My mother used to say that when she was young she wished she had learned to smoke cigarettes. Because she always liked the smell of tobacco and it looked sophisticated. But she just couldn’t do it. She also said that she wished she could have had a part-time membership in the mafia. I have no idea what that was about. She not once ever said she wished she had gotten a tattoo or two.
I have started into projects knowing full well it’s been done to death. I like the challenge. What’s better though is when you truly don’t care.
I wanted to like tattoos. But I just couldn’t. I had no idea why someone would turn their skin into the equivalent of a scribbled on cocktail napkin. Why the hell would a person with gorgeous legs tattoo ribbons on them from their thighs to their knees? And what about those face and neck tats? I have always thought that my ability to glide in and out of the worlds of others, to be accepted as neutral in order to make images was a good thing. Looking like that which is saying so much about you loud and in the face of your subjects, you are skewing the interaction and ultimately what you can see or what is willing and shown to you. And those tattoos of quotes… don’t get me started.
I ended up making a series of pictures of the local tattoo parlor because I found myself standing outside looking in the window. It looked like fun. Slightly evil fun. It was all red with spotlighting and the walls were covered with samples of tattoos (they call them Flash) and pictures and paintings and sculptures all having to do with the tattoo world.
I went inside because I had been staring in the window for a while and I thought I was making the receptionist uncomfortable. Projecting. I know. But it got me inside because for some reason I didn’t want to be thought of as one of those people who stands outside and is too afraid to go in.
Because of course inside, they were all bikers and meth dealers and at the least, they would laugh about me being there and at the worst tell me to get the hell out. It’s just my skewed head and it’s a complication. Having a camera has always given me an excuse for trying on different worlds. My camera will go where I very often am afraid to.
The girl behind the desk was nice. I asked a few questions. I inquired about making some pictures. She told me I needed to talk to Ox.
Ox looked dour and intimidating. He turned out to be a nice guy. I asked him if I could do a series of pictures over time. Sure.
Prior to walking in, I hadn’t given doing a series about that place or tattoos any thought whatsoever other than I thought most looked like shit. But this place felt kind of dangerous and cool. And the people were not like me. And as it often does, I get curious and I start asking a lot of questions.
Ox gave me some books from his extensive library of tattoo literature. He was patient with the hundreds of questions I asked. I always asked permission before stepping into his area and making pictures and he never said no. None of the other tattooists thought it was a good idea to have me around. The guy in the picture made it clear in no uncertain terms that I was not to photograph his clients or him. So did the other tattooists. But over time as I kept coming back once or twice a week for a few hours they started to warm up a bit. I was always respectful but not obsequious. They thought it was funny that I had no tattoos and they called me a pussy. It meant they were starting to like me and getting used to the camera.
At the end of my project, it was suggested that the only way that I would know about tattoos really would be by getting one. I wanted them to like me because I liked them and being accepted even as an outsider. I decided on a half sleeve of a Japanese Cod… you know you’ve seen at least a dozen people since yesterday with the same motif. I decided not to in the end and I expected blowback. Instead, Ox told me that he was glad I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me, he said.
Through this project, I came to understand that world better. Most of my feelings about them haven’t changed. But, once again, it was proven to me that if I quieted my mind and approached respectfully, I would come to see and photograph more than what I was looking at.
All images here were made with the original Fuji X100
Help Me Print “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” my Second Book.
My book ‘Subway New York City ‘1975-1985’ is available on Etsy.
Gerard Exupery has been a New York City Street Photographer for 40 years, He attended the School of Visual Arts and studied with Lisette Model at The New School. He has also worked as an oil rig roustabout, a photographer’s assistant, custom printer, motorcycle mechanic, audio engineer, video engineer, producer, and Mr. Mom. Exupery also drove a New York City taxi which he considers his post-graduate work.