The Tattoo Life: The Rich Cahill Documentary (2012) – By Cary Conley

As reality television series continue to peak in popularity, it seems that a new show is introduced nearly every week of the year, covering topics as various as bakeries, moon shining, and child beauty pageants. The topic of tattoos is no different, getting the reality TV treatment with various shows like Miami Ink, L.A. Ink, and now N.Y. Ink being aired over the last several years. Unfortunately, as reality TV tends to do, these shows many times depict the grossly negative stereotypes of the topic they cover. With all the drama, infighting, and foul language depicted on this trio of tattoo shows (and reality television in general), it is no wonder that the public still resists embracing this art form. These shows unnecessarily exacerbate a problem that tattoo artists and their customers already know well, and that is the public perception that people with tattoos somehow represent the more unsavory segments of society. But even as these types of shows continue to wallow in their own drama, the tide of public opinion may be changing as more and more young people are getting "inked".

As if in rebuttal to the 20-bleeps-per-minute set of reality tattoo shows, filmmaker Jon Reino has created The Tattoo Life: The Rich Cahill Documentary. Rich Cahill is a bit of a renaissance man. He is a talented musician who plays multiple instruments, writes his own songs, and performs in his own band; he is an artist who sells paintings through his own website; he is a protestor, at the moment supporting the Occupy Movement; he is a family man; and he is a tattoo artist who opened his own well-known studio named Immortal Ink, along the way creating his own special brand of ink that has become quite popular with tattoo artists around the globe.

This 24-minute documentary follows Cahill as he describes his fascination with tattoos from early on as well as his climb up the ladder to become one of the most popular and successful tattoo artists on the East Coast. Along the way, Cahill singlehandedly turns the notion of what a tattoo artist must be like on its ear. Creative, quiet but confident, and intelligent, Reino shows the viewer that stereotypes shouldn’t always be believed. The film opens with a series of shots depicting Cahill preparing to open his latest studio and begin work. The cinematography is excellent as the camera follows Cahill through various rooms in his home, out the door, and down the sidewalk as he slowly makes his way through Frenchtown, New Jersey, the town he lives and works in, and the town he loves. Reino makes these shots interesting by filming low to ground, giving the viewer a unique perspective–certainly not what one might see in a standard documentary. Once the camera enters the studio, Reino uses a great montage of various items in Cahill’s shop that inform the viewer about who Cahill is: original paintings by Cahill; Cahill drawing at his desk; a stick of burning incense; a unique, antlered wall hanging. These shots are edited seamlessly and give us a great deal of information about Cahill without the use of spoken language. One of my favorite scenes is of Cahill completing a large, full-color dragon on a customer’s back. Again, Reino is creative in his use of cinematography, using rapid-cut editing and montage to speed up the process. The net effect is that we see several weeks’ worth of work in only a few seconds, a terrific way to view the entire tattoo process. The scene ends with a slow pan down the customer’s back as the viewer ultimately sees the finished product. Reino’s unique and creative use of the camera and editing technique makes viewing the film both refreshing and fun.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic soundtrack, appropriately furnished by Cahill and his band, Topsoil. It’s a little folksy and a little punk and reminds me one of my favorite bands, the Violent Femmes. I found myself bobbing my head to the music as I watched the film.

Perhaps ironically, the local government in Frenchtown isn’t as enamored with Cahill as the artist is of the town. You see, when Cahill distanced himself from Immortal Ink and decided to open a new studio on his own, the Frenchtown city council protested. Apparently they watched entirely too much reality TV and were convinced that a tattoo studio in their small Jersey village would only bring trouble to the town.

After what must have been a very long legal battle–the viewer only gets a taste of the controversy–Cahill eventually was allowed to open his own studio, and it does a brisk business. People come from far and wide to be tattooed by Cahill, but even some of the townsfolk, including the chief of police, have become valued customers and good friends of Cahill. The film certainly depicts a different concept of what tattoo artists and the patrons that frequent them are like. It is a gentle but fascinating short documentary of one tattoo artist and the battle he faced in a small New Jersey town, but the fact that the film is so short is really my only complaint. I found the film to be quite interesting and Cahill himself to be captivating and would have liked to have seen more. I would have liked to have heard more about Cahill’s background and training as a tattoo artist, and I really would have enjoyed a more in-depth analysis of the legal battle for Cahill’s professional life in Frenchtown. Reino easily could have expanded this documentary to a full-length feature. As it stands, The Tattoo Life is a terrific introduction to tattoos and addresses why some people are so drawn to the art form. Reino has created a wonderful little film that answers, at least in part, the outcry many people have against what is sometimes still viewed as a "fringe" form of art.

The Tattoo Life: The Rich Cahill Documentary has just been completed and has not been released yet, but check Jon Reino’s page at http://www.jonreino.com/Jon_Reino/Home.html to keep up with the film, or to view a seven-minute condensed version of the film, go to http://vimeo.com/35324241.