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On a portrait of a writer in ink: Interview with Bobby Biedrzycki

One of my colleagues at Columbia College Chicago, writer and adjunct faculty member Bobby Biedrzycki, has an eye-catching tattoo on his arm (shown above). It's such a work of art that I wanted immediately to find out who it depicted. Then I thought I would interview him about it.

Q: Let's start with a question that I bet you've never heard before. Did the tattoo hurt?

A: Haha. The shading made the skin a bit more tender than other tats I've had, but pain is a subjective thing, right? What hurts me might feel like a massage to someone else.

Q: Describe the tattoo for us.

A: It's a black and gray portrait of the writer Hubert Selby Jr, my idol. It's based on a photograph I found of him that I liked very much (and heard that he liked also). He is smiling, and has a small parakeet on his shoulder.

Q: Why did you choose this particular image?

A: Well, I knew I wanted something of him in his later years. He wasn't a very happy person early in his life, but later he really found peace with himself and the world around him. I loved the fact that he was smiling in the image, and to be honest while I'm not sure of its actual significance. I really loved the bird on his shoulder. He seems to be interacting with this tiny, frail creature in a very gentle way. I liked that.

Q: The tattoo is incredibly well drawn. Where did you get it done?

A: Deluxe Tattoo on Irving Park Rd here on Chicago's north side. By an artist named Miles Maniaci.

Q: What makes the difference between one tattoo artist like him, and another?

A: For me it was his portfolio. He had done a good deal of portrait work, and it all looked like what I had envisioned for my piece. Sometimes tattoo portraits can come off as caricature, which might be fine if you're dealing with a recognizable celebrity like Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, but this was more personal to me, and I wanted it to look like a portrait, something that paid tribute.

Q: It's highly visibly - your forearm - so what response would you like people to have when they see it?

A: That's such a good question. Originally I got it there because I wanted to see it all the time. This might sound crazy or impulsive, but I never considered what others might think or ask, I really didn't. Now I find myself having to explain who Hubert Selby is and what he means to me, sometimes to total strangers who are ringing up a lunch order, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. I like it when people seem genuinely moved by it, even if they don't know who it is. When they just say "Wow, that's really gorgeous."

Q: I think it's a real work of art, actually, which is why I wanted to hear you talk about it. One last question: why does Hubert Selby's work touch you so deeply?

A: Selby told the stories of people who society considered outcasts. Many times that meant poor people or homosexuals, even criminals. I feel like him writing their stories gave validity, made people look and say these people have stories too, and feelings, just like everyone else. That was the initial attraction. I also love the rhythm of his prose, and as I studied him further I became very inspired by Selby the man. He overcame many bouts with physical illness and substance addiction, to really become, at least in my mind, one of the great American writers of the past century.

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