Forward, Into the Past

Tattoo historian Eric Maaske is now part of history

There are no ambassadors, no aldermen, no lobbyists and no spokespersons in tattooing.

As an industry, it's a throwback to the days when ships had sails, as they do in so many traditional tattoos; it's an insular, closed-mouthed clan of masters and apprentices, where word is still bond. Its representatives to the outside world are the artists themselves, and the industry is only as good as they are with the needle.

In Southern California, there are just three tattoo artists who people seem to agree are that good: Dave Gibson of San Diego, Bob Roberts of Los Angeles and Eric Maaske of Fullerton.

Maaske, who owned and operated Classic Tattoo in Fullerton, was by all accounts very good with the needle. It's thus ironic and very, very sad that he died of a drug overdose Aug. 28 at age 35. Though still young, his work—and his passion for tattooing's history—put him on level footing with the industry's best and brightest.

Had he lived, those who knew him say he would have aged like a good tattoo—wrinkled but right, mysterious and a bit gaudy—to become one of tattooing's grand old men, up there with Anaheim's Jack Rudy, longtime Bert Grimm's manager Rick Walters—who recently survived open-heart surgery and a move to Twentynine Palms—and the late Lee Roy Minugh, a much-tattooed tattooer who wound up in Long Beach's Nu-Pike amusement-park tattoo scene.

A picture in his funeral-services program made Maaske look like just another live-fast-die-young rockabilly with a jones for doo-wop; '50s cars; and colorful, exotic, thick-lined traditional tattoos. But he had an old soul and enough sand in his craw to make a joke out of almost anything. When writer C.G. Morris of tattoo mag Skin & Ink asked him in a March 2002 interview what he'd like on his tombstone, Maaske fired back, "Those who knew him knew him well, and those who didn't can go to hell."

It rhymed; Maaske was a published writer, in addition to being an accomplished tattoo artist—but perhaps his greatest skill wasn't sitting behind a word processor, or even running a tattoo machine, which he'd done since he was nine. It was listening to old people, researching oral history and uncovering tattooing's past.

"Eric was really in tune with how it was supposed to look back then, and he never forgot it," said his friend Juan Puente, who credits Maaske with teaching him to tattoo. "That was his story: old American-style tattooers. He knew all about 'em, and he collected [their work]; he had the most amazing, beautiful flash."

Maaske's archive was his shop, Classic Tattoo, which he set up the way men like Minugh—whom he profiled for International Tattoo magazine in 1994—had told him it should be done. The stainless-steel counters were new, but the floor of tiny, white tile; the heavy, old chairs he brought in; and the vintage tattoo flash—that all reeked of old.

"That original flash, it's like trying to improve the blues. That is where it started. Eric had his own style that kind of went off from that," said Brian Setzer, whose own career has done much the same for rockabilly and swing. Heavily tattooed, he visited Maaske for a back piece: a tattoo covering his back with icons of rockabilly culture.

"It was in the style," Setzer said, describing what made Maaske's work stand out. "I don't know who his tattoo mentor was, Sailor Jerry [Collins] maybe. I think he was in the style of the old school, but he created his own stuff."

Eric's other trademark was his shading, a difficult task for any tattoo artist. The colors and the way they blend make his art jump off the pages of his flash that survive—even after it's been color-copied once or twice: a flirty devil girl above the legend "Hellbomb"; a skull, a straight razor, a chain and a switchblade encircled by the phrase "Outa Court Settlement"; a cross above the word "Faith"; a rose above the word "Hope." It's new but looks old, a vibe he'd been chasing since he was a kid, his sister Michelle said, watching his dad get tattooed by some of the same old-timers he'd later write about.

"I really think he had this really strong bond to my grandmother, and he just loved her so much," Michelle said. "The '40s and '50s were her generation, and he loved that as a little boy. Her house was built in the '50s, and there was just some kind of dimension to that time that he's always had.

"We went to a psychic one time, and she told him he was in World War II, and he was a fighter pilot. I don't know if I'm just grasping," she added, pausing. "She didn't tell me that, so I guess I'm not an old soul. I guess I'm not reincarnated."

Whether or not Maaske was reincarnated, his affinity for past lives shaded his entire life. He lived in old-town Santa Ana—"never more than 10 miles from Orange Circle," Puente recalled—combed his hair in a pompadour, wore vintage Pendleton shadow-plaids, and bought and customized old cars and motorcycles.

His eye for style caught other people's attention: Puente says Eric didn't just tattoo Social Distortion lead singer Mike Ness; he sold him the black-primered 1955 Pontiac hardtop that's pictured in the liner notes for the band's classic "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell" recording. And at home with Setzer, as the singer recovered from hours of being tattooed, Maaske made the bandleader tapes of obscure new and old musicians he'd uncovered.

"The way he lived didn't jive with someone who uses drugs. Usually someone who uses drugs, their life's a mess. Their house is dirty, their car is broken down, and he wasn't that way," Setzer said. "My memory is everything being straight out of the '50s but immaculate. I'll never forget staying in that backroom. There was a cross above the bed—not a trendy cross that you'd buy on Melrose, but a traditional Catholic cross. I said, 'Wow, I haven't seen one of these in years.' He was definitely not the type of person you would associate with that type of lifestyle."

Friends and family say Maaske struggled with a lifelong depression that ultimately led him to drugs. But even in his final moments, as his life spun out of control, he was still the artist, still the historian. The night he died, Michelle said, he was doing the same thing he did every night.

Maaske—who was single, having recently ended a relationship—was inking a greeting card for someone on thick, handmade paper. He penciled in a rose, then traced it with a pen, his hand making frequent trips to an inkwell. Around the rose, he wrote a last message in "Pike lettering," the elaborate serif font invented at the Long Beach Pike.

The card read, "I Love You From Hear to Eternity"—and of course no one knows what he meant, why he didn't fix the misspelling, where he would have sent it. His sister thinks the card was for her, though she admits it might have gone to her mother.

Eric Maaske didn't leave any clues. Inside the card, he wrote just a single, shaky "M" in scratchy pencil.

Then, he laid his ink pen down and became part of tattoo history.

CLOSED FOLLOWING ITS OWNER'S DEATH, CLASSIC TATTOO, 521 N. HARBOR BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 870-0805, REOPENED FOR BUSINESS OCT. 22.

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