Jonathan Shaw on the Redemptive Power of Storytelling

By John Lavitt 06/06/17

"I remember a sponsor handing me a pencil early in my recovery and telling me, 'Say hello to God.' We had no idea that would eventually spawn over ten published books."

Jonathan Shaw standing wearing hat
An exclusive interview with tattoo legend and writer Jonathan Shaw on addiction, his extensive career, and recovery. via Author

Before he was an iconic tattoo artist inking Iggy Pop and Johnny Depp, before he left tattooing to write cult novels and raw memoirs, Jonathan Shaw struggled to support his heroin addiction on the streets of Los Angeles. Writing for the Los Angeles Free Press, he hung out with Charles Bukowski and swore that he would be a legend. Shaw became a legend, not as a drinker and a drug addict, but as a sober tattoo artist and a sober writer. The Fix sat down with Shaw to explore the dark areas before and after sobriety.

Your mother, Hollywood star Doris Dowling, played a woman manipulated by an alcoholic in Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend. Given your experience, did this film reflect your relationship with your mom? Do you believe her alcoholism led to your own difficulties?

Well, I believe alcoholism is, in many cases, sort of an inherited curse. That’s not to say that it won’t strike people from seemingly “normal” familial origins. It certainly does, all the time. But even in those cases, it can still be seen as “inherited,” metaphysically, karmatically, from a spiritual perspective. But that’s a really long conversation. Maybe another day…

In my interview with Kat Von D, she talked about how her life in the tattooing industry today is characterized by sobriety. Does this mirror your work as well? You once famously said, “Tattooing is a great refuge for scoundrels.” Are the wild and crazy elements of that world the reason you left it behind to focus on writing?

Wow! Is Kat sober now? I had no idea. Haven’t seen her in years. Glad to hear she’s doing better. Anyway, I can’t say her statement reflects my reality, no, because I don’t really have a life in the tattoo world today. But Kat’s statement does accurately mirror my reality as a sober writer, sure! Themes of addiction and recovery are key elements in all of my books. You know the old saying, “To thine own self be true?” Well, to be true to myself, I needed to fully dedicate all my time and energy to sharing my life experience through writing, storytelling. Tattooing had simply run its course. An artist can only wear so many hats in this life, and I had to make a choice. I’ve certainly never regretted my decision.

In a recent interview, you mention how “Half of my extended family of origin committed suicide or went insane.” How did you manage to avoid this genetic pitfall? Why were you able to survive?

I guess Hell was Standing Room Only the day my number was called, or maybe old Mr. Goathead didn’t want another troublemaker stirring up shit Down Below (laughs). But seriously, who the hell knows? I just thank God I did survive long enough to accumulate a certain degree of life experience and finally find the voice to write these books, where I’m able to take advantage of the freedom literature provides to really explore deep topics like that. Anyone reading my work will inevitably reach their own conclusions as to how someone comes to survive a seemingly hopeless state of mind, body and spirit. Honestly, given all the shit I did to kill myself, I can only attribute it to the grace of God. Any subsequent success I’ve been able to achieve in this life is far more God’s success than my own.

At the end of your addiction, you describe how you were a morally bankrupt shell of a man. Do you believe addicts need to hit bottom to find recovery? How did you come back from your bottom?

Absolutely. I’m a big believer in the literature of recovery. There’s a passage that sums it up very clearly, where it talks about an alcoholic’s pressing need to concede “complete defeat” to their innermost self before a healthy seed of recovery can be planted. It goes on to explain that little good can come to anyone hoping to recover without first accepting their “devastating weakness and all of its consequences.”

Without such a humbling admission, an alkie or addict’s hope of real, sustainable recovery will be precarious, at best, and their chances of finding any true happiness sober are pretty slim too. The recovery program explains that addicts and alkies are “restless, irritable and discontent” by nature, and clearly states that, unless they can experience a deep psychic change, a spiritual experience, their chances of recovery suck. This admonition is reflected perfectly by my own personal experience, so I’m definitely a believer. I was graced with just enough desperation to be able to throw in the towel before my pride and my self-sufficiency killed me. Who knew that an act of pure cowardice on my part would turn out to be a doorway to freedom from the cruel destiny awaiting me as a lifelong alcoholic and addict?

From Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski to Jerry Stahl and Hubert Selby Jr., many of your early heroes were plagued by drug and alcohol problems. They lived on the edge and celebrated that edge in their work. How dangerous is the mythology of the fucked-up artist?

Firstly, I wouldn’t suggest that either Jerry or Cubby Selby - both esteemed contemporaries and personal friends - could ever be accused of “celebrating” drug and alcohol abuse in their work – at least not in the sense of glamorizing it. These are both sober writers deeply dedicated to recovery. And by accurately and unflinchingly depicting addiction for the depraved shit show it really is, I think their work reflects its consequences in a pretty devastating light.

As to Kerouac and Bukowski, well, that’s another story (laughs). I knew Bukowski quite well, and I can honestly say I don’t think he had much to do - at least not consciously - with the sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-drunkard fucked-up artist mythology some folks have come to associate with his work. His writing was raw and authentic. If his reality was a fucked up one, well, so be it. He reflected it truthfully through writing. It takes tremendous balls to tell on yourself in the way old Buk did in his work, and the fact that he wasn’t sober in no way diminishes his courage and artistic integrity.

As a tattoo artist, what do you think of tattooing’s stratospheric popularity today? Have tattoos become so in vogue that they’ve lost their rebellious cool, utterly coopted by the dominant hegemonic powers?

These are topics I explore in my new book, Scab Vendor – Confessions of a Tattoo Artist. Looking back from the perspective of someone who came into the game long before tattooing became fashionable, on some levels, it’s turned into this very acceptable, mainstream, sort of boring thing. It’s almost a cliché to be tattooed nowadays. But back in the day, it was still edgy, underworld, kind of dangerous, mysterious, and weird. The average guy would not come into contact with tattooing.

photo via Jonathan Shaw

Back when I was first breaking in, it was a very closed world. And that gave it a certain edge, a mystique that’s largely gone from it now. I say this with no real negative judgment. It is what it is. Things change. That’s the order of the universe. And change is always good - even when it doesn’t feel so great to old dinosaurs like me (laughs).

One of your favorite quotations is by Lawrence Durrell, who wrote: “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Given the success of your novel Narcisa Our Lady of Ashes, are women and sex addiction ongoing concerns for you?

Well, sex and love addiction has certainly been a big theme in my writing - especially in Narcisa. That book has been praised by wiser souls than me for being like the ultimate exploration of codependency and love addiction in literature, so I guess you could say the struggle to unravel the roots of these issues have been a big part of my life’s work. To quote Nietzsche, “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.” Since my writing represents a sincere attempt to unravel my own experience with these addictions from a spiritual perspective, I would say that, yeah, it’s an ongoing study, for sure.

In a recent interview, you said, “As human beings, we need to share our experience, strength and hope with each other in order to help each other navigate the human experience. In that sense, storytelling is a very powerful evolutionary tool, one of the most ancient compulsions of the human race.” Can stories inspire us to stay sober? Is the key to the success of 12-step programs the sharing of stories?

Absolutely. Honest communication is a cornerstone to recovery. The roots of addiction exist in a place of darkness, lies, and denial. So, whenever a ray of truth shines into that dark place, it opens space for tremendous healing. The old saying that you’re only sick as your secrets is spot on. Every dark crevice and crack needs to be illuminated in recovery. Writing, storytelling, sharing of feelings, and the shedding of long-repressed emotional baggage through the use of language and communication between likeminded individuals, these are all essential elements for healing, growing and moving away from old, unhealthy behavioral patterns and attitudes. I remember a sponsor handing me a pencil early in my recovery and telling me, “Say hello to God (laughs)." We had no idea that would eventually spawn over ten published books, translated into half a dozen languages, with many more to come, God willing…

In your writing of Scab Vendor Confessions of A Tattoo Artist, you are known for digging deeply into your own psyche. You once said, “I’ve become like an archaeologist, piecing together fragments of my own life.” Does this extraverted revelation of your introverted jewels and wounds come from your childhood?

Childhood wounds and emotional traumas, and all the fucked-up pathologies they spawn, are crucial keys to unraveling the subsequent events in our lives; the good, bad, and the ugly. How not? Childhood is where it all started. They don’t call it our “formative years” for nothing. For a writer like me, it’s a treasure trove of information and awareness. Like opening a Pandora’s box, looking into those deep wounds of the past can be scary as hell, but the willingness to go there is an invaluable foundation for any real, honest, authentic storytelling, for sure.

The Fix is read by a lot of struggling people, either trying to find the path of recovery or newly sober, both in and out of treatment centers and sober livings. If you could speak directly to this audience, what would you say to help them on their journeys? Are there any sober trade secrets that aided you that are not well-known or maybe often ignored?

That’s a particularly interesting question for me. While fellowships I belong to claim to hold “no opinion on outside issues,” as an outspoken addict who’s been very active in recovery for decades, I do have many strong opinions on some of these “outside issues.” I refrain from sharing them at 12-step meetings, mostly due to certain understandable preconceptions and prejudices that unfortunately exist within that community. So, in that sense, I guess you could call them “trade secrets” (laughs), even though the only real secret for me today is that there are no secrets anymore (laughs).

Since over a decade into my recovery, I’ve been deeply involved with shamanic healing modalities involving the use of sacred indigenous plant medicines such as Ayahuasca, Iboga, and Kambó, always in a strictly religious context, of course. I’m certainly not recommending this brand of spirituality for everyone. But I will say that, personally, I’ve found the potential for healing addictions and their root causes through these practices to be enormous, revolutionary, even.

In many ways, standard Western treatment ideologies seem to take a pretty primitive approach. In my opinion, the kind of slash and burn application of psych-meds in the treatment of addiction today - with notable exceptions - has created a situation where the cure is often far worse than the disease itself. The idea of addressing chemical dependency by putting a pharmacological Band-Aid on its symptoms, while largely ignoring its deep-seated mental, emotional and spiritual roots, seems absurd to me, a clinically approved exercise in turd polishing.

In our ongoing quest for real, lasting recovery from addiction and its deeper mental, emotional and spiritual causes, I believe it would do us all much good to follow the core 12-step literature’s suggestion to “search and research with an open mind,” always remembering the same literature’s warning that “contempt prior to investigation” cannot fail to condemn us to everlasting ignorance.

photo via Author

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.