from "Intentional and Inevitable: A Conversation between Robert Ryan and Freddy Corbin"
Freddy Corbin Did you grow up around art and music? What was the spark that led you to the four spokes in the wheel: art, music, tattooing, and your practice or path?
Robert Ryan I grew up in what at the time seemed like a pretty basic suburban home situation in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. My folks both worked a lot, so I was left to figure out a lot of things on my own. Luckily my grandparents lived just a couple houses away, and my grandfather was a big inspiration to me. He was a retired police chief of forty years in a small town, so he knew everyone and he didn’t have that cop attitude at all. People really liked him; he was very well respected and a fair guy who was always helping people. He was a Freemason of a high degree and quoted Shakespeare and collected cool art and antiques. His house was filled with amazing stuff. The house itself he bought from Oona O’Neill, who was the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill and was the wife of Charlie Chaplin, so you could imagine the vibe of the place. My grandfather liked folk art, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch stuff. It was from him that I first learned about signs. They owned a farm out in Pennsylvania, and we traded with the Amish and Mennonites, and they would always talk about “the signs.” Like if a beehive was hanging low in the spring, it would be a hot summer, and fascinating things from folk remedies to divining rods. So between his esoteric Masonic leanings and his connection with fringe religious folks that were connected to the land in rural Pennsylvania, I think that’s what sparked my interest in symbolism and spirituality expressed through visual modes. I also learned that there was a holistic approach to healing and treating problems.
Music came into my life a little later. I started skating and surfing when I was twelve, and I remember hearing Suicidal Tendencies, JFA, the Ramones, and Youth Brigade at a backyard half-pipe and being floored. I already had my Devo moment, when I realized there was more to music than what I had perceived, but this stuff was raw, and it resonated on a whole new level. The music was visceral, but so was the look, the album covers, flyers, all of it. My friends and I all started bands. A local scene was already occurring a little bit, but going to New York City for the first time to a Sunday matinee at CBGB was a huge revelation. The Lower East Side in 1987 was such a powerful and hectic scene. It became a weekly routine to go to shows to meet and become friends with more people outside my school and my hometown. That was really liberating for me. So I got turned onto the Cro-Mags singing about Krishna, the Bad Brains singing about Jah Rastafari and Youth of Today singing about not eating meat. Vegetarianism made a lot of sense to me. I always loved animals and had a hard time dealing with their suffering, so in 1988 I stopped eating meat.
A few weeks after I took that plunge, I was hanging out at the boardwalk in my town with a bunch of punks and this guy came up to me and said, “You’re under arrest ...for smiling,” and he handed me a sticker of Jagannath that read “SMILE! Chant and be happy.” I didn’t understand it all, and he began to tell me about Krishna. I knew Hare Krishnas didn’t eat meat, and the Cro-Mags were cool, and I heard Ray from Youth of Today had dropped out and joined them, so I started asking him all these questions about it. The guy was a good talker and asked me if I wanted to chant with him. That was where I first learned the Maha Mantra, and he gave me my first set of japa beads. I owe that guy so much. A few weeks later I went to the vegetarian feast at the Radha Govinda temple in Brooklyn, and the place was breathtaking: the music was great, the paintings were fantastic, the smells and the food were amazing! That’s where all of this really began for me. For a few years I tried to go the way of a Brahmachari—a celibate student—but it was tough to do as a teenager. By nineteen I was back to fucking and smoking weed, but the seed was planted. I had my heart melted by Krishna, and I would never be the same. That is all around the time I started working at my good friend Mike Schweigert’s first tattoo shop. I was a floor guy, helping out however I could. I was so enamored by the tattoo world. Mike was so respectful of the history even though he was new to it as well.
FC That’s an amazing story in itself. It seems like a bunch of synchronistic events molded you as a young person. Punk shows in the ’80s were so free of boundaries! So scary and exciting! I can definitely relate to that. With punk I felt like I had found my tribe, and finding tattooing was some weird extension of that. Learning about your grandfather makes so much sense, especially seeing so many symbols in your artwork today. Not just copying them from a book, but knowing the roots and what they actually mean. You’re very lucky to have these experiences. And I can also see a lot of your grandfather’s qualities in you! I’d like to know about your early beginnings in tattooing, but also how you started consciously incorporating these loves and inspirations into your tattooing.
RR I have been tattooing for eighteen years. It took me a long time to actually start tattooing because I had no confidence in my drawing skills, let alone my ability to put a tattoo on someone. I was just planning on being a helper. At that point, I just wanted to play music. Mike had a business partner at this shop where I started out. He was a professional wrestler named Handsome Jimmy Shoulders. After a year of me coming there, Mike dissolved his end of the business. He and I were playing in a band called Fireball Head at the time, and we moved into this house in Red Bank, New Jersey. It was this old house that our roommate Aryn decorated in a really elaborate, psychedelic way. In one room the walls and even the ceiling were covered in orange fur. The fur was a prop from a Monster Magnet video where the band was playing on a giant orange furry crucifix. That was when I really started going deep with mushrooms and LSD. Mike was just tattooing out of the house, and I took a job working at a vegetarian restaurant with a Turkish cook named Ty, who had come to the US in the early ’70s. He was another guide for sure; we would smoke a lot of hashish in the kitchen, where he would tell me all kinds of stories about Turkey and we would listen to a lot of great music. One day Mike and I just went around to all the local tattoo shops, just out of curiosity. We ended up meeting Gene Bernardo, who was the president of the mother chapter of The Breed Motorcycle Club. He had a really heavy reputation and was feared by everyone. When we went into his shop, he was really cool to us and we bullshitted with him for hours. By the time we got back home, there was a message on the answering machine from Gene offering us both jobs. So I started helping around the shop a little, but really I started running marijuana for him. His buddy Vito, who lived upstairs from him, was underboss for Pussy Russo (who was the guy they based the character Big Pussy on in The Sopranos). Vito was the one who was getting all the weed. I would go to his pizza place and pick up three pounds a week and run it all over the local area by train. I did that for a while, until it got too hot. Gene offered me and Mike a situation where we could open a new shop and run it for him, and staff it, and that’s where I pretty much started my apprenticeship. That was early 1994.
That was right around the time I met Dan Higgs. Dan is the guy who has inspired me the most. I loved Lungfish, and I had started seeing his work here and there, maybe just 10-15 photos total. I had just seen Lung sh for the first time a few days before and was walking down Second Avenue when I saw Dan talking to a bunch of hobos on a street corner. I asked him if he was tattooing in NYC and got an appointment at East Side Ink with him two days later. I started getting a lot of tattoos from him, and he really encouraged me to start tattooing. It was like getting a blessing from the Dalai Lama to become a monk. A year or so later, he came to work with us about every three months. Dan was very helpful and encouraging. He pushed me to go outside tattooing for my inspiration but to still stay rooted in its foundation. So that’s when I really started integrating the Eastern stuff into my work. Tom Yak started working with us as well, and he is a Krishna devotee, as are some other old friends of mine, so I have always been blessed to have the association of other spiritual aspirants around me who helped shape what I do now.
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