By Gillian Wynn | September 1, 2009 | Lifestyle
It is Wednseday afternoon on April 29, just after 2 PM. My friend Alison Van Pelt and I are drinking Quita Penas tequila at Hal’s Bar & Grill on Abbot Kinney. We are talking about history, our own and that of our city. In my head, I am hearing “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers because that was what I was listening to on April 29, 1992, when I got my first tattoo on Sunset Boulevard, and LA was burning. I had just made this city my home less than a year before the riots broke out. The line between the good guys and the bad guys was obscured. There were citywide curfews, South Central was self-destructing and Rodney King was a household name. I was fresh out of college and had just wrapped a five-month stint as a set production assistant on Batman Returns. I had no job, no direction and no friends. The song was eerily thematic: “The city I live in, the city of angels, lonely as I am...” Sitting on the rooftop of my apartment building in Westwood, I looked south toward the smoky skies, drew a snake around my ankle and headed to Hollywood to make it permanent.
To mark the anniversary, earlier in the day I convince Alison to come with me to Ink Monkey Tattoo in Venice because she is a brilliant painter. But before I go under the buzzing needle, I visit her studio/home in Santa Monica Canyon to see her work for the first time. Her large canvases immediately draw me in. While the images are soft and unfocused—even impressionistic— there is an underlying sense of exactitude and realism. When Alison explains her technique to me, it makes perfect sense. She meticulously maps out and sketches an image, rendering it with surgical precision. The deliberate blurring comes later in the painting process. The effect is both academic and poetic—perfectionism pursued, achieved, then abandoned. I love it.
Before we leave her studio, we make preparations for the creation of a different kind of art. We print out the words for my tattoo in a font that I have chosen and Alison has approved.
On our way to Venice, we stop at Urth Caffé on Main Street. Over lunch I ask Alison about growing up in LA and becoming an artist. What she tells me is a classic bohemian tale beautifully braided with history. Her grandmother owned a five-story mansion in the Hollywood Hills that was built at the turn of the century and was once surrounded by orange groves. When Alison was a small child, her father went to live on a commune, and she and her mother moved into the mansion with her grandmother and three “brilliant scientist” uncles. Several years later, when her father returned, they moved to Venice, where everyone grew their own vegetables (among other things) and the children ran around barefoot all the time. A child hippie, Alison was even practicing yoga by age five (her father was legendary yogi Ganga White’s attorney). By high school, however, Alison was living a more conventional life in Pacific Palisades, earning straight As and scholarships. She went to UCLA, but after a few months dropped out and moved to Hawaii. It was there that Alison fell in love with a man who encouraged her to pursue her calling as an artist. She returned to LA, began taking classes in Brentwood and sold her first painting to Norton Simon’s grandson, who hung it over his mantel between two Picassos.
I want to sit here all day, eating olives at Urth and listening to Alison’s stories, but we are on a mission, and it is time to move on. When we finally arrive at Ink Monkey, we find that Jeff—the tattoo artist I came to see—is occupied for another 30 minutes. I am ready to get in the chair, and just as a cliff diver might feel, when you are standing at the edge, you really need to jump. If you hang out too long, the jitters take hold. I am thrilled to learn Alison shares my fondness for tequila, and that’s how we end up at Hal’s.
Sitting at the bar, I start to reflect on where I was and how different LA was on this very day 17 years ago. Then, I was starting out, my future unknowable, my self unknown. The city was unfamiliar and unpredictable. Now in the wake of my divorce, I am starting out again in a way, my future still unknowable but my self known. The city is my home and strangely intimate. I envy Alison’s deep and romantic history here, then realize I now have my own as well.
When we return to Ink Monkey, Jeff is ready. He lays out three stenciled lines of text across the inside of my right forearm. I hold it up for Alison’s approval. She scrutinizes it with an artist’s eye and tells me one line is slightly askew. A smile spreads across my face. I turn to Jeff, tell him to leave it as it is and begin. Alison has inspired the artist in me who sees the beauty in embracing imperfection.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BETH COLLER