Illustrated Men: Chefs and their Tattoos
Painful and permanent, tattoos used to be the mark of bikers, sailors and hard-core rock ‘n’ rollers. Today, just try finding someone under the age of 35 who doesn’t have at least a little ink under their skin.
And if you’re a hot young chef? No doubt your arms, legs, chest and — in the case of one local culinary artist — even your neck are a wild and colorful road map of where you’ve been and still hope to go, along with designs and ideas you find interesting.
“Chefs definitely get more tattoos than the average person,” says Jason Lambert of Oakland’s Black Cat Tattoos, the artist behind much of Pittsburgh’s kitchen ink, “and they also tend to get more and bigger tattoos.”
What’s the deal with chefs and tattoos?
Are chefs, whose livelihoods depend on creativity, simply more expressive than regular folks? Or are they simply more macho (and therefore impervious to the pain associated with tattoos) because the fast-paced job is difficult, uncomfortable and also dangerous with all those knives, hot pans and open fires?
Here, we let five of Pittsburgh’s most decorated chefs tell the stories behind their tattoos:
Chef/owner, Root 174 (opening in July), Regent Square
I was in the punk rock scene and very rebellious as a kid, so since I was 14, I wanted to be completely covered head to toe. I got my first the day I turned 18, a horrible tribal tattoo on my right arm. I just wanted one so bad and to see what it felt like. I threw up.
After that, I started a religious sleeve on my left arm because I love that kind of art. It’s so beautiful. Then I crossed the collar line, which back then was a big thing.
In 1999, I got my throat and neck tattooed with a pair of birds — a red robin on the right and a blue jay on the left, because I always liked nautical birds and old-school sailor stuff. There were bets on the table I’d only get the outline done before I wimped out, but I did it in one eight-hour sitting. I ended up making $150. Six months later, I got a sacred heart on my throat. Then I started on my hands.
I was pumped, but I don’t think my boss in Philadelphia at the time was. He was like, “You’re screwing yourself here. What do you want to be?” Two years ago I had my neck redone with the word “loyalty” under my chin. It means I will never break my word to relatives or the people I work for or who work for me.
I’m about 70 percent covered. My mother cried every day at the beginning, and still does. But I’m like, does it really matter now, Mom? The only parts I wouldn’t do are the places you expect, and my face or hairline.
None of them felt great — the loyalty tattoo felt like someone was sawing my tongue off — but I enjoy the process. It teaches you to learn to convert pain into something else.
Tattoos have been glamorized by TV, and ours is a profession where it’s easy to have them. We work hard and play hard and are a little bit macho. And we’re all artists, so expressing yourself on skin is the same as expressing yourself on a plate.
Back when I first started, people held their children away from me and I heard so many more comments. They’re more accepted now, though I still get some stares in the suburbs. I’m like, if you look at me and think because of the tattoos I’m a criminal or a thug, I don’t want to know you. It’s sort of a little test.
I’m a big nerd who plays the Magic card game and Dungeons & Dragons, so in an ode to my nerddom, I have a zombie Pikachu and Ash Ketchum on my chest. I also have a lot of Star Wars tattoos — a rebel assault symbol, Darth Vader eating a cheeseburger, and on the back of my left leg, Steve Buscemi as Darth Vader, which was the No. 1 viral photograph of 2010 on Geekologie’s website. I also love video games, so I have “game nerd” across my hands. Chuck Norris is above my left ankle. Everyone loves Chuck Norris.
Because I’m a cook and have a green thumb, I got “cook grow” on my fingertips. On my ankle is Colonel Sanders with devil horns and chicken bones, because people freak out when they find a claw in their bucket. Chicken have feet, you know, but fast food has gotten people away from knowing their food source.
When I’m doing everyday things, I actually forget that I’m tattooed. It’s like when you wear glasses and are like, “Where are they?” And there they are, right on your face.
Chef/owner, Salt of the Earth, Garfield
My brother Tom paid for my first tattoo when I was 16 and growing up in McKees Rocks. He had a Speed Racer, so I got a Racer X. It wasn’t until I was about 19 and had more of a disposable income that I really got into it. Now, I have so many I can’t count them individually. The only prime real estate left is my right thigh.
My mom expressed concern when I started getting them on my lower arm. “You’ll never find a job, you’ll never be successful,” she told me. But I didn’t have any desire to get an office job. I always thought I would be an artist. In fact, when I was 25 I had to decide whether I wanted to spend $15,000 on a tattoo apprenticeship or make a down payment on culinary school. Now I realize that I’m not that great of an artist.
When I was coming up — before athletes made it part of the pop culture — tattoos were more unusual. I had to cover them up when I was at Pennsylvania Culinary, and in 1998, when I was doing an externship at Boulders Resort in Carefree, Ariz., I had to roll my jacket sleeves down and wear Nike tennis wristbands.
But we’re past the “bikers and convicts” mentality. Tattoos aren’t expected, but they’re also no longer frowned upon. When I went on my first interview, in short sleeves, with chef Bill Fuller [of Big Burrito Restaurant Group], he was like, “You’re my guy for Kaya,” almost because of what I looked like.
There’s no real rhyme or reason why tattoos are more prevalent in the service industry. It’s just a thing. When you look at some of the best chefs on the planet, though, that’s the draw. Some young chefs actually say, “I need to get more tattoos.”
Culinary schools teach old-school professionalism, but all that goes out the window when you see an Iron Chef with full sleeves.
Also, the technology and ink is better today, along with the teaching of new artists. Back in the day, there weren’t that many with good reputations in the city. Now everyone is clean and it’s a “real” profession. Tattoo shops aren’t seedy joints where you’re afraid you’ll get a disease.
Our clientele at Salt is pretty liberal, so they don’t mind that everyone here is pretty tattooed. Once you taste our work, you realize it’s not what you look like that’s important. Personally, I’d rather hire somebody with a lot of tattoos than stinky dreadlocks or bad hygiene or who smells like patchouli.
I just know it’s something I’ve always liked. I remember seeing bikers as a kid and being enamored with the rock ‘n’ roll look of it.
I have well over 100 hours in tattoos — my left ankle to my hip alone took about 40 hours. Probably more have stories behind them than don’t, especially the bigger ones. My entire back, for example, is covered in a koi fish that represents the struggle.
A few are just about the art. My right arm is almost totally aesthetic, a blend of traditional Japanese and American imagery that has no real meaning other than it was done by a really good friend.
My food-related tattoos? The symbol for salt on my left hand and a chili pepper on my right. The kewpie doll on my left arm came from a jar of Japanese mayonnaise. I also have a large, old-fashioned knife with “Cooking ain’t easy” on my forearm and a test tube to symbolize an Alchemy dinner.
On my chest is a very large tattoo of a traditional American skull with wings, roses and spider webs with the words “blue collar,” because that is the ethic of so many cooks.
I have place and time tattoos that I wouldn’t get now, but I don’t regret them because for me, it’s more about the real estate than the image. It’s a cool timeline.
Executive sous-chef, Casbah, Shadyside
I grew up in a super-Christian, very conservative household, so when I got my first tattoo at 18, just after I graduated from high school, my mom was not so happy. It was a koi fish on my right leg that’s covered up now because it was poorly done; I just randomly picked a local joint, went in and did it. There was no real reason other than I just wanted one and liked the design and what it stood for. Two months later I was back. Then, I just got addicted to it. Now, if I get a new tattoo, my mom doesn’t even notice anymore.
Probably 20 percent of my body is covered — shoulders, elbows, feet, arms. But I can still cover my tattoos up if I have to. There’s nothing violent; they’re all kind of happy. Every chef is obsessed with pigs, so the pig on my left arm, labeled with all the primal cuts, is my favorite. I also have pots, forks and a chef’s knife.
I think the reason so many more people in the culinary field have tattoos has to do with really famous chefs like Nate Appleman, who cooked at A16 in San Francisco. I’m the most tattooed chef at Big Burrito, so I sometimes get random looks when I walk through the dining room. But the restaurant is OK with it, and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to work where that would be an issue. In this industry you generally can get away with it, because tattoos don’t translate to the plate. Still, I’m waiting to do my hands until I have a real name in the industry.
Not everyone likes them. Just the other day, I was walking down the street with my girlfriend, who works at Soba and also has tattoos, and this little kid saw me and said, “Mom, I want a tattoo.” And she was like, “No, you don’t!”
The first tattoo cost $40. Now a session with Ben at Pale Horse in the South Side costs about $350. I’ve probably spent $2,000 in my left arm, and 25 hours, eight hours at a time. I’m not going to lie — the pain is always terrible. You just bite a pillow.
I usually go into a shop with an idea of what I want but let the artist come up with the design because tattoo art is like cooking: You want to let the chef create what he likes.
There’s this weird badge of honor in having a tattoo. The difference between people with them and those who don’t is that tattooed people don’t ask you where your tattoos are.
Chef/owner, Winghart’s Burger & Whiskey Bar, Market Square
My mom actually took me to get my first tattoo, a stupid little Chinese symbol on the back of my neck, the week I turned 18. It was the word “harmony” in Chinese. I couldn’t wait to get it.
People told me, “Don’t get a tattoo! It’ll be gross and nasty when you get old!” My answer was: You’re gonna be, too, so what does it matter? It’s the same wrinkling.
A lot of my tattoos refer to my heritage and blond hair and blue eyes. I have the family crest from Wurttemberg, Germany, under my left arm and a dog from the Irish Book of Kells on my right wrist. Thor’s hammer is on my right shoulder. Some see that one and think it’s a white power tattoo and that I’m racist, but I promise you I’m not. But I am Swedish.
My sister Rachael Buczinski did the two-dimensional Blackbeard’s pirate flag on my left arm. She wanted to be a tattoo artist, and I let her practice on me. I also have a totem of a killer orca from the Pacific Northwest on my left shoulder and an Egyptian ankh, with the eye of Ra, on my chest.
Tattoos are expensive, so for a beautiful sleeve, you have to have money. That’s why it’s almost a status symbol in the counterculture. Either you’re an artist or you’re doing something right.
One reason I think tattoos are more acceptable in the restaurant business is that when you first get started in the back of the house, you’re not dealing directly with the public. Then, when you’re a chef, it doesn’t matter if you have a lot of tattoos because people are there for the food. You’ve also got to understand the restaurant culture. It’s like a giant party. And there’s not too much judgment from your peers.
Still, when I first started getting tattoos, I thought I should live my life better than someone without any if I wanted to be taken seriously.
I don’t know what it is about our generation and tattoos. Maybe it’s just that social walls are being broken down and it’s no longer taboo. The more you see something, the less impact it has. I actually trust people with tattoos more because they’re open with themselves and can take that jump with something so permanent. You have to be comfortable in your own skin to get a tattoo.
Executive chef, Brik Room on Carson, South Side
I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 20 and working at Outback Steakhouse busing tables. I grew up in Upper St. Clair, so obviously there were none in my high school. I guess that makes me the oddball of the area.
I started with a star on my left elbow. There was no real meaning behind it; I just really wanted one. I wasn’t sure what exactly, because it was on a whim and knew it should be something artistic. Within a year there was another star on my right elbow, and after that, an Italian flag on my left arm to symbolize my Italian heritage.
I’ve been at it seriously for about four years now. My right arm, which took about a year-and-a-half, has progressed almost to a full sleeve with mostly Asian-style tattoos. I started with a koi fish on the upper part, then added a dragon on my forearm, a Japanese warrior mask on the back and a lotus flower on the inside of my upper arm. It’s one flowing piece that works together.
I’ve always been interested in art in general. But I really like the Asian style because of the story lines. The story behind the koi fish, for example, is that if it’s strong enough to swim up the river, it turns into a dragon. If you have courage, you can overcome life’s difficulties.
Yes, it hurts, but if you want art on your body, you have to go through pain. You learn to grit your teeth. It’s more the time it takes than anything. My only day off is Sunday, when not too many shops are open.
My mom doesn’t mind all the ink. But my dad, whenever I say I’m thinking of getting another one, just rolls his eyes and says “Aren’t we done yet?” I think it’s just a generation gap. He’s worried that while I like them all now, I might not when I’m 50 or 60.
Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to mind. When I’m 60, I’ll have had my career and won’t be trying to impress anyone on job interviews. I’m not going to have to worry about presenting an image.
I’ve worked under chefs who don’t like tattoos and made me wear my uniform with my sleeves rolled down so no one would see them. This place is a little more casual. Even older clients understand we’re on the South Side. We’re the young school. We’re more expressive.
Tattoos today are so popular that probably more people my age have at least one instead of none. It’s about being an individual — all tattoos are different.
A tattoo no longer means you’re a bad boy. It’s a sign of creativity and self-expression, whether there’s an emotional meaning attached or it’s just art.