Anthony Bourdain Talks Tattoos and the Stories Behind His Own

Anthony Bourdain talks tattoos

For the past two years, The Balvenie (a Scotch whisky distillery) and Anthony Bourdain have found craftspeople doing things the hard way. In that time, Bourdain has met with a variety of people — from suit makers to metalsmiths and more — all in the quest to tell stories about the finer things in life and the people who make them.

Editor’s note: Anthony Bourdain was found dead at age 61 on June 8, 2018, according to CNN. This article was originally published on November 7, 2017, and updated June 8, 2018, to include the news of Bourdain’s death.

The result is a show called Raw Craft, and in the previous seasons, most — if not all —of the people Bourdain met with created things that could be used, worn, consumed in some way. (You can check out some of his thoughts on craftspeople here).

This season, Bourdain changed it up. The man behind a series of hit shows and numerous best-selling books (such as his latest cookbook, Appetites) decided to find a craftsperson that would make Bourdain into the canvas — he got a tattoo. Not just get any old tattoo, though; he got a traditional Japanese tebori tattoo.

Anthony Bourdain talks tattoos

Tebori tattoos are created by using a metal or wooden rod (a nomi) with a steel needle attached to the end. In Japanese, tebori literally means hand (te-) carving (-bori). Once the ink and the implement are prepared, the artist proceeds to hammer that needle into the skin over and over again. It’s a time-consuming process that usually takes twice as long as it would with a machine.

Bourdain is no stranger to tattoos. He’s been getting them for almost 20 years now; the first came after the release of  Kitchen Confidential, the book that rocketed him to superstardom.

“I’d always wanted one. My first wife was deathly opposed — existentially opposed — to tattoos, but I was feeling pretty good about the world after Kitchen Confidential. I guess I rewarded myself by slipping out unannounced and getting one,” Bourdain tells The Manual.

The tattoo, a tribal band around his right bicep, didn’t have too much meaning. “I just thought it looked cool. It was a starter tattoo,” he says.

anthony bourdain tebori tattoo raw craft takashi full episode mov 01 05 33 06 still011 edit

Since then, the reasons for his ink have varied. Some were impulsive while others documents of his travels, of the life he’s carved out for himself. Instead of photos or souvenirs, he started getting tattoos.

“I stopped taking pictures on the road a couple years in. The lens didn’t seem big enough and I was done with souvenirs. My apartment was full of junk and it looked like The Explorers Club in there.” he says. “I’ve been tatted with a metal needle by hand by a monk in Chang Mai, I’ve had a number of tattoo parlors in the States, I’ve had one hammered into my chest by two drunken Iban tribesman in Borneo.”

Deep meaning or not, Bourdain says, none of the tattoos were “vitally important” — just things he wanted to do.

“Look, I’m 61 years old. I’m well aware a tattoo is not going to improve me in some measurable way. It’s not going to make me younger, it’s not going to make me hipper, it’s not going to make me more relevant or interesting. It’s more I see my body as an old car. It’s covered with dents. It’s not getting any newer, the wheels are going to start falling off soon. Another dent won’t matter,” he said. “In the end, I largely get them done to please myself.”

Anthony Bourdain talks tattoos

For Bourdain’s new tebori tattoo — a blue chrysanthemum — he visited with Takashi Matsuba of Runin Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York City. “I’ve wanted a really good tebori tattoo for quite a while. Someone I really care about got a really beautiful tebori and I thought, ‘Well if you can get one, I can get one.’ It wasn’t competitive, but I was jealous. Envious.”

Outside of the tebori tattoo, though, Bourdain says others’ tattoos are their own business — that you should get what you want. “I always thought getting someone’s name or a portrait of them is probably not wise. Johnny Depp’s ‘Winona Forever’ turned out to be not so forever — it just seems like bad luck. You know who you got a tattoo for. Do you need their face on your butt? I don’t know,” he says. “They’re very personal statements, even the silly ones.”

You can check out the full episode of Raw Craft and see Bourdain get tattooed here. Or, if you’re ready to go out and get your own tattoo, check out what you need to do to care for it after it’s done.

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