Bloomingdale, New Jersey
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
Just when we were about to publish our story and photos from Seppuku Tattoo in Savannah, Georgia, I gave Johnny "Thief" DiDonna a call on the telephone. But the number did not go through. In fact, the recorded message gave me an area code that was listed as "Bloomingdale, New Jersey." Here's their press release:
PRESS RELEASE: SEPPUKU TATTOO GRAND OPENING
"Seppuku Tattoo was established in 2005, in Savannah, Georgia. Owners Matt Lukesh and Johnny "Thief" Di Donna, who began their careers in top studios in north New Jersey, chose Savannah for its beauty, its art schools and the fact that no one had heard of quality tattooing being done there. After a successful run that included winning a number of coveted awards and being published in a host of books and magazines, the two decided that they would notably benefit by relocating back to the tri state area."
And this was one of my favorite interviews, too. That's the way it goes sometimes. So, here's what: We'll keep the Savannah interview intact, because it brings up the very reasons that Johnny and his partner Matt Lukesh made the move north.
* * *
A shining example of true Southern hospitality came on our visit to Seppuku Tattoo in Savannah, Georgia. Having just spend three days in Atlanta, I took the wrong off ramp and ended up near Columbus, on the west side of the state, when we should have been on the east. We were driving on the 185 South and should have taken the 16. Two-and-a-half hours late and dog tired, Bernard and Mary and I pulled into the Seppuku parking lot to a warm reception. No one was miffed, no one had left and gone home. Both artists, Johnny and Matt, welcomed us with open arms, as did all their customers.
When we were planning a trip to Georgia, I, coincidentally, received a very large and professional envelope of information from a shop called Seppuku. I had never heard of it and no one that I knew had heard of it. As far as I knew, the two artists named DiDonna and Lukesh were unknown commodities. But the samples on their diskette were so amazing that I gave them a call. Very accommodating and helpful, DiDonna scheduled their photo shoot and, except for the fact that I lost my sense of direction, he was the perfect host and tour guide. Because of his directions (once we got there, that is), we were able to stay at a wonderful antebellum hotel, visit an open-air art show, saw a paddlewheel riverboat, ate too much fried chicken and strolled through a couple of wonderful parks studded with weeping willows and two-hundred-year-old tombstones.
Situated in a nondescript strip mall in an area called Thunder Bolt, Seppuku looks more like an artists' studio than a traditional tattoo shop. There were paintings, posters, photographs and graphics of all kinds on every available wall space and metal rack. While Lukesh's work tended toward ghouls and screaming skulls, DiDonna's artwork reflected a long career in the rock and legitimate theater scene. Lots of concert posters.
Existing under the radar for the last ten or so years, I'd never heard the name "Johnny Thief" and neither had anyone else I talked to. But the samples in the shop's presentation package were so impressive that I took a gamble and decided to include Seppuku on our road trip. My gamble paid off. Not only were the two artists friendly and talented, DiDonna, especially, gave one of the most colorful and interesting tattoo artist interviews that I have recorded in the last few years. I was so impressed, in fact, that, on the way back to the West Coast, all Mary and I could talk about was possibly picking up stakes and immediately relocating to this legendary little town in the South—a subject that Johnny addressed quite colorfully in our interview.
JOHNNY "THIEF" DiDONNA
"My name, Johnny Thief, goes all the back to 1990, when I used to do a punk rock fan-zine called 'Thieves and Prostitutes.' I would only sign my name, Thief. I wanted to be anonymous. I had no idea why I needed to be anonymous or if I needed to be anonymous. That started out really well, when we started promoting bands. We started staying out all night putting up band posters with wheat paste. I had no idea that this was considered graffiti and illegal, so when the cops started nosing around, I had a nice anonymous name on there. Fans would come out from California to Florida for our shows. People only knew me as 'Thief' by then. It sounds totally gay out loud.
"Everyone knew me. Over the years, we had taken wheat-pasting and punk rock posters and started screen printing them. It's called 'wheat-pasting' because that's what Shepard Fairey does when he's going out. You just have flour and water that, if you mix it right, and cook it, it's not coming off. You just slap it up in the middle of the night. In the old-skool days, when we actually promoted shows and we had an independent music scene, which hasn't been the case in fifteen years, that was your only promotion, 'cause we didn't have any money. We'd stay out all night doing that. People would collect that artwork. They'd steal it. Everyone knew the fan-zine and people would associate the art with that name. Then, some of our peers like Jeff Wood of Drowning Creek Studios, he's Native American and that's where the name comes from, started to screen print and it became a more legitimate art form than just punk rock fliers.
"I did at least three or four different apprenticeships in different fields of art. My art started in 1984, fifteen years before I started tattooing. I started painting scenery and started doing a lot of theater. I screen printed for fifteen years and, when computers rolled around, we started doing digital art and I started art directing and managing and building art departments. Then I became some people's boss, which was strange because I still had a Mohawk haircut. I was making music at night in the punk scene and babysitting flaky artists, who needed discipline, by day. So, I have a tremendous amount of experience in way too many mediums, which is why, at the age of forty, barely anyone knows me for tattooing. I started a little too late.
"I have been tattooing since 1999. Seppuku opened in 2005. When I realized tattooing was more that a hobby, it had to be a lifestyle, a 24/7 thing, I had to make that commitment, choosing between my old career and my new lifestyle. I sought out an apprenticeship and I ended up hooking up with Mario Barth at the original Starlight Tattoo in Fairmont, New Jersey, back when he had only one shop. I stayed with Mario for a couple of years, and then he and his partner split. I was the only artist who stayed with the other partner, who did not tattoo. His name was Billy Monroe, and we ended up opening Screaming Ink. I used the name Johnny Thief, because everyone still knew me from concert posters. These posters were in highbrow cafes and in books and video games and things like that.
"I went to one year of art school. My parents hated what I did. I would catch beatings for things like painting. I was kicked out of the house for wanting to be an artist. I had to fight tooth and nail for doing things like going to the theater to paint scenery. That was a really rough thing. By the time I went to art school—I only did about a year—I was a suicidal wreck, a drug addict and a mess. I was so excited to get into art school, and then I stupidly moved back home to be able to afford the tuition, and that was a disaster. I made it through one year and then moved to Florida, got clean and totally turned my life around. I've been clean and sober for twenty years.
"I always loved tattooing, even as a little kid. I thought I'd be doing so much more with painting and so many other forms of art. But then, when your Guy Aitchisons and Paul Booths started translating that onto skin, it took the limits off of it. It got really, really appealing. I had flirted with it for years. There were times when people would catch me wheat pasting and they would say, 'You're that guy. You gotta do my tattoos.' I would blow it off. I didn't realize that I had tattoo ethics at the time, 'cause I didn't know anything about tattooing. But, when they were asking me to get my tattoo equipment out of the house, it was kind of a creepy thing. You know it was Florida. Florida is a really tough state. A lot of conservatives. A lot of old-fashioned prejudices about art. I was thinking to myself, It's got to be hard to be a tattoo guy down here. This is back in the late '80s, early '90s. They were arresting Two Live Crew for obscenity lyrics down there. They're nuts in Florida. Out of respect, I was thinking that these guys must be working really hard just to stay open. I wasn''t going to tattoo out of my house. I didn't want some greasy, druggy kid in my house at three in the morning anyway. So I would always take a pass on it. But it was really interesting to see the reaction. 'Oh, you gotta tattoo me. You gotta have your artwork on me for the rest of my life.' It was really flattering, but I was a little scared. I wanted to do it right. I was a little scared of the needles and the blood factor. But I got over that quick.
"Working at Mario's was a good experience. I got to hang out with people like Bugs. It was actually Bugs who told me—he was watching me tattoo—that I was a mess, I was a disaster, a nightmare. I don't know why Bugs took the time to do anything with me. I was just some punk who didn't know how to tattoo, but he'd come over and show me a lot of stuff in between customers. It was really, really nice. One of the things he showed me was how to stretch. 'Listen,' he said, 'you stretch like a girl. This is how you do it,' and he's grabbing me and twisting me and practically breaking my arm. He said, 'People come to you. They're paying you to hurt them. Don't be afraid!' And that was it, from that day on. Some days you kind of feel like Josef Mengele and, sometimes, I think, You know what? I think a little pain is exactly what you happen to need. In this country, things are just a little bit too cushy and a little too easy on everybody around here.
"It's a little strange down here in Savannah. The good part is, we have a lot of transients. We have a tremendous student population. We have a huge military base here. We have a lot of "damned Yankees," which is what they call us, when we first come down here. The first week I was here, a waitress asked me if I knew the difference between a Yankee and a Damned Yankee. I said, 'I don't know,' and she said, 'Yankees go home.' I was like, 'That's harsh. No tip for you.' So, a lot of people do the same thing we did. They come down here and fall in love with the beauty of the place. They're shocked nobody has ever heard of Savannah. They come down here and they get a taste of old-fashioned Southern hospitality and old-skool racism and this weird inability to change, so they pack up and leave, just as fast as they got here. We must have turned over our clientele four times in four years. I know you get some of that in every shop, but the level here is astronomical.
"There are about ten tattoo shops in Savannah, which is a lot. A lot for a population of one hundred and twenty-nine thousand. Generally speaking, it's hard to keep track, because there are a couple that have come and gone overnight. In four years, we must have seen five shops come and go. A couple of them were biker shops, selling heroine. You'd like to think that you wouldn't have to deal with that, when it's 2010. And a couple shops have been here almost twenty years.
"The difference between poster art and graffiti art and tattooing as your medium. It's night and day. It's not even the same type of art. When I started, there was that big debate as to whether tattooing was an art or a craft. I think it's a science. By that I mean, you have to respect the fact that you are working on an organism or all that pretty art that you're doing is going to fall out. You're going to scab and cut people, and it's going to be a nightmare. When I first started, I was terrible. None of my art was translating in any way, shape or form. I had to have my legs broken and had to learn to walk all over again, artistically speaking. Two or three years into it, once I started getting some chops and my stuff started coming back looking the same way like it looked when it walked out of the shop, then you can start trying all the artsy-fartsy stuff. Then you can really start having fun with it.
"I learned a lot by watching other people work, working with some better people. Once we started Screaming Ink, we began getting a really good crew. That's where I met Matthew, and we started playing off each other. Matt had the really hot hand, when he walked into the shop. He was eight or nine years into it at that point. He was one of the few artists in that area of North Jersey whose work would come to the shop and we'd be like, Damn! His work was the kind that would make you lose sleep at night, as a competitor, you know. And when he walked into the shop with his portfolio, we were like, 'Oh, yeah, we know who you are. Have a seat.' We also had some other really great artists. That's when I really started to learn. But to be honest, I feel like I'm always learning. The bosses we had were very restrictive. We couldn't do conventions, we weren't allowed to guest at other shops. And we weren't allowed to have guests. In fact, we weren't allowed to communicate with other shops at all. All shops were considered the enemy, at that point. So, I'm a little behind the times. I feel that I just got my passport and I'm ready to start bouncing, do some traveling and sit at the feet of the masters.
"Who are the masters? Oh, forget about it. There are so many, from country to country. But, that's what I want to do. I would love to go to Switzerland and sit at Filip Leu's feet and just be able to pay homage. Go to Paris and get some work from Tin-Tin. Robert Hernandez from Spain and the Japanese, forget about it. Horiyoshi III, Shige, everyone at Chopsticks, everyone at Three Tides. It's almost impossible to keep track of or list. There's such a dearth of talent.
"As for the population in general, I'm not sure that they are getting better at recognizing real talent. This country is really weird. We've really dumbed things down a lot, in every respect. Whether it's the music industry kind of sitting on its hands—we haven't had a real music movement since Crunch, and that was kind of a recycled movement anyway. Movies, literature, television, its all safe. Let's not offend anyone. Things are over-lawyered, over-thought and watered down to the nth degree. I just picked up some original Looney Tunes cartoons. I mean Bugs Bunny was doing things far more daring that anything we'd get away with today. They're advertising automobiles with tattoos. A mortgage company is using tattoos as a motif. Tattoos are everywhere, including your underwear. I guess the general consciousness is expanding at a rate no one could have predicted. Wow, nobody was expecting tattooing to blow up like this. It's turned into such an incredible monster."
"My name, Lukesh, is Slovac. My parents encouraged my art from day one. That's one thing I've never had to worry about. I never had the same toys that everyone else had. My parents didn't keep up with that. But art supplies, I never had to ask for them. I grew up in North Jersey, real woodsy, where there were no other kids on the street. I wasn't going to play with my sister, so all I had was art and time to imagine and explore.
"I started to study art in college for a couple of semesters. But I just wasn't feeling it. I was being told how to do it, that there was only one way to do it. Having that passion confined, I just couldn't do it.
"When did I started to discover tattoo art? It was a cross between my younger sister getting tattooed before I ever did and the very first tattoo I saw that made me consider it. When I was younger, it was all pen and ink, straight forward, no color. I can say that I've learned more about hard work through tattooing than from any formal schooling. It's a freer environment. It's not a single, straight, boring path like college schooling. And with it being such a worldwide thing, what with European influences and Japanese influences, there's so much more thrown at you than what's in any college syllabus.
"Where I grew up, all I ever saw was the same old biker stuff, sailor stuff, traditional work. Obviously, Paul Booth was located just a few towns away, so once Paul exploded, I could see that the whole dark element thing could be pulled off. From there, you can go to every great tattooist, Filip Leu, Robert Hernandez. The one who has just re-inspired me is Joshua Carlton, from whom I've had the pleasure of guesting and getting work. When you find the real, true people, no one hides secrets from each other. It's not like the old days. Now you find the right people who do nothing but share with each other.
"Carlton is always chewing my ear off about oil painting, and I'm always trying to figure out his photorealism, which is making tattoos more fine art than the same graphic thing we've seen since the inception. I've studied very little technique except from Joshua. He's always been very open with me. Boris is also phenomenal, along with all those guys from the Eastern Block countries. They're creating fine art. It's a nice awakening, brilliant and breathtaking, to see this kind of quality coming to the masses.
"I'd like to think that these artists are pushing the guys that have been around awhile and causing them to watch their backs. At least I hope so. But I don't think that's their intent. I think their intent is to never stay stagnant, always push. The original, great portrait artists like Jack Rudy and Brian Everett, they still hold up. They don't have to look over their shoulder. Tom Renshaw has nothing to worry about. Deano Cook has nothing to worry about. It's just nice to know that this breath of fresh air is inspiring those that have been tattooing for thirty years or more.
"Some of these innovators are tight lipped about sharing information, but most of the ones I've met at conventions or whatever are pretty forthcoming. I've also learned a lot from Johnny. One of the greatest things I've learned from him is composition and design. He has a stronger graphic element than I ever possessed. His ability to draw on the spot is fascinating. Other artists have a two-week wait for their drawings. I've seen John crank out a full sleeve in a couple of hours. It's mind-blowing. He has so much art background and technical ability. And his imagination is just as bizarre as mine.
"I consider myself a tattoo artist rather than an artist. My painting is more for myself, just to get that mental break from the rigidity that comes from this job. But, if it wasn't for tattooing, I wouldn't be where I am artistically. Johnny has had a hand in helping me grow in that way. He pushes me to do it. It's almost inhuman, but Johnny sees more colors than actually exist out there. Color theory and values and layering, I've learned countless things from him. At the same time, when I get into my oil paints, he picks up things from me. It's symbiotic.
"Tattooing is probably one of the last sacraments there is in life. To me, if you take the right artist, the right client, the right subject matter, it can be a really holy experience. This art form allows individuals to be individuals. Too many people do their nine-to-five, live in their box, walk the same gray line that's the norm. When you tattoo someone, it opens them up and allows them to be more than their Social Security number. They wear their badge or armor permanently. To be able to alter someone's life is a blessing. That's the best part."
Aside from the fact that, several months after our visit to Savannah, I am still trying to digest the Southern-fried appetizer, Southern-fried main course and Southern-fried desert that I downed at the hotel, I will never forget the warm hospitality, getting to spend time with an honest-to-goodness roll-up-your-sleeves artist like DiDonna and viewing the wonderfully experimental paintings of his partner, Matt Lukesh.
145 Main Street
Bloomingdale, New Jersey 07403
Phone: (973) 291-8187