Jonathan Shaw cover portrait by Joey Feldman
photos and additional art courtesy Jonathan Shaw
Saira Viola: What was it like growing up with a famous Hollywood screen actress as a mother? (For those unaware your mother was Hollywood femme fatale Doris Dowling – best known for her roles in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and the neo-realist Italian classic Bitter Rice — and your father, jazz legend Artie Shaw.) How would you describe growing up in old school Hollywood with such famous parents?
Jonathan Shaw: Well, I’ve covered a lot of that ground in my memoir books (SCAB VENDOR: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, to be released by Turner Publishing in early 2017) so there’s not much I can add to a story that’s taken me almost 20 years to write. But for simplicity’s sake, I can tell you that, sadly, it was a childhood not unlike that of too many children growing up in America. A very unhappy one.
art by Jonathan Shaw
My parents were both complicated people, geniuses really, but they had a lot of, um, how can I put it, deep existential personality disorders, problems stemming from their own miserable childhoods. And that made them pretty unqualified to be successful parents, God rest their souls. My mother was a hopeless alcoholic, a raging, violent mess in a dress. Despite being a beautiful, talented, intelligent woman, she was pretty much insane during my formative years and beyond, mostly due to her alcoholism. She loved me and she meant well, she really did, but she just didn’t have the emotional tools to do very well as a mother, poor thing. And my father, Artie, well, even though he didn’t drink, he was every bit as nuts as my mother was, with his own weird pathology. I mean it’s the good old law of attraction. Like attracts like, right? He was basically what could be described as a narcissistic sociopathic personality, traits that were pretty much exacerbated by the extreme level of fame and success he attained in his music career. I mean the guy was basically like Elvis or Mick Jagger in his day. It was that kinda deal. That and his undeniable genius, not just as a musician, but as an intellectual, a writer, a philosopher, a curious mind. All those factors contributed to making him a very difficult, conflicted, unhappy man, personality-wise. He was also what’s known today as a sex and love addict, a textbook co-alcoholic, who kept getting tangled up with, um, problematic women. It’s a classic pattern for people like that, repeating the same dysfunctional behaviours, always expecting different results, Einstein’s classic definition of insanity. I think my mother was like Wife Number 7 by the time they hooked up. It was all love and kisses at first, but predictably, the relationship degenerated into a battle of raging artistic egos. And that’s what I was born into. A fucking battlefield.
My earliest childhood memory is of my mother emptying a gun in my father’s general direction, she wasn’t a very good shot, thank God, (laughs) and then him grabbing the gun out of her hand and beating the shit out of her. So it wasn’t exactly a Leave it to Beaver storybook childhood, y’know? (laughs) After that he split, never to be seen or heard from again. I was just a baby, y’know, so I was raised by my mother. Well, basically raised by wolves actually (laughs).
I split home and took to the streets when I was around 14. I only got to know Artie much later, when I was in my 30’s. When I went to look him up, he didn’t exactly welcome me like the Prodigal Son with open arms or anything. Like I said, he was a complicated, difficult man, but I did get to know the guy pretty well over the ensuing years. Our relationship was distant and very intimate at the same time, in a weird way. Mostly because, like most narcissists, Artie was a really good talker, very intelligent and introspective in his own twisted, self-serving way, so I did get to know him really well, especially towards the end of his life, as well as you can ever really know someone like that. A lot of that’s in the new book.
SV: Yes, we’ll talk about the new book a bit more later, but I’d like to talk about how you initially became involved in arts and literature. As you had such a wildly dysfunctional, turbulent childhood, I guess you never felt that pressure to be like either of your parents, despite being in the Clint Eastwood movie Tightrope. Was it a conscious decision to steer clear of music and acting and instead focus your attention on the visual and literary side of the arts?
JS: Well, yes, given what I’ve just told you about my upbringing, such as it was, it’s not too surprising that I never felt the slightest pressure – either inward or outward – to ever follow in either of their crooked footsteps.
Both of my parents were way too spaced-out and self-involved to really pay much attention to my future or anything like that. For my part, I wanted nothing to do with their toxic, bullshit, American Dream values. I was a shy, introverted, alienated kid, who went on to become a pissed-off, rebellious teenager. All I ever wanted as a kid was to get as far away from all that as humanly possible. But you can run all you like. There’s simply no outrunning the laws of karma or your own DNA, that’s for sure. Like it or not, your people are in your blood, and we often end up proving the old adage true, that the apple don’t fall far from the tree (laughs).
It’s rarely a conscious decision, though. Like that Clint Eastwood film you mentioned. I certainly never set out to be in a movie. That was more of a fluke. I was in my late 20s, working in a seedy tattoo shop in New Orleans, when a film crew showed up at the door one day, scouting locations for the movie. The director looked at me and asked me if I’d ever done any acting. Needing money, I lied, of course, told ‘em I’d been in a bunch of South American soap operas and shit, figured they’d never be able to check it, and it worked. Next thing I knew, I was playing a scene opposite old Dirty Harry himself. Go figure. It was fun. I made a few bucks, got my SAG card and everything, but I never even thought of pursuing an acting career or anything like that.
I was gung-ho about tattooing back then, so I just kept going with that. But even as much as I abhorred my parents’ lifestyle and my mother’s alcoholism, I went on to become just like them in so many ways. On the outside, my lifestyle was a world apart from theirs, of course, but in a deeper inner level, I wasn’t much different. So much so that I went on to become an alcoholic and a drug addict, just like my mother. And on many levels I followed in Artie’s footsteps as a pussy-chasing, fame-and-fortune-obsessed maniac too. I guess my basic self-esteem was so shattered, coming from the kind of background I came from, that I craved that sort of outward validation and attention from the world for a very long time. Go figure (laughs).
SV: You hitchhiked your way to Central and South America, how old were you and why did you decide you wanted to go there in particular?
JS: It’s funny, cuz looking back on it today, I realize it was kinda like that old song, “any world that I’m welcome to is better than the one I come from.” I can’t think of any better way to explain it. I think reading Kerouac’s On the Road when I was that alienated, curious teenager craving adventure and escape might have had a lot to do with it. You know how in that book they ended up in Mexico, and the way Kerouac described it, it just seemed like the kind of funky, anarchistic, lawless place that appealed to my restless, antisocial sensibilities.
You gotta understand, I grew up very unhappily in an extremely materialistic, privileged environment in Beverly Hills, surrounded by all kinds of wealth and glamor and prestige. But my experience with the whole American Dream thing was like being in a long, protracted nightmare. What I saw was mostly the dark, tragic side of it. Half of my extended family of origin committed suicide or went insane by the time I was old enough to know I was alive. So I wanted no part of any of any of that shit. By the time I took off on the road into Mexico and all that, I was strung out like a lab rat on heroin, like most of my friends. People were dropping like flies all around me.
Death was in the air I breathed, so it was like, what do I got to lose, y’know? The road literally saved my life. My hoboing years in Mexico and Central America before I eventually ended up immigrating to Brazil, those times on the road, broke and aimless, just living and surviving by my wits, it taught me so much about life and the innate goodness of the human spirit that it actually instilled in me a will to live, which I think ultimately resulted in me getting clean and sober many years later.
SV: You have touched on the pain of addiction, and your parents’ battles with different kinds of addiction and how that impacted upon your life, and have been very open about struggling with the effects of addiction. How did you eventually kick heroin?
JS: Well that’s a very long story that I go into at great lengths in my memoir saga, but basically after running around the world like a rat on a treadmill for decades, basically seeking an escape from myself and going to extreme lengths to find a way to control and enjoy my substance abuse, I finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s a full-time job, y’ know, maintaining that sort of lifestyle for an extended period of time. For me the liquor and drugs just stopped working one day, the old sense of ease and comfort they used to provide was slipping away, and then it all just started taking a terrible toll on me – mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. By the time I finally threw in the towel I was a wreck, a shell of a human being, morally bankrupt. I was finally ready to go to any lengths to go straight. I knew the party was long over and to keep trying to keep it going any longer was gonna cost me my life. So I made a decision to get clean, and that’s when I had to start facing up to all the dark, demonic trauma-fed boogie men and hobgoblins inside of myself that I’d managed to keep at bay for so long with drugs and booze.
It’s not an easy process for a life-long alcoholic and addict to do an about-face like that. It requires great motivation and an almost super-human tenacity and dedication, not to mention a healthy dose of divine intervention. But fear and desperation are great motivators, so I stuck with it, and over time I began to experience a deep and effective psychic change. I had to start turning over all kinds of rocks inside myself and taking a good long look at all the shit that was creeping around down there under the surface, the root causes for my addictions. But that change of lifestyle had many unexpected benefits too. It’s really what set me on the path of fulfilling a life-long dream to become a writer, like my early heroes, guys like Kerouac, Bukowski, Fante and Celine. Those were the people I looked up to as a kid and always dreamed of following in their footsteps, but I had to put down the drinking and the drugs before I could find the kind of unflinching self-honesty and introspection it takes to be that kind of writer. I mean, some guys like Bukowski seemed to be able to do it without being sober, but for me, there was no way out but the straight and narrow. I guess everybody’s different in that way…
book cover by R. Crumb
SV: Well, yeah, lucky for us you came through the other side. Talking of Bukowski in your new book, Scab Vendor – Confessions of a Tattoo Artist there’s a chapter where you describe coming to blows with Bukowski. What happened? And what was your relationship like afterwards?
JS: Bukowski used to live in this ratty little studio apartment in the slummy side of East Hollywood, not too far from me. I used to go over to his place and just hang out. I was there all the time. I really was lucky to get to know him as well as I did. That was just our first meeting I wrote about, where we went to fist city and all that. After breaking the ice on that first encounter, I started dropping around a lot, with drinks and stuff, at least every couple of weeks. That went on for quite some time. I got to know Bukowski pretty well. This was back in the early 70s, before he became really famous. He was still accessible back then. Luckily, he kinda took a liking to me. Bukowski was a real piece of work, but his bark was worse than his bite. Looking back now, he was really very kind to me. He read some of my fucked-up junkie poetry and even gave me encouragement, in his own weird way. Bukowski was the one who turned me onto a lot of my favourite writers too: Celene, Fante, stuff like that. We had some good talks. So many things he told me about writing, living, whatever, I only remembered a lotta the stuff he said many years later, long after he passed away. By then I’d been living in South America for years, and we didn’t really stay in touch after I left America. Still, I really do consider him like my most important early mentor as a writer. But after I got bit by the tattoo bug, I pretty much put all those early literary ambitions behind me for many years, until I finally got sober…
SV: So, with Bukowski as a mentor, and the spirit of adventure firmly lit in your soul, you became a tyro in the ancient art of tattooing. What attracted you to that world, and how did you manage to transcend what was ostensibly regarded as a fringe vocation into an accepted art form ?
JS: I was already interested in drawing since I was a little kid. At one point, I sort of dreamed of being a comic book artist. One thing led to another, and I wound up traveling, hoboing around Mexico and Central America. Then I ended up getting work on a ship and living a lifestyle that brought me into close contact with a lot of tattooing. Back in those days in the mid-’70s there really wasn’t a tattoo culture like there is today, where it’s accessible and you walk down the street of any town and you see tattoo shops everywhere and people sporting a lot of tattoos. It’s kind of turned into this very acceptable, mainstream, kind of boring thing. It’s become like a cliché, the tattoo. But back in the ’70s it wasn’t that at all. It was still something edgy, underworld, kind of dangerous, mysterious, and weird. The average person would not come into a lot of contact with tattooing. I guess there was always this perverse part of me that never let me feel I fit in with the crowd. Even before I found liquor and drugs, I always felt like an outsider, an alien, y’know? Like I said, I was pretty much orphaned by alcoholism in my family of origin, so from an early age I was running the streets and living on the edge. Eventually, I took to the road and started working on ships and traveling the world, and I never really looked back, so my family and school were always the streets, bikers, beatniks, winos, weirdos, druggies, hustlers, criminals and whores. Those people were the only ones who wore tattoos back then, outsiders, y’know, and they taught me the art of survival. So I really didn’t come to tattooing so much for the art as I did because of the outsider lifestyle that surrounded the whole deal back then.
For me, the artistic part came later. Much later. How that developed into a sort of mainstream art form and my part in seeing and even making a lot of that transition happen is a really long story. So I was working on ships, hanging around with sailors, and I was in a lifestyle where tattooing was part of the cultural currency. Third world, blue-collar lifestyle. So, like I said, I got into tattooing more through the lifestyle than I did through the art. My artistic interest sort of came later, but I was attracted to it more through the lifestyle and what a tattoo represented. At some point I was getting tattooed by some old salt in Panama, watching all the fancy electronic equipment, seeing colors, people getting tattooed—the guy, really, he wasn’t a great draftsmen, and I said to myself, shit, I can do this. But how am I going to learn? Back then there was no way to learn. There was a very closed community: If you walked into a tattoo shop and said, I want to learn tattooing, they’d probably chase you out with a baseball bat.
Old-timers were close-mouthed about their trade secrets. It was almost as if they could see what would happen in the future if the word ever got out. Back then, you had guys who were functionally illiterate, could barely read or write, and were driving around in brand new Cadillacs wearing gold watches and diamond rings. They were making a lot of money tattooing. Some of them were good draftsmen, some of them weren’t very good, but they knew how to tattoo, and they kept that to themselves. If somebody tried to open a tattoo shop in the same city as one of these guys they might’ve thrown a firebomb through the window. It wasn’t easy to break into. I had to experiment on my own, making my own equipment and so on. And once I’d become proficient enough to have an idea of what I was doing, one thing lead to another, and through a fortuitous confluence of circumstances, I was accepted by one of the old-time tattoo masters, and he took me under his wing and let me into the game, gave me a formal apprenticeship. After he passed on, I went off on my own and traveled the world as an itinerant tattoo artist.
Once I’d made my bones and established myself in that world, through another stroke of lucky fate, I got a chance to dust off some of my early literary aspirations and became the managing editor of the first big tattoo magazine—International Tattoo Art—and I just kept running around the world tattooing, but at the same time I was researching tattoo history and interviewing the old-timers, documenting a lot of stuff that had previously gone undocumented and putting it into a context where it could be enjoyed by the general public. I became part of what you’d call sort of the second generation of tattoo artists—there is basically modern tattooing as we know it today and tattooing before that.
Somewhere around the mid-1980s tattooing started to become a little fashionable. Up until then it was like sailors and bikers and criminals and blue-collar workers. There was a lot of tattooing going on, but it wasn’t visible to mainstream society. Then sometime in the early to mid-80s a new subcultural group started getting interested in tattooing, and that was rock and roll musicians. Guys like Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That was around the time MTV became a viable source of culture. Suddenly people are seeing tattoos on these bad-boy rockers, and from there it just kind of snowballed. Being in the right place at the right time, I was kind of the generation that was the bridge between these two worlds. In that capacity, I was very instrumental in not only seeing all that happen but making a lot of it happen. That’s kind of the short version of how things all fell together for me in that context.
SV: It’s intriguing that it was the lifestyle that drew you into the tattoo world. What do you think about the tattoo industry now? I mean, when you pioneered this art form getting a tattoo was about making a real statement. Do you agree with some critics today who think now a tattoo is just another hipster trend, like a bushy beard, denim skinnies and mock specs?
JS: (Laughs) Before the whole Tattoo Reality Show thing started, some big Hollywood mucky-muck producer approached me with an offer to head up the first one. I turned him down. Some people would say I really missed the boat on that one, but hey, I didn’t wanna be on that fucking boat. I’d been tattooing for over half my life at that point. I was already sober and looking for a way to get out of the game. I was done. For me, an offer like that was like being offered a luxury stateroom on the fucking Titanic. No way was I gonna waste any more of my life pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Tattooing used to be something cool and edgy, but when it became a respectable mainstream gig, it lost a lot of its beauty for people like me. Even as it attained greater levels of public approval, a certain mediocrity crept into the thing. You know, the public can be a real shit-eating monster. Just look at all the vapid horseshit they’re putting out on television and the movies these days! And the public just eats it up! It’s fucking pathetic. Shit, man, that’s basically why I shied away from stock commercial tattooing back in the day and started doing my own thing creatively, developing new styles, the whole modern tribal thing, it was basically to get away from catering to the mainstream public’s overwhelming bad taste. Let somebody else do that shit. I’m sure I’m not gonna make a lot of friends by talking like this about the modern tattoo renaissance, but hey, I’ve paid my fucking dues.
SV: Yeah somehow I can’t see you as the king of tattoo TV or any other reality show sell-out. Could you tell us a little about your introduction into tribal tattooing and what it involves?
JS: When I first started experimenting with new styles, developing a sort of fusion of traditional primitive pacific island iconography with my own modern abstract design patterns that became known as “neo-tribal” tattooing, well, that kind of shit was pretty much unheard of back then in tattoo circles. The stock in trade was limited to a very set standard, without a lot of wiggle room creatively. So it was kinda like in the land of the blind, I was the one-eyed man who became King. Next thing I knew, I was being copied by less resourceful, less imaginative tattoo artists and, boom, a new style was born (laughs). The whole neo-tribal craze I started went on to become like the meat and potatoes of an emerging tattoo industry. Back then the very idea of using the words ‘tattoo’ and ‘industry’ in the same sentence woulda sounded totally ludicrous to most of us in the game. Now, look at it.
SV: And now it’s a million dollar business with suits and celebs inking their torsos. This leads me to another question about the fame game. You’re famous in your own right but have special friendships with some of the biggest names in film, art and music – how did you meet and stay the course with people like Depp, Jarmusch, Iggy pop and Joe Coleman?
JS: Well, the whole “celebrity clientele” thing wasn’t what I was after when I first started tattooing. Nothing coulda been further from my mind. It just developed as an organic thing over time, but I certainly never set out to become the “Tattooist to the Stars’ or anything like that (laughs). I mean, yeah, the business was good and all that, but once I started getting branded with that kinda public reputation it all just started getting kinda stupid, y’know. Hoards of all these real middle-America types coming in from all over the place, and they weren’t even coming to me for the quality of the work but just because I was the guy who tattooed all these famous people. It coulda been anybody for all they cared. The good old herd mentality. Most of these fuckers didn’t know shit about tattooing, they just wanted the status of, ‘I got tattooed by the famous guy who did so-and-so’s shit’. But yeah, word-of-mouth got the ball rolling, and next thing I knew I was going on Letterman and getting visits from people like Iggy, Johnny Depp, The Cure, Shane MacGowan, Dee Dee Ramone, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Winter, Kate Moss, Orlando Bloom, Tupac Shakur and all his bitches. The VIP list goes on and on. Even Vanilla Ice was lining up for an appointment, much to my embarrassment. But hey, it was the 90s, right? (laughs) Everyone who was anyone – or thought they were – was clamouring for ink from me back then. Some of them I’d known before I became a brand name: people like Iggy, Johnny and Jarmusch. Others, like David Lee Roth and Tupac, I got to know through tattooing. Some of these guys became lifelong friends. There were others I tattooed once or twice then never saw again. People tend to come and go around tattooing, which has always been an essentially transient art form. The lifestyle is pretty much part of an outsider culture, at least it was back then. In that sense there was always a certain bond between someone like me as this notorious outsider artist and all these eccentric off-the-wall celebrity types. Life in the fast lane and all that, it all just kinda went with the territory.
SV: Ironically, Vanilla Ice has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance lately so clearly you were trailblazing the moment. How did you become immersed in that whole downtown NYC art scene — an off-beat nirvana for like-minded free spirits?
JS: Same thing. Law of attraction or whatever. It was a pretty small world back then, and anybody who was doing anything down there creatively eventually got to know each other. One thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself right in the middle of this very vital and vibrant underground art scene. The people who ran in those circles, many of us just naturally gravitated together, y’know, like a tribe or something. There were many tribes and sub-tribes working downtown back then, and we tended to support and encourage each other. Still do. It’s a natural thing. It wasn’t about tattooing, wasn’t a tattoo thing at all. No way! I just happened to be a tattoo artist. Others were making music or film, painting, performance art, whatever, but there wasn’t any distinction or rivalry between us as there is in the so-called tattoo community, no, we each had our own unique thing going on, and we respected each other as artists and got to be friends over the years. When I quit tattooing and started devoting my time and energy to writing full-time that was seen as a natural transition by most of my peers. I’m not talking about tattoo artists, most of those people I never really considered my peers. I don’t mean that in a snobby, disrespectful way, but I always just felt more comfortable around artists working in other fields. So when I started writing and putting out books those were the people who really showed a lot of support, not the tattoo people so much, but other writers and artists in general. Those are the ones I like to think of as my real peers.
SV: And armed with the sound of the scribe in your head, could you share with us the backstory of how Narcisa Our Lady of Ashes, your best-selling novel, went from an ‘idea’ to being republished and eventually topping the Amazon best seller list for over 6 consecutive weeks, with Harper Collins, no less: a national and international success? As an underground writer, did you have difficulty in trying to get it published and recognised?
JS: Once again, the whole process developed pretty much organically, like most things in my life have happened. There’s a quote by Lawrence Durrell where he wrote, “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” During the process of writing Narcisa, I contemplated those words a lot. How it came about was like this: I’d recently quit the tattoo business and moved back to Brazil to write. I was struggling through a first draft of my Scab Vendor memoir. I’d been working on that book for years already, on and off. Over the course of the writing process, I’d become like an archaeologist, searching for clues to my own past, digging up memories of people, places and things I’d buried way in the back of my mind and forgotten about for years, decades, when suddenly these two characters, Narcisa and Cigano, her partner in crime, just kinda stormed onto the page, like a pair of angry children, clamouring for my immediate attention. So I dropped my other book-in-progress and just surrendered to their weird imaginary exploits and just wrote and wrote until it was done.
All through the process of writing that book I felt kinda like a war correspondent documenting some surreal battle between heaven and hell (laughs). Living with those deranged phantoms, even as I wrote them into existence, it was like following a pair of soot-faced miners down into the festering wounds of my own darkest places. So, to answer your question, yeah, the book evolved organically over a number of years. How it ended up getting published was that an earlier draft was released in 2008 by Heartworm Press, a really cool little American indie publisher. The initial print run of 5000 sold out in a few weeks, and then the book became this sought-after cult classic, a collector’s item, with copies fetching hundreds of bucks online. It wound up getting over 200 5-Star Amazon reviews — crazy numbers for an obscure little underground novel by an unknown author. I mean, the thing was out-of-print and unavailable to the average reader for years. So that ‘cult-classic’ distinction got the ball rolling, initially, and then a new, heavily revised draft was picked up by HarperCollins after Johnny Depp launched his imprint there. He gave it a nod cuz he really liked the book, but ultimately it was up to the editors at HarperCollins whether they wanted to publish it or not.
Depp didn’t have a say in that, really. Luckily for Narcisa, the big boys liked it enough to take a chance with it, so after JD gave it the thumbs up it came out and had a nice little run in the sun. But it’s still essentially an ‘underground’ novel. For my part, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with their approach to marketing the book. They coulda done a much better job of getting it out there, especially having Johnny Depp’s name attached to the thing, but I guess that’s how it goes with big publishers like that. Unless you’re Stephen King, or somebody like that who doesn’t need the support, you’re not getting much support from a big publisher. They couldn’t care less. It’s a big faceless corporation. They don’t care about art or literature. They’re in business to make money. And if they’re gonna make money on a cookbook or some atrociously-written celebrity shit stain then that’s what’s gonna get the juice, not some piece of what they consider lowlife literature. They couldn’t give two shits. Jerry Stahl, one of the greatest living writers in America hardly sells any books either, so at least I’m starving in good company (laughs).
SV: Well yes, some of the most gifted minds of our times have suffered penury and hardship from Blake to Van Gogh, and no doubt artists will continue to succumb to the brutality of poverty in an increasingly commercialised industry, so despite the growth of the new digital presses that have burst onto the scene, there still seems to be a lack of counterculture authors like yourself. In the 60s City Lights was famous for breathing new life into the literary world, many believe it was a more beneficial climate for such authors than today’s publishing world, would you agree?
JS: Absolutely, after what I just said how could I possibly disagree? It would be totally hypocritical. Sometimes I find myself lamenting the feeling that I was born in the wrong era. Like back in the day, the kind of writers I’ve always admired, the so-called ‘outlaw’ writers like Kerouac, Burroughs Henry Miller and Celine, those guys actually were able to make a living with their books. Try that shit today. It’s a whole different climate, and unless you’re lucky enough to have ‘em make a movie out of your stuff or something you better not quit your day job. The publishing world is like so many other businesses today. They’re being absorbed by big, faceless corporate concerns with little time or interest in giving writers editorial or promotional support. Back in the days of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and all that those guys were treated like fucking superstars. You had hands-on editors like Maxwell Perkins who really cared about the writers they worked with. Where’s all that today? No such thing. But at the same time I’m a firm believer in that Joseph Campbell quote. If you’re a writer, you need to just ‘follow your bliss’ and keep going, no matter what. I never got into writing with the idea of amassing cash and prizes from it. If I wanted that, I woulda never quit tattooing. I guess there’s some writers who see it as a business, a job, whatever. But I’m one of those guys who writes to save his life. If I didn’t have this kind of creative outlet, I’d probably follow a life of crime or commit some horrible atrocity (laughs). Bukowski was one of those writers who wrote because he simply needed that expression. So was my friend Dan Fante. Jerry Stahl, Hubert Selby Jr., ditto, I’ve been very fortunate to know so many like-minded writers, and we all seem to have that one thing in common. Write or die, y’know.
SV: Narcisa has received widespread critical acclaim. What do you think Bukowski would make of it?
JS: The book or the critical acclaim? (laughs) Bukowski was a funny guy. He didn’t give two shits about critical acclaim on some levels, but I think he kinda basked in it when it finally came to him, in a wry kinda way. God knows he sure had it coming, and on some levels I think he felt vindicated by all the positive recognition at the end of his life. Sweet revenge, y’know? Anyway, I think he would have enjoyed my book, the writing, the subject matter, the whole twisted spirit of the thing. There were times where I could swear I even felt him like looking over my shoulder during the writing process, saying stuff like, ‘boring metaphor, I could write a better one with my dick!’ or ‘you nailed it there, kid. Now you’re talkin’!”
SV: Narcisa tells the story of a ‘motorcycle riding nomadic poet,’ and his ‘crack smoking philosophical prostitute’ lover. Is any of it secretly autobiographical?
JS: Most good fiction is autobiographical, to a degree, in that it reflects the big T Truth of a writer’s soul, if not necessarily telling the small t truth through any particular story. There really are no new stories under the sun, just endless variations on ancient, recurring human themes. It all boils down to the old ‘boy meets girl’ plot, I guess, and then all hell breaks loose, blah blah blah. It’s not an original concept when it comes to our collective mythos as a race, because the basic themes of Narcisa are basic universal human themes. On a surface level the story is steeped in all this sex and drugs, adventure and hedonistic living, but then it goes into some really surreal levels of addiction, greed, aberrant behavior, violence, betrayal, anguish, degradation, emotional trauma and terror. But the story is always underscored by a deep and pervasive undertone of unconditional love, flawed, lust-driven “romantic” love, which is a reality for so many people, and a passionate quest for salvation, redemption of the human spirit. These are all basic human themes. There’s all sorts of deep emotional subtexts to the book, basic human condition stuff. Almost anybody who’s even half awake can easily relate to these two characters’ insecurities and fears, their hopes and dreams and nightmares, their feelings. Because Narcisa deals with base level human feelings, the kind of strengths and weaknesses and all the little comedies and tragedies we all experience in our feeling world every day, the stuff that propels the human experience as we live it, whether we’re living extreme realities like these two characters or just coming and going from the office every day. As human beings, we need to share our experience, strength and hope with each other in order to help each other navigate the human experience. In that sense, storytelling is a very powerful evolutionary tool, one of the most ancient compulsions of the human race.
SV: The book lampoons consumerist values in an increasingly soulless society, like where the protagonist continuously uses materialism to buy his lover’s affections, i.e. TV, designer threads. Do you think this constant desire for false gods in our society has eroded our morality and humanity? The gods we serve now: a Mercedes Benz and a get-away pad in the Caribbean. How did you distance yourself from that all that glitz and greed, or were you always a bohemian radical?
JS: Well, having been raised in a very privileged, materialistic American Dream home where all that kind of glitz and glamor was basically a sort of turd-polishing device, a cover up for all kinds of dark, nightmarish shit going on under the surface, I instinctively recoiled from all that at a very early age. So, yeah, I guess you could say I was always a bohemian radical, or at least one in the making. As a kid, I just thought to myself, shit, if this is how rich people live, like wild fucking animals, I didn’t want any part of it. I think that’s a big part of what set me on a different course in life, firstly instilling in me the compulsion to run as fast and as far away from where I came from and generally infecting me with a deep and pervasive revulsion for the whole American Dream culture.
SV: Which authors living or dead do you find inspiration from?
JS: Oh, man, the list goes on and on. I’m gonna have to really think about that question. If I get started, It’s never gonna end. Let’s just say all the usual suspects, plus a whole lot of others, some well-known, some pretty obscure. Bottom line is this: for me, there’s only two kinds of writers, those who write “commercially” with a lot of craft and technique and scholarly devices, and oftentimes very little substance, and those other guys I was talking about before, the ones who write compulsively, barbarically, out of a deep inner need to express themselves honestly and sincerely through language. They literally have to get it out of them before they end up killing themselves or somebody else. One of my early mentors was the great American outlaw writer, Hubert Selby Jr. He was often quoted as saying he was like “a scream looking for a mouth” before he found writing. It’s people who write like that who inspire me to keep going. Yeah. Here’s the short list of writers who’ve had an influence on my writing and my thinking: Louis Ferdinand Celine, HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Amado, Kerouac, Bukowski, Jerzy Kozinski, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Jerry Stahl, John Fante, Dan Fante, Lydia Lunch, Gregory David Roberts, Wally Lamb, Emmet Fox, David Icke… Fuck, the list goes on and on. That really is just a very short list, much shorter than what I’d give you if I had all the time in the world to really think about it.
SV: Well, that’s plenty to be going on with. Now you’ve been quite busy lately, having also published Scab Vendor Confessions of A Tattoo Artist, which we mentioned earlier, essentially it’s a no-holds-barred memoir of your life. Was that a cathartic experience?
JS: Oh, yeah! I don’t think there’s any experience more cathartic than going through your own life and your past history with a fine-tooth comb and unearthing all kinds of fucked up, scary shit along the way. Definitely scary, that’s probably why it took me half a century to even find the courage or desperation to begin (laughs). I’d been journaling all through the 70s during some really insane, self-destructive times when everybody was dying all around me. I dunno how those old journals survived all the subsequent decades as I traveled around the world like a crazed ghost. But they did. Then, a lifetime later, I dredged them up out of an old suitcase I found in my mother’s garage.
Opening up those old notebooks more than thirty years after they’d been written was like cracking open the fucking mummy’s tomb or something (laughs). A very surreal experience, and reading through them had a profound effect on my current writing. In retrospect, I think it was like some sort of weird, unconscious survival mechanism going on in me back when I’d originally written all that stuff. Having been a heroin addict, I’d never thought I’d live to see twenty. My general attitude at the time was like, okay, well, as long as I’m going to hell here, I may as well take a lot of pictures along the way, leave something behind for posterity, y’know?
Those old journal entries became the pictures I’d taken along the road to hell, so to speak, and the posterity turned out to be a reborn, reincarnated version of myself. So, when I came across all those old journals, it was as if they’d been sitting there in limbo like one of those time-capsule things, just waiting for me to reincarnate someday and come dig them up and do something with them, rearrange them from these little literary scrapbooks like a sorta big, bizarre jigsaw puzzle. They became part of a roadmap for navigating my present writing projects, the big long memoir I always needed to write, but just never had the wherewithal. Somehow, I’d survived a perilous journey from the past to the present and gotten clean and sober, so I started going back to that terrible old crime scene to write a book about it all these years later, throwing in bits and pieces of stuff I’d picked up along the way, right up to the present time. My brother artist Joe Coleman described the process as being like vivisecting one’s own soul, and I really related to that analogy. That’s what it’s been like (laughs), like undergoing a prolonged spiritual, emotional surgery. Painful. This book has been unravelling itself for years, y’know, well over a decade of writing now, digging deeper and deeper as I go along. At this point, what originally started out as one book has developed into thousands of pages of stories. It’s all basically told in some sort of weird chronological order, but there’s way too much writing at this stage to ever be published as one book.
Nobody’s gonna read a thousand page book nowadays. My literary agent read the first book, which constitutes about a third of the overall story, and just that book alone was nearly a thousand pages. So he suggested I break it up into two books in order for him to be able to shop it to publishers. So I cut the thing in half, and we promptly got a good publisher to take it. It’s slated for release in early 2017. Even after the second book eventually gets released, both books are still gonna make up only about a third of the projected saga. So it’s gonna be a long haul to get the whole story out. It will eventually amount to somewhere between 5 and 10 books, all told, should I live long enough to complete the whole thing.
SV: Hopefully you’ll see it through. Talking of Joe Coleman, the celebrated artist, you too are a respected and distinguished painter and have had several art shows all over the world. Do you have a favourite piece of art?
JS: It’s funny, I’ve done a lot of painting and drawing over the years, but for most of the time I was so involved in tattooing that I never had the time to pursue it fully. It was only after I quit commercial tattooing that I really started being able to make the kind of art I really like personally, the kind of stuff I’d buy to hang on my own wall. I guess it’s because back when I was tattooing there were always the clients, customers telling you what they wanted, how they wanted you to work, so most of the time it was like working under this constant constraint, like trying to make art with some fucking moron breathing down your neck, art directing you, telling you what to do. With very rare exceptions it was always like trying to paint a masterpiece wearing handcuffs. So when I quit tattooing it was like the handcuffs came off, and suddenly I was free to do the kind of stuff they would never let me do. My own vision. It was a very liberating feeling, very empowering. The weird thing, though, is that one of my favourite “painting” projects was when I got these antique shop mannequins and started painting all these old school tattoo designs all over them, like the old time carnival tattooed lady with full body tattoos, y’know? It was so much fun, and I never had to run anything by anyone else, nobody telling they didn’t like the placement, the size of this or that design, the juxtaposition. I called the shots and that was it. Those old tattooed store dummies turned out really great. Wound up selling ‘em to serious collectors at different art galleries. One of ‘em was bought for some outrageous sum of money by the recording artist Pink. Another one went to this big Canadian art collector, Bill Jameson, a friend of Joe Coleman’s. Later he died. Sometimes I wonder what ever became of that piece. I never even got any good pictures of ‘em. It’s one of my biggest regrets.
SV: A change of gear now, and I’d like to talk contemporary pop culture. America is going through a lot of social, political and cultural changes. What’s your view on American pop culture now? Do you think that the revolutionary vibe, i.e. Beyoncé and her black power salute, is genuine or is it just political posturing calculated to elicit a certain political response and repackaged to an ostensibly capitalist crowd?
JS: I have no idea who the fuck Beyoncé even is, really, other than that you hear that name blasted into your consciousness every two fucking minutes. Shows you how much I know or give a shit about American pop culture (laughs), so I’m really not an authority.
But, like, I think it was Bob Dylan said a long time ago, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. And it’s a foul wind indeed that’s blowing all over the planet in these apocalyptic times today, not just in America, but globally. From my perspective, all the social, political and cultural changes you speak of are just smoke and mirrors. The more things change, the more they tend to follow the same old time-tested script of oppression.
And it’s getting worse, no doubt, because of many factors, technology not being the least. So things that were already oppressive and rigged to favour the elite controllers, the poli-tricksters, the global cabal of mega-wealthy multi-national power mongers, those things are only getting worse today. Worse in the sense that the end results of all this greed, ignorance, fear and mind-control are speeding up exponentially and becoming more and more sophisticated with technological advances and globalization, etc.
At this stage of the game, it’s pretty clear to any intelligent person who’s even half awake and half informed that we’re facing mass extinction on this planet. It’s gotten to the point that unless there’s a radical change in human consciousness very soon it’s gonna be too late for all life on this planet to be sustained, including human life. I could go on and on with this topic for hours, but I won’t. The information about the effects of deforestation of the rain forests and chemtrails, fluoride in the water, the proliferation of GMOs and processed foods and all the massive corruption in high places and political fuckery that goes on to sustain this self-destructive climate for humanity is already out there. It’s readily accessible to anyone who wants to do the research and become aware of an increasingly morbid global agenda being perpetrated right under our noses.
For me, the bottom line is this: if we don’t start to wake the fuck up as individuals and as a race and fight to defend this planet and respect our mother Earth there’s gonna be all hell to pay. I admittedly don’t fit the popular conception of someone who functions easily in the mainstream of human affairs. I’m not a “team player” and I certainly don’t strive to fit in with Nine to Five societies. I don’t read the paper, don’t watch the news, don’t even own a fucking television. Never voted in an election. Never went to high school or college or held a real job. Never got married or raised any kids or “settled down.” The truth is, I spent most of my life drinking and drugging it up, running the planet, raising hell, seeking romance, adventure and extreme experience, while trying to suss out the game in one way or another. One thing I’ve come to find is that the more “normal” and “well-adjusted” and “politically correct” many people appear on the surface, the sicker, the more hypocritical, and ultimately duller they actually tend to be in reality.
Human society as a whole has always been a big let-down to me, mortally ill, mind-controlled, hypnotized, baffled, and hog-tied into an intricate web of highly persistent glittery illusions about itself and its own reality. And it seems more than ever now to be collectively brainwashed into a steadily deteriorating perversion of “reality” by the highly contagious scourges of TV, a bullshit Obedience Training system called ‘education’ and the insanely ridiculous mind-fuck matrix of worldwide poli-tricks and poli –tricksters: an incredibly complex soap opera played out by a creepy cast of characters that make the Cosa Nostra look like a bunch of ineffectual little boy scouts. It seems that most of us have been so efficiently conned into clamouring like lost children for some illusory sense of “security” in this big collective hallucination of a world that this surreal consensus reality has actually manifested into some very sick shit now.
The kinda shit that would have the good George Orwell doing back-flips in his grave. Big Brother is on us like a cheap suit with Homeland Security, a surveillance camera on every fucking street corner, satellites patrolling the stratosphere like floating robot storm trooper armies. It’s like some horrible Sci-Fi movie shit. But this shit is real — whatever the fuck that means anymore, especially in the light of the most cutting-edge Quantum Physics research coming into focus. Surreal is more like it. Chemtrails, poisoned food and water, bogus “terrorist attacks,” and now a carefully manufactured “financial crisis” to go along with all sorts of other creepy, paranoia-provoking scenarios, seemingly deliberate and strategically orchestrated to generate even more and more fear.
Fear seems to work like a charm for rallying popular support for insane practices that will clearly lead to the extinction of the human race if not perceived by the masses very soon! Ya gotta ask yourself, what the fuck is going on here? The more I observe humanity’s collective behavior, the more I see the familiar ingrained patterns of a big dysfunctional family reflected in our politics and history; lies, divisions, secrets, deception, all of the myriad behavioural devices that support an iron-clad infrastructure of deadly spiritual affliction.
I don’t know the answer, but one thing is clear: until a very bright blinding light is shed on what’s wrong with the present system, right down to its root causes and conditions in our individual souls, there can be little hope for its correction. Like I always say, “the truth will set you free, but it’s probably gonna hurt.” And that’s probably why some of the best writers and artists working in the world today aren’t usually the most popular ones.
SV: So, do you think the political and economic stability of a country affects the intellectual and artistic climate of society?
JS: Honestly? No idea. That’s a kinda trick question, like what came first, the chicken or the egg, right? As artists, I think it’s important to always approach our work in a spirit of love and service, rather than separating our bread and butter work from our ”higher purpose.” At the end of the day, there’s only one purpose anyway. And it is love and service, as far as I can determine.
The one time I did try to write a movie script with the idea of financial gain in mind it was such an out and out disaster on so many levels that it could almost be seen as more of a setback in some ways than progress. So much so that I’ve learned through necessity to just trust the muses and try to always stay true in my work to whatever the fuck is in my soul and needs to come out into the world for whatever reason.
As far as paying the rent, any shit job will do until the universe is ready to reward our efforts with the cash and prizes. As long as you got a roof over your head and food in your belly you are in good shape to love and serve the work itself. Anything beyond that is just extra milk on your Raisen Bran. If we are painstakingly persistent in our efforts as artists, I believe we will always find a way to get the work to where it’s meant to go.
SV: That’s excellent advice. Your father was a phenomenal artist and, as explained to those who might not know, a bonafide jazz legend. What kind of music do you groove?
JS: When I asked him the same question a long time ago, one of the wisest things the old man ever said to me (and he said alotta wise shit, self-serving as much of it was) was this: “There’s only two kinds of music. Good music and bad music.” As I get older, I find myself being able to relate to that concept more and more. I’d take it even a step further and apply it to all art. Good or bad.
To me, genre is pretty much irrelevant. If it’s got soul and integrity and technical excellence I will probably resonate to it, regardless of genre. But to answer your question, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, pretty much spanning the spectrum from Classical to Jazz to Rock to Bossa Nova, Country, whatever, just depends on what I’m in the mood to listen to at any given moment.
Much of the time these days I prefer silence or the sounds of nature, running water, birds singing, stuff like that, especially when I’m writing. I tend to listen to classical music a lot when I’m writing. Music with too many twists and turns lyrically just tends to distract me from being in the zone when I work. But when I’m painting or making visual art then it’s all about rock ‘n roll, baby!
SV: And you can’t get more rock and roll than Vintage Tattoo Flash, it’s your latest book, tell us about it?
JS: Well, the old style tattoo imagery that’s the main focus of this big coffee table art book was basically just part of the scenery in my life as a tattoo man. Back in the day, old hand-painted tattoo flash like that was much more commonplace in the tattoo world than it is today. It was everyday reference material for most of us, and you saw it everywhere. My collection of the old stuff that comprises the images in that book just sort of came together over the years as the stuff became more scarce and sought after. Tattooing is a popular art form, always has been. As such, the designs change and evolve according to public demand. The material you see on tattoo shop walls is basically dictated by popular tastes. New iconography started being introduced into the mix by newer upcoming tattooists sometime around the mid-70s, catering to the changing popular tastes of the time. The old designs that had been the bread and butter for the old school tattoo guys for so many decades was quickly becoming obsolete.
Much of this material was on its way to the dumpster when I started acquiring it. A lot of it was actually given to me, and even the stuff I did pay money for was sold at a very nominal cost. Most of these old school guys couldn’t get their heads around why anybody would even want it. To them, it was just obsolete shop material. Unsellable crap. You’ve gotta understand that for someone whose stock-in-trade is selling tattoos if a design doesn’t sell anymore, from their point of view, it’s basically worthless.
But I loved the old tattoo designs, always had, ever since I was a little kid. And I had a very strong intuition that someday it would make up a really cool, valuable archive. So I just started amassing boxes and boxes of the stuff, picking up more and more in my travels and interactions with the old timers and constantly adding to the collection. One day I woke up to realize I was sitting on priceless archives of vintage Americana, a really important documentation of folk art history. But I never consciously set out with that intention. Like most good things in life, it just fell together and happened on its own.
We did a couple of very successful and well-attended art shows back in the early-90s at galleries in New York and Hollywood, back to back. I remember the first big show was done at a gallery in NYC. We were totally shocked and unprepared for the kind of crowds it drew. They had to set up police barricades around the whole block by the gallery to keep order on the night of the opening. It was insane. That’s when I first began to see the kind of power this stuff had to bring people out of the woodwork. The next show was on the West Coast in Hollywood about a year later. Same big crowds, same mad interest. You had all these big name movie stars and rock stars showing up to gawk at the artwork. After those first shows, I got busy with other projects, tattooing and working with the magazines, traveling the world, and the work all went back into storage. And that’s where it’s stayed until now.
After the original art shows back in the 90s there was much talk about doing a book. Robert Williams himself was one of the early supporters of the idea. There was this one guy (who will remain unnamed) who sat on the material for like 8 years, promising to get us a book deal with a big publisher, but it never happened.
Then, Johnny Depp came along and said he wanted to publish it and even offered to sponsor a traveling museum show. Ironically, right after Depp came into it, the other guy finally came back with an offer from Rizzoli. But it was too late. At that point I was already sick of waiting for him, so of course I made a commitment with Depp to do the thing, seemed like the best way to go at the time. Well, Depp ended up dropping the ball too, and then I was right back where I started.
No book. Life went on. I was busy with a thousand other projects, so the book idea just went on the back burner and stayed there for a long time. Meanwhile, I retired from tattooing and started writing other books. That’s when this tattoo book idea came back into the picture. I’d finally signed with a literary agent to oversee the HarperCollins deal for Narcisa. After that was in the bag he asked me what else I had, and I told him about the Vintage Tattoo Flash book. He shopped the concept to a few different publishers and came back with a decent offer from Powerhouse. I’d already done a couple of book signing events with them over the years for some of my works of fiction, and I knew them to be a good solid operation, so it all came together pretty effortlessly once the deal was signed and delivered. It’s the easiest book I ever published. All the work of collecting the stuff and having the authority to see what was good and not, that work was already done 30 years ago. It was like someone saying, hey, do you have a family scrapbook? We want to make it into a coffee-table art book. And I said sure, man. There’s enough material in this collection to put out another 5 to 10 volumes, so I guess we’ll just see how well this one does for the publisher. If it sells fast and makes them oodles of money, as I predict it will, I’m sure they’ll want to keep putting this stuff out there till the cows come home. And when they do, I’m ready to roll with it. It’s already being really well received within the tattoo community, but beyond that it’s started to get some noticeable buzz in the straight arts community, and that’s where I’d like to see this thing going, ultimately. I’ve already been approached by some serious artist management type people with the idea of taking the collection into the realm of fine arts galleries and even putting together museum exhibitions, so I guess we’ll just see where it all ends up from here.
SV: Intriguingly, despite being in the eye of the storm you made a conscious decision to live off the grid, away from the numbers and not beholden to any kind of establishment. Do you miss being part of the razzmatazz that someone of your celebrity stature could easily be part of?
JS: I think I may have answered that question many times, but in a word, no. Talking about living off the grid, my friend Iggy Pop just came out with a new album. My favourite song on it is this thing called Paraguay. After listening to it the first time, I realized he must have been inspired by a conversation we had after I told him about my time living there in Paraguay. In that song, Iggy managed to express the essence of what I’d been feeling and experiencing when I dropped off the grid of all grids and moved there. It was weird, like one day, after living half a lifetime in Brazil, where I’d first gone to drop off the grid, ironically, I became totally disgusted by what I saw as an ugly extension of American globalism creeping into my adopted home there.
Rio, the place I’d always felt so comfortable in with its disorganization, its lawlessness and anarchy, was suddenly becoming this surreal, horrible replication of the kind of awful changes I saw New York go through under gentrification, the whole New World Order thing taken to a really surreal third-world extreme, and I just knew I had to get the fuck out of Brazil. It didn’t feel like home anymore. Once again, I was this wandering gypsy, displaced, orphaned and uprooted by progress and longing for a simple life in a simple place, totally off the grid. So I got on my motorcycle back in Rio and just started riding south.
I wound up in Asuncion, Paraguay, and right away I felt right at home there. It was like getting into a time machine and going to someplace that doesn’t exist anymore in the modern world. It was like being in some Garcia Marquez story. Macondo. Paraguay is this weird timewarp kinda place. Nobody ever goes there. No reason to. There’s nothing there. I loved it! If this world has an end, Paraguay is it. I wound up just staying there like I’d really found my place in this world again, a place totally off the map, off the grid, as you put it, where nobody could ever find me and I could just live a simple life among simple people like that in a forgotten little corner of the universe where I could just live all alone in peace.
I was really thinking about just cashing in my chips and staying there for good, like, just fuck it, y’know. Eventually, though, I dunno, I got on my bike and rode back to Rio then eventually I went back to the States, mostly to pursue my writing career, but it was this really charming little interlude in my life, a very special time in a really special place.
Anyway, when I got back to America, I was telling Iggy about it, and next thing you know I hear this song he wrote, Paraguay, and it hit me, like, hey, he got that from me! But I’d already forgotten about our Paraguay conversation, so it was like this surreal little flashback when I heard the song. I sent him a text one day where I said, hey, I lived that song before you wrote it, brother, and he wrote back, “I know you did. Love ya, baby!” (laughs). So there’s this whole dreamlike quality to the whole thing, and yeah, to answer your question, no, I’ve never wanted anything to do with razzmatazz or celebrity stature. Fuck that shit. Neither has Iggy, despite all his fame and notoriety. Guys like us are all about dropping off grids, and I guess that’s what people like about us in some weird way.
SV: Dropping off the grid, you’ve embraced Brazil very much as your home, How has it changed since you first landed ?
JS: It’s like I explained, it lost all it’s charm for me over the last decade or so, at least the big city, Rio de Janeiro It’s changed in so many ways that are just repulsive to me. Progress, greed, corruption, political intrigue, globalism. It’s an ugly thing to see. I don’t know if Brazil will ever be able to survive the horrible karma of allowing the destruction of the Amazon to take place within its borders. It’s a crime against nature and all life on this planet of such massive proportions. It’s like a fucking modern day holocaust. Genocide of indigenous peoples, it’s like a spear in the heart of humanity. Very tragic situation. I could go on and on, but what’s the use? Brazil is a fascinating cultural melting pot, a place of massive extremes, like a magnified reflection of all that’s good and beautiful and noble and all that’s evil and horrible and corrupt about everyplace on this planet, everything that’s good and bad in the overall human experience. It’s definitely a raging battlefield for extreme forces of light and darkness, but I guess you could say the same thing about just about any place on the planet right now, right? Like it or not, Brazil is my home, spiritually. It’s a huge reference point for me and as such it’s a place where I see the light and the darkness playing out in vivid Technicolor. A ringside seat for the Apocalypse.
SV: Is there anything you haven’t experienced that you’d like to?
JS: That’s a heavy question. There’s so much to see and do in this world, but realistically, there’s no way I could possibly see and do it all. Not within the constraints of one lifetime. So sometimes I’m like, what the fuck? It’s frustrating to even contemplate such a question (laughs). Is there anything I haven’t experienced that I’d like to? Fuck yeah! I’d like to have spent 20 years exploring the Orient. I’d like to spend another 20 years living with indigenous tribes in the Amazon. I’d like to have lived in Cuba! Fuck. Just gimme one year in every fucking unknown place like Paraguay, all across the globe, and I’d be happy.
But fuck, man. I’m 63 years old already, and I’ve still got a whole past lifetime of lifetimes to reflect on and write all these books about, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of any of the shit I wanna do yet, so what the fuck? Frustration! Fuck you! Don’t ask me questions like that! What a horrible thing to ask someone! Agony! Pure agony!
SV: (chuckles like Muttley cartoon pooch ) Ok another one: What’s been your most surreal happening to date?
JS: Iboga. Google it!
SV Ah, the psychotropic dazzle of Iboga — googled it. That’s a whole other story right there, but right now: when you lay it all on the table you’ve had such a rich and varied life, looking back what do you think of your magic carpet ride so far and what’s been, in your mind, your highest point, most notable achievement?
JS: My most notable achievement? Seriously? (laughs). Having lived on this planet and survived intact for 63 fucking years. That’s my most notable achievement, no doubt. And that so-called achievement is only by the grace of God. Left to my own devices, I shoulda been eating grass by the roots at twenty. Having been spared a cruel destiny and put on a path of creative redemption, that’s what I call a fucking miracle. Any notable achievements I’ve been graced with the good fortune to demonstrate in this life must be credited to God’s infinite grace and mercy. The only part I can ever take a little bit of credit for is having found, mostly through utter desperation, just enough willingness and open-mindedness to humbly and gratefully accept that grace and mercy.
SV: Ladies and gentleman: Jonathan Shaw, no introduction necessary.
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