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Coming to a tattoo parlor near you

Jake La Botz's unique concert tour blends music and body art. He requires only $400 and a place to sleep.

October 05, 2006|Melinda Newman | Special to The Times

TATTOOS have played a leading role in singer-songwriter Jake La Botz's life since he self-applied his first one with India ink and a sewing needle when he was 14.

That pentagram has long since disappeared under ink applied at the hands of more experienced, and hygienic, tattooists.

But now he has found a way to bundle his love of music and body art with a cross-country tour of tattoo parlors to promote his fourth CD, "Graveyard Jones."

"Here's this blues man burning in hell, playing the devil's music," La Botz says of Graveyard Jones, a skeleton tattooed on his right forearm and featured on the cover of the self-released album. He flips over his arm to reveal a portrait of Jesus, who shares equal billing on his skin.

He's lost count of how many tattoos he has, but the number will increase by one on Saturday. La Botz, a Buddhist, will add a tattoo of meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the opening night of the guitarist's 20-date tour, at the Shamrock Social Club on the Sunset Strip. La Botz, who is, of course, dressed all in black, hasn't decided if he'll leave each tour stop with a permanent memento: "I'll see how things go."

For Shamrock owner and friend Mark Mahoney, La Botz's musical appeal comes from the hope that breaks through the weariness. "There's the horrible heartbreak, which he's experienced to the nth degree," Mahoney says, "but he's come out the other side of it."

Indeed, La Botz's story reads like a how-to guide to a dissolute life. Reared in Chicago by his father (his mother was largely absent), by third grade La Botz was skipping school for months at a time to listen to country and blues records in the public library. After dropping out of high school, he slept in stolen cars, drifted from town to town working dead-end jobs and developed a world-class drug habit.

A professional musician since he was 22, La Botz, now 37, migrated to Los Angeles in 1996. As recently as five years ago he had to take a job as a courier to pay his bills. "I discovered I wasn't a human being, I was actually a doorknob," he says of the dispiriting experience.

The idea for the tattoo tour came after fans kept asking La Botz to play their hometowns and he would beg off because he didn't have a booking agent. But he realized he was missing a prime opportunity.

"I'm the kind of guy who's been living on the fringes of the entertainment world," he says. "My fans are similarly kind of on the fringe and I thought I'd do a tour on the fringe."

After he pitched the plan on the Internet, offers started rolling in from tattoo shop proprietors. His only requirements: $400 and a place to sleep.

LA BOTZ'S music may be on the fringes, but that is only because the mainstream is so out of touch with art born from American roots. His tunes are plain and homespun, and often darkly humorous. Bob Dylan is an obvious influence; so too are Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and a legion of bluesmen. On record, his vocals are weather-beaten and gravelly, in sharp contrast to his gentle speaking voice.

In tattoo parlors, he has found something sacred in a place most would not look and is taking a film crew along to interview shop owners and tattooists.

"Artists have to relate with something that is kind of from the other world, and I often wonder if that is why the tattoo shop tends to be a holy place," he says, noting that even members of opposing gangs are neutral there.

La Botz is also intrigued by how the art of tattooing is passed down from one artist to another, similarly to the way playing the blues is handed off from one generation to the next.

As a late teen, he sneaked into blues clubs in Chicago to see journeymen such as Robert Johnson protege Honeyboy Edwards and other colorfully nicknamed characters like Homesick James and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, all of whom became mentors.

"I would play stuff and they would basically tell me if it was right or not," he says.

Another vestige of his time with the bluesmen: a gold front right tooth: "I saw myself as a descendant of [these] guys and I wanted to be like them," he says.

After years of playing on street corners and clubs and with his substance abuse spiraling out of control, in 2000 he released his first album, "The Original Soundtrack to My Nightmare," to leave proof that he had been here. "I literally thought I wasn't going to live much longer," he says, "and I thought, 'I better make an album before I go down.' "

He got clean soon after and "realized I was a songwriter and I had to follow that path."

He has also found a foothold as an actor, appearing in Steve Buscemi's "Animal Factory," "Ghost World" and "One Night With You," the directorial debut by film editor Joe D'Augustine. He played the humbly named "Generic Troubadour No. 14" in last season's "Gilmore Girls" finale.

But somehow, it all comes back to tattoos and music.

A few years ago, Mahoney was tattooing former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash as La Botz's CD played. Slash then asked La Botz to audition for Velvet Revolver, a role he lost to Scott Weiland. "I was dreaming the rock star dream for a week," La Botz says, joking that he even contemplated buying leather pants.

And now, La Botz's 19-year-old daughter, Raven, whom he didn't see from the time she was 2 until she was 17 because of his addictions, wants her first tattoo and needs her dad's counsel.

"I know I'm going to have to be the guy who puts it together, which is a little weird," says La Botz says, shaking his head and sounding like the most suburban of fathers -- well, almost.


Jake La Botz

Where: Shamrock Social Club, 9026 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Price: Free

Info: (310) 271-9664

Also: Nov. 2 (time TBA) at True Tattoo, 1628 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Free. (323) 462-4745

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