A personal interview with Jonathan Shaw: writer, tattooist, hellraiser & 'anti-hero of the new age'

A personal interview with Jonathan Shaw: writer, tattooist, hellraiser & 'anti-hero of the new age'

A Curious Student of Life — Jonathan Shaw travelled the world and left a red-hot mark on the people and places he encountered, but the real adventure, he insists, is the one you start when you get back home.

Jonathan Shaw is a myth; an American anti-hero whose wild exploits are folklore in underground circles the world over. He’s the kid who brawled with Bukowski and was told to “get a fucking life so you have something to write about”; the sea merchant who found a spiritual home in Brazil; the tattooist who set up the most successful ink shop in New York; a nomadic biker who served as inspiration for Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow; and a poet-warrior who seems to have settled, at least for now, in the heart of Hollywood.

Tales of Jonathan’s nine lives are hot currency on wicked tongues – “Jonathan Shaw is the great nightmare anti-hero of the new age,” declared Iggy Pop. “Author, artist, connoisseur, madman, thug, pirate, villain, Buddha, sage, Satan, gypsy and most solid of brothers,” ventured Johnny Depp. Shaw was the bad kid at the good parties – a popular face in the streets as well as high society. His life has been full of names – Jim Jarmusch, Vincent Gallo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marilyn Manson – but his is one more frequently dropped by those in the know.

Jonathan Shaw Kate Moss

Born to swinging parents in New York – ‘one of Jazz’s finest clarinetists’ Artie Shaw and glamorous Golden-Age actress Doris Dowling – Jonathan moved to LA at an early age and had a difficult childhood, which in part spurred him on a life of soul-searching. “I always felt terribly out of place in the US, where I grew up,” says Jonathan. “Looking back from a wider perspective today, I realise it was largely because of the unstable environment of growing up in a chaotic, unstable alcoholic home. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I just wanted to get the fuck out. Anywhere would do. Didn’t matter much to me, as long as I could find some sense of freedom from the hell I knew. Like the song says, ‘Any world that I’m welcome to is better than the one I come from.’”

Jonathan found refuge in South America as a young man and spent many of his formative years beyond the border. “I came to recognise Brazil as my true spiritual home, on many levels,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s some sort of past life connection to that place, but I strongly suspect there is. How else to explain that I speak such fluent Portuguese? Most Brazilians I talk to don’t believe it when I tell them I’m a foreigner, let alone American… The details of exactly how I ended up there constitute way too many wild stories and adventures to go into here. They could fill a book. Literally. They have, in fact. It’s called Scab Vendor – Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, and it’s basically a long, detailed memoir, spanning several continents and three generations. A lot of very weird adventures.”

Fate eventually brought Jonathan back to his birthplace where he set up an illegal tattoo studio in a basement on The Bowery. This was New York in the ’70s and it was sketchy as fuck. Jonathan “didn’t even go out for smokes without packing at least one gun” and clients would be directed to a nearby phone-box so they could be vetted before they were allowed in. In the mid-’80s Jonathan found a space on St. Mark’s Place, in the East Village, and he opened the now iconic Fun City Tattoo shop. It was here that his new-tribal designs really began to turn heads and a scene – comprised of “beautiful losers, visionaries, street thugs, cops, mobsters, artists, tourists, bikers, hipsters, high-rollers, stock brokers, artists, junkies, strippers and movie stars,” – was spawned. Coke and booze eventually took hold and Jonathan hit the road again, leaving the tattoo game at the height of his fame – the only tattooist to grace the cover of the New Yorker – and returning to his writing.

The Jonathan we encounter today is both everything you’d expect him to be, and nothing that you’d expect at all. At the time of interview he’s in the middle of a forty-day lemon juice and coconut water fast – to cleanse and purify himself from today’s “extremely toxic environment” – and he spends his days juggling between “fulfilling my primary purpose as a writer, and struggling to survive, like everyone else.”

Jonathan Shaw for HUCK

He still does the odd tattoo to make ends meet, and burns around both LA and Rio on his motorbike – “it’s pretty much the only way to get around the insane, apocalyptic traffic shit-storms in both of those cities” – but Jonathan’s adventures these days explore inner rather than outer space. He reads, studies and takes part in ancient Afro-Brazilian shamanic practices like the Umbanda and Santo Daime religions, and consumes knowledge voraciously. His home is a sanctuary filled with books and artefacts; the treasures of a roving life spent curating and collecting lowbrow memorabilia, and his own books – like most recent novel Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes, the tale of a wild, self-destructive couple in Rio de Janeiro – are his lifeblood.

So, does the countercultural explorer finally feel ready to settle down? “The soul is nomadic by nature,” says Jonathan. “We only stay on this earthly plane of existence for a short while, then move on. I feel immensely fortunate to have experienced many different realities and live within this one. I’ve travelled the roads of hedonism and worldly adventures. I’ve been many people and done many things. I’ve lived among all sorts of people and learned many lessons. After a lifetime of being an attentive and curious student of life, now I find myself in the unlikely position of being something of a teacher. As such, I’m still a student, of course, but on a different level than before. Now I get to share a wealth of experience with my fellows, through the creative vehicle of my writing. It’s also a practice in which I’ve become like an archaeologist, piecing together fragments of my own life, thereby learning more and more about the collective human condition, and my own little place in the overall scheme of things. For me, all this constitutes the ultimate adventure.”

Jonathan Shaw for HUCK

What does the idea of ‘adventure’ mean to you today?
Well, what it means to me today, and what sort of magical, dreamlike nuances it once inspired in the heart of a young refugee seeking shelter from the war-torn land of his birth, are entirely different concepts. Essentially, though, for me, it represents one’s life journey through this world, with all its challenges, trials and tribulations, extreme levels of intense sadness and joy, and every emotion in between. The human experience.

What has been your greatest adventure?
Life in the material world. Reason being that I don’t believe this earthly experience to be our natural state at all. Far from it. We’re spiritual beings having a human experience, but that is far, very far from who we really are. So for me, life itself is the greatest adventure I know. Over the course of mine, I’ve travelled far and wide and interacted with some of the greatest minds of my generation. I’ve also spent years travelling the anonymous backlands of all sorts of countries and living among simple, humble folk. They’ve taught me a lot about what life is really worth. Learning is by far the greatest adventure of the human spirit.

Why do you think some people are satisfied by a quiet existence and others live in extremes?
No idea. Fate? Destiny? Karma? Different strokes for different folks. I’ve never walked a ‘quiet’ path, so I probably wouldn’t be the one to ask.

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Do you think people are held back by their fears? What have been yours? Did you overcome them? How?
Fear is an insidious mental parasite, which keeps us from the attainment of our highest purpose as beings. For me, to face one’s own fears and conquer them is an act of great courage and integrity. As a survivor of massive psychic childhood trauma, the fear of looking into those festering wounds in my own being kept me stuck in a stagnant mental bog of unconscious resentments, terrors, dysfunctional behaviors and addictions – for decades. I was forever looking for a way out, but I couldn’t see that the only way out was IN. Einstein said you can’t solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem in the first place. But that’s exactly what I was doing; seeking to find relief from a deep existential dilemma in the realm of people, places and experiences in the outer world. Can’t be done. If the problem is on the inside (a simple formula which took me half a fucking lifetime to discover), it can only be addressed by looking inward. As a writer, that’s the primary goal of my task, to look inward, thereby discovering, uncovering and discarding some of the root causes of my many fears and negative emotional responses to situations that I’m faced with in daily life. That’s why I see the creative process as sacred. In many ways, it’s hard, unpleasant dirty work. At the same time, for me, it’s the only work that’s truly worth a shit.

Society is morally negative about hedonism. But is that an archaic standpoint? Can hedonism be an education? Can it help you develop as a person?
Human society, as we know it in today’s world, is largely a construct of an insidious, sophisticated control system, a sort of mean-spirited mental prison, designed to keep the sheep in line, living in slavery to “the system”. Hedonism, to me, denotes a lifestyle in which the satisfaction of our basic animal instincts for security, sex and society are seen as our primary purpose for living. In short, a godless, savage state. That said, of course it’s a path to take towards enlightenment, a vehicle – as are all paths and vehicles. Especially in a repressive social structure, which punishes and stifles our inherent creative drives, hedonism can be an unconscious manifestation of the soul’s rebellion against such unnatural constraints. It’s no better or worse than other paths and vehicles on the soul’s earthly journey. Just different than other, more conventional paths. Some will follow the path of hedonism, and stay on it until the wheels fall off their vehicle, then get out and push the fucking wreck till they’re too exhausted to go on. Then, and only then, will we savage, godless little monkeys with car keys become willing to consider taking another path. That’s been my own experience.

Jonathan Shaw for HUCK

What advice would you give to your young self?
Study the Saint Francis Prayer as a model for successful living. Not that the cheeky little bugger would pay me any mind. Might as well try explaining Quantum Mechanics to a jackrabbit.

Do you think the spirit of adventure has been lost/sanitised/commodified in the west? How can the individual keep it alive?
Any society predicated on greed, consumerism and hedonism is destined to fail, and all one needs to do is turn on the daily news report to see that this society has failed miserably. We’re on the verge of total collapse, on just about every level imaginable. History bears this out. The rise and fall, etc. Faceless global greed cabals have overrun the planet. They tell us what to eat, what to wear, what to like, what to see and do, and who to do it with. Disgusting, degenerate pigs are worshiped like little fucking gods. This perverse social structure has erected more false idols than Easter Island. Personal empowerment is discouraged and punished more and more with every turn of the screw. The kind of adventure that requires real courage and determination is being beaten out of us, as a species. God help us! In today’s world, life is lived vicariously by the masses, a virtual reality game, plugged into a horrible hive mentality, billions of people walking around like zombies, plugged into their fucking iPhones for entertainment and adventure. Package tourism. So-called Reality TV. That’s a fuckin’ laugh! We’ve degenerated into a lazy, stupid, cowardly race of spectators. The only way to keep a spirit of adventure alive is to step off the grid and do as Joseph Campbell suggested. Follow your bliss. Listen to your heart, thumb your nose at your fears, and, for God’s sake, turn off your fucking TV. Better yet, break it into a hundred little pieces, then turn it into a fantastic surrealist sculpture.

Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes is published by Harper Perennial.