Black Flag Bearers
by Patrick Rapa
April 4th, 2013
A new book chronicles a cross-country quest for meaning in an enigmatic punk tattoo
By the time Stewart Ebersole got his first Black Flag tattoo, the legendary ’80s hardcore band had already imploded and broken up. And, truth be told, he hadn’t much cared for their last few albums. But still, their killer early music, and the defiant punk ethos that went with it, was enough to send him into a tattoo shop with his copy of 1984’s Slip It In to get a tiny set of the “bars” inked onto his right leg.
Those four staggered bars were designed by artist Raymond Pettibon, brother of guitarist Greg Ginn, when the band was just getting started in Hermosa Beach, Calif., in the late ’70s. Meant to symbolize anarchy, a kind of antithesis to the white flag of surrender, the logo appeared on pretty much every album, flier and T-shirt the band produced.
Somewhere along the way, however, the bars picked up a new, less concrete meaning, something more ambiguous and oddly tribal. As detailed in Ebersole’s new book, Barred for Life: How Black Flag’s Iconic Logo Became Punk Rock’s Secret Handshake (PM Press, March 1), the logo these days signifies not so much an appreciation for a band — it’s worth noting that Black Flag’s sound and fanbase mutated with each of its many lineup changes — but a vague sense that the person with the tattoo knows what it’s like to be a little different on some level.
“If Black Flag never got together again, people would still keep getting the bars,” Ebersole says when he and photographer Jared Castaldi sit down for an interview at Tattooed Mom. It’s Castaldi’s first look at the finished book, and he flips through it quietly. On each page there’s a large, black-and-white image of a knuckle or a wrist or a scalp permanently affixed with the bars.
L-R: Stewart Ebersole and Jared Castaldi at Tattooed Mom.
The symbol’s resilience and mutability were a big part of what inspired Ebersole to assemble a crew and embark on a six-year mission to collect photos of and interviews with proud bar-bearers across the country. Having played and toured with a few basement-level punk bands in his day, he had the connections to book himself at rock clubs and bookstores in Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco and dozens more places. “It was basically us being in a punk band but not playing music,” Ebersole says. The largest tour put him and his crew on the road for more than 50 days straight.
It all could have added up to a zine — a medium Ebersole has dabbled in before — but he saw the potential for something more. The resulting Barred for Life is part photo book and part memoir, interspersed with lengthy interviews with Black Flag alums.
When considering if any other band has come close to matching what Black Flag and Pettibon achieved with the bars, the mouth logo John Pasche designed for the Rolling Stones comes to mind. “OK, so say you’re going to do Lipped for Life or Tongued for Life, what are those people going to say when you ask them about their tattoo? ‘Rolling Stones are the best band ever!’” shrugs Ebersole.
Barred’s subjects, some in their 20s, many in their 30s and 40s, are all over the map when it comes to the meaning behind their tattoos. “We got far more non-Black Flag answers than we got answers about the band,” says Ebersole. “Those kinds of tattoos are, like, ‘Oh, I got wasted at the Spectrum in ’85,’” jokes Castaldi. He helped launch the Barred project, but had to bail on the big tour when he landed a day job. His photos dominate the first 80 or so pages of the book, after which Ebersole did the shooting.
Several subjects make a point of saying Black Flag is not, in fact, their favorite band. A few allude to the bars as a secret handshake, or as symbolic of an unspoken bond that ties strangers together as punks and ex-punks on similar journeys, while by no means guaranteeing friendship. “You know they come from the same background,” says Ebersole. “I don’t think you have that with the lips and tongue.”
And then there are the tattoos themselves. So many of them, Ebersole points out, are just really, really ugly. “Most of the time they aren’t professionally done,” he smiles. “Or if they are professionally done, they still don’t look all so hot.”
“They’re pretty much all bad,” laughs Castaldi. “First of all, they’re not even black anymore, they’re blue. And they’re not — there’s nothing straight about the lines or anything.”
About a year into his project, Ebersole had a tattoo artist ink over his mini-bars, which had blobbed together, replacing them with a massive set that dominates his left leg. “I decided if I was gonna do the book I would have the biggest one,” he says. “It ended up not being the biggest.” Who took that title? “A guy named Jimi in Salt Lake City. He was in prison for 16 years, and over the course of 16 years he had this guy stick-and-poke it in his gut.”
You’ll find Jimi Germ and his gigantic bars on page 209 of the book. Instead of solid black rectangles, his tattoo bars frame a scene depicting the alleged crime that got him thrown in jail: he and some friends flipping over a cop car and setting it ablaze during a riot. “He’s out, and now he’s becoming a librarian,” says Ebersole.
The bars’ simplicity has led to myriad creative variations. A guy in Toronto has them made of bacon strips (p. 137), while a woman from Massachusetts went with a lipstick motif (p. 133).
One dude in Wisconsin let his brother brand the bars onto him below his navel (barely visible on p. 186). The bars on a hairy arm in Albany are overshadowed by a nearby mushroom cloud erupting from a toilet (p. 71). The bars never seem to be anybody’s only tattoo.
Ebersole lives in Nyack, N.Y., and works as a marine geologist, but he grew up in York and lived in South Philly until recently. As a result, a large number of locals made it into Barred for Life. The bars on the shin of Philadelphia rocker/competitive eater Ryan “Chubb” Pasquale (p. 19) look like crayon scrawls, but were actually the result of a tattoo machine he built with a small motor, a toothbrush, a pen and an eraser when he was 16. “Fuck if my dad didn’t walk in on me while I was doing it,” Pasquale says in the book.
All of Barred for Life’s subjects were asked to name their favorite singer, song and album from the Black Flag catalog. Perhaps not surprisingly, the answers often involved a lot of mixing and matching of eras.
The “fantasy game” responses would drive Ebersole a little nuts; he’s an outspoken guy, not averse to arguing music minutiae. But he gets it. After all, Black Flag’s roster changes are the stuff of legend, with guitarist Greg Ginn being the only constant and vocalist Henry Rollins — whose tenure started with the ’81 classic album Damaged and ended with the band’s breakup in ’86 — being the most famous.
In fact, as you read this, two versions of the band are prepping for summer tours. Both look like fantasy teams.
The simply titled Flag is composed of original singer Keith Morris backed by bassist Chuck Dukowski (’77-’83) and drummer Bill Stevenson (’81-’82, ’83-’85), along with guitarist Stephen Egerton (from fellow punk veterans the Descendents and ALL).
Ginn, meanwhile, has put together a new Black Flag, with singer Ron Reyes (whose original run with the band lasted a mere seven months from ’79 to ’80) and drummer Gregory Moore, best known for playing with Ginn’s other band, Gone.
Ebersole has little interest in these revivals — “you might as well go see the Grateful Dead minus all their members except Bob what’s-his-name” — but he did interview several alums for the book. He hung out with Morris in his L.A. backyard and watched a Super Bowl with singer and guitarist Dez Cadena (’80-’83). Ginn and Rollins, however, turned him down.
“I talked [Reyes] into an interview that he didn’t want to do. Now he’s in Black Flag again,”
Ebersole says. “[Dukowski] said he had no interest in reliving the past. Now he’s in Flag.”
“[Bassist Kira Roessler] said, ‘You sure you even want to interview me? If you aren’t a big Black Flag fan, why do you even want to know these things?’” he laughs. “And I was, like, ‘Don’t you think this makes a much more objective book if I thought you guys sucked when you were in the band?’ She thought that was hilarious and invited us over and we had a blast.”
Ebersole pulls no punches about his disgust for the later Black Flag albums. “I listened to Annihilate This Week and it’s horrible. I listened to Family Man and it’s intolerable,” he says.
“They had all this really great music before they became shitty.”
Did any of his subjects name songs and singers from the shitty era?
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, everybody did,” he says. “Are you familiar with the concept of patterning? When a duck or a chicken is hatched, they’ll become attached to the first thing they see.” When it comes to Black Flag, “That’s how everybody is. … I still listen to Damaged all the time. When I’m pissed off, it’s my go-to.”