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Randy Janson has tattooed more than 17,000 bodies, lives to shock people and fosters art and community in his newfound home in Barrio Logan.
Around the corner from the murals of Chicano Park, this stretch of Logan Avenue barely stirs.
Ramshackle buildings wink and squint in the morning sun, their windows’ front blinds bent, gone entirely or obscured by metal bars. Loveseats and settees spill out of a sofa shop onto the sidewalk across the street from a restaurant boasting lunch deals. There’s a TV and VCR repair shop, a hair salon, a church. Right in the middle stands Two Roses, a shiny, restored storefront offering its own bizarre combination of wares: tattoos, coffee and a close shave.
It’s a few minutes before 11 a.m., and Randy Janson is walking the half block from his home to his shop. The lanky 45-year-old passes an older man in a wheelchair and nods hello before cruising through the front door and flipping light switches, a gray flannel shirt flying open behind him like a cape.
The shop’s barber is working on the hair of a teenage boy. Janson plops into a chair next to him for a few minutes. The men trade barbs with each other, contemplate who wore the short stubby mustache better — Chaplin or Hitler? — and gossip about the characters of the barrio, one of whom is about to back her car over a motorcycle parked out front.
This is Janson’s latest incarnation in a life that has come close to ending more than once. He and a partner opened Two Roses a couple of years ago, an experiment in voyeurism, art and community where patrons sip espresso, eavesdrop and spy on each others’ improvements to hair and skin.
Janson’s a veteran artist with nearly 19 years under his belt tattooing. He inks secrets, lies, art and icons on everyone from mothers to criminals. He refuses to judge the merit of what someone picks for a tattoo — a rose on the hip or a back-sized portrait of Jesus.
“That’s what I’ve loved about this job,” he says. “You get to meet the underbelly of the world as well as the people that run it.”
Janson’s grandmother taught him how to draw eyes before he could read. Now, four decades later, he draws — and sees — against the grain. If there’s any permanence to Janson, it’s as a contrarian. For most of his life, he viewed staircases, hills and other obstacles as hurdles to be jumped on a skateboard. The metaphor stayed, even after countless concussions and comas have left him unable to remember some details of his life. He refuses to believe in limits, or fear, he says. His paintings have been too much for about half of the art shows he’s been invited to, even explicit erotic shows.
In tattooing he found a workable solution to his problem of spending all of his money on art supplies just to end up with paintings he couldn’t always sell.
“With tattooing, they pay for the supplies,” he says, “and they take the art out with them.”
His is a story of economic boom and bust, too, his personal financial narrative mirroring the near-universal story of unsustainable lifestyles brought crashing down by recession. When the economy was booming, Janson ended a 12-year stint at an established tattoo parlor in Pacific Beach and opened his own shop.
Working for himself, Janson got a bump up in income and lifestyle, and stretched beyond what he could sustain long-term. He bought three acres in Jamul, which he lost a couple of years ago to foreclosure. He lived in his car for a while, then rented a studio in Barrio Logan. He is living there or in the shop by default, but he says he is relieved.
“I kind of am mildly homeless,” he says. “It was far more complex with all of that stuff.”
A few minutes before noon, Janson’s first client of the day walks in, a thirty-something guy he’s known for a few years. The client has nearly full sleeve tattoos and wants Janson to fill in the design on the last inch or so of his arms up to his wrists.
While his client settles into a chair, Janson cleans his workspace. He meticulously covers squirt bottles and tabletops in clear plastic wrap, preparing to squeeze alcohol or witch hazel or soap while he tattoos. He slips his hands into sea-foam green gloves and pulls out a metal tin filled with a rainbow of Sharpies.
As Janson begins to sketch out the design, several friends stop by. The conversation takes a sharp turn toward the unprintable. This is their roundtable, social club, support group. They egg each other on to cross more lines of obscenity than I can count, and they seem to understand each other.
It’s not all explicit — the friends float conspiracy theories about foreclosures and banks and tell jokes about gentrified neighborhoods. They extol the merits of investing in gold and the beaches of South Africa. They debate the ideal safari length and probe the pros and cons of drinking one’s own urine to kill a sore throat.
It’s a bizarrely warm, incongruous scene.
“In my shop, it’s a potluck conversation,” he says. “Whoever comes in here, joins the pot.”
He picks up his tattooing needle and begins to trace the Japanese-style flower petals he’s just sketched in pink marker on his client’s wrist. In between lines he dabs the image with a towel and rinses the pen off in a small cup of water. His client barely flinches.
Janson’s work is clearly the focal point, and over the hum and buzz of his needle, he regales his friends with stories of his own exploits. This Janson, the Bravado Janson, delivers a steady stream of one-liners on just about any subject. But away from the shop, while he takes a quick dinner break, he drops the façade.
His life is full of harrowing life-and-death stories, but also of redemption through art and friends and challenging himself. He doesn’t drink anymore. He volunteered his time a few weeks ago to help some kids paint a public mural. He’s painted women to heal himself of the wounds women have left, and details that cause and effect with an obvious amount of self-reflection.
Back in the shop, a gray-haired ponytailed man saunters in. “I came to get a professional opinion,” he says. He’s wearing a black Harley Davidson shirt and has a thick gray curly beard. The man’s from the East Coast and is in San Diego to work. He’d recently had Janson tattoo a horse and rider in the middle of his back.
He turns around and lifts his shirt. Janson checks out the tattoo, says it looks fine, takes a picture and wishes the man safe travels.
Back in his chair, he finishes his client’s wrists, then sketches out the beginning of a floral and butterfly pattern on his left shin.
All of the ink takes about four hours, and Janson’s next client is waiting with drawings and tarot cards for inspiration. Janson puts gloves on and starts wrapping his workspace in plastic wrap, preparing to create more moving art.