Tattoos, Tough Guys + the Travails of Making a Living
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because earning a paycheck if you have a penchant for unexplained facial contusions and copious body art is tricky.
“What happened to your face?”
I was in the middle of a job interview in the middle of the recession at the perfectly named and now-transformed GAY.COM. I had been listing my body to the right so that side of my face, bruised and scarred as it was, faced away from the woman interviewing me. Away but not successfully hidden, as her eyes kept searching the contours of the bruises.
“I … I walked into a kitchen cabinet,” I lied. As a rule I dislike lying, as it seems a by-product of fear, and I’ve lived my life as a testament to a certain fearlessness — but this seemed easy and plausible. The evasion came out of my mouth just as believably as when a victim of domestic abuse tries it. Which is to say, it wasn’t any more believable than that I was actually a victim of domestic abuse.
You could take the boy out of the crazy punk rock and mixed martial arts scenes, but taking the crazy out of the boy?
I laughed to carry home the “silly me” sentiment, but as I raised my hand to the facial bruising, my sleeve slipped down my wrist and I watched her eyes shift to the lattice work of black ink peeking through the unbuttoned spaces in my cuff. All of which set the interview on a continued course for the weird.
Which was unexpected given that this was in San Francisco and I can’t have been the weirdest thing that ever walked through her door, not even the weirdest thing that day. But sometimes it’s not isolated weird that’s the issue. Sometimes it’s accumulated weird: the copious and hidden tattoos, the whole bruised face thing. And did I mention I was 265 pounds of muscle back then? It had become much more than clear: you could take the boy out of the crazy punk rock and mixed martial arts scenes, but taking the crazy out of the boy? A different deal entirely.
Which I was just about fine with.Translation: I didn’t get the job. Forget the Stanford University pedigree. Or the corporate time I logged working with Intel’s Andy Grove, Apple’s Steve Jobs or Adobe’s Bruce Chizen. Forget that I cleaned up well in the suit — the suspicion that under the 10 percent of iceberg sitting across the desk lurked a whole 90 percent of what felt quite possibly dangerous must have been enough to prompt a “no, thank you.”
I’ve acquired over 30 tattoos. But never on any areas not concealable by a suit.
So much so that once I found punk rock in 1977, it became a much more than convenient vehicle for announcing that, to paraphrase the Bad Brains, I’d not be doing what they wanted or doing what they’d say, oh no. You see, punk rock didn’t frame me; my interest in the outré framed me. When I was just 5 years old my grandfather read to me from the illustrated version of Moby Dick, and when the tattoo’d Queequeg came into the picture, I was sold.
And I was just 19 when I sat at my friend Kevin Crowley’s kitchen table, watched him wind some thread around a needle he had sunk into the top of a Bic pen, and readied myself for the marking on my arm that would speak to the world even after I had stopped speaking. A tattoo, my first, that said simply: I’M SORRY.
Then, a deluge.
I picked up one more at Kevin’s kitchen table and then countless others from a cavalcade of tattoo greats and goods: Freddy Corbin, the controversial Jef Whitehead, Jean-Luc Navette, Muzah Van Tricht, Pinky Yun, Luke Stewart, and Brian Hutflies. I’m marked with a tableau framed by an active dreamlife and old-fashioned, simple ideas about good and evil replete with devils, magical signs, symbols and spiritual familiars. From then to now, I’ve acquired over 30. But never on any areas not concealable by a suit.
All of which meant nothing to Alex and Cedric Braun, the guys who gave me my first paying gig after I graduated from Stanford back in the mid-1980s. They ran a trade journal that focused on microwave landing systems, along with sister publications that drilled down deep on military defense. “No. We hired you as a shot in the eye to the HR woman who refused to hire one of our picks because she was black,” said Alex.
You see back then I’d send out two resumes: one highlighting my negritude, one not. The numbers of callbacks I got on the race blind ones were four times higher than on the race-based ones. So this brother team of German Argentines hired me not because of my skills but out of spite.
There was no more secret identity.
So despite the fact that the smarter career move would have been to Clark Kent it and live a double life, by the time of the “Syntex Incident,” after years of working for trade journals, that was getting increasingly hard to do. Syntex had been a pretty significant big pharma company (now subsumed into Ciba-Geigy), and I was applying for a job in the 1990s.
The woman interviewing me seemed charmed by the depth and breadth of my journalism know-how, and I was already mentally planning which desk tchotchkes would go where. But as we strolled through the building, I heard the last sound in the world that Clark Kent ever wants to hear, “HEEEEYYYY… what are YOU doing here?”
I died inside a little and turned, smiling.
“And in a SUIT and everything! WHOA!”
“Do you two know each other?”
And before I could answer, and because my eyes were not screaming SHUT UP loudly enough, and since I did not have a large polo mallet at the ready, he continued.
“He’s in this CRAZY band. Never thought I’d ever see YOU in a suit! Hahaha…”
I didn’t get the job. And what happened there soon became possible everywhere at any time, thanks to Google. There was no more secret identity. No more being able to say, as I did when a co-worker at Ziff-Davis ran over to my desk waving an article about me from the local weekly, “That wasn’t me. But I always get confused for that guy.” Or at least, no more being believed when I did.
Which, in the end, I was just about fine with.
Because punk rock had marked me just as assuredly as my negritude had, leaving me comfortably at home with the paradoxes — a gentle guy and a gentleman who likes to fight, a mensch who’s OK with being macho. If the haters could be believed I was probably just crazy. And if no one else said it I can say it now: crazy as a fox.
This is the fifth installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically and electrically lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson. Earlier takes include Advice From Andy Warhol, unexpected Affliations with White Supremacists, Wild Orgy Nights at Stanford and Is It a Riot If It’s Just the Four of Us?