An Interview with Isaac Fitzgerald on “Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos”

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Every tattoo — be it a meaningful battle scar, a misguided decision, or the lasting evidence of a bender — is a portal into its bearer’s life story.

Several years ago, Buzzfeed’s very tattooed books editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, was living in San Francisco and working as managing editor of The Rumpus. Local illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy McNaughton was meanwhile doing a series for the site, “Meanwhile,” for which she’d profile interesting San Franciscans using illustrations and quotes. The two ended up collaborating on an installment focusing on bartenders in San Francisco’s Mission district — bar service veteran Fitzgerald was tapped to help McNaughton access some watering holes’ most interesting subjects. In the course of interviewing these bartenders, many a colorful tattoo tale was swapped. So, the two decided to collaborate on a Tumblr account that would essentially function as a tattoo-focused “Meanwhile.” Fitzgerald would collect and edit the (often emotionally raw) stories behind people’s tattoos and, in homage to the artists who originally created them, McNaughton would illustrate their ink.

Isaac Fitzgerald photo credit John MidgleyDespite Fitzgerald’s desire to call the project Bloody Stories: Needles and Tears, they ended up christening the site Pen & Ink. Posting a weekly story from friends (including the likes of Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed), the project soon gained upwards of 100,000 followers. Eventually, the pair extended beyond their own circles by putting out a call for submissions for anyone who wanted to tell the story behind their tattoo. “We got 65,000 notes,” recalls Fitzgerald, who still sounds shocked that the project struck such a chord. Not long afterward, Bloomsbury editors approached him about creating a book out of the project.

Enter Pen & Ink: Tattoos & The Stories Behind Them (2014), a strikingly illustrated, curated showcase of tattoos, and the tales of how and why their wearers got them. The book features inked symbolism decorating writers, musicians, porn stars, librarians, administrators, union organizers, salespeople, and many others. These subjects’ backstories detail heartrending tragedies, funny accidents, and all manner of circumstances in between.

Two years later, Fitzgerald and McNaughton have released a second such exploration: Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (Bloomsbury USA, October 2016). “What is it about chefs and their tattoos?” Fitzgerald asks in his foreword, reminding readers that chefs almost always “look like total badasses,” sporting ink, perhaps, as a way of stating they’ll never again work a desk job, and/or also for the same reasons so many others among us get them: to remember a moment, to carry something forever, or even just for the hell of it. The ensuing sixty-five stories run alternately cheeky and earnest, and come from Michelin chefs and scrappy line workers. Collectively, the tales offer a vivid glimpse into cooks’ lives and creative processes, and prove, once and for all, that chefs take their tattoos almost as seriously as their knives. I recently chatted with the amiable Fitzgerald about the art of sourcing, curating, and putting out a book while working a full-time job.

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Tell me about what inspired Knives & Ink.

It was important that this not feel like Pen & Ink: Volume II, that it be a standalone thing, not a “Hey, look, we got more people” thing. In the first book, we had people from all walks of life — lots of writers, yes, but also prisoners and veterans — with all different kinds of backgrounds and jobs. For this, both Wendy’s and my mind just immediately went to chefs. Partly because this generation of them pretty much uniformly tattooed, but also because they’re such a fascinating group of people. They’re artists, so we felt Wendy’s illustrations of the art on their bodies would function as a third level of artistry.

We also felt like they were wizards — I’d worked in the service industry since I was, like, twelve, but always in the front of house; I can’t cook — and so the ability to craft an exquisite dish out of animals and plants is miraculous alchemy to me. We also decided we needed a different format from the first book, and decided to take photos of featured chefs at work, and include recipes. It was a much more journalistic, research-driven endeavor.

How did you go about scouting your subjects?

So, we put out the same call we did with Pen & Ink — “Hey, come talk to us; we’re doing another book” — and got nothing. Chefs aren’t sitting in front of their computers; they’re not on Tumblr. They are totally immersed in a different world; they’re going like, “Oh, these strangers want my life story; lemme stop everything I’m doing and go meet these freaks” [laughs]. But luckily, we weren’t strangers to the industry — we knew chefs. So it became about going to our insider friends, and asking them, “Hey, can you kinda be our ambassadors? Introduce us to chefs and get them to trust us, to sit down with us and be part of our new project?”

There were a lot of people who lent a hand, who marched me over to great restaurants like Mission Chinese to sit me down for a meal and a conversation, or who even recorded conversations with chefs and sent them in. That’s how we slowly built it up — through lots of going on Facebook to be like, “Hey, do you have a chef friend with a tattoo?” I was also just walking into restaurants and leaving notes with hostesses — I’d never interrupt a chef while they were working — and later getting texts from people telling their stories on their breaks. It was a super interesting assemblage process. In a perfect world, we could’ve quit all our other projects and been paid enough to fly around collecting stories, but this was a side passion project.

Tell me about the different types of stories you set out to find.

We were looking not just for variety in terms of types of tats and people who have them, but also wanted represent a full range of cooking professionals — not just rockstar chef after rockstar chef, but line cooks and people who aren’t on magazine covers. It’s funny, because the San Francisco Chronicle gave us this incredible review — made all the nicer because they panned Pen & Ink [laughs]. This was a different reviewer, who really got the spirit of the book, and who says something about how great it is that you won’t find Anthony Bourdain in this book. I read that and was like, “Not for lack of trying, my friend!” [laughs]

I looked back at our book proposal, and the original idea was more star-driven — we said we’d get all these celebs and James Beard Award winners, but I’m so happy with how it turned out, that it features people from all across the industry — people on the line, young up-and-comers, people fresh out of school, people who’ve sent us notes saying, “Someone just came into my restaurant for the first time because of this book.” It really shows how a book can change as you create it.

How was the editing process, once you received a written or oral story?

I wish I could say these were gems carved out of marble — and some did come in very strong — but nine out of ten people would be like, “I got drunk with Jim,” and we’d have to try to get a little more story. Which was tough, because chefs are trying to do a million things involving knives and fire and business at once; their time is money. Once we did get them to sit down and write or tell the story though, most of them were so, so wonderful.

How did you go about ordering stories in the book?

It was about showcasing a range of stories — from heartbreaking to absolutely hilarious. One of my favorite stories in Pen is of the woman who had “Pizza Party” inked on her toes. I was like, “Hey, what’s your story?” and she was like, “I just fucking love pizza.” So, you’re trying to let the hilarity of something like that come through, too. We wanted there to be a bit of a narrative if you read it from front to end, but something you could also just pick up and flip around.

We ended up sitting down at a long table with our amazing editor at Bloomsbury, who printed out each page, so we could go through each one, asking ourselves, “Okay, what feels right after this? After that?” Not only were we thinking about the stories and the spirit of the tats, but taking considerations like not wanting all colorful tats back to back, and needing to mix up the locations, too. It was a difficult process, but I think Wendy’s brilliant spot illustrations — those are the little drawings of pieces of food, of whiskey bottles, etc. — really helped carry the order. At the beginning there’s a before-dinner mint, and at the end, some crumbs.

Did you have a target audience in mind?

I was surprised anyone even read the original Tumblr, so I don’t know if we ever had a target in mind in the first place. Wendy has this idea that you just make the art, and whoever wants to find it will find it. There are recipes in there, but not a ton, so we couldn’t sell it as a cookbook. The stories exist in Wendy’s beautiful illustrations, and I think we just created them in and out of the trust that people enjoy good stories.

Are there any cultural historians or story collectors whose work inspired this collection?

Right off the bat, The Stories of Brece D’J Pancake comes to mind. My father gave me this book — full of stories that brought a lot of beauty to tough areas in Virginia and West Virginia — when I was pretty young. It’s a posthumous collection — the writer, Brece D’J, had killed himself in this late twenties, and some loved ones put this together. It had to be so tough. And there’s this terrifying horror story, and some really creepy ones, so it made me think a lot about a collection’s tempo, about how the layout of a collection can really change the vibe. I’m always super inspired by oral histories, too. Voice of Witness: Amplifying Unheard Voices, this wonderful nonprofit program that goes to different places and collects stories from the ground, from various people who’ve experienced injustice, was another source of inspiration. It highlights human rights, and is just so powerful.

Can fans look forward to another iteration of the Ink series?

Here’s the thing: We both started this project unable to cook, but Wendy got hired on to illustrate this incredible, 500-plus-page cookbook coming out in April called Fat Salt Burn Acid, and she got to work with these incredible chefs who were like, “You can’t draw if you can’t cook,” and so now she can cook like a motherfucker, and she’s really busy. I recently sold a YA novel based on this essay I wrote called “Confessions of a Former Former Fat Kid,” so we’re both gonna take a step back now, but I don’t think this is our last collaboration. I think veterans’ tats is something we’re both drawn to, so maybe we’ll do a smaller run for a magazine, or for the Tumblr. I can’t wait to hopefully hear those stories one day.

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Find out more about Fitzgerald at isaacfitzgerald.net, or follow him on Twitter @IsaacFitzgeraldKnives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos is available through Bloomsbury USA and through Amazon.

Author photo by John Midgley.

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