"This, my friend, is a pussy-eating swamp panther."
So the wide-eyed, clear-skinned reader is introduced to the world of tattoo in Jeff Johnson's Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink (Spiegel Grau, 272 pages, $24.95). To decipher that gnomic first passage requires the handy lexicon in Chapter 4 ("Shop Talk"), but the rest of the book is mercifully light on jargon. In this memoir, thick with anecdotes and addicted to character study, Johnson's penchant for philosophical diatribe grates; still, the man has both great stories and the writerly candor to tell them.
More gossip rag than technical primer, Tattoo Machine owes as much of its existence to the author's skill with a needle as it does to his storytelling chops. Johnson is the co-owner of Portland's Sea Tramp Tattoo Co., and in almost two decades of ink work, he's seen and heard a lot. No blooper is left untouched: in "Humiliation," the author recounts his intense excitement when a famous actress requests him by name—and his deep embarrassment at accidentally dry humping her as she pays her bill. "The Killers" introduces a strange customer dubbed the Collector, whom Johnson tattoos despite numerous red flags and the creeping certainty that the man is a serial murderer. The spectacular eeriness of the occasion is not to be spoiled here, but this encounter alone is reason enough to read Tattoo Machine. As Johnson explains in one of his many quasi-philosophical tangents, most tattoo artists prefer to let their art speak for itself. But Johnson is different; he has the ink of many weapons at his disposal, and he rightly acknowledges a gaping hole in the genre tattoo lit. His clipped, colloquial style goes down easy, and his hyperactive attention to insider lingo and buddy-buddy posing cuts the difference between a joke told by a stranger and a joke told by a friend. A picture may tell a thousand words, but thankfully, this book is much less painful than getting a tattoo.
Jeff Johnson reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, July 23. Free.