Tattooists traditionally hate “scratchers”, urban-speak for inexperienced, untrained and untalented tattoo artists. John Washington is technically a scratcher, running out of space on his own thighs as he practices his art. But, John’s talent hasn’t gone unnoticed. Fritha Washington tells Dressed in the Dark about her doodlepad of a husband.
I’m married to a boy called John. When John was 8 he wanted a tattoo of Mr.T on his upper arm, for starters, and in later years he wanted to look like the drummer from Blink 182.
For most people this would have meant getting drunk in Newquay, paying someone to etch some tribal work on a bicep, forgetting the whole thing and moving on to something less painful.
But John decided to go to Bosnia, make friends with a skater guy with “crap” tattoos and get him to draw a robot on his ribs…with a homemade tattoo gun made from bits of a remote control car and needles of questionable hygiene.
When John and I had been going out for a couple of weeks, he casually mentioned that his HIV test had come back negative, I was pleased but somewhat alarmed. Why did you need to get a test?
Homemade tattoo gun? Bosnia?
So when John, about a year later, bought his own tattoo gun – sometime when I was momentarily distracted by something shiny – I wasn’t completely surprised.
He promised not to tattoo himself until he’d practiced lots on other things and then texted me about three seconds later saying he’d tattooed an umbrella on his own thigh. He was very excited, mainly about how bad it was. And the fact that he’d spilled ink all over someone else’s carpet. It was the start of something beautiful.
This is controversial because proper tattooists traditionally hate ‘scratchers’ – those who wilfully neglect hygiene and artistry for the chance to brand another human being for life. My husband can’t afford to train for three years because I like to buy clothes and trinkets. So, he’s technically a scratcher. The industry should hate him and declaim his work as amateur and unsafe.
But, he’s really good. He’s so good that the local tattoo artist has asked him to tattoo her. Also, arguably the most respected tattoo artist in the Balkans (not the skater guy from Bosnia – he was bad) thinks John is a genius and wants us to move to Macedonia so he can work with him.
John has spent years researching what he’s doing and is a hygiene fascist who is best friends with Dettol. He uses professional standard guns, with pre sterilised equipment and many a lecture delivered on cross contamination given to hapless enquirers.
Skip on a couple of years and John is covered in his own handiwork. The umbrella is now being rained on and held by a stickman, attacked by a panther and a few giant birds. And an anchor. And some other stuff. Including a chicken in a bow tie.
He will tattoo basically anything on himself. It’s a kind of “I love lamp” mentality – you see it, you like it, you draw it on yourself for life.
But when it comes to proper work on others, he’s a classic artiste. He will only do traditional-style tattoos and is genuinely offended if somebody asks for anything he doesn’t think is cool. He won’t charge money, obviously, so he gets to tattoo a lot of people.
Our male friends (or people he met in the park) carry pumas and ships on their arms. Our female friends display a nicely stereotypical array of flowers, hearts and birds on their ankles. Lewes, the quiet Sussex town where we live, is turning into LA Ink.
Most people we know have a John original piece. Their skin will be worth a fortune one day – think the prestige of Van Gogh’s early work but much, much cooler.
Words by Fritha Washington
Photographs by Laurence Jarrett-Kerr