How Legendary Tattoo Artist Jonathan Shaw Became the Next Bukowski

Jonathan Shaw traveled the world and inked up Johnny Depp's crew before turning his life into a stunning memoir

Johnny Depp and Jonathan Shaw in Paris in 1998. Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Shaw

Forty years ago — long before he was a world-renowned tattoo artist, or a beloved cult author — Jonathan Shaw was a teenage heroin addict and part-time hustler, "raised by wolves" on the streets of Los Angeles. He was also writing for an offshoot of the Los Angeles Free Press, where poet-novelist and lowbrow icon Charles Bukowski had a column. "We were both screaming-drunk one time," Shaw, now 61, says, "and Bukowski said to me, 'You're just a fucking punk kid living in Hollywood. Who wants to read about that? You need to get a fucking life so you have something to write about.' Then we went to blows."

Nonetheless, Shaw, the son of big-band jazz star Artie Shaw, took Bukowski's words to heart, eventually (or rather, repeatedly) kicking heroin and hitchhiking to Central and South America, where he spent the next decade working as a deckhand and later a tattoo artist ("Tattooing is a great refuge for scoundrels"). In 1987, he landed on the Bowery and opened Fun City, New York's first storefront tattoo parlor. Never mind that tattooing was illegal in New York at the time, or that the Lower East Side was still such a "lawless place" that Shaw kept a gun strapped to the underside of his chair.

Shaw ran with — and inked up — a crew that included Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch, and unwittingly helped turn his underground passion into a mainstream industry. In 2002, he sold Fun City to dedicate more time to writing. His 2008 debut novel, Narcisa, about a man who is hopelessly hooked on a beautiful young crackhead, immediately won acclaim and famous fans like Depp and Marilyn Manson. Its title drawn from the name of a "junkie whore" Shaw once knew in Tijuana, the book "emerged" out of a long-forgotten cache of notebooks from Shaw's youth that he stumbled upon while working on his (unfinished) memoir, Scab Vendor.

A few years ago, Shaw was hanging at Depp's house ("I think Patti Smith was there at the time") when his old friend mentioned that he was in talks with HarperCollins about starting an imprint and that he'd like to rerelease Narcisa. Shaw reworked the original version into a new edition that was released in March — a sprawling, bloodletting tome that's already being compared to Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and even Bukowski.

"For me to publicly celebrate your abilities as author, artist, connoisseur, madman, thug, pirate, villain, Buddha, sage, Satan, gypsy and most solid of brothers, is an honor and a pleasure I have dreamt of since our teeth began rotting in unison," Depp wrote in an e-mail to Shaw, who is now plotting a spoken-word record with help from Cat Power while continuing on with his memoir, which has expanded into multiple volumes. "Fuck, I write better than Bukowski," he says. "I think he would appreciate that."