“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…” wrote Kerouac in On The Road. Ah.
If Jack Kerouac were still around today, he might want to head to a tattoo convention. I did last week, in Kathmandu, Nepal, to promote my book Sacred Skin (co-authored with Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat). Both my media blitz – a radio show, newspaper interview and three TV appearances – in the Nepali capital and my presentation at the convention, held at the Yak & Yeti, a pseudo Raj-era luxury hotel edifice, were fantastic experiences, but it was my encounters with tattoo artists from around the world, tattoo freaks and others on the periphery of the convention, that made my week.
Internationally mobile tattooists appear to be hugely interesting people: at least many of the artists who made it to this particular event make for great stories. Like freelance writers, they live largely in hotel rooms, travel extensively, and make a decent living on their own terms. Some, over the years, achieve a signature style all of their own, which is truly something to cherish and celebrate in our automated plastic culture. And, as with writers, the signatures don’t come out of nowhere – they are the result of many years of hard work and endless refinement, of experience, some adventure, lots of focus.
Encountering this incredibly diverse bunch of semi-outlaws, graphic pirates and illustrated men and women (from the US, Iran, Thailand, Italy, Nepal, France, the UK, India etc) couldn’t have been more refreshing, incisive and inspiring. A few of the tattoo artists I met are true obsessives who are grappling with visions, styles, forms of expressions that go way beyond the cliches of body modification in the 21st century and transcend into a commentary of our times. From an American artist who spent years inking marines on the way to Iraq, to an underground Iranian artist, an Italian who did the highest altitude tattoo near Everest Base Camp prior to the convention, to professional drifters who move around global highways and by-ways and set up shop anywhere they fancy, they are mad to live, mad to talk, and of course, mad to tattoo. I hadn’t been this tempted to invest in some second skin for years.