When a man named James M. Johnson (Michael Biehn) wakes up one morning with a tattoo on his chest of a pirate ship, it’s hard not to imagine the man was a pirate himself.
That’s the first thing to come to mind when we think of the pirate tattoos that have become the stuff of legend.
But as the artist behind these iconic images, James M Johnson, tells us that the real story is far more complex than meets the eye.
Johnson, an internationally known artist and a long-time tattoo collector, is one of only a few people to have tattooed every single one of the world’s 1.5 billion pirate ships.
The tattoos he creates are often used in court cases and on websites like the Pirate Bay to describe how the pirates are depicted in a fictional world.
Johnson has been tattooing pirates since the 1960s.
He says he began by tattooing a pirate in a pirate-themed way.
“It was a fun way to have fun and not necessarily to be proud of it, but to be able to show people how the world really works,” he says.
“I always thought that it would become part of the history.”
The tattoos Johnson has made, however, are unique to each ship.
Some of them have been removed by the time he’s done, and others have remained in place.
Johnson says he’s always been interested in making art that was unique to the ship he’s tattooed.
“Pirate tattoos are a huge part of our culture,” he explains.
“When I’m out and about I want to be a part of that history, and I don’t want to just be part of something I’ve seen on the news.”
Johnson says his tattoos are made by combining several types of ink.
“The best ink is the black ink that I like to use,” he continues.
“Some of the older black ink, I would go through in the shop and take the whole bottle of ink and just throw it in my mouth and just go.
I was always curious to see what happens to the black in the ink.”
The black ink is then combined with other pigments to create the tattoo, which can range from gold to silver.
“A lot of the ink is gold, and sometimes the silver, and the silver is used for the gold,” he reveals.
“For the silver it’s not so much the gold but the silver that I would use for the silver and then I would add the gold.
Johnson has also been tattooed the names of other pirates. “
But for the rest of the silver I would mix in other pigment to make the whole thing, and that’s what I use for most of my tattoos.”
Johnson has also been tattooed the names of other pirates.
The most iconic of his tattoos, however.
The name of a ship, with the word “Doomed” written on it, on the back of one of his ship’s cannons.
“That’s the one that’s been my favorite for a long time,” Johnson says.
Johnson describes the name as a portent of doom, and he has made it clear that he’s not ashamed of it.
“In many ways it’s like a black cloud over the ship.
The sky is falling and it’s very ominous,” he laughs.
“And then you see a ship coming.
It’s like the ship coming out of a bad dream.”
Johnson’s tattoo designs are also quite detailed, with lots of ink applied to them.
“Sometimes I do two different types of pen to get a more precise look,” he adds.
That usually means I have to go in a lot more ink.” “
Or sometimes I do just one coat of ink, and you see the back side of the ship, and so I have a very,very specific look.
That usually means I have to go in a lot more ink.”
Johnson started collecting tattoos a few years ago after reading about them on a book called “The Tattoo Master” by artist Tom Brown.
“At the time, I had never done a lot of tattoos, but I knew I wanted to do them,” Johnson recalls.
“Tom Brown was talking about the history of tattoos and the way they were used, and my understanding of tattoos was that they were pretty much a reflection of a culture and a time and place.
So I was very curious to get an ink that was actually in a way a reflection.”
Johnson decided to start collecting his own pirates after he noticed a few of the tattoos he had made in his local tattoo parlor.
“There were a lot, I’m sorry to say, that were very close to the style that I wanted,” he recalls.
Johnson began looking into tattooing by taking part in tattoo competitions and participating in the Ink-a-thon.
“Tattoo competitions are one of my favorite things,” he tells us.
“They’re always great fun