The painful emotional economies of artmaking in the Upper South in the waning days of the Patton administration: another boring story of my youth.
Since I haven’t used this space for much else recently, I figure it’s time for you to hear another boring story from my youth. I spent the weekend in Louisville, my hometown, and on Saturday, my brother Danny lent me a bicycle. I took Saturday afternoon to bicycle around the coffee shops and bookstores of the Highlands, where I lived in my early 20s. This boring story from my youth in particular is prompted by the large concentration of tattoo parlors in my old neighborhood.
On September 20, 2002, Kentucky Governor Paul Patton held a press conference admitting to an extramarital affair with a nursing home operator that he may or may not have bestowed with political favors. He had spent the past several weeks denying the affair after the Louisville Courier-Journal broke the story, but finally came clean, and came clean in a manner befitting the hammy, overwrought quality of politics in the South: with big, fat tears streaming down his face. The next day, the Courier-Journal ran a half-page, full-color photograph by AP photographer Ed Reinke on the front page of Governor Patton’s tear-streaked visage. Here it is:
I remember the glistening in the nostrils quite vividly.
The next morning, I saw the photograph (online? or in a physical newspaper? I don’t remember). I immediately thought what any heartless 22-year-old painter would think: wow, this would make a great painting.
(A pre-Sheperd Fairey side note: now that I think about it, at no point did it occur to me to credit Ed Reinke, or even significantly alter the image, though I used his exact cropping in the finished piece. I don’t know what you were learning in art school in the early 2000s, but I sure never heard a word about copyright and fair use until my schooling was well over. Then again, maybe you went to a better art school than I did.)
Working fast, in order to keep up with breaking events, I stretched a 4’x4’ canvas, gridded the drawing on top of it, and then impasto’d the hell out of a bunch of cadmium reds and yellows and zinc whites until I had a messy, meaty sub-Francis Bacon portrait of the governor’s tear-drenched face completed. I carried the enormous painting from my apartment on Gaulbert Avenue to my school’s art studio on foot. The whole way, cars stopped on the street to honk and people shouted their approval. It felt great, though also quite weird, as I wasn’t sure what, precisely, passers-by were approving so vocally. Presumably they just approved of the bloodsport of the whole thing.
The painting went over well with the art school crowd, and was subsequently forgotten as I forged ahead in my work and began painting series of cigarette butts and coffee stains. It languished in storage until I graduated a few semesters later, in early 2004, where I transferred it the studio I was renting in Butchertown (so named for the nearby hog butchering plants that made the rents in the neighborhood so affordable — at night you could literally hear thousands of pigs screaming as they were sent to their deaths a few blocks away).
It was in Butchertown a fellow visiting the studio saw the painting and decided he had to buy it. Amazingly, Patton had refused to resign, and remained governor until 2003, so the following year, memories of his scandal were still fresh in people’s minds. This fellow, like most Kentuckians, would still immediately recognize the image. He contacted me, expressed his interest in purchasing the piece, and asked for a price.
Besides not learning about fair use, another thing I didn’t learn in undergrad was how to price work. Honestly, the problem with painting as a medium is that you’re stuck with them if you don’t sell them, and 4’x4’ paintings take up a great deal of space. So I was happy to move this one to what seemed to be a good home. I gave him an arbitrary number: $500. Five-hundred dollars in that place and time would have covered my studio rent for almost half a year.
He didn’t blink at the number — it is a fair price, and in fact, a little on the low side, which I believe he knew. The problem was, my patron didn’t have that kind of disposable income. He instead wondered about the possibility of an in-kind trade of some kind. Professional services, perhaps. Labor for art.
My patron was the proprietor of a well-respected tattoo parlor. “Do you like tattoos?” he asked me.
"Uh, sure," I said.
"Do you have any tattoo work?" he asked.
"Uh, no." I said.
"Well, tell you what," he told me. "I would like to offer you $500 worth of tattoo work."
I knew almost nothing about tattoo art at that time. I did know, however, that $500 worth of tattoo work was an enormous amount. A few hours, at least. I believe that’s a sleeve’s worth. Or if not a whole sleeve, a lot of one.
Of course, I accepted. I was mostly just happy someone was interested enough in my work to offer money, goods or services in exchange for it.
The problem now was I had $500 worth of credit at a tattoo parlor I had no idea what to do with. As I told him, I had no tattoos. I didn’t really ever consider it.
Lots of people had ideas for me. My friend Dave wanted me, my brother, and his brother to get four matching tattoos. This seemed like sort of a good idea, but no one could agree on a design. Dave’s idea was to commemorate the neighborhood we grew up in, but the problem with that was the neighborhood we grew up in was quite boring, and I was less eager to commemorate it the more I thought about it. After all, if my parents didn’t still live there, I’d never have a reason to go back. The idea eventually fell away.
The possibility of $500’s worth of fleur-de-lis tattoos for a whole gang of Louisville friends was also floated. A fleur-de-lis tattoo is de rigeur for any Louisville native worth a damn.
My girlfriend at the time told me she thought I should give the credit to her, since I didn’t apparently need it.
"No way," I told her.
Our relationship was then in its waning days — she was preparing to take a job in a rural part of an adjacent state, and I had no intentions of following her there (nor, frankly, did she have any intentions of inviting me). We would break up within a few weeks.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because," I said, "I don’t want you to think of me every time you look at your tattoo." Listen: I don’t have any tattoos, so I really don’t know how they work, emotionally. I figured whenever you looked at your tattoo, you would reflect on the circumstances through which you came to have it. I figured if she got one using the $500 credit, she would think of me whenever she saw it, and feel sad, or angry, or however it is ex-girlfriends feel when they think about me. That seemed unfair and a little creepy.
She was not happy. “That is absolutely ridiculous,” she told me. A few years later, I came across her blog during one of those late-night regret binges and discovered a post making fun of me for selling a painting for $500 worth of tattoo credit, and then not giving it to her, and then justifying that decision in a manner befitting the hammy, overwrought quality of relationship politics in the South. I still think that’s completely ridiculous, but it’s likely she did have a solid point. She would, after all, have a pretty thorough tattoo now if I’d given her the credit, as opposed to no one having the tattoo.
I sat on the patron’s business card, not knowing quite what to do with it. He’d told me to come in anytime to have the work done, and I think for a while I planned to, though I never figured out what exactly I’d have done. About nine months later, I moved to Minneapolis. The business card is long gone, and though I am sure the offer still stands, I don’t remember the fellow’s name, or what the tattoo parlor was, or where it is, or really any other details.
A good deal of your early thirties is spent coming to terms with the questionable behavior of your early twenties. There are a few lessons here, I believe, I’d be wise to reflect on.
First of all, it’s not right to rip off the work of photojournalists. If I owe anyone an apology, it’s AP photographer Ed Reinke. The fact that I did not profit from his work is merely a byproduct of my own inaction, and certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. If anyone deserves the $500 tattoo credit, it’s him. Unfortunately, Ed Reinke passed away just last month in Louisville following an accident sustained covering a motor race.
Secondly, there’s the tattoo artist, to whom I also probably owe an apology. If he still owns the paintings and has it hanging somewhere and looks at it, he must feel pangs of guilt, knowing he obtained it without compensating the artist. And not even as a result of his own actions! He tried to compensate me! I inadvertently undervalued his work by not taking him up on his offer, which seems almost like a slap in the face. I still am not sure what would have been the best course of action here: should I refused to take compensation, knowing well I’d likely not have use for that amount of tattoo work? Or should I have gotten the tattoo, using the opportunity to do something I might not have otherwise? I don’t know where that painting would be if he’d not come into possession of it. Probably at my parents’ house, in the basement, in that neighborhood I didn’t want immortalized in ink on my forearm.
I wonder what the tattoo artist’s guests make of the painting now: ten years on, the Patton scandal and its subsequent tears are a little-remembered footnote in Kentucky political history. I wonder how many remember the story. I’d only remembered it biking around this weekend, and seeing a plaque on a building commemorating the former governor.
Maybe, all things considered, the girlfriend was right. Perhaps I should have just given her the credit as a gift and let her do as she wanted with it. Perhaps tattoos don’t work that way, emotionally — perhaps at some point the tattoo’s origin is divorced from the tattoo itself. My patron willed a $500 tattoo into existence when he purchased my painting, a tattoo that does not exist anywhere. All would be better, perhaps, if it did exist somewhere. As it stands now, all that remains is a 4’x4’ painting hanging somewhere, the meaty impasto teardrops reminding all who see them of the painful emotional economies of artmaking in the Upper South in the waning days of the Patton administration.
Thus concludes another boring story of my youth