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Inside the Love Affair Between Chefs and Their Tattoos

‘If we’re in the service industry, then we want some liberties, too’

I have like a bajillion tattoos (no, seriously). And I frequently find myself wondering, while leaking a potent mixture of blood and ink, exhausted from being incessantly pricked by rows of outrageously sharp needles, why the hell I do this to myself. I endure hundreds of torturous hours. I spend thousands of dollars; tens of thousands, even. And for what reason? So I can permanently wear a curation — my curation — of neat pictures? So I can resolutely control my appearance? So I can just feel like a really cool guy?

One thing I know for sure is that there are many others like me, especially nowadays, as tattoos continue to surge, swiftly, in popularity. And like always, there are crowds within our society that are more accepting of permanent body markings and, at least anecdotally, more inclined to wear them. One of particular interest to me are chefs: We commonly see celebrity chefs, like Matty Matheson, Guy Fieri and the late Anthony Bourdain, speckled with tattoos, but even less notable kitchens are commonly brimming with heavily tattooed cooks. What’s behind these intense love affairs between chefs and their tattoos?

Once again, the popularity of tattoos in general is a relatively recent phenomenon. “I can guarantee you chefs back in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s certainly didn’t have a lot of tattoos, and that was a sign of the times,” says comprehensively tattooed executive chef Jorge Busso, who cautions against using broad brush strokes to suggest that every chef ever appreciates tattoos. “I remember a lot of stories about when my grandfather went into the navy, and his mother promised him that if he came home with any ink on his body, her front door would be locked forever.”

Busso, who worked a wide assortment of jobs before finally becoming a chef, also promptly suggests that there are numerous other careers in which tattooed persons thrive as well. “Do chefs have more tattoos than construction workers? Do chefs have more tattoos than landscapers?” he asks. “I mean, people who are outside and not dealing with the public so much; maybe yes, maybe no.”

This suggestion, however, points to the first, most obvious reason why chefs may be more tattooed than people working in other careers: They simply deal with fewer, potentially tattoo-averse customers, and therefore have more freedom with how they look. “Anthony Bourdain touched on this really deeply, but the kitchen has always been essentially a sanctuary for degenerates and rejects to be able to have a platform and be accepted,” Busso says. Where Busso works in Montana, he says, “You’re not going to see servers with full-sleeve tattoos. You’re certainly going to see the dishwashers, the prep cooks, the chefs and the sous chefs with them, though.”

Tattooer Dillon Eaves agrees, saying, “They’re behind the scenes when it comes to a restaurant, so what they look like doesn’t matter. It’s probably one of the only professions, besides tattooing, where you could get away with being heavily tattooed, so I think they just go for it. Though, all of that’s changing as tattoos become more and more commonplace.”

Much like tattooers, many chefs view themselves as artists, constantly creating, a mindset that lends itself to being artistically oriented. “I’ve tattooed quite a few chefs,” Eaves says. “It’s one of those industries that’s high intensity, and chefs typically have the kind of personality that tattooing attracts. I also think we share a commonality in the fact that we both create with our hands. There’s a comradery in both of our crafts, creating works of art from nothing.”

Isaac Fitzgerald, author of Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos, adds that “tattoos are art — oftentimes, incredibly personal art. And when they’re on chefs, who are fiercely committed to what they do and believe, the tattoos are often deep and meaningful. The pride, commitment and creativity just shines through — chefs are artists in their field. That said, chefs contain multitudes and are also hilarious, irreverent people who take nothing too seriously, except for the incredible food that they serve.”

The commitment aspect is another apparent driving factor behind chefs being so intrigued by tattoos: When you fully commit to being a chef and never straying from that path — a path that requires incessant dedication — permanently marking yourself in a way that may prevent you from moving forward in a different career becomes a badge of honor; a physical representation of your commitment. “For a lot of people, becoming a chef is finally your right to scribble on your body as much as you want, because you made it,” Busso says. “You’re going to get hired at your next job as a chef as well, unless you’re addicted to heroin and going backward in life.”

Or as Fitzgerald explains, “One thing I came across a lot while working on Knives & Ink was the idea of tattoos as commitment. This is especially true for that special category of tattoos [on your hands, neck and face] known as ‘job stoppers.’ One way to stay committed to your art is to take a leap of faith, to make a promise. So when you get that chili pepper tattooed on your neck, or the rotisserie chicken inked into your hand, you’re declaring to the world and yourself that you’re not interested in getting a 9-to-5 job. You don’t want to hide your true passions and work behind a desk. Instead, you make a powerful commitment to the long hours and tremendously hard, yet gratifying work of making food, of making your art, for a living. Cooking is an art form, and just like tattoos, an expression of self.”

Speaking to that commitment, Busso says, “That full-on immersion into that art, into that sanctuary that we call the kitchen — being okay with fully living there, breathing there, sleeping there and dying there — that’s what fully opens the door for a lot of us chefs to go ahead and just get crazy as shit.” 

Likewise, Busso suggests that, for service workers — who constantly work to please others, often for pennies in return — being able to own your body by marking it with tattoos that you decided upon means a whole lot. “We’re always kind of being pushed outside the bubble by society, and by we, I mean us degenerates, whether we work in a tire shop or in a kitchen or anywhere,” he says. “For us, it’s liberating to be able to get those tattoos.”

“If we’re in the service industry, then we want some liberties, too,” Busso continues. “That guy who works in an office; he might make twice as much as me, but he’s forbidden from getting any sort of self-expressionatory artwork on his body.”

It makes sense, then, that Busso tells me he loves nothing more than showing off what he earned by working in kitchens all these years: “What really gets my rocks off, dude, is driving in my $50,000 muscle car down the road with my tattooed hand and arm hanging out that damn window, and everybody’s got a confused look on their face, wondering how the hell somebody who looks like that can afford something like that.”

On a final note, when you work in the service industry — and especially in a fast-paced kitchen — you need to accept diversity and accept your coworkers, tattooed or otherwise. “One of the biggest turning points of my career was realizing that the kitchen totally disallows the notion of putting a stigma on something,” Busso says. “I’ve worked next to lesbians, gays, Black people, white people, Mexicans — it doesn’t matter, man. I’ve met some of the best people in the world in kitchens. The kitchen is an area where people can band together and kind of form a fellowship, because at the end of the day, your food is going to speak for itself. I don’t give a shit if you’re missing three fingers.” 

If anyone does give a shit about how you express yourself or how you look in the kitchen, Busso says, frankly, they’re in the wrong industry. “If you’re some prick restaurant owner or hiring manager that only wants to hire somebody clean-cut like you, you’re never going to fill that position, and you’re going to have the wrong people in your kitchen,” he emphasizes.

When you combine all of this — the ability to thwart potentially unaccepting customers in an otherwise welcoming kitchen, and a commitment to owning your body and your craft in a world that sees you as nothing more than a means to a meal (and pays you as such) — it makes a lot of sense why chefs love their tattoos.

And it makes a lot of sense why we all put up with the pain, too.