John O'Hara : Interview 42
John O'Hara is a tattoo artist and co-owner of Black Iris Tattoo in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York. He’s also a husband and father of one. John and I grew up in the same small town in Massachusetts and recently reconnected after nearly twenty years.
We met up at his shop and chatted about letting love into his creative space, the lightness and darkness of life, the sudden death of his father, and the chaos of the Self. Meet John.
How do you define being "in love"?
Certainly love is a feeling that you have towards someone. In my experience of love, it's been a process of growing to the point where I'm open enough to both give love and receive love, too. I've always been focused on artwork and the things that I have in my head, so to some degree, that's always created a barrier for people to get into that space. When I met my wife, she was one of the first people that could get into that space and who I would let into that creative space. Her being a part of the process, or seeing the way that I see the world or that I look at things and do things is a little bit different than the average person. Being that I have tattoos and it's what I do for a living. So being able to share the process with somebody and being someone who's a little bit more psychologically sensitive—this word empath, like you feel a lot towards people and sometimes you have to block certain things or otherwise it gets overwhelming. In terms of love, she was one of the first people who got into that space and who I wanted to share that space with and create a life together with. When we first got together, we dated for probably about six months and we had a period where we broke up. Some of that period was me blocking and then we came back around and gave it a second shot. And from there it was yeah, “I think this is it.” Love evolves into different things especially when you have children. Where is the center of that? And making sure the center is a pure feeling because you get clouded with all of the mundane aspects of life, everything that daily life brings. Being a creative person, you live in a bit of an alternative reality where you’re always thinking about different things and curiosities. To some degree she’s able to foster that in me in a way and let that be a part of our family. Like raising our daughter, we want to pass that on to her. My wife is a creative person, too. She’s German and she was born and raised in rural Germany in a farm setting. Her grandparents were a huge influence on her. Her grandmother was a butcher, her grandfather was a woodworker, they basically lived on the earth. So her creativity comes through in things like cooking—she’s artistic in the way that she’s able to express herself.
Me: She’s able to be creative within that setting?
Me: That’s a huge thing. I meet people who say they’re not creative, but that’s kind of bullshit, they think it has to be music or it has to be painting or it has to be whatever. But it doesn’t have to be any of those things, it’s how you approach life.
John: And she’s an incredibly unique person. I’ve never met anyone like her. When we first met, we were going around to punk shows and post-punk shows and running around New York City doing crazy stuff. She was always right there, ready to go, just like super fun. So our love started with that spark of excitement being young and living in New York and sharing things in common and doing all these great things. And as we move through our life together and realize that marriage can be something that you have to work through and also reaffirm why you’re together. And then you throw a daughter into it and realize that shaping her brings out the best in us because we want to instill what we find in each other, the best qualities, into her.
Me: I really appreciate the idea of letting someone into that creative space. It’s super important to do that. To show vulnerability.
John: From my experience, my relationship with my wife came—it always comes when you’re not looking or you’re not ready. It arrives when you stop waiting for it to arrive. Our love was an evolution, but it started with that initial, “Man! You’re rad!” And we had friends in common, so we got to explore the beginning of ourselves together.
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is being left to exist in the darkness outside of the light. I was doing a lot of research about near-death experiences, and there are all these videos of children that have had them. It’s interesting! They all say the same thing. They say there’s the light and the dark and their worst fear is being left in the dark. Being left outside the source of whatever it is. So being detached, being isolated, not having any relevance or feeling a connection.
Me: With people? With life?
John: With the overall thing, the whole experience.
Me: Have you had moments when you’ve felt that disconnection?
John: Oh yeah.
Me: What do those look like to you?
John: I had some dark times with drug and alcohol abuse. There were definitely dark moments where I felt outside of the whole experience. I was left isolated. And that was another thing my wife helped with with—she brought me out of that. Not actively, but through my meeting her it evolved me out of that self-destructive state of mind.
This idea that there’s this source, like a river, and being connected to that, and my biggest fear is being somehow isolated from that or being detached.
Maybe you’ll leave out that part about the children. [Laughter]
Me: Nah! I’ll probably link to it! Maybe not the videos…
John: Yeah, I hear that! It’s weird because they’re pretty consistent. Most people say there’s a light and a darkness, and you want to be in the light because the darkness is something even our brains can’t fathom the despair.
And heights! [Laughter] I’m afraid of heights.
Me: Me too!
John: I have falling dreams all the time.
Me: I have flying dreams.
John: I wish I had those.
How do you approach collaboration?
Every day is a collaboration because when you’re tattooing someone there’s a huge amount of trust and respect that is given back and forth. Me respecting the client and respecting what they want and doing the best job I can in a high-pressure moment. But them also respecting me and understanding that I have set up, in my work, specific boundaries that I will and won’t do in order to make sure I honor my creative self too. Whenever there’s a monetary exchange involved, you’re providing a service to someone—giving them what they want—but also, there’s a side that it’s my work as well. So it’s a collaboration and I start to get a little particular about the tattoos that I will and won’t do. In order to convey that to clients, I’ve set up a parameter of theme or overarching narrative of the work and the work is very much derived from nature, there are elements of mysticism, and I like sigil work which is pattern work that is said to be infused with magical intention.
So if somebody comes to me for a tattoo, they’re seeking out that imagery and it becomes a little bit less about “I saw this thing on the internet and I want to pay you to do it.” In that regard, what we do in this studio is a little bit more of an experience that way. And the collaboration aspect comes in where, if I’m doing a custom piece for someone and they want particular imagery or elements, I have to make the drawing and I send it to them the day before and there’s alway a certain amount of approval that has to happen before we do the tattoo. It becomes tricky because the way that I make artwork and the way that I draw—when I make a drawing for a tattoo, it has all what I feel to be the best decisions in it. And when I show someone, and they want to make alterations, there’s a little bit of a back and forth where I have to explain to them why I chose to do things that way. Once we delve into it and talk about it a little bit more, they make a connection with it and they’re a bit more open to that creative approach. Our tattoo work here is a little bit more non-traditional, it’s a little bit more pushing the boundary of what a tattoo is thought to look like. Every day is a collaboration. Some better than others, right? [Laughter]
Is there a moment from your life that you wish you could change?
There are definitely a few moments that I would change, but the biggest moment would be when my dad died. That was tough because I was here in New York and he had been coming down [from Massachusetts] and traveling and we’d been spending time together. And I would say that later in my life our relationship started to get better. In a more open and level way. But when he died it was sad. I wish could change it because I wish I could have been there that day or the day before. Only because he was a real workhorse, and he worked really hard for my brother and me to be able to do the things we wanted to do with our lives. And a series of unfortunate events and he was in a business meeting where he was supposed to launch his new product—because he was also an inventor and he invented a new product that was basically a sanitation thing where he developed a liquid that turned into a gas and would sterilize a surgical room. You would use this application and somehow transform this liquid into the gas and the whole room would be sterilized. So he was going to pitch this idea and in the middle of the meeting, and from what I understand, he was in the meeting and about to stand up and give his presentation and just had a heart attack and died right there. It just seems like such a tragic moment for something like that to happen. No time is a good time, but particularly at that moment in his life was difficult because it was right on the brink of a success, and to have it cut short was really difficult. If I could change something—I think he was supposed to come down the weekend before and I was busy. I was like, “Maybe this isn’t a good weekend.” I would change that. Or if I could have had some foresight, I would have wanted to have been home. That’s a lot of things that you work through over time and you have let go in order to live your own life.
Me: How long ago was that? I remember, but…
Me: I was just in L.A. at that point.
John: Yeah, almost twelve, 13 years ago. It was tough. I was young, I had just moved to New York, I didn’t really have any bearing on my new life here, and with my family other places, I had to really dig deep for New York and be like, “I could go to Georgia [where his mother lived], but I don’t really know Georgia that well, and my artistic life is here.” So I wanted to stay and pursue it, but it came with a lot of difficulty for sure.
How do you define failure?
It’s not that I haven’t failed on a base, day-to-day level, of course we all fail. But it’s all kind of one motion, one process, where you fail at something but you learn so much more. It’s almost like our failures are our successes too. I think the biggest failure is not doing what you are intended to do because you feel outside influences tell you that you have to be doing something else. I’ve lived with a lot of struggle, but staying true to what I want makes the struggle worth it. In the end, there was a lot of failure on levels like leaving jobs, but I’ve always stayed true to my artwork. It’s always been a rock for me, my creative process. I don’t think I’ve ever really failed that because it’s always been there for me. It’s always something I’ve been able to do. I’ve traveled the world doing it in some capacity. The day I stop making artwork or doing something creative would be the ultimate failure for me.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
I feel like I was thinking about this the other day and I was like, “Man this ice cream is really good and I’m going to fucking miss this when I’m gone.” [Laughter]
To some degree I’ll miss this sense of—so there’s this sense of the Self floating in the chaos, but the chaos brings new experiences and there’s something really interesting about the awareness of daily life and what it brings. If there’s nothing after, missing the sense of wonder like, “Oh man! Look at all this stuff! There’s so much here to explore!” I would miss that. And I would miss being able to create stuff. And I would miss my family.
Me: Throw them at the end. [Laughter]
John: First and foremost, the idea of consciousness and being an eye in this space and time, seeing all this stuff. If it ends, does that end too? That ties back to the fears as well.
Me: Do you think it’s one of these things where we die and that’s it? We’re just dead in the ground?
John: I think our minds can’t perceive what it is, but there’s always that space in your mind that can’t help but think it’s only that dark place and there’s nothing more. I choose to believe there’s more and I think that I’ve seen signs along the way that lead me to believe—both good and bad, I’ve definitely seen some fucking demons, literal demons walking the street. So in my reality and my world, there have been enough small clues that lead me to believe there’s something else.