In the first installment of Marked For Life, I bemoaned how tattoos have devolved from substantive artistic marks of individuality to ready-made body decoration, lacking any personal import, spiritual meaning, or even thought. Los Angeles in particular is rife with people adorned with straight out of the parlor book tattoos. Bland hearts, roses, and sunbursts are everywhere, mere fashion accessory with zero utility. Barbed wire and tribal design flesh-feces are wrapped around the arms of meat heads who I doubt can claim any clan whatsoever. The Illustrated Man has become the ornamented dolt.
As I'm pulled from one art exhibit to another by forces I can't control, it's become clear that it is in those places where artistic types congregate that you will find original, intriguing, even meaningful permanent markings sported among the masses. I wanted to hear the stories behind those tattoos, so Marked for Life was born.
He may not be covered in ink, but I chose Mat Gleason, the evil genius behind Coagula Art Journal and Coagula Curatorial, for the second MFL. I chose Mat for a couple of reasons. One, he's the only person I've ever met who has a Frank Stella tattoo! Two, he's an interviewer's dream! He's one of those rare conversationalists who will do all the heavy lifting. All you have to do is press record. So, that's pretty much what I did...
So, in the beginning…what was your tattoo genesis?
But didn't you do that for a class project or something?First one was at a sailor tattoo parlor in San Diego. It’s a Frank Stella. It was based on this painting he did, aluminum painting, called Union Pacific. Frank Stella did his black paintings, and was really a scandal in the art world. One of the funny things about the black paintings is they really look like pin striping. Now the canvas has aged. It's yellowed. So, it was a really brilliant white popping out through the black, and the same with the aluminum series, which is basically just a silver color. So, the Union Pacific, what it was, was a shaped canvas. So, you could look at the black ones as having had an image. A lot of them had an image of an X, so it started and ended. So what he did with the aluminum series is he made the actual stretcher bars shaped, and so it followed the shape. I drew it freehand on graph paper for the guy, and he dug it. This guy had seen many a tattoo, nothing like tattooing now, but you know? Many a somebody had pulled into San Diego for their first tattoo. I didn’t bother explaining. He just thought it was a cool design. About two thirds of the way through, and he said ‘Are you Jewish?’ I said no, I was raised Catholic. There’s some Jewish in my family going way back, but we’re Irish Catholic. He said, ‘Oh, because this looks like a menorah.’ I was like, oh my God. It does! Now Union Pacific, when you see it has many more bars. He just did four and four. So, it was interesting.
Well, I didn't really do the class project. I needed to blow the teacher away, so I just said look, I got this tattoo done as my art project…and it blew the guy away. He said you’re a terrible painter, but you think better than most artists. That’s how he described it. Everyone at Cal State LA, every one of my teachers there said ‘You’re not really a good painter, but you’re good at talking about art, and writing about art.’
What made you go to San Diego to get the Stella?
I was 23; a friend of mine was getting his master’s degree at UCSD. So, we got there before he was having his big party. We were just hanging out, and I said, ‘Fuck it! I’m going to do it.’ It was like forty bucks I think.What came next?
So, my second tattoo was, I have a tattoo of Barney Rubble. What happened is I went to this Sunset Strip Tattoo, and the guy’s name was Basement Bob. They all had jail names back then. I went in and what I wanted was a Barnett Newman, and I wanted it under the Frank Stella. I wanted it the same size, I wanted a red square with an orange stripe in the middle, and I wanted no black ink. This girl I was going out with, her name was Maria; she was getting it for me as a birthday present. But she said, I’m not going to get you that. She said ‘You’re just going to end up with a bunch of paintings on your back! You’re going to put a square there, and another square there. No’, and for some reason I said --- (I was doing a lot of drugs then, drinking) --- well, if I can’t get a Barney Newman, I’ll get a Barney Rubble. So, the guy had a book of all the cartoon characters and there was Barney Rubble. It was forty bucks. I got a Barney Rubble. So, that was cool.Then I met a guy at Cal State LA, where I was going to school and his name was Steve Oswald, and he was a jeweler. He made this amazing jewelry. I saw him one day. He was in the jewelry department. He was melting ---he had done a sculpture of a cherub that holds the globe in some mythology. It was an exquisite sculpture of a cherub turning his hand, with the globe starting to fall out, and his other hand he was giving the finger. It was amazing ---and he was melting it down to make a tattoo gun. He said, ‘I’m legally changing my name next week to Chester, and I’m going to be a tattooist.’ He was an exquisite classical drawer. So, he needed to work on somebody. He said I could get a free tattoo. Come on down to Sunset Strip Tattoo. I said ‘Wow. I was just there.’ So I went down and I brought the Velvet Underground cover of the Warhol banana, and I got a free tattoo. Then I thought, hell man, I’m going to get more free tattoos.I was coming up with my own. I was making a lot of designs, what you would call now tribal tattoos, but I was just making these drawings. So then my fourth tattoo was this tribal design of my own, and what I wanted was ---I said, ‘Oh next week, I want to come back and I want you to do the same one, in a mirror image on the other side of the Stella’. Robert Benedetti was instructing Chester on tattooing. So, Chester would do some, and then Benedetti would do some. It would hurt more when Benedetti was doing it, but he knew what the fuck he was doing. Chester studied from the best in the fucking business. Benedetti says to me, he goes ‘Look, we don’t do symmetrical tattoos here. Symmetry is the most boring ---I love the piece on your back, in the center, that’s great ---but if you put one here, and you put one there, you’re going to say you put a star here, and then you’ve got to put a star there. No.’ He starts talking about art history, and the guy knew what the fuck was going on. He was a man of the world. He wasn’t one of those guys that only have a moronic tattoo sensibility. This guy was an artist. Like, he knew how to use a tattoo gun as a tool of art, to get different things out of it. This guy was a master fucking artist, and a pure craftsman. He had the line, ‘We’re like a brain surgeon. We don’t make mistakes.’ That was his attitude. So, he said, ‘Next week, why don’t you do a big arm piece. Do a design. Chester and I will do it.’ I thought ‘Wow! I’m going to get a big arm tattoo!’ I’m going in every week now. So, I was born in the year of the dragon, and it was the year of the dragon, 1988. This book had just come out, 100 Dragons and it was by Ed Hardy. At the time, this guy was the most underground fuckin’ artist of all time. Well, we know what’s happened to Ed Hardy now. So, it’s like ‘Oops!’ So, I got the outline of a big fucking dragon, picked from the book, on my left arm. I went to therapy years later, because I had heart surgery as a kid, and the heart’s on the left side. She said ‘You didn’t even know it, but that dragon was your protector.’ I went a couple weeks later and Chester and Benedetti did the color. That was my last one that I got with them. I might have overstayed my welcome. You know what? The girl, Maria, started getting tattoos from them too. She got a big back piece done. You know? We kind of maxed out our free tattoos there.Years later, about the time I started Coagula, I was having a real ---and this was probably from people telling me I should write about art --- I was having a real resentful relationship with art at the time, and I got a picture of Calvin, from Calvin & Hobbes, picking his nose, in between the Frank Stella and the Andy Warhol. That was my last back piece, that whole stretch, from Warhol to Barney. Oh, oh. And then one night we were drunk, I don’t even remember where this falls but we were really fucked up, and it was on tequila. If you don’t drink any beer, and you just drink tequila, it does have hallucinogenic properties and we had a bottle of India ink, and Maria did a Germs circle, the band the Germs…
(Before Mat gets any further in his explanation of the Germs iconic circle, I show him the one on my right arm, done with a homemade guitar-string gun.)
Okay yeah, I got a little one, on the back, with India ink and a needle. Those were crazy times. So then, in 1990-something, ‘94 or ’93, I sobered up and I got really into astrology, and I would go to the L.A. library every day. Instead of going to a bar for eight hours, I would go to the library, reading books, and I met this guy Bob Botero, who was an old hippie astrologer, and he gave me a chart reading. With my skeptical sense, I was very blown away by his ability to say things that were beyond what I consider to be random chance. You know the typical skeptic discussion of astrology is that it’s vague, but there were specific enough things that it kind of blew me away. So, I started reading astrology books. For a year and a half, I read almost 500 books on astrology. That sounds impressive but half of those were plagiarized from the others. In a year and half, I read a lot of books on it. You can tell me your birth date, I can calculate where the planets were, tell your fortune, and all that shit. I made a lot of money as an astrologer. I wrote horoscopes freelance, as a ghost writer for years. What happens when you get sober, what AA does is it gives you a spiritual experience. You have to have a spiritual transformation, or you can’t stay sober. So astrology was my spiritual transformation. Anyway, I got the tattoo of Jupiter. What I did was, I was working at Al’s Bar at the time, I was living upstairs and I was managing the American Hotel. They had a Xerox machine --- and there was this one picture of Jupiter, the symbol of Jupiter, which is good luck basically, as I read it in astrology --- so I Xeroxed it, and then I Xeroxed the Xerox, so it started to break up. I loved the fact that it was like a machine was --- like planets distort humans? --and here a machine was distorting the planet. So I fucking loved how it came out! I got that behind the dragon, but I don’t tell people ‘Oh this is Jupiter and I’m an astrologer’ - (here Mat makes the universal gesture for masturbation) –I just say it means good luck, and I made it this kind of pink color, I don’t know why. A lot of tattooists, hardcore tattooists, that’s their favorite tattoo of mine, because it’s so different.The same tattooist --- that was a guy named Mike Horton, he was a good friend of mine. He was in a band called Supercollider. If you can find a Supercollider album, they were on Émigré Records. They were like Phillip Glass meets Joy Division. They were just one of the great unknown bands of EVER! You hear them, and --- someone should make a movie just to have this as the goddamned soundtrack! They were just really, really good. Mike was tattooing at the time, and he also did my Jackson Pollock.Well, I had a book on Pollock with the Hans Namuth photos of him in the studio, and I really wanted a Pollock. Pollock’s my favorite artist, and I really wanted a Pollock tattoo. I looked at every fucking Pollock artwork. The catalog raisonne, they had a copy at the Cal State LA. I was at the library for weeks, and I would Xerox these. I spent so much money Xeroxing Pollocks, to try to find one that would translate as a tattoo.
Were you considering some of his early work?
I think the drip paintings were inevitable, like the Rothko color fields, somebody was bound to go there eventually. But do you think --- considering what Jackson did, and the impact it had --- do you think art has the potential to shock anymore?Everything! I looked at everything! From paintings he did at Manual Arts High School to --- he had a great drawing, it’s in the Met. It’s called War. It’s the most amazing fucking drawing you’ll ever see. He went to a shrink, and he did a whole series of psycho-analytic drawings. I bought the book on Ebay, it was a rare book, for a hundred and five dollars, just to get the fucking book. I tried to find one fucking thing. But this is the brilliance of Jackson Fucking Pollock, is there wasn’t any single piece that could be a tattoo. He never let an image hold him. Here I am looking for this, and it was like I was doing a visual dissertation on him. To look then and to look now, like the most popular artist in the world right now is Shepard Fairey, and it’s the opposite. That black line holds him. It’s handcuffs. It’s so fucking brilliant! I loved Pollock even more, so I took the Hans Namuth photo of him, and had him (tattooed), with no art around it.
You know, I don’t look at Pollock as a shocking artist, at all. If you read that famous Life magazine article, it’s actually mocking him, you know? The undertone of that is mocking. It did certainly hero-icize him to a whole generation of people --- and the idea that splattered paint was art. Look, abstraction now, abstract painting? That’s classical painting now. The upper crust? That’s what they like. At one time it might have been radical and shocking, but I think there have been things historically that were quote unquote, “more shocking”. Like I think Warhol’s “more shocking” than Pollock, especially from a political sensibility. But Pollock to me, was like, I always just liked him --- but it really just dawned on me how great he was, that he was able to make an image, without an image. His imagination, and your imagination as the viewer, actually unified the picture. Not many people do that, and thing is, with Pollock, that’s every fucking painting! I went back to some self-portraits he did, as a kid ---oh, I tried to find one thing that could translate to tattooing, which is the most graphic of any graphic art there is. I just couldn’t find it, and I looked at everything that guy ever did. Like I said, I ended up with a goddamned doctorate.
What are your thoughts on Krasner? I think she largely gets lost in the conversation about Pollock.
Lee Krasner was a good abstract painter. The interesting thing about Lee Krasner is she grew up reading Hebrew, which reads right to left, and I’ve seen time and time again, images of Lee Krasner paintings that were reversed. Take a slide of a Lee Krasner, and it’ll look better, to your eye and to my eye, when it’s reversed. It reads right to left. So what I’m saying in that regard, she is like every other abstract painter in that the painting is actually a composition of feelings, of ideas, of experience, of existence. It is to be almost read. Let me put it this way, is she greater than Pollock? No. Is she greater than Rothko? No. Is she greater that Clyfford Still? No. Is she greater than Robert Motherwell. Um, okay. Now were actually defining --- where does the water rise to? You know?Alright, well, one of these days you’ll have to try and sell me on Rothko. I have a violent reaction his work.
Yeah, well Rothko ---you know, chicks love Rothko. That’s the secret to dating in the art world. Never date a woman who doesn’t like Rothko. That’s the secret to finding a good woman.Okay, so what was the next tattoo, after Pollock?
Around that time, within a couple of years of the Pollock tattoo, I got a tattoo of the California Angels logo. My team changed its name from California Angels, changed the name to Anaheim Angels when Disney bought them, and there wasn’t a peep. Fast forward nine years and another owner, who bought it from Disney, changed the name to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and people got furious! But I was the only one the first time around going ‘Hey man, they just took my childhood away from me.’ They made it up to me by winning the world championship, so I’ll always appreciate that. I got the tattoo. What I didn’t know, I found out years later, is they were actually talking about contracting the team, and they were going to get rid of two teams in baseball. One was going to be the Minnesota Twins and they were trying to figure out the other one. Up for grabs was the Angels, and the talk was they were going to contract the Angels and move the Oakland A’s to Southern California. It didn’t happen, but I was getting the tattoo at the time like it was going to happen, they were going to take my team and disappear it. You’ve got to have a team to understand it. That’s fucking bullshit!So that’s the tattoo, it’s the state of California with a halo, with Orange County, where I grew up, in La Mirada, Fullerton. I remember this friend of mine, Jonas Olsson, he’s a soccer fan, artist, we’d talk about the difference between soccer and baseball. He says ‘Dodger Stadium is right by where you live?’ I said, ‘But I’m an Angels fan. I have to go Angels.’ He goes, ‘That’s fucking great, because I come from a little shit town in Sweden. Once in a while you’re little shit town team does well, and goes on a magical run. That’s when you got to put on that fucking jersey and say – I’m the guy from little shit team town! – you know?’ He totally understood. I took him to a game, and made him an Angels fan.In the fall of 2000, I got a really great job that paid me more money than I ever had, writing astrology. I knew all about astrology, and all of a sudden I was making shitloads of money. I never had that much money in my life. The sad story is I developed an extreme gambling habit. I was going to Las Vegas every week. I would go to work, I’d fly to Vegas. It was crazy.
Were you sober then?
Oh yeah, I was sober, but that’s a manifestation of sobriety. But I had all this money, so I went to a tattoo parlor and got --- I wanted a sacred heart, like a traditional --- I have all these non-traditional tattoos. I wanted a sacred heart. Kim Durham is her name, I traded her advertising in Coagula for the tattoo, and she designed this heart. The flame is an M, you know, and I had this number sign, which I consider math to be the ultimate abstraction, the point where reality becomes abstract.Are you into numerology as well?
No, no, but I tell you what, when the office I worked at closed, nobody had a hint of it. None of the psychics did. None of the tarot card readers did. None of the astrologers did. But the numerologist in New Jersey phoned and said ‘What’s going on over there today? The numbers are terrible.’ So, if you’re a numerologist, I always have to give them there cred. But I added the number sign as an abstraction, and I got the sign for Libra behind the dragon, in Packers colors, because Brett Favre is a Libra too. That was the last one.Are you done then? Given another free tattoo opportunity, what would you get?
You know, the only tattoo that I never got, that I wanted, was a Morris Louis, one of the drip paintings coming in from each side? They’re called the Open Series, and the drips come in from the left and right. He died really young, and he made these amazing stained canvases, where the drips come down diagonally, and I wanted that on my back, from the left and right, BUT--- I went to see a cardiologist and when he saw my tattoos he shit his pants. He said ‘We tell everybody with your condition, who has heart surgery, because the scar tissue of the heart is so sensitive, not to get a tattoo.’ I said ‘but they sterilize the needles’. He says there’s an impurity in the ink, and it lodges in the heart, and then you die. So, I can’t get any more tattoos.That seems like the perfect note to go out on. Thanks Mat!
Sure man, it was fun.
If you're in New York this weekend, swing by Coagula Curatorial's booth at the Pulse Art Fair and ask Mat some questions of your own.