Tattoo Chronicles #21 ~ A Life In Ink (Episode 3)
By Bob Baxter
I always end up working for gangsters or pornographers. Back in the ’80s, just after I left the music business, I did a short stint as catering manager for O’Neals 43rd Street, a New York City restaurant owned by my brother-in-law and sister. That lasted less than a year. After a run-in with the G.M., I was fired (we had a basic disagreement: he loved the restaurant business and I thought it sucked). Out of work, with no prospects, I answered an ad in the Village Voice for “Nightclub Manager.” It sounded more fun than planning chicken and peas luncheons for the ladies of the Greater New York Benevolent Society. The nightclub, it turned out, was at the end of the block in an abandoned auditorium (the largest pillar-less dance floor in Manhattan), a site where, months before, Jerry Lewis held his yearly telethon. Still in the planning stages and tentatively called Cowboy Palace, I noticed that a lot of Italians were in charge. That, and, when we were visited one morning by a kindly, gray-haired gentleman, and all the higher-ups kissed his ring, I put two and two together. I was working for the Mafia. They were nice to me and the food was great, but some young wanna-be Christopher Moltisanti, in charge of the checkbook, spent the seed money on custom cowboy boots and blow, and the nightclub never opened.
During the three or four years I lived in Manhattan, I only saw an occasional tattoo, small ones on the arms of the cooks at O’Neals’s or some of the Italian kids who acted as bodyguards for the Family. Tattooing had been made illegal in NYC, in 1964, and, except for a few remaining stalwarts like Mike Bakaty and Jonathan Shaw, who continued tattooing underground, the old timers like Bowery Stan and Walter Moskowitz and Huck Spaulding either faded away, moved to other states or, like Huck, concentrated on building supply businesses and such.
A year or two later, back on the West Coast, in the mid-’80s, my girlfriend got a job as a cook for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. We met working for Peter Ueberroth at the 1984 Olympic Games. We both had jobs with the food service, taking care of the Rumanian, Japanese and East African track and field athletes. Her name was Ashnie. She was twenty years old and hailed from Trinidad-Tobago. Again, it was the mid-80s and, although I saw an enormous number of athletes (at the Games) and movie stars (at the Mansion), tattooing was not, as yet, a big deal in Los Angeles nor—from what I could tell by watching scantily dressed athletes walking around Olympic Village—Europe, Asia or Africa. After the Olympics, when Ashnie landed the Hefner job, the head chef got canned for drinking and Ashnie was promoted. She was put in charge of preparing meals for Hef, the bunnies and all their lavish parties. I drove her to and from work every day and, along with occasionally wandering the house and grounds, used to hang out in the kitchen. Which is why, although a call from Larry Flynt was totally unexpected, I had a basic familiarity with subculture celebrities.
The caller, a recruiter, was concise and to the point. “Is this Bob Baxter?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I responded. “How can I help you?”
“You were referred to me by a Joe Vegas at Body Electric Tattoo in Hollywood. I’m looking for an editor.”
I wondered how in the world she knew Joe. I thought it was another resume call, but then I heard something about a magazine.
“And tattoo publications?” she asked.
“Two of my sons are tattoo artists,” I said.
“Good,” said the woman. “We’ve been looking for someone. We talked to a gentleman named Gill Montie. Do you know him?”
I’d heard the name, of course. But not in proximity to the word “gentleman.” The person I’d heard about was the rough-hewn owner of Tattoo Mania on Sunset Boulevard and the producer of the Hollywood Palladium’s annual Inkslingers Ball. Although I had never laid eyes on him, Montie was one of the characters Joe, Jesse and Pote often talked about. And he wasn’t just Gill; he was Gill “The Drill.” As ominous as that sounded, I began to feel a bit more comfortable, knowing that my potential competition was not a member of the literati.
“Yes, I know Gill.”
“Great,” said the woman. “So, you’re familiar with the tattoo community?”
“Yes,” I said, knowing full well that, if the questions got any more explicit, I’d be in trouble.
“Would you be available for an interview tomorrow morning? There’s a position available immediately. Are you currently employed?”
I assured her that I owned my own business and my time was basically my own. Whatever the job, I’d love to be interviewed. I was ready, willing and able. I must have said the right things, because she gave me a time, 10:30 a.m., an address, 8484 Wilshire, and some initials, LFP. I had no idea what they stood for.
We said good-bye and the conversation ended. It took a few minutes to sink in. I reckoned this was a golden opportunity and Joe Vegas had something to do with it. I gave him a call.
“Sure,” he said. “Some lady called and I answered the phone.”
It turns out that Jesse and Joe just happened to be in the shop, on their day off, Monday, and, when the recruiter described to Joe what she was looking for, he put his hand over the mouthpiece and shouted across the room, “Hey, Jesse. Doesn’t your father edit or something?” Jesse, thankfully, remembered what I did for a living. Next morning, I was in my car, heading west on Wilshire, entering Beverly Hills and looking for 8484.
There it was, nine floors of black glass and a bigger-than-life statue of John Wayne on the sidewalk. I’d seen the building many times, but had no idea what lurked inside. There was a bank on the first floor and a Maserati dealership across the street but, aside from that, I hadn’t a clue.
The entrance to 8484 wound down a twisty driveway to the subterranean garage. There, neatly parked, row upon row, were Rolls Royces and Mercedes town cars, each in their own special space. The first hint of something out of the ordinary was the twenty-foot-long, white limousine with girls in string bikinis painted on the sides. And, in foot-high, easy-to-read lettering, the words HUSTLER.
Uh-oh, I thought. Don’t tell me. L-F-P. The L-F stands for Larry Flynt. This is his place!
Just then, a uniformed parking attendant greeted me and opened my door. “Who, sir, are you here to see?” he asked.
“Jim Kohls?” I answered tentatively. “I’m here for a meeting.”
With that, I was politely ushered to the reception window, given a visitor badge and pointed toward the elevators. It was all very impressive and efficient. I was a bit nervous but, at the same time, I felt like a celebrity. It’s not often I was the invited guest in a building with six, polished-brass elevator doors and Larry Flynt. As we ascended from floor to floor, lots of busy people scurried about, but the closer we got to my floor, the ninth, the elevator emptied and I was the final, remaining passenger. And the doors opened.
The top, executive floor of the Flynt Building is like something out of Arabian Nights and a turn-of-the-century bordello. A bordello for rich people, a kitsch bordello, but a bordello none-the-less. The ceiling was twenty maybe thirty feet high and, as I turned right and walked to the reception area, I saw an attractive young woman seated at a vintage desk and, behind her, a wall of huge picture windows looking out on downtown Beverly Hills. On the left and right of the desk, at neatly spaced intervals, were pieces of furniture I had only seen in books. The sofas were swans. Their wings, sculptured from mahogany, wrapped around and formed the backs. Two four-foot Little Black Sambos, with turbans and scimitars tucked in their waistbands, stood guard at either side. Potted ferns added a splash of green and complimented the luxurious, plush carpeting replete with ten-inch-by-ten-inch roses extending down extravagant wood-paneled hallways to the left and right. On the walls were paintings, huge, four-foot-high by six-foot-wide paintings, each one portraying vast party scenes with serpentine stairways, revelers clothed in period tuxedos and women in colorful, satin ball gowns. Servants carried silver trays of champagne glasses and footmen in swallowtail coats and knee-high, polished boots stood sentry at the doorways. These were interspersed with paintings by the Frenchman Erté and, as far as I could see, small occasional tables with various statuary, mostly Frederick Remington bronzes (copies, I think) and porcelains with three-dimensional flowers and gilt handles. This was not your standard reception area.
The girl at the desk took my name, checked her book and nodded, “Yes, Mr. Kohls will be available in a few minutes.” She pointed me to one of the sofas where I settled back in the comforting wings of the resident swan. I sat primly, knees together and hands folded, waiting for I didn’t know what. A million thoughts raced through my head as I was interrupted by a secretary who said my name and escorted me down the westernmost hall toward a ten-foot doorway leading to an executive office. I was ushered into a wood-paneled anteroom featuring a small cherry-wood desk surrounded by four armless, beautifully upholstered Queen Anne chairs. I was asked to be seated.
Donna Hahner came in first, entering from the hallway. Ms. Hahner was the vice president in charge of production. Next was Perry Grayson, V.P. of advertising. And, finally, we were joined by Jim Kohls, the president. Jim was buff, gel in his hair, well-groomed and tan. The perfect mix of Hollywood flash and country club living. Although Hahner asked most of the questions, it was Kohls who ran the show. And, as we all tugged our chairs toward the edge of the table and our knees touched, he was the decision maker.
“How are you, today?” they asked.
“Fine,” I said. Although I was duly impressed, in the back of my mind I remembered I had a job, owned my own business and, whatever happened in this fairytale room, was fine with me. Just the experience was enough.
“Have you worked as an editor before?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you familiar with the tattoo industry?”
Again, I answered yes, realizing these were the same questions the recruiter had asked, over the phone.
“Have you edited magazines?”
Here I was in murky water. While I had created and edited my own publications, one in college and another, back when I had a music store, and I had also been a monthly columnist for two national magazines, Sing Out! and Guitar Player, I had never actually run a publication, per se.
“Yes,” I said, making direct eye contact. Nobody said anything. Whew! They believed me.
As the hour progressed, the questions became more detailed. But I hung in there.
“Can you plan an issue? Are you able to build a staff of photographers and writers? Can you put together a tattoo magazine that can sell copies?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I answered, automatically. I knew that saying “no” would put the kibosh on my chances.
“Okay,” they said, looking back and forth among themselves. “I guess that does it. The next deadline is two weeks from now. That okay with you?”
I was floored. I wasn’t even sure what magazine they were talking about and here they were asking when my first issue would be ready. Thank heaven, in that moment, I came to my senses. Getting people to write and shoot pictures, finding an art director and delivering the next issue in fourteen days. Impossible. “I really don’t think so,” I said. “When’s the next one?”
“Eight weeks,” said Hahner.
“Okay,” I answered.
“Good,” she said. “I guess we’ll wait until then.”
“The current editor knows all about this, right?”
“No,” said Kohls, with a shake of his head. “We’re letting him go. He hasn’t been told.”
They never said why.
So, there I was, seemingly hired, and I didn’t even know what the magazine looked like. I’d been too flustered to ask for a copy. Or did the magazine even exist?
And then came the code of silence. Although, day by day, I became increasingly excited and anxious to get started, whenever I phoned Donna Hahner, she wouldn’t take my calls. So there I would sit, in my office, in Glendale, trying to piece it together. Did I hear them right? Had it all been a dream? Was I imagining the interview and the Remingtons? Was sitting, wrapped in the wings of a giant swan just my mind playing tricks on me? What do I do now? Who could I ask? Joe Vegas?
to be continued...
As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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