As I wheeled my Honda minivan into the parking lot of the Kustom Thrills Tattoo Studio, I didn’t realize I had a cop on my tail. I had come for the opening of Eric Powell’s new art show, a collection of paintings and drawings titled, “People I Know in Nashville When I’m Drunk.” As you can probably guess, this wasn’t an art show for the blue-haired ladies at the garden club, but then again, Kustom Thrills ain’t exactly the Guggenheim.
Technically, the exhibit was part of Octane! Gallery—described on their Website as the home of “low-brow themed art.” The Octane! occupies a cozy space inside the tattoo studio, and it gets its name from an old-fashioned gas pump located inside. The antique pump is tall and thin, much taller than what you would find at your local 7-Eleven. The Octane!’s signature pump lords over the gallery from the corner like a monolith lifted from Wally’s Filling Station in some lost, Stanley Kubrick-directed episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
But I was telling you about the cop.
You see, as soon as I heard Powell was putting some of his work on exhibit, I knew I had to go. Powell is one of those brilliant creators who has always gone his own way—as unpretentious as he is uncompromising. His most famous work, the Eisner Award-winning series, The Goon, remains nearly indescribable—a postmodern genre mashup full of zombies, gangsters, science fiction, the Southern Gothic, genuine sentiment, and lots of humor. Both Powell and The Goon are one of a kind, and a new collection of Powell art was not to be missed.
However, I paused when I learned where the gallery was, my last tattoo having come from a box of Cracker Jacks. I may be pretty good at faking street cred with my students, but the sad fact is that my typical haunts are pretty bourgeois. My favorite watering hole serves lattes in a paper cup, and when I want to hang with a rowdier crowd, I can sometimes be found at a pizza joint that offers skee ball and a singing mouse. Kustom Thrills would definitely be the closest I had ever come to a place like Norton’s Pub in The Goon. But that’s one of the hallmarks of Powell’s work. Like most great art, it takes you beyond your comfort zone and challenges your expectations. And besides, it had been a while since I had been anywhere where you could get beaten up.
Luckily for me, I had done some acting in college because if there is one thing that can help you in a rough-and-tumble place, it’s a having a good background in theater. Plus, I had seen enough Scorsese movies and read enough Raymond Chandler that I knew how to handle myself. Figured I could get my tough guy mojo working and slip right in.
Besides, both Powell and his most famous creation often seem to wear different faces, so I had some precedent. If you’ve read The Goon or are familiar with Powell’s blog or his tweets, you know the kind of Southern redneck, whiskey-swigging, bar-brawling image he sometimes creates for himself. Yet, in person, Powell is gentle, soft-spoken, wicked smart, and very funny. In a sense, he’s a bit like the Goon, who pretends to be a mindless bruiser but secretly is in charge of his whole organization. So I figured I’d put on my Goon face and bully through easily enough. No problem.
Which brings me back to the cop.
I was having trouble finding the place, even though my TomTom kept telling me, “You have reached your destination,” barely hiding the irritation in its voice. Finally, I realized that the studio must be set back behind another building so I whipped into the parking lot, wondering idly whether a tattoo studio would have parking spaces wide enough for a Honda minivan. That’s when the blue lights started flashing.
I pulled over to the side only to realize that the GPS had been right all along. About twenty yards in front of me stood Kustom Thrills Tattoo and parked about ten yards behind me was one of “Nashville’s finest.” A crowd of people who looked like the cast of Sons of Anarchy had gathered on the porch outside the studio, and as they began to stare, I sank lower in my seat, muttering, “Oh please, not in front of the biker gang.”
The cop came walking slowly around the side of the van; I was careful not to make any sudden moves. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong so I figured he was hassling me for my ride and the loud music. I mean, the Honda may have looked like a typical suburban minivan on the outside, but like a good Corellian, I had made a lot of “special modifications” (which is actually true if you count the new timing belt from its last service). And I admit I was playing the Sinatra CD too loud. But in my defense, it was The Reprise Years, and that stuff just sounds better loud.
According to the cop, it wasn’t the van or the music. Apparently, when I turned into the parking lot I also ran through a stop sign like someone in a bad Burt Reynolds movie. The good news is that he let me off. Maybe it was the two child booster seats in the back. Maybe he was a Sinatra fan. Who knows? But the fact that I was the only one at the studio getting harassed by the cops gave me that little extra oomph, and I could tell from the way the people were looking at me that my newly acquired outlaw aura must’ve been emanating from my Gap jeans and Beatle boots. I felt like Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy, and this was my “we bad” moment.
But all the trouble was worth it when I entered the gallery. Powell was there, smiling broadly, and surrounded by more than fifty friends and admirers. The show featured nine oil paintings, two sketches, one drawing, and a painted truck door. All the pieces featured real people, many of whom were actually in the crowd. Although none of his comics work was present, the Powell sensibility that has made The Goon such a bizarre mashup of styles and traditions was all over the canvas, including everything from a gender-reversed parody of Grant Wood’s American Gothic to an image of an old man with squinted eyes whose face looked like it was hanging off the front of his skull like an old hound dog. He, of course, titled that one, “Self Portrait.”
In many ways, the most striking was the centerpiece, “Di Fat Andy”—a widescreen painting of two figures at the crossroads in a red-tinged, post-Apocalyptic landscape. In the center of the intersection stands a man in a suit and fedora crouched over a record player. If the hat and suit were black, he could pass for a relative of the Blues Brothers. Standing in front of the man, dancing like Fred Astaire in Hell, is the devil, only he’s wearing a nice, tailored black suit and tie. It’s a wonderful piece—full of humor and fantasy—that also plays with Southern traditions, this one the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Most of the works demonstrated Powell’s tremendous affection for his many friends, but not all of the works on display were of people in attendance. Powell included a sketch and a finished drawing of the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, looking much like he did in the 1970s documentary, Waitin’ Around to Die; Powell also painted this image on the door of a ’39 Chevy truck with the caption, “Townes Towing: Better Than Waitin’ Around to Die!” It was like one of his fake advertisements from The Goon, full of both his own enthusiasms and his strong sense of irony. Considering that Powell is from the Nashville area and Townes died in 1997 in nearby Smyrna, one can only assume that like Powell’s other friends, Van Zandt’s presence is one that Powell senses when, as the title of his show insists, he is drunk.
I could have spent the whole evening studying the paintings, but I really wanted to talk to Powell before I left, so I waited by the antique Octane! gas pump while he patiently explained to someone else about the status of the Goon movie. For several years now, David Fincher has been trying to make the film, but doing it well is expensive and the market for adult-oriented animation is pretty unknown. Last year Powell launched a successful Kickstarter to make a sample of the film, raising nearly half a million dollars to create a feature-length story reel.
I figured he was pretty tired of talking movies, so I waited until he was done and then stepped forward. He had looked at me a couple of times, and I wondered if he knew me as the guy who had faced off the cop in the parking lot. I tried to put him at ease: “So this is your first show?” I was trying to sound confident and colorful—like a Southern Al Pacino. It came out like Woody Allen at a mortuary.
But Powell smiled so I knew I had found the right opening. “I’ve done three or four,” he said, “but this is the first one that doesn’t have anything to do with comics.” That’s right. No movie talk here. No autographs. Just me and Eric Powell. Two bad dudes talking art in a tattoo parlor.
This was my second time to meet him, and as we shook hands I wondered if he remembered me. Last year, he gave a master class at the Southern Literary Festival, and I lobbied hard for the privilege of introducing him. It was gushing and enthusiastic—a combination of James Lipton from Inside the Actor’s Studio and a ringside announcer at the Friday Night Fights.
When I was done, Powell slowly walked toward the podium, head down, and muttered, “Thanks” with the energy-sucking deadpan of Steven Wright on Quaaludes. He got a laugh.
So I thought while we were shaking hands it might be a good time to remind him of who I was. That way, if he still had any lingering fears over me being some kind of wanted criminal, I could put him fully at ease. “I met you last spring,” I said. Nothing. “At the Southern Literary Festival.” Still nothing. “I introduced you.”
And with that, he gave me a kind of vacant-eyed stare. I’ve seen it before. It’s what someone does when they want to acknowledge you but they don’t want to make everyone else feel uncomfortable, awkward, or jealous. Obviously, he couldn’t acknowledge how important I was to him in front of all these other people. I’m sure that was it. So, he smiled again and said, “Well, thanks for coming.” I’ll never forget that moment—Eric Powell and me, bonding, right there in front of the Mayberry monolith.
When I got back in the van, Sinatra was bemoaning “Theeeese . . . little town blues” from the last verse of “New York, New York.” That’s when I saw my old nemesis, the cop, staked out at the same intersection. As I drove past, I cranked up the Sinatra and didn’t stop.