Writer and editor Isaac Fitzgerald and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton are back with a new book of lovingly illustrated tattoos and the stories behind them. Following 2014’s Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them, they return with Knives & Ink, a new volume focusing on chefs, their tattoos, and their stories. “What is it about chefs and tattoos?” Fitzgerald asks in his introduction. “Whether you’re looking in a backwoods diner or a Michelin-starred eatery, it’s hard to find a cook who doesn’t sport some ink.” I talked to Fitzgerald and MacNaughton about their new book, the origins of their partnership, and the meaning behind all tattoos. Take a look at the four Brooklyn chefs (and their stories) featured in the book below.
Celebrate Knives and Ink (and sample snacks made from its recipes) tonight at 7 PM at Housing Works Bookstore.
Isaac Fitzgerald: I’ve worked in the service industry a lot, at different bars and restaurants. One of my favorites, Zeitgeist in San Francisco, is open 9 AM to 2 AM every day of the year, except for maybe one in January where they do a deep clean of the place. I was young, I was curious to a fault, and one of the things I did during our downtime was to try and get the stories behind people’s tattoos. Zeitgeist is next to a wonderful tattoo parlor named Black Heart Tattoo. The stories I hear were usually either poignant or sad or, other times, very funny. It was interesting even if they had no reason at all.
Wendy MacNaughton: Tattoos ARE stories. Nobody chooses to mark themselves permanently without a good reason—even if that reason is a terrible one, or incredibly simple: like, “they’re just pretty” or “I fucking love pizza.” Behind every tattoo there is a good story, and often people want to tell them. They just need to be asked. That’s our job.
How do you both meet?
IF: San Francisco has this wonderful literary scene. I started working at an online literary magazine, The Rumpus, and this wonderful artist Wendy MacNaughton started contributing to the site, a series called “Meanwhile.” She’d go to a place and talk to people and only take down their words. They were long, you could really scroll down. She did one on the San Francisco Public Library. She captured these beautiful moments captured the soul of a place. We got to know each other when Wendy did a “Meanwhile” on Mission bartenders . I was her guide around to all the bars, and we became friends. I started telling her this idea I had about capturing the heart and soul of people’s tattoos in a similar manner as these places.
How was your first project, Pen and Ink, born?
WM: A lot of the time when we see tattoos depicted, we see photos of them on people. They are as much of the people as they are the tattoos themselves. The style I developed for Knives and Ink (and Pen and Ink before that) does two things: first, it uses simple black and white line drawings (sometimes complex, but often just a few swooping lines) to suggest the body of the person upon which the tattoos are drawn. Second, the full color paintings of the tattoos celebrate the artwork created by the tattoo artist and add another layer of interpretation, drawing you into story.
IF: Tattoos are art, hands down. With these two books, it’s art representing art. We first started with a Tumblr in 2012. At that point in my life I was living in San Francisco and going out a lot. I told Wendy, I can meet people, I’ll take pictures of their tattoos, I’ll send them to you, I’ll record the person’s story, I’ll edit it. Rachel Fershleiser, who was at that time basically the king of books, the sheriff of books, the boss of books on Tumblr—she coined the name “Pen and Ink.” Max Fenton did the design work, a beautiful minimalist template. When Wendy and I were first talking about it, I was like, “It should be called…‘Blood and Stories!’ ‘Needles and Tears!’” Really bad stuff. Luckily Rachel came up with a real name that doesn’t make us sound like a Guns N’ Roses cover band. It was an instant hit, and I credit that a lot to Tumblr. So we made a book!
How did you decide to make Knives & Ink next?
IF: It was a next step. We wanted the next thing to be its own book, not just Pen and Ink II. We found this focus in chefs. The people preparing your food are tattooed, and add to that the cuts, burns, scars that go along with the job. We were drawn to how the profession mirrored the art, basically. And with Wendy making art representing art, you’re adding a whole ‘nother level: chefs are artists to. It’s where both of our heads went first. It’s interesting though, with Pen and Ink, the stories came to us. With Knives and Ink, it became a more journalistic endeavor: because chefs don’t live online, they are on their feet 14-16 hours a day. We had to cast a wide net, tracking people down and talking to them and gaining their trust.
Was there a particular tattoo and story that really resonated with you?
IF: Every single story touched Wendy and I for a particular reason. It’s really about crafting this whole book—we take every single illustration and story and lay it out so that if you read the book one go, it feels like there are ups and down, that they speak to each other. Tim Malloy’s story is one that I love. He talks about being a kid with ADD finding the perfect job in being a chef. “Wait, you actually want me to be doing 30 things at once? And play with fire and knives?”
WM: Jim Berman’s lightbulb tattoo, honoring a student of his who took his own life, is remarkably powerful example of how you never know the story behind a seemingly simple tattoo until you ask. Also, Kate Romane’s call number for the Joy of Cooking is a wonderful homage to cookbooks. Though Knives and Ink isn’t an official cookbook, per se, it’s in deep conversation with the genre, so I love that there’s a reference to such an iconic cookbook in our book.
Why do you think tattoos resonate with readers, of your Tumblr and your previous book and now Knives & Ink?
IF: My mother doesn’t know why I keep getting tattoos. I look at some of my old tattoos and I don’t know why I keep getting them. One looks like a Godsmack album, or like Spiderman getting his spidey-sense. We as a species are mystified and fascinated by memory, and tattoos for me—along with the artistry, along with the beauty—are about the passage and marking of time.
WM: We see tattoos everywhere—especially amongst chefs—and we are often too intimidated to ask about their meanings. And honestly, chefs are too busy to tell. You see a tattoo like Dominique Crenn’s of a beautiful girl watching a pig fly away and you wonder, right? You’d never imagine that it’s a reminder of a time when she almost died in her bathroom after slipping and [hurting herself], that it’s a reminder to seize all moments in work and in life. It was a privilege to gain access to these chefs personal stories. I hope everyone enjoys them as much as we do.