Chefs and their tat­too sto­ries

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Tony DuShane DuShane is the au­thor of “Con­fes­sions of a Teenage Je­sus Jerk.” He teaches novel writ­ing at UCLA Ex­ten­sion.

Isaac Fitzger­ald’s fas­ci­na­tion with tat­toos be­gan when he was in high school; upon grad­u­at­ing, he set out to get his first ink. Now he has more than 15 tat­toos, and his passion for them and sto­ry­telling are doc­u­mented in the newly re­leased “Knives & Ink” (Blooms­bury, 208 pp., $24) and 2014’s “Pen & Ink.” They stand out from most tat­too books by il­lus­trat­ing, not pho­tograph­ing, peo­ple and their tat­too art and by em­pha­siz­ing the nar­ra­tives be­hind them.

The project started as a Tum­blr page with his col­lab­o­ra­tor, il­lus­tra­tor Wendy MacNaughton. Fitzger­ald com­piled the sto­ries of the tat­toos and what they meant. Blooms­bury saw their blog and pub­lished the first book that in­cluded au­thors, mu­si­cians and a porn star. It was a hit and the pub­lisher wanted an­other.

“I’ve al­ways ad­mired chefs,” Fitzger­ald says by phone from his home in New York City, where he is editor of Buz­zfeed Books. “I don’t think this was a long con­ver­sa­tion on how do we make this its own book.”

To cover a va­ri­ety of chefs from dif­fer­ent cities, they sought pho­to­graphs of the chefs dis­play­ing their tat­toos. Then MacNaughton worked on the il­lus­tra­tions and Fitzger­ald in­ter­viewed chefs to dis­cover their tat­too sto­ries.

“It was through emails and some­times even text and I would have a back and forth with them,” Fitzger­ald ex­plained. “I would work on the ini­tial thing, edit it down, send it back to them, make sure they still felt like it was in the spirit of their story.”

Since chefs are ex­tremely busy, most of their dis­cus­sions were done dur­ing their breaks or right af­ter their shifts ended.

“The sto­ries are vast like all tat­too sto­ries. Some are memo­ri­als, some are mem­o­ries that they carry with them, some are for their friends, some are match­ing tat­toos with their friends, some are very deep and per­sonal, some are super silly,” Fitzger­ald said. “So it’s re­ally about jux­ta­pos­ing those to one an­other and re­ally try­ing to find a flow so that if some­body sits down and reads it from cover to cover, it kind of feels like it makes sense.”

Chef Soliel Ho took a photo of the large crab tat­too on her chest for the co-au­thors, but Fitzger­ald had to ask her to re­take it and open her shirt even more to cap­ture the im­age. He was un­com­fort­able be­cause he had never met Ho. “There was a point in there where I felt she’s go­ing to def­i­nitely tell me to walk, and I’m so glad she didn’t be­cause it’s one of my fa­vorite things in the book.”

The tat­too, Ho ex­plains in the book, is “a paddy crab, which is a clas­sic Viet­namese in­gre­di­ent. The crab is a pest to rice farm­ers in Viet­nam but also serves as an im­me­di­ate source of wild pro­tein for them. They eat it fried, boiled, and even use fer­mented crab as a condi­ment in green pa­paya salad. It’s im­por­tant to me to re­mem­ber where I came from and the hum­ble food that still sus­tains and sat­is­fies peo­ple ev­ery­where.”

Fitzger­ald is no stranger to the deeper mean­ing of his tat­toos.

Dur­ing Fitzger­ald’s sopho­more year of high school he started get­ting into trou­ble. A teacher no­ticed and told him if he grad­u­ated from high school the teacher would buy him his first tat­too.

“He was prob­a­bly 23 … he was just cov­ered in tat­toos, and he was one of the first adults in my life that took me se­ri­ously and met me as a peer, and that just meant the world.”

Fitzger­ald got on track to score that free tat­too. He de­scribes it as “a Celtic tree of life in­side of a tribal sun and the branches come up and in­te­grate with the roots.”

But af­ter he showed it to his friends, some saw it as Spi­der-Man get­ting his spidey sense. Oth­ers com­pared it to a Gods­mack al­bum cover.

“For me it ac­tu­ally means that I made it through high school, which was not al­ways a given, and I’m re­ally proud of that. So I love my lit­tle Spi­der-Man, Gods­mack al­bum, Celtic tat­too.”

Wendy MacNaughton Blooms­bury USA

AN IL­LUS­TRA­TION by Wendy MacNaughton of chef Brian Grosz’s tat­toos from “Knives & Ink.”

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