Who is Scab Vendor? He's many things, including but not limited to: tattooer, writer, traveler, man of the world. He's tattooed Johnny Depp, hangs out with Iggy Pop and Kate Moss, he travels the world on the regular, he's written books, was Editor for the magazine International Tattoo Art when it was founded, and is one of the pioneers of New York's tattoo community, establishing Fun City Tattoo in 1976 making it Manhattan's oldest tattoo shop. But as much as this seems beyond the work of one man, even this description is sort of reductive. Jonathan Shaw, aka Scab Vendor, is outside the limits of description, and as Jim Jarmusch put it: you need a film to perfectly capture the man behind the deeds.
Thankfully Mariana Thome is up to the challenge. She took some time with us to talk about her new documentary Scab Vender: The Life and Times of Jonathan Shaw. Spending time with him, traveling with him, and creating a film that encapsulates this hero of tattoo history, she described the impetus behind the project, and what it was like working with Jonathan Shaw.
Why was Jonathan Shaw's story important to tell? Why is preserving tattooing history important?
Jonathan’s life story belongs in a movie. There’s just so many different aspects of it, one of our interviewers says “he’s like an onion, you peel another layer and you’re like ‘Holy shit!’”. And that’s exactly it. Yes, he is known mostly because of his career as a tattoo artist, especially as Johnny Depp’s tattoo artist, the founder of Fun City Tattoo in New York City, a Manhattan tattoo parlor that was operating before tattooing was even legal in New York, but he also was the managing editor of International Tattoo Art when the magazine was founded. Moreover, he’s the son of one of the greatest band-leaders of our time, Artie Shaw, and Blue Dahlia’s actress, Doris Dowling. The story never ends, he’s met Charles Manson before and during the trials, was punched by Bukowski… But most importantly, he is a person who doesn’t like being comfortable, he gave up his comfortable Beverly Hills lifestyle as a teenager to live in cheap apartments in Hollywood, and wanted to be as far away from his parents as possible, eventually choosing Latin America as a home.
Tattooing is an art form that only recently was recognized as high-art. Jonathan and his involvement with news media and ITA definitely paved the way for this to be possible. It’s easy for people to only live in the present and forget about all the artists who made tattooing be the art form that it is now. Yes, technology was different, so a lot of the work that is done today was impossible back then, with the tattoo machines, but these tattoo artists such as Jonathan Shaw, Lyle Tuttle, Bob Shaw, Bert Grimm, they went against a wave of stigma and prejudice and made their work possible no matter what.
What drew you to his story in particular?
I met Jonathan Shaw because he was releasing his novel, Narcisa, at a renowned art gallery in Los Angeles, La Luz de Jesus Gallery. My co-director, Lucas de Barros, told me about it and asked if I could shoot the night, since he lives in Brazil and wanted it documented. When I met Jonathan, on the front door of his Hollywood penthouse, I was immediately drawn to him as a character. In front of me there was this 62-year-old man puffing on a vape, full of tattoos, chains, dressed like a hobo and speaking perfect Portuguese. We shot the event and started having a great relationship with Jonathan. Immediately I knew this project was going to be a feature documentary, and Jonathan was more than happy to be a part of it.
What was it like working with him, hearing his incredible life stories and visiting all of the places he calls home?
Jonathan was very serious about what we were doing, and really lived by the sentence “my life is an open book.” At one point, when I told him I wanted to do an archeological dig on his archives, he welcomed me at his home with 5 boxes of archives, which I thought was a lot, inside these boxes there were magazines, newspapers from when his parents divorced, old Fun City flyers, amongst maaaany others. Little did I know that these 5 boxes were only the beginning of a 6 months journey through over 5000 catalogued archive pieces. So yes, Jonathan is extremely helpful in making the documentary, but of course, as you possibly know from many other old tattoo artists, he can be very hot headed and hard to deal with, but I try to see it all as “tough love,” especially when he calls me in the middle of the night because he has just watched the latest sizzle reel and wants to thank me and call me a genius, haha! As you mentioned about being a female filmmaker, one thing that I really admire about Jonathan is how he really believed in me since the beginning, when I was only 22 years old and still in college. This then 62 year-old tough-love man took me serious as a person and as an artist and respected my position as a filmmaker ever since we started this journey together and continues to support and highlight all my endeavors, even when they’re not related to our project. Also, since I started talking about it, our crew comes from all corners of the world, from the USA to Latin America and Europe, and my post-production is filled with incredible female editors, storyboard artists, animation producers, and more.
And yes, hearing his life stories was absolutely incredible. He sent me a rough draft of his book Scab Vendor and I couldn’t stop reading it and making notes about all of the amazing places he’s been to and people he met. It was especially incredible because I am Brazilian and he came to my country because of a movie that I also love, Black Orpheus. He also arrived in Brazil in the middle of the dictatorship, and was part of punk communes and the arts scene of Rio and Sao Paulo. For me, it’s like he is more Brazilian and Mexican than he is American, and filming with him in those countries made me realize how much he blends in and becomes a different character when he is in those places, he’s a chameleon, he speaks the languages, talks with people in different ways, and is extremely engaged with the cultures.
How do you hope the audience will feel after viewing your documentary?
I hope that people realize that the best decision they can make in their life is the one of being uncomfortable, that they feel encouraged to explore different places in the world, and that they learn that it takes a lot of focus and hard work to leave your mark in the world. But, moreover, as Scab Vendor is a story of redemption, I hope everybody learns that no matter how low you are in life, you can always redeem yourself through art, writing, helping your friends and anything that makes you feel better.
When and where do you hope the film will premier and how can we help?
We are hoping to premiere this fall in New York! You can support us by contributing to our crowdfunding campaign on Seed and Spark. Even if you don’t have the means to contribute, you can follow us on Seed&Spark and you’ll be helping us get a chance to win an extra 75,000 towards the project when we reach 1000 followers! We are also on Facebook and Instagram.