A couple of months ago, I received a message from Angelica Scott with the subject line:
"A Tattoo to Transcend a Breast Cancer Battle - Allison W. Gryphon's Story." It stood out, especially in contrast to the tattoo supply promos and nude photos from strangers that usually flood my Inbox. I was put in touch with Allison, and indeed, she has an incredible story that is inspiring to all, even beyond those fighting cancer.
Allison, who is a novelist and award-winning screenwriter, was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in April 2011. She says her "immediate instinct was to pick up a camera and start asking questions." The big question -- "What The F-@# Is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It?" -- is the title of her film, which is due to hit the film festival circuit in 2013. The documentary tells the stories of cancer fighters and also explores why it is so prevalent -- why 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime. She has interviewed experts on Western medicine, Eastern medicine, alternative therapies and related fields. Alison also delves into the psychological aspect of fighting cancer. She says, "[...] everyone needs to find their own way to make peace with it. That's not something the doctors can do for you. They can help guide you, but you need to find your answer. Mine was the tattoo. I don't think I would have ever felt complete without it."
Her tattoo of angel and butterfly wings placed around her breast was done by Zulu of Zulu Tattoo in Los Angeles. Zulu takes a spiritual approach to tattooing and has worked with a number of breast cancer fighters. [Miguel interviewed Zulu in 2009.] Allison says that Zulu, Khani (his wife, who runs shop) and Lauren Miyake (her friend & photographer) had become part of her family through the experience, adding: "Just as the doctors had, together these three amazing people all saved my life by giving it back to me through both Zulu's amazing work and the experience of bringing it out of me."
I naturally had a million questions and Allison has been incredibly gracious answering them. My profile on her will appear in an upcoming issue of Skin & Ink magazine. Here's a taste:
In December 2011, 38-year-old Allison W. Gryphon walked through the door of Zulu Tattoo in Los Angeles, CA for the first time. It was only a few months after her six rounds of chemotherapy for Stage III breast cancer and mere weeks after her second surgery. Her hair was gone and, even in LA, bald women still draw stares. While Zulu came highly recommended by a close friend, she didn't really know what to expect. Tattoo studios are not generally known to be sanctuaries of comfort and accommodation. But she was greeted with smiles, calmness, and she says, a sense that "can only compare to the sincere embrace of an old friend." Allison knew she chose the right place for her inaugural tattoo.
Technically, Allison had already been tattooed: eight tiny blue dots done old school style with a sharp needle and ink to line up the radiation lasers. Those radiation tattoos are the butt of many jokes among cancer fighters - real tattooed badasses. Some keep them as marks of a battle won. Others ignore them like freckles. Allison has decided to remove hers. To her, being tattooed is "to celebrate all of the amazing and wonderful changes that cancer brought into [her] life."
For more on Allison and her film, head to the "What The F-@# Is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It?" Facebook page, "Like" it and even share your own related stories. Also check her online cancer research center Thewhyfoundation.org.
[Photos by Lauren Miyake courtesy of WTF is Cancer Movie.]
An exciting solo show of paintings inspired by tattoo art opens November 19th at the Gebert Gallery in Venice, California: The Human Canvas by Paul Ecke.
Paul contacted me after finding my Black Tattoo Art book last year and being inspired by work he saw in it. I helped put him in contact with a number of the tattoo artists in the book like Yann Black, Rory Keating and Roni Zulu among others, which led to the beautiful collaborations that comprise The Human Canvas series. In this video interview below, Paul and Zulu discuss "how both artist's passions cross over into each other's mediums."
For more on the paintings, Virginia Repasky of Art Management says:
In "The Human Canvas," artist, Paul Ecke explores the reality that each of us is tattooed, some on the outside but all on the inside, where we all hide our burdens and pleasures in a very secret way. This suite is a continuation of the artist's earlier work "Men Behind Gates." "Men Behind Gates" represented a return to his classical figurative training and became an awakening of man's emotional struggles--struggles imposed by society as well as self. Like "Men Behind Gates," this is a raw and an emotionally driven series that is both bold and honest in content. Yet "The Human Canvas" forgoes the implementation of the painted gate and instead propels the viewer to a more provocative and passionate exploration through the form of the tattoo.
The Human Canvas will be on view at the Gebert Gallery until December 15th.
There have been a number of great stories in the news about tattoo studios raising money for Haiti relief efforts, and Zulu Tattoo's benefit at Boardner's in LA was one such success, bringing in over $1,500 for National Nurses United.
I just came across LA Weekly's wonderful slideshow of images, like the one above taken by Curious Josh Photography, and they include gorgeous shots of tattooed performers, musicians, and beautiful belly dancers (my latest practice and obsession). Enjoy the eye-candy for a cause.
Professional photography in this post by Lee Corkett of Weathervane Images.
I am grateful to have talked with Roni Zulu, the prolific Los Angeles tattoo artist and owner of Zulu Tattoo. Zulu is a master of symbols and the meanings behind them. He started as a graphic designer and session musician until a yearning for more led him to the world of tattooing.
Zulu has tattooed many noteworthy people including Janet Jackson, Deborah Wilson, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Bruce Willis, Montel Williams, Christina Aguilera, Alanis Morissette, Ben Vereen, Rosie O'Donnell, David Duchovny and Lisa Bonet to name a few.
We talked about how he got his start in tattoo, racism, spirituality, and how the art can evolve.
How did you transition from being a graphic designer and musician to tattoo artist?
Well, the transition from being a graphic designer to a tattooist wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I didn't know I would be venturing into a field that was primarily dominated by a prejudiced group of people: the underworld of tattooing was dominated and controlled by biker factions, skinheads and a lot of white supremacists groups. Upon entering into this world and seeking an apprenticeship, I couldn't get one. I was turned away, at times, laughed at as I walked out the door with racial slurs escorting me out.
So I realized that the only way I was going to learn was to teach myself. What I would do is go to conventions with a video camera and stand across the room and film people tattooing and in essence create my own instructional videos. Then I would go to the butcher market and buy pigs ears, a big flat piece of meat you can practice on, similar to human flesh. That was the only way I could break in because I could not get an apprenticeship.
When did you start tattooing?
I would say approximately 17 years ago.
Tell me about opening your own tattoo shop.
I assumed, well if I can't get an apprenticeship, I'm sure that I'm not going to be able to get a station in one of these shops. I went into many of them and saw that they were not the kind of places that I would want to be associated with. The one's that would have me weren't very reputable, and I decided I'm going to have to create my own world.
I opened my own shop after tattooing in my home. I started out tattooing friends and they would tell friends and it got to a point where I had to open a shop because I couldn't run that many people through my house.
When you opened a shop, did you get any resistance from other tattoo shops?
I got a great deal of resistance. It would be common to get to work check the messages and have messages such as "Nigger, close down your shop or were going to bomb it," or "Close down your shop or were going to break your legs." I got these kind of threats daily. At one point a lot of bikers came by with baseball bats and told me I had 24 hours to shut down the shop.
I'm not an advocate of violence but also I'm not going to run, so from that point on, for the next year I went to work with a 357 magnum strapped to my chest, where everyone could see it. I would be sitting there tattooing with a gun strapped so they would know. Like most bullies, they were cowards when they find you're not going to run. At that point, it was like by any means necessarily.
In putting together my tattoo book on blackwork, I've not only been privy to new, stunning work from the world's top tattooists, but also top photography of the art. Today I want to share with you a new photography find:
The tattoo portraits of Lee Corkett, WeatherVane Images, Conejo Valley, CA.
Lee is a freelance photographer and designer who is working with Zulu Tattoo in LA to capture his body of work on beautifully decorated bodies, like this piece on Nikki Haydock.
For a close-up of the tattoo, check out our Flickr page.
What I particularly like about Lee's work is the ease and movement of those bodies; you especially see it in fabulous dance galleries, with some adorned in tattoos and henna art as well.
Catch more of Lee and Zulu's work in my upcoming book.