Monday, June 4, 2007

Body and Soul

These are the tattoo-adorned calves of John Rogers. John's a musician and photographer who lives in New York City. He grew up in Nashville, and for a long time led a band here, the Transcendental Crayon Ensemble. The band was a fluid entity, with a shifting membership that included my husband, Dave. When John decided a few years ago to decamp to New York, he and Dave stayed in touch.

It's been a pretty tough transition for John. He didn't know anybody in New York, and didn't have any money. You can imagine. But John's a remarkable guy, and he has a profound devotion to music, which seems to be what sustains him. He's been working a day job at a bakery, and spending the rest of his time at the wealth of jazz performances in the city. He has taken some amazing pictures of musicians which you can see at his website.

The bright spot in John's New York sojourn has been meeting and spending time with jazz great Ornette Coleman. (If that name means nothing to you, learn about him here and here.) John's been able to talk with Coleman about his musical vision, and even hang out at rehearsals--a rare honor, and of course, heaven for any free jazz fan.

Which brings us back to the tattoos. The one on the top is John Coltrane, and was done a few years ago here in Nashville. JR has always had a devotion to Coltrane's music. That tattoo is a sort of ultimate fan gesture--Coltrane died before John was born, so there's no personal relationship there. The other tattoo is a different story, which I'll let John tell. This is an excerpt from his email to me:

"... i had been wanting another one but i hadnt had
that connection with any other musician that i had with coltrane.
then about a year and half ago i met ornette and started
hanging out with him about one night a week.
from hanging out with him i realized that any notion i had
of who he was and what he was about was far from the reality.
ornette sort of like became a symbol for me [of] going thru alot
of bs in nyc and coming out on top. he has shared with me
by letting me attend many reheasals some of the best
music i have ever seen in my life.
i will take these memories with me to the end,
so i wanted to get this as a tattoo.
david digby [who did the Coltrane tattoo] was very elusive he fell off the tattoo
scene and for two years lived off the land
in a cabin in east tn. finally he emerged and i was
able to track him down on myspace.
we set up a time and i flew up there [to Buffalo] to get this done.
he is the only person i know in the world
i would trust to do something like this..."

I have to admit, my first reaction when my husband told me about the new tattoo was that it was off-the-scale weird. A fan tattoo like the Coltrane is a little odd and extreme, but not that unusual. What seemed freaky about the new one was the fact that John knows Coleman. And Coleman knows about the tattoo, which made it seem freakier yet.

But the more I thought about the whole thing, the more it seemed both completely natural, and wonderfully subversive. Humans have always taken a lot of pleasure in adorning and reshaping their bodies. Like all our instincts and appetites, that impulse has often been corralled in ways that squelch individual expression. For example, people have decorated their feet with everything from mehndi to toe rings to beaded moccasins, but that more or less healthy fetish became a way to control women through the horrific practice of footbinding. The same thing happens in a much more insidious way when the modern cosmetics industry pushes a cookie cutter notion of beauty, and then tangles it up with issues of physical health and self-worth. Stepping off the pedestal of prettiness is regarded as evidence of pathology. Our ownership of our bodies is constantly being compromised in the service of social order and the drive for profits.

Seen in that light, the way John has declared his body a canvas to document his life is almost a revolutionary act. It's a slightly wacky, whimsical sort of revolution, but I think that's the best kind. Non-violent, joyful, driven by devotion to art--what better way to wage war against the powers that be? John's physical tribute to Coleman and his music is not an act of self-negation, though a lot of people might see it that way. On the contrary, it's his celebration of himself as a unique, loving consciousness.

Okay, enough bloviating. I think the tats are cool, and I'm glad John let me blog about 'em. The tattoo artist, David Digby, is offering his creations at Hero's Ink in Buffalo, NY, in case you feel like committing your own revolutionary act. Go to Youtube and listen to a little OC to put you in the mood.


Jen said...

Beautiful artwork and fascinating story. I admire John for taking a chance and giving it all to New York. Heck, by working at a bakery during the day, not only is he living his own dream, he's living mine, too!

BitterGrace said...

I gather the bakery job was a pretty tough gig, though he seems sorry to have left it behind. He's done a series of pics of his former coworkers, which is up on his site. I'm not sure what he's doing now--maybe he'll check in and tell us!

Mary said...

Such a cool story. I'm thinking of taking the tattoo plunge....

Anonymous said...

i wanted to add the reason for the john coltrane tattoo. that was sort of a symbol of me giving up
many years of drug and alcohol abuse. although
i got it toward the end of what i term my "blurry period", coltrane kept me cool during the process.
it reminds me of a time in my life when things
were more simple on many levels.
in response to the comment, today i started
work at a small mom and pop (non corprate)
apple store. the photo essay is about how i feel
bad to leave behind these cats who work so hard
and yet never see any real change in their lives.
its so easy for people born in this country,
and i think most of us do not realize this.

Jen said...

John - I wasn't sure how to comment on your website. Thank you for referencing the pictures of your coworkers - I missed the mention of your website when I first read BG's post. I have no idea how you are as a musician but your photos are remarkable. And, yes, most Americans have no idea how lucky we really are.

BitterGrace said...

Hey, John, thx for checking in. Everybody's enjoying your story--I'm hearing about it via email, too.

Mary, have you thought about what you might get as a tattoo? For years I toyed with the idea of getting a salamander or snake--both totem animals for me. Dunno if I'll ever do it, though.

Juvy Santos said...

Thanks, Maria, for the post :)

graham said...

Thanks to Toby for pointing me to this blog post...I've always seen John as something of a revolutionary. Nicely articulated.

John's new tattoo of david schnaufer is really well done! Here's what John had to say about it:

so the big news is that i finally got my david schnaufer tattoo done, by the great anil gupta. let me tell you my friends anil lives up to his hype. i was blown the hell away by his work.
so now davids memory will live on forever with me.

the photo is one that i took in 2004 at bongo java in nashville. this was the last time i saw david alive so it makes for a good memory.