In everything he does, neighbor Isaac Fitzgerald is an enthusiastic supporter of the people he believes in.
“I’m not a really journalist, I’m not going to be the guy who writes breaking news,” he says. “But I’m a champion of books. And I’m a cheerleader for everyone around me.”
Which is why it’s no surprise that his book that comes out today, Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them, which he edited and artist Wendy MacNaughton illustrated, seems like something of a celebration. Based on their blog of the same name, the collection of anecdotes range from sweet and silly to deeply emotional, and flipping randomly through the pages can be just as fun or startling, depending on what you open to. But taken all together, read page by page in a row, there’s something bigger at play — stories being shared by people who absolutely love them and need to pass them on to more people.
“Maybe I’m a kid and I’m getting a tattoo and I want to explain it to my parents, ‘Here I got you this book;’ or I’m a parent and I want to relate to my kids, ‘Here I got you this book,'” he says. “I didn’t realize how important this would be to me. I was just drinking beers and thought it was fun, and that it was cute that someone wanted to give us some money to make a book out of this. But now, I’m really proud of it.”
An idea for the project started years ago, when Wendy was doing the Meanwhile series for the Rumpus, where Isaac was working as managing editor. (“It’s hard not to feel we were doing something special at the Rumpus, those ladies are blowing up right now,” he says of Wendy, Cheryl Strayed, and more.) He went with her as she drew some of the bars in the Mission in San Francisco, and they got to talking about the stories behind tattoos, which led to the blog and eventually the book deal, and now another project, Knives & Ink — which will tell the stories behind chefs’ tattoos — is in the works. And while it’s all exciting, Isaac knows (and loves) where most people might be reading these books.
“Daniel Handler said it best, and I wish we’d gotten this as a quote for the back of the book, but he said the book has been on the back of his toilet for months,” he says. “That’s exactly what I want — this is the perfect toilet book! I want this on the back of every college student’s toilet in the world. He also said it changed the way he looks at people who get tattooed, which is even more special to me.”
[pullquote]I want this on the back of every college student’s toilet in the world. [/pullquote]Some of his own tattoo backstories have been told online — the homemade “Forgive Me” on his arm, Starlee Kine’s name on his chest — and in the intro to the book, but he does have many tattoos, and does love telling stories, so here’s the one about the skull on his forearm. He’d moved to San Francisco from the East Coast, and hadn’t seen his family in years. His parents decided to come for a visit, and they proposed a road trip from Las Vegas through Death Valley and then on to San Francisco. As they were driving through Yosemite, they went for one last long hike, and he found a skull, but they couldn’t tell what kind of animal it had been. Driving out of the park with it, they were about to leave, when Isaac saw a ranger station and decided to stop and ask them about it. The ranger told him it was a bear skull, and promptly thanked him for returning the property to the park.
“I love bears,” he says. “I went though this whole dream sequence where I saw the skull on my mantle, then next to my bed, then we’re flying kites together — me and this skull were going to be best friends. But he did a very good job, he told me it was a rare find, I should be proud, it was going to go into an exhibit that kids could see. By the time I left I felt really good. And we’re walking back to the car and my dad says, ‘You know that kid’s just gonna put that on his mantle, right?'”
If he couldn’t have it on his own mantle, he could still keep it in a way, and so he got the tattoo early one morning in a place next door to a bar he worked at, where “everyone had badass tattoos.” He let the artist run with it, and the session went incredibly well, the tattoo barely bled, and the artist still uses a picture of it as the cover of his tattoo book.
“Anyway, that’s my most beautiful tattoo. Story-wise, maybe it’s not the best, but looking, it’s the best.”
While he might be everyone else’s best cheerleader, he can be a lot tougher on himself. When he came to New York to interview for the new position of books editor at BuzzFeed last year, he thought he’d flubbed it, and bad.
“In the interview[BuzzFeed editor-in-chief] Ben Smith said, ‘I just think books are antiquated paywalls,'” he says. “It was so on point. If there’s any way to cut me and make me bleed in an interview, that’s it. I left that interview and went to a bar around the corner and drank beers and felt so bad. Then I got a text from [BuzzFeed editor] Saeed Jones who said Ben had just walked by and said he loved me, which is weird because I bled out in the interview.”
Likewise, he doesn’t seem to take the support offered to him as seriously as that he’s dishing out. The evening after the interview, Isaac returned to the place he was staying in Park Slope, the home of authors Kathleen Alcott and John Wray, and they began to commiserate, but their offer of an apartment didn’t seem to register.
“We got whiskey drunk, and they aren’t even big drinkers,” he says. “So when they said I could move into an apartment in their house if I got the job, I thought that was hilarious. But then it got real. Ben called me the next day at 9am and offered me the job, and I was so hungover, I couldn’t even negotiate. Then two weeks after that, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a place to live in Brooklyn, and John replied immediately, saying, ‘Did you think we were joking?’ Yeah, after drinkng a bottle and a half of whiskey, I oddly thought they were joking.”
So he moved across the country, and his girlfriend Alice Sola Kim — who Isaac will be quick to tell you is an incredibly talented writer herself — soon joined him, and fresh from years in California, the pair faced one of the snowiest winters we’ve seen in a long time. But they’ve found a vibrant literary community right here in their neighborhood, which is enough to help make it through the cold.
“There are so many authors,” he says. “I’m just a little kid in the chapel, I’m going to knock something over. I feel so honored to be here.”
So they’re making a home here, expanding their local connections and renewing old ones — one of the benefits to being back on the East Coast for Isaac is that his family, including his new niece, are close by. And in his typical way, Isaac’s enthusiasm for his new home is nothing less than pumped. Every restaurant and bar that he’s tried and liked, he doesn’t just like, but loves it, and he will sell you on it’s amazing beer selection, or outdoor seating, or every dish that they make.
“Tofu on 7th,” he says, recommending it for the second time of many times during our conversation. “They just got some fancy chef from a giant fancy kitchen in New York, so though the food even a year ago was incredible, now it’s incredible and it’s a steal! It’s $7 for something you should be paying $20 for. The ambiance is terrible, but the food is beyond really good. I would even have a second dinner there. Let’s go!”
And when Isaac celebrates these places, or the people he’s surrounded himself with, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in his excitement and want a piece of it yourself, even if it’s just the story.
Join Isaac and friends tonight, Tuesday, October 7 at 7pm at the Pen & Ink book release party at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, 126 Crosby Street in SoHo. And if you’re a chef with a tattoo and you’d like to get involved in their next project, contact them at [email protected].