ which is ‘respect the craft’ in Latin. It’s sandwiched between two espresso tamps. The second is a botanical (illustration) of Coffea arabica, specifically, typica—one of the first varietals to be cultivated in Africa. Every single career move/connection I had made up to that point in my life had been through coffee, [from] the people I’ve met and learned from, to where I am now in Portland. Cutting my teeth and carving out a name in coffee taught me a lot about service and workflow that now bleeds into everything I do as a young professional. Without starting in coffee, I wouldn’t be where I am now. So I never want to forget my roots.