How Isaac Fitzgerald got chefs to spill their stories for ‘Knives & Ink’

Isaac Fitzgerald’s fascination with tattoos began when he was in high school; upon graduating, he set out to get his first ink. Now he has more than 15 tattoos and his passion for them and storytelling are documented in the newly released “Knives & Ink” and 2014’s “Pen & Ink.” They stand out from most tattoo books by illustrating, not photographing, people and their tattoo art, and by emphasizing the narratives behind them.

The project started as a Tumblr page with his collaborator, illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. Fitzgerald compiled the stories of the tattoos and what they meant to the individuals. Bloomsbury saw their collected archive online and published their first book that included a mix of authors, musicians and a porn star. It was a hit and the publisher wanted another book. Fitzgerald and MacNaughton had a new angle on the original concept.

“I’ve always admired chefs,” Fitzgerald says by phone from his home in New York City, where he is editor of Buzzfeed Books. “I don’t think this was a long conversation on how do we make this its own book.”


In order to cover the variety of chefs from different cities, they sought out photographs of the chefs displaying their tattoos. Then MacNaughton worked on the illustrations and Fitzgerald interviewed chefs to discover their tattoo stories.

“It was through emails and sometimes even text and what I would do is then have a back and forth with them,” Fitzgerald explained. “I would work on the initial thing, edit it down, send it back to them, make sure they still felt like it was in the spirit of their story.”

Since chefs are extremely busy, most of their discussions with Fitzgerald were done during their breaks or right after their shifts ended.

“The stories are vast like all tattoo stories. Some are memorials, some are memories that they carry with them, some are for their friends, some are matching tattoos with their friends, some are very deep and personal, some are super silly,” Fitzgerald said. “So it’s really about juxtaposing those to one another and really trying to find a flow so that if somebody sits down and reads it from cover to cover it kind of feels like it made sense.”

Chef Soliel Ho took a photo of the large crab tattoo on her chest for the co-authors, but Fitzgerald had to ask her to retake it and open her shirt even more to capture the image. He was uncomfortable because he had never met Ho. “There was a point in there where I felt she’s going to definitely tell me to walk and I’m so glad she didn’t because it’s one of my favorite things in the book.”

The tattoo, Ho explains in the book, is “a paddy crab, which is a classic Vietnamese ingredient. The crab is a pest to rice farmers in Vietnam, but also serves as an immediate source of wild protein for them. They eat it fried, boiled, and even use fermented crab as a condiment in green papaya salad. It’s important to me to remember where I came from, and the humble food that still sustains and satisfies people everywhere.”

Fitzgerald is no stranger to the deeper meaning of his tattoos.

During Fitzgerald’s sophomore year of high school he started getting into trouble. A teacher noticed his behavior and told him that if he graduated from high school the teacher would buy him his first tattoo.

“He was probably 23 … he was just covered in tattoos and he was one of the first adults in my life that took me seriously and met me as a peer and that just meant the world.”

Sure enough Fitzgerald got on track to score that free tattoo. He describes it as “a Celtic tree of life inside of a tribal sun and the branches come up and integrate with the roots.”

But after he showed it to his friends, some saw it as Spider-Man getting his spidey sense. Others compared it to a cover of a Godsmack album.

“For me it actually means that I made it through high school, which was not always a given, and I’m really proud of that. So I love my little Spider-Man, Godsmack album, Celtic tattoo.”

DuShane is the author of “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk.” He teaches novel writing at UCLA Extension.