Rollo Banks, RIP

The e-mail came last night at quarter of midnight: “Rollo died two days ago from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was a few days shy of turning 65 and been in bad health for a long time.” It wasn’t even signed, but it didn’t have to be; the sender was a long-time friend.

Rollo came into my life, and those of my friends, when he married Margaret Moser, Austin’s queen of the groupies, and a talented journalist whose career I’d helped get started. Thinking back on it, I have no idea how they ever met, but they made a great couple, two larger-than-life people who’d collided and stuck together. I thought it was fate: Margaret’s a large woman, and Rollo was a tattoo artist. “He must see a canvas waiting for a masterpiece,” I kidded her. Actually, she replied, Rollo wasn’t at all turned on by tattooed women.

To say he was a “tattoo artist,” though, diminishes him in these days when every teenager has some blob of ink on his or her skin. Rollo (whose real name was Mike Malone, and who was born in Fairfax, in Marin County, suburban San Francisco) was the designated heir of Sailor Jerry, whose China Sea Tattoo was the pioneering studio in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Jerry opened in the 1930s, and developed a huge number of designs in what might be called the American Classic mode: anchors, mermaids, the “battle in the sun” showing two eagles fighting in mid-flight, skulls and dice, cocktail glasses. These designs were first worked out on paper, where they were called “flash,” and Jerry was astute enough to copyright them. This, of course, didn’t keep lesser artists from stealing them, and counterfeit or unattributed Sailor Jerry flash is rife in the world’s tattoo studios. Jerry was also something of a chemist, and developed several new colored inks that were safe. Purple, in particular, had been a problem, as I remember Rollo telling the story. There was a studio in Hong Kong that used a particularly brilliant purple, which was admired by all except for the unfortunate fact that it eventually gave you blood poisoning.

China Sea prospered because of its location: sailors love tattoos, and Honolulu is mid-point for the Pacific Fleet. Sailors on leave get drunk, drunk sailors get tattoos. Sailor Jerry did great work, and his fame spread. How young Rollo came to apprentice with him I’m not sure, but I do know that his first experience with humans (as opposed to potatoes, which is what tattoo artists traditionally learn on, leading to the disparaging description of someone who’ll let you ink anything on them as a “potato”) was inking people’s names on them. This was something the “local boys” liked, and Rollo quickly came to loathe: “They’d ask me, ‘Hey, boy, you got plenny many alphabet?’ which was their way of letting me know they had one of those incredibly long Hawaiian names.” He also made them write the name down, every time. “I now how to spell Jim, but if you write it wrong, that’s your responsibility, not mine.” And in this respect, he’d tell a story about a tattoo artist he’d known in England who’d had a particularly inebriated young man come into his shop demanding to be tattooed — in really big, black, thick letters — with the name of his new idol, an American pop star who’d just taken England by storm, and whose name sounded odd to the artist, who’d never heard of him. He made him repeat it several times, but wasn’t sure how to spell it. Finally the customer passed out, and the artist, thinking he had it, went to work. The young man woke up to see his brand-new tattoo, huge block letters praising ELVES.

Stories: the pit is full of them. Rollo used to encourage me to try to sell a book of tattoo artists’ stories. Thanks to him, I spent a lot of time around some of America’s greatest tattoo artists, and he was right: besides a steady hand and a flair for color, it seems that having the genes for being a natural raconteur was part of the package. Since tattooing is an incredibly slow practice, talking to the customer is part of the service, and given how colorful the customers were before tattooing became a teenage fad, you got great stories back in exchange.

Sailor Jerry passed China Sea Tattoo on to Rollo, who himself eventually took on protegés. Over the years, Rollo got plenty of tattoos himself, a whole body suit, as they’re called, mostly in classical Japanese style, from what I could see. Unlike today’s exhibitionists, Rollo kept his tattoos covered, because, like Rembrandt drawings, they fade with exposure to light. Nowadays, in the summer, I’ll see some kid with thousands of dollars’ worth of work on him running around with his shirt off, and remember Rollo talking about how that not only faded the colors, but smeared the black outlines, turning the work into one huge multicolored blotch in just a few years. Rollo had too much respect for the masters who’d worked on him, one of whom, Horiochi, was considered Japan’s greatest master, the latest in a centuries-old lineage.

And although the American Classic designs (not only on people, but as flash, which people buy and trade for good money) paid the bills, Rollo also paid attention to the Japanese masters. After he moved to Austin to be with Margaret, he set up shop near the Austin Chronicle offices, and that drew musicians and other scenesters to the little house with the China Sea shingle out front. Among the people drawn there was a local eccentric who owned Atomic City, a shop selling Japanese monster-movie figurines and other Japanese pop culture artifacts. The guy’s name was Jim, but everyone in town knew him as the Royal Hawaiian Prince, or Prince, for short. He swore he was what his name said, a member of the Hawaiian royal family, although that seemed really unlikely. But he was flamboyant, and had some tattoos, and wanted Rollo to create a masterpiece on him. Rollo rose to the challenge, and admirably: over a year in the making, Prince’s back-piece was the culmination of everything Rollo had learned about classical Japanese tattoo art — with a twist. It showed Godzilla destroying Tokyo as airplanes swirled around him. Waves in the style of Hokusai broke behind Godzilla, exquisitely stylized flames leapt from the broken skyscrapers, and tiny people writhed in the monster’s hands. In the bottom left corner, three Japanese characters spelled Go Ji Ra. When it was finished, Prince, Rollo, Margaret, and I went to the National Tattoo Convention, held that year in New Orleans, and, as I reported in the Wall Street Journal, they took home a prize.

Austin loved Rollo, who did a number of covers for the Chronicle, particularly for Chinese New Year, and Rollo loved Austin. I cooked for several Thanksgiving parties at Rollo and Margaret’s house, and I remember one where Rollo, rather sozzled, yelled my name. “Ward! I want you to know something. There are people who I just know are going to get tattoos. There are people who are thinking about it, and might do it and might not. And then there are people who, if they’re going to get tattooed, they wouldn’t come to me, they’d go to some art faggot like Don Ed Hardy [Rollo’s purported arch-rival, master of the classic Japanese style, with a Master’s degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, who’d been written up in several high art magazines]. Now, you, you’d probably go to Hardy if you were gonna do it. But I don’t think you’re ever going to get a tattoo. And I just want you to know that that’s ALL RIGHT WITH ME! I got enough work! I don’t have to tattoo everyone in the world. So it’s okay that you’re not going to get a tattoo.” And he was right: if I was ever going to consider it, I probably would have gone to Hardy — Rollo, I believe, had. But he was also right: as much as I was fascinated with the world of tattoo artists, thanks to the entrée Rollo had given me, I wasn’t going to be anybody’s potato.

Eventually, Rollo and Margaret put their heads together. China Sea wasn’t doing all that well in Austin (this was, as I said, well before the fad began) and the home shop on Army Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown needed shaping up. The couple moved to Hawaii, and Margaret got a job with a firm which produced those freebie tourist magazines which clog up free space in hotel lobbies down there. It wasn’t very demanding work, but it paid well enough, and she loved Hawaii. I pitched a story on traditional Hawaiian music to an airline magazine, and they bit. Margaret set up the hotel and rental car end, and offered to research where I could find slack-key guitarists and falsetto singers. It was a week filled with adventures off the Hawaiian tourist trail, as I interviewed the Samoan-Hawaiian slide guitarist Tau Moe about his 40-year tour which had only recently ended, found Hank Williams’ former steel guitarist Jerry Byrd teaching in a small music store in a corner of Honolulu, visited a high-end ukulele factory, and, in fact, managed to do everything except find a slack-key gig, although Margaret ransacked the local media for clues.

One of the most magical days, though, came towards the end of the trip. Rollo had wanted to show me around Chinatown, as much to dispel the guidebooks’ characterization of the neighborhood as insanely dangerous as anything else. So I met him at 6:30 one morning and we toured the place. There was the all-night dancehall, where a motley orchestra played sleazy music and you could really rent an Okinawan girl for 50 cents per dance, although the real attraction was the little pavilions off to one side where the same girl would give you a blow-job for considerably more. I remember the orchestra’s drummer was sound asleep, although still playing with one hand, while the other picked a scab behind his ear. We went to a strange antiques/curiosa store, filled with dusty Chinese stuff, open, for some reason, at that odd hour. We met a Samoan lawyer who’d just come back from burying another of his brothers whom his father had shot in an ongoing dispute about some land. And, finally, we visited the wholesale market, where they were wheeling in tuna for the inspection of the local sushi chefs. (Actually, I’ve already mentioned this trip in my post about bánh mi a couple of months ago). When we got back to the shop, there was a line down the block because the fleet was in. I don’t know what I did for the next few hours, but Margaret had, at long last, found a gig, by the amazing slack-key guitarist and singer Ledward Ka’apana at a locals-only club, where we sat for a couple of hours mesmerized by his voice and by the table full of lesbians next to us who were well-versed in traditional hand-hula and were performing for each other — and their mother, this being Mother’s Day. The only reason we left was that Margaret realized she had both sets of house keys, and Rollo was trapped at the shop, unable to close and go home. By the time we got there, he was exhausted and he quickly chased everyone out of the studio and shut it. As he got in my rental car, he handed something to Margaret. “Put this in your purse,” he said. “I got no way to carry it.” It was his wallet, so stuffed with $20 bills that it was bursting its seams and incapable of folding. Fleet’s in.

Margaret and Rollo didn’t last. She came back to Austin and got her old job at the Chronicle back, and the grapevine had it that Rollo had started using other kinds of needles. Another wife apparently helped him get clean, but I lost track of him after I moved to Berlin. But I remember the stories and the characters he’d introduced me to, and always felt a lot of affection for him for doing that.

When I was back in the States last month, I noticed a lot of kids wearing t-shirts with Sailor Jerry flash on them. The words “Sailor Jerry” and “China Sea” were on the shirts, and I thought, hey, great! Rollo’s licensed the flash now that tattoos are so popular, so maybe he’s making some money. I don’t know if he was or not, or what the details of the deal might have been, but whatever happened, it apparently wasn’t enough to keep the darkness away.

I can only hope that he’s gone somewhere where the colors never fade, there’s always a cold beer at hand, and there’s always someone to listen to the stories and tell some more. And the fleet comes in only when you need the cash.

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