Originally published July 1999
The calls started Saturday morning and went through the day, as friends and family wanted to make sure I was all right after the news that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane was missing and he and his wife and sister-in-law were presumed dead. Because I’ve had the image of a 3-year-old John-John saluting the casket of his father tattooed on my inner right arm for 14 years, it’s like he’s a part of me. The Kennedy mystique was certainly a big part of my upbringing, with our house decorated with busts, plaques and tapestries of the first Irish Catholic President of the United States and his brother Bobby, who was on his way to being the second. As a 6-year-old living in the Azores in 1963, I remember being awakened at 3 a.m. to go to Lajes Field for the landing and refueling of Air Force One. Jackie waved to the crowd as the President slept on the eve of his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
My fascination with the Kennedys didn’t make it through my adolescence, however. After the assassinations of President Kennedy and Bobby, the clan seemed to be just widows, kids without fathers and Teddy. The bullets ripped through the fairy tale facade and brought on tragedies as if scripted. I still collect Kennedy memorabilia, but these days it’s more in the spirit of kitsch.
Why, then, did I decide to have the image of young John John etched in my skin forever? To me, that Life magazine photograph symbolized history’s last moment of pure innocence. The child salutes the father without having any idea
of the impact of the moment or that his life will be forever changed. Beatlemania, free love, rebellion in the streets all grew, in part, as a way of coping with an assassination that exposed the myth of America right and might. The truth of modern society is that anyone can point at anyone else and make them dead. We’re all gonna die, so we might as well dance naked in the psychedelic fields.
I have a parallel in my own life, when my mother died of cancer at age 42. I was 18 at the time and had never drank a beer or smoked a joint or had sex, even the self-inflicted kind.
If I ever considered doing something wrong or illegal, growing up, I would just think about my mother finding out and that would be the end of it. She died in April ’74; by December of that year I was writing music critiques and satire for a hippie rag called Sunbums. My co-workers and I smoked dope all day long: you could even smell the marijuana in the reception area. My virginity, meanwhile, went up in smoke when I met a lesbian vegetarian who liked my polarizing concert reviews. At 18, I was going to mass every Sunday. At 19, I was ordering coffee from McDonald’s just to get the plastic coke spoon that came with it.
The Sunbums publisher had a concert promotion business and I became the right hand man of his right hand man, sent out to do all kinds of errands, from picking up the luggage of Rod Stewart and the Faces at the airport to loading my car with 500 pounds of dry ice before a Deep Purple concert. I fell deep into the rock ‘n’ roll life.
In the mid- ’70s, a new style of single-needle tattooing was being pioneered at Tattooland in East L.A. by Goodtime Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrette and I was right there watching. Former Sunbums editor Kate Hellenbrand got a job at the shop on Whittier Boulevard, which had just been bought by Ed Hardy after Cartwright found religion. I’d see the stream of customers bringing in photos of their parents, kids, spouses, pets, cars, whatever. With the new sketch-like precision, the artists would perfectly duplicate the photos.
Back in Honolulu, Kandi Everett was becoming really good at single-needle portraits and she liked my idea of recreating a famous photograph on my skin. It was just merely concept, however, until ’85 when Everett visited Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone’s shop at 2712 Guadalupe. There was no real tattoo business in Austin at the time and Everett was bored. I was bored, too, as I folded biker T-shirts — Rollo’s side business — in the back of the shop. It was time to put on John-John. Everett worked in silence for 90 minutes and when she was done I satisfied her asking price by buying her lunch at Hut’s.
“What are you, some kinda Kennedy fanatic?” I get that all the time. (Also, “Is that the Morton Salt girl?”) But, to me, the main theme of the John F. Kennedy story is one of unrealized potential. We’ll never know how good of a president Sr. would’ve been. And now we’ll never know what sort of man his son would’ve become over time. Just as the dream was about to come true, the world snapped upright, drenched in nightmare sweat.
People who don’t understand tattoos point to the permanence as a negative thing, but that’s really a big part of the appeal. Life is fleeting, as are fortunes, relationships and careers. In a world where everything can change in an instant, it’s reassuring to have something that no one can take away. It’s my most prized possession, this tattoo that cost me a hamburger. It expresses so much of what I feel, but can’t fully relate. As the casket rolled before him, the boy saluted, but it hadn’t sunk in. It wouldn’t for years. But eventually, he’d feel the loss every day of his life.