It happens all of the time with people–especially males–this appraisal, a mutual measuring-up; a silent visual calculus to see who is stronger, wealthier, better-looking, or cooler la-la-la. It’s stupid. It’s right out of nature, this seeking of primacy in one’s species. Women do it as well, but it isn’t nearly as comical as when men do it.
A few years ago, I was flying to New York and sitting in first class because I had the miles and I was really happy to be there for once. It was a really hot day and I took my long-sleeved shirt off and was just wearing a fancy T-shirt. I have a bunch of tattoos and while, lately, you see more tattoos in first class than you used to, for some folks it is still a surprise.
The guy sitting across the aisle from me kept looking over, and then shaking his head. Every ten or so minutes, like clockwork. Look over, shake his head and, toward the end of the flight, add a perplexed-sounding exhalation. I ignored it. I learned a long time ago that what people who don’t know me think of me is none of my business. I honestly, no shit, don’t give a fuck.
The guy was roughly my age and looked like they all look in first class. He was a guy wearing a tie and a business suit. Beyond this, I couldn’t tell you another thing about him except at the beginning of the flight he asked the flight attendant if there was another first-class seat available “a little further away from the Illustrated man.” He said it loud enough so that I’d hear it—for my benefit. At this point I put my headphones on and cranked up my iPod.
At a certain point, the flight attendant apologized to me and I told him it wasn’t his fault and then I drifted off to sleep.
After the flight, I was getting my overhead stuff down and asshole with the tie could no longer help himself. With a smug, humorless smile, he asked me, “What’s with all the ink? What does THAT mean?”
I stepped in front of him on my way off the plane and told him, “It means I’m nothing like you, Skippy.”
I kept moving and the flight attendant was laughing and wished me the nicest of days.
I met my friend Nick Bubash around 1991. I’d known of him for years. In the tattoo world he was a legend, a for-real fine artist who was also one of tattooing’s leading lights. He came out of the lineage of Thom Paul DeVita, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, who’d apprenticed with Sailor Jerry. He was one of the old-school guys who tattooed in Pittsburgh and New York City when it was illegal (which it was for a very long time). In fact, it only became legal about fifteen years ago.
Bubash and I became instant friends. We had the same sense of humor, the same view of the world and the same love of etching and collecting old books with real printmaking in them. Nick was an expert. He’d go into the Strand Bookstore in New York, that legendary mile of books at 13th and Broadway, and buy five- or six-hundred bucks worth of old books that were worth far more because they were filled with actual etchings and lithographs from the last two-hundred years. You name it, Nick could find it.
One time, I lamented not being able to find a rare Lynd Ward book of woodcuts of New York. By noon, Nick had found two of them; one, in mint condition, about a mile from my house, with Ed Ripp, another great rare-book guy.
Over the last twenty years Nick and I have done a bunch of shows and prints together. We always get the same reaction when we stop for coffee or at a restaurant. Two big motherfuckers with a lot of tattoos. People look at us like we’re going to rob the place. It’s funny. Nick’s tattoos are genuinely frightening–skulls, snakes, birds. Mine, not so much.
One art dealer described us as, “Two big apes who look like walking comic books.” He isn’t wrong.
It’s fair to say I’ve learned more from Nick than I have from any other artist I know. He is closer to me a thousand miles away than people who’ve known me my whole life. There are those moments in life when you meet your natural confederates—like those whistles only dogs can hear—when you make a friend you know you will be tight with for the rest of your life. I have five or six friends like this. They all know each other and we are a pretty close bunch no matter where we are in the world. Nick is one of those guys I’d take a bullet for.
Every once in a while, we’ll be on the phone and Nick will describe another guy he knows and he’ll say, “He’s a good guy. Y’know, a good Joe–one of us. Just a regular slob… y’know what I mean?” This always destroys me with laughter—partly because Nick has a thick Pittsburgh accent and the word “slob” sounds like “slaawwwbb.”
I’ve been checking in with Nick a bit more lately. A couple of weeks ago, his best friend from first grade on, Bill Gomez, died of cancer. He was diagnosed and three weeks later he died. It shook my friend up and no matter how many well-worn platitudes one issues or attempts to console with, there is nothing for it, except picking up the phone and holding out a hand.
At our age, the end is no longer an abstraction. It’s not in the periphery; it is right in front of us—and has definable features. All roads lead to the Big Adios. So I check in with Nick, who, like me, knows that we got these tattoos because it is a perilously short time we get here—and this is part of how we track this journey and hold dear the milestones. In the end, what we remember is what we really have. Me and my friend Nick know this. So I call him regularly, so that we remember.
That we not forget.