After my time at Royal Tattoo in Denmark I headed to Amsterdam and The Amsterdam Tattoo Museum just a week before Christmas. Amsterdam is that city where for the first time in my life I felt like I could have died from partying. This was years ago: I remember looking out the window of my room at like five in the morning, the street lights shimmering on the black water of the canals, while my friends snored around me in drunken, coked-out stupors as my heart raced, my jaw a vice, with teeth that could have cracked walnuts, shit, they could have cracked themselves... I was younger then, and still learning to grab control of my life and I was thankful, maybe for the first time to see the sun come up, because I realized, the difference between life and death is only one moment or decision away. It was a moment in hell and memorable for that reason. Needless to say, Amsterdam is fucking insanity personified.
And it’s still the same, that shit is wild. I adapt. That’s what I do, it’s how I can travel for two god damn years straight, without a home and out of a bag. I get to a place and I adjust, turn my own dials and become comfortable with what’s around me. I did the same in Amsterdam, I went from the peace and quiet of Helsingør, Denmark – went to the craziness of the XXX city of Amsterdam, where I was welcomed by Henk and Louise Schiffmacher, Tattoo Molly, Yushi, Chris Danley, Danny Boy, Dringenberg and the rest of the crew at the museum.
It was an honor to be there, in the midst all of that history and to meet Henk for the first time and see him in action. He’s a special one, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. A man who lives for himself and answers to no one, a truly inspirational dude. I worked there for about a week and a half with late nights fueled by the temptations of my surroundings.
I was in a bar with friends when someone got shot three times. I sat there after the first two shots, thinking they were fireworks, as everyone ran out of the bar, like a bunch of gazelles. I was there for the third shot and saw the dude on the ground. Then I ran out and joined Yushi and Sezuki to watch the aftermath in awe. I flew out of Amsterdam the day after Christmas to Kathmandu, Nepal.
After a 21 hour flight, a good amount of time of which was spent listening to Bob Seger “I think I’m going to Kathmandu” on the recommendation of Dringenberg. I arrived to insanity. Out of the 23 countries I visited, it was by far the most fascinating and mind-blowing. Something almost magical. The people of Nepal live their lives so fucking different from ours in the Western world. The whole country is without electricity for 8-12 hours a day. Shortages on gasoline, leave people waiting to get a half a tank of gasoline (the ration) for hours and hours. Many of the houses have no running water.
Walking along the streets it’s easy to get lost down little alleys and courtyards, passing the butchers selling: yak, boar, water buffalo (?), a cut off head of a goat sits on a table with incense stuck between it’s teeth, the glazed eyes, lifeless. The touts call out, they try to sell weed, or treks, or tours, or paintings – it’s the same the world over. You just avoid eye contact and keep walking. Kathmandu though, takes the prize, it’s the craziest looking city I’ve seen.
La Paz, Bolivia is crazy looking, and it is crazy, but Kathmandu, while it looks similar in some ways is something else entirely, because in the midst of the chaos and the pollution there are statues of Ganesh everywhere, well-crafted hand-painted signs, beautiful stone or wooden pagodas, wild monkeys and mysterious doorways with dancing skeletons.
There’s even a living Goddess. She’s maybe 10 years old now and she’ll be the Goddess until she menstruates and then a new Goddess will be chosen, she lives in a square temple with a courtyard and her feet are not allowed to touch the ground outside of her home, she’s taken out every so often and is carried around the square by he guards while throngs of people worship her.
They choose the next Goddess by bringing a group of young female toddlers into a temple, and escorting them into a dark candle lit room full of 108 slaughtered chickens, 108 slaughtered and beheaded goats and 108 slaughtered and beheaded buffalo, inside the room there are elder monks chanting at her – the whole thing is meant to terrify, the new Goddess is the little girl who isn’t terrified – the one who doesn’t cry or freak the fuck out.
It’s so beautifully bizarre. I stayed in Kathmandu for just a couple of days. After that: It was pure relaxation, I took a bus to Lake Pokhara, to spend New Years Eve at the foot of the Himalayas.
A much mellower place. I read Shantaram, (highly recommended) a 1500 page book in about six days. I tattooed a local guy there, using his own equipment, shared some knowledge with some of the tattooers there, fixed a local dudes machines, got drunk on some fermented toasted rice liquor, liquor that felt so good on those cold nights.
I was surrounded by local people who took me in instantly as family, people, that though they had little, never let me pay for a meal or a drink. And what a New Years Eve! Even though in Nepal it was the year 2068, they were still celebrating 2012.
It was so much better than I could have expected. I thought I would be alone and solitary but I was surrounded by Nepalese people of all ages in a small little restaurant that was closed to the public. It was a private party and I was invited and welcomed and received hugs and drinks and companionship. Why? The same reason for almost every incredible experience I’ve had since I left home: Tattoos. I fall on my knees in front of that god of tattoos that has watched over me and provided for me in almost every one of these countries I’ve been to.
One thing I remember was going into the latrine, into the shit-house out back and thinking as I squatted over the keyhole toilet and inhaled those nauseous fumes of an outhouse, “that is the smell of friends, of other people who are like me, and it’s not bad." Yes, it’s the smell of shit and piss, but it’s from everyday people and it’s only natural, it’s only real. It’s nothing but the smell of life. And nothing is hidden in their lives.
I was pretty excited to head back to San Francisco on the two-year anniversary of my departure. Two straight years on the road, can play with your head, it can make you stronger and it can scare the shit out of you with mind chattering solitude. All of it has an effect, some influence on the psyche, on one’s personality…
But man, if I didn’t feel even more unsettled when I had a place to call home again. It was a bit like OJ’s glove, it just didn’t fit. My best friends picked me up at the airport, we ate Mexican food and drank margaritas for breakfast. I went back to work at Idle Hand, I rented an apartment. I made it a month-and-a-fucking-half, I made plans to leave in the first three weeks of being home.
I still don’t know why, because the more time I spent there the more comfortable I became, the more I really began to appreciate having friends around me that knew me, that really knew me. Seeing my buddies, with their kids made my heart all happy and made me want a kid. Seeing Idle Hand in motion reminded me how special that fucking shop is and it was a pleasure to be a part of it again. The shop itself and the vibe there will tear your ass apart, break you down, leave you hungover, and provide a place to stay when there’s no where else to go. Many late nights were spent there drawing, talking, focusing on the craft and drinking. They go hand in hand over there. I’ll love that shop til the day I die.
But something in me had changed and it didn’t feel right to go back to the city. Maybe that’s it: it was going back to something. And I wanted something new, but a place to settle down. I just spent a week and a half at Kings Avenue in NYC and Long Island and met new family. I saw my mom in CT for the second time in two years.
I also went back to Greensburg, Pennsylvania where I really started tattooing and saw one of my best and oldest friends Daniel Weyandt. Today I’m in DC, where I write this now.
Tonight I fly back to Buenos Aires on my birthday, to go work in that beautiful city at Well Done Tattoo again. I’ll be there for a month, working on a project for TAM and after that my friend Mariano and I will head into Sao Paulo together where I’ll attempt to meet some real bad-ass motherfuckers. And I’m excited, it’s frustrating to carry this fucking backpack around, but it’s almost always worth it.
Everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, slowly it all gets sifted. There’s a lot of stories to tell, some of them amazing, some humorous, some sad, some perverse. There are so many – and they’re all mixed up between the life I had before and the life that I have now, I got a second lifetime after I spilt up with my ex-wife, and I think this trip – all of this time away was a way to learn that. This is a new lifetime and each day it becomes more and more what I make it to be. I’m thankful for that. Very thankful.
The craziest thing for me over these past two years, especially the last year of getting to work with all of these legendary people, these crazy hard workers has been the difference between all of them. There’s no set path. Some party. Some don’t. Some draw on the spot others spend hours preparing their drawing. Some like whip-shading, some like smooth gradations, rotaries, coils, some show mad respect, some are pirates and others are family folk – it goes on and on. Somewhere along the way though, I think I began to assume there was one way, a best way, a best approach… If you do A+B it will = X... but it won’t. That’s some religious kind of thinking.
Some Christian/Muslim/Jewish/religious way of looking at things. Everyone has their own way, their own path. Some do drugs, some drink, some get married and have kids, others get married and divorced some fuck hookers and others don’t get laid very often. But the good ones work their asses off, and all of them do it in their own way. I suppose in the end that’s the common thread, the people I look up to, no matter how they go about it: they work their asses off.
I’m honored and humbled to say that I will be joining Kings Avenue as a full-time artist in the beginning of August. Which means I’m moving to NYC and I couldn’t be happier with either of those things, it’s time for me to throw an anchor. Anchors away!
Alright, If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I appreciate it. That was long-winded!
Be well out there in the real world.
(JTG is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. He can currently be found traveling the world and sometimes at Idle Hand Tattoo in San Fransisco, CA.)
To read more of JTG’s travel adventures please click the link below: