Jan. 30, 2023

Drew Plotkin | How to Use Tattoos to Rewrite Your Story and Reinvent Yourself

Drew Plotkin | How to Use Tattoos to Rewrite Your Story and Reinvent Yourself

Drew Plotkin recounts his adventures, from death row to Hollywood, in this raw and honest account of success, failure, and finding the strength to always get back up.

Drew Plotkin, tattoo artist and filmmaker, shares his journey of self-discovery through tattoos in this episode. He recounts his adventures, from death row to Hollywood, and uses his experiences to inspire listeners with his resilience and determination to live life on his own terms. Don't miss this raw and honest account of success, failure, and finding the strength to always get back up.

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Drew Plotkin: After finding him and my mother and I called an ambulance and rode to the hospital, and from the hospital not knowing what was going to be the outcome, just stunned and shocked as a 13-year-old kid calling my grandmother on the phone because my mother was with the doctors figuring out what was happening.

And I tried speaking and she answered the phone and I can still hear her voice answering the phone. In my head to this day, and my mouth was moving and I was saying the words, and nothing would come out. Not a single word. And I remember looking around, the hospital room where we were outside the emergency room and all these faces staring at this little 13-year-old kid with tears streaming down his face.

And I, I remember the shirt that I was wearing and just thinking to myself, why won't these damn words come? I could not speak even though I was mouthing the words. And you know what, trauma has strange and powerful impacts. I literally lost very short-term the power of speech right then and there.

I came back and I was, I'm sure, speaking later that evening. Certainly the next

Srini: I'm Srinivas Rao. And this is the Unmistakable Creative podcast where you get a window into the stories and insights of the most innovative and creative minds who have started movements, built thriving businesses, written best-selling books, and created insanely interesting art. For more, check out our 500-episode archive at UnmistakableCreative.com.

Drew, welcome to Unmistakable Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us. Appreciate you having me.

Drew Plotkin: Me, man. Good stuff. Yeah, it.

Srini: It's my pleasure to have you here. So I actually found out about you by way of your publicist who wrote me a letter, and usually, I hate those glossy letters cause I pretty much ignore them. And then I saw that you had written a book about, having all these tattoos all over your body as the story they told. And I was like I just got my first tattoo, so I definitely wanna talk to this guy. But before we get into all of that I wanted to start by asking you a question that is relevant to your book, and that is, what is one of the most important things that you learned from your father that has influenced and shaped who you've become and what you've ended up doing with your life?

Drew Plotkin: From my father? Man, that's, that, narrowing it down to one is a tough one. So I'll throw one out. I can't, I don't know that it's, I'm able to pick one of all of them. I learned so many different things and, actually, as you know from reading the book, the chapter about my dad, I refer to him as my greatest friend. Anne Fae.

So obviously it's a complex relationship. Certainly, one of the things, one of the best things I learned from him is his loyalty. Towards your people, your tribe be it your family, the people that you work with, your team, or whoever you choose and are fortunate to have in your inner circle. That is your everything. And that's something that was unbreakable within him. And I feel very fortunate to have had that lesson from an early age. And I think the best lessons in life, at least for me, are the ones that are not taught as a lesson. I've never been one, I never do well with education. I prefer more information, especially when it's shared in a real-life way.

So my

Srini: And I think that the more that I dove into this book, I almost felt like this was an attempt to reconcile your relationship with your father more than it was a book about tattoos. Like I felt like this was the thing you'd been wanting to tell your father all along.

Drew Plotkin: I think you'd definitely hit that part on the head for sure. It was a lot of reconciliation. It was, the relationship and dynamic with my father for sure is a big part of it. And I think once you start to dive into that, you're reconciling so many other things about yourself because certainly.

Relationships between fathers and sons are very impactful, whether they're good, bad, mixed, or whatever they are. I even say even if you don't grow up with a father or have a father in your life, that still impacts your life dramatically. And who the person you are, who the man you grow into, and who the father you will become, assuming you become a father.

So all of those things, spring off and start to go down all of these different vines and funnels, which then open up other things that, as you get, I'm 50 now, you start to want to I don't even know if it's reconciliation as much as understanding, coming to terms with and even if it's not finding complete peace or resolution.

I, I think for me finding an understanding of why certain things were the way they were, does, at least for

Srini: As I said, there were so many things about your father that struck me in this book, and you say that he was the simplest and most complicated person rolled into one, fiercely loyal and unapologetically short-tempered. You could always feel his presence when he walked into a room, whether he was knocking someone out cold at a casino table in Atlantic City, or throwing punches on a family flight to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. If you pushed his buttons, he was gonna light up. I had to ask you about everything. How did that play on the relationship between the two of you? Having this incredibly short-tempered father?

Drew Plotkin: Yeah, that's thank you for reading the book. You clearly have got it down. There are pros and cons to everything. There really are. And one of the other things I talk about in the book a lot is being a victim or a survivor. And that's a mindset. And I've come to look at, a lot of the traits and things about my father as beneficial and things that I've chosen to use in a positive way in life. And there are benefits to not getting caught up in nonsense or BS and that was a benefit to my father. He wasn't someone that you were gonna string along for hours and days and weeks, whether it was something in a personal family relation or in a business matter.

And that was very helpful. It helped me in my own life relationships if someone was taking advantage of me in business or if someone was stringing something along. Now I realized that the term short-tempered isn't always considered or often considered a great quality. And I would agree that it's not, but it was something that I at least learned early on to stay away from all of the fluff and nonsense and cut to the chase.

And, do I wish that

Srini: It's funny you say that because they're two, my sister just had a baby, I'm very curious to see what this is gonna be like with my mother 'cause she and her husband are coming home for her maternity leave 'cause she has four months off. And I remember when my grandmother was staying with us for about a month and a half and I saw the interactions between her and my mom was like, "Holy sh*t." I'm like, "All the things that drive me crazy about you, you do to your mom too."

Drew Plotkin: You know, it's like the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. No, it really doesn't. It's mind-boggling.

Srini: Boggling. I'm not a parrot, so I've always wondered about, what I'm gonna be like, like what? Because I think every parent and kid buddy swears I'm not gonna do all those things. My parents didn't. I've asked friends, "Do you find yourself feeling like you're literally just echoing the things your parents said to you?" And they're like

Drew Plotkin: Oh, I have people who say to me who knew my dad or who read the book and would sit there and they'll say, "You, you realize so many of these things you do in everyday life, or your personality or your sarcasm or your temper?"

At times I'll be like, "What are you talking about?" And, that's, look, that's one of the best parts about writing the book. I've said before, and it, whether we sell five copies or a million. And I don't really have any predictions or mindset toward it, either way.

Obviously, I'd like to sell some copies, but at the end of the day, I really wrote this for myself, for my own well-being. I don't use the word "therapy" that much, it just doesn't necessarily flow off my tongue. It's not a bad thing; I think it's a good thing and would encourage people to pursue it, but it's just not the word that I use.

I, I, you'd think more in terms of self-help or self-analysis, and that's what this book was for me. You can't sit down and write

Srini: Acast helps.

Drew Plotkin: Creators can launch, grow, and monetize their podcasts everywhere at acast.com.

Srini: Speaking of therapy, one of the things that you say in the book is, "I think at times my father had a genuine desire to make things right with the past, with me, especially in the years right after his first suicide attempt. But he had a limited capacity to address it. His darker angels would always get the best of his better angels on this topic."

And, I know you alluded to Anthony Bourdain's suicide throughout the book. At that age, if I remember correctly, you were 13 years old on that first attempt. What is it that led to that, and what decisions did you make about how you would live your life going forward based on that experience?

Drew Plotkin: Yeah, there's a lot in that question to unpack there, which, by the way, the word "unpack" is something I picked up from doing all these podcasts for the book. It was never my vocabulary. I think this is about the seventh podcast that we've done in the last 10 days, and every person, yeah.

Srini: I somehow end up getting people to unpack way more than they came with. They were thinking they were just going to scratch the surface, but I end up getting them to dive deeper.

Drew Plotkin: Every interview I read the book goes, "Okay, Drew, read the book. It's a lot to unpack there and now I'm using it myself." We're all creatures of habit, but not a bad term. But yeah, on the one part, what led up to his first attempted suicide was I was 13 and I had walked in and found him.

I can't really know what was specifically inside his head. Obviously, there were challenges and struggles in his life. There were certain dynamics in the family that I lived there and I saw those things. So it wasn't always the calmest, most copacetic environment at home with him and my mom. But work stresses, life stresses, and again, probably certainly a lot of things that I don't know and would never know. You're 13, you just don't know everything or most things that are happening in your parents' lives. I have a 15-year-old daughter and I'm sure she thinks I'm the simplest person in the world to figure out.

I'm a dad. I'm the ATM machine, I said to her one year for Halloween, "Why don't I just dress up as an ATM? You say

Srini: I think that this is such an important conversation that we tend to brush it under the rug. In the Indian community in community, I grew up in, mental health was just not something you talked about until we started to see, with this next generation, friends going to therapy. Yeah. What took me so long to get here?

And yeah, you have a 15-year-old daughter having had this experience with your father and seeing what teenage girls are going through, with these sorts of Snapchat filters, I hear plastic surgeons literally are getting 15-year-old girls coming to them. I want you to make me look more like my Instagram filters.

And I was like, I downloaded a few of these different apps just to see what was possible. It's like I gasped and I was like, this is really scary. It's great if you're an adult who's secure in your self-image, but when you're that young and vulnerable, you're so insecure already. I would never want to be a teenager again.

And yet I feel like it's only when we have a high-profile Anthony Bourdain-type suicide. Then we have this conversation and then it gets brushed under the rug. Or a Silicon Valley super founder

Drew Plotkin: I think it's a critical question you bring up and it also has to do with why I actually wrote the book. So, there are really two parts to it. One is, as a father and how I think it's important to speak to young people, including my own kids but people in general, young people and old and everyone, about the stigma of mental health issues and how we even refer to them and phrase them. And certainly the topic of suicide, one of the hardest things that impacted my life growing up is that it was not a topic to be discussed.

Right off the bat within our family, I don't blame my mother for this or anyone else, or my father for making it clear that this is never to be discussed. It just wasn't the type of thing that would be discussed. And if you did and shared it with your 13-year-old friends or your teacher at school, there was no reason to believe that would've been a comfortable space. You would've instantly felt ostracized or like you were condemning your own family as messed up or something.

And I think we're just first starting in society, barely now as a whole

Srini: Yeah. You say in the book, had my father not killed himself and instead, we met for beers one day and reconciled before he eventually died of a heart attack or freak accident in our old age, our story would have had a drastically different ending. The way those final minutes played out will forever alter the way I look at the entirety of our relationship. So often when someone exits under exceptionally difficult circumstances, you don't just mourn the parent you lost, you mourn the history that will never exist. And I think that that's one of those things like I feel like. Losing a parent, regardless of the circumstances under which it happens, is not something that any of us can prepare for. And yet I feel like it's just an inevitable reality of life. I've talked to so many people about this, and anytime I ask them about this, I'm like, yeah, I don't think that there's a book that you can read for this one. Like I, it's, to me it feels like one of those experiences, regardless of the circumstances, that you can never possibly understand until you experience it yourself.

Drew Plotkin: Yeah. It's it is surreal at times, and again, I think it goes back to a victim's and survivor's mentality versus is the situation gonna own you for the rest of your life, or whether are you going to find ways at some point it takes some time to get to that point, of course, but are you going to find ways to use that tragedy, that horrific experience, not only to help others, but when you I've found, and others have, that when you help others, you really are helping yourself in that way. And for me, that's been being more aware of a friend who maybe is hurting very badly, and not just wrapping up a text or a phone call saying, okay, see you tomorrow bud. But realizing maybe I should stay on the line a little bit longer, or, have been having a hard time lately. I've seen the last few social media posts he did, we haven't spoken in a while. Maybe I should drop him a line and just let 'em know how much I'm thinking about him and what a special person he is.

And that's something that I've taken away and been able to do. I have spoken to friends, who even

Srini: Thank you for sharing out so openly. I think that, as weird as it might sound, that makes a perfect segue into talking about your tattoos because, as I said, what got my attention about your story was that I had just gotten my first tattoo.

And one of the things that you say at the very beginning of the book is, many of my tattoos started small and grew or morphed over time, merging and commingling across my body. Forming new unplanned channels of connection. As a result, I can't and won't count my tattoos. They don't operate in isolation any more than my organs do; they're a single, singular, elaborate system that makes the invisible parts of my life visible to others. Yes, but most importantly to me. And you say, whenever you experience a setback, fresh ink is your way of taking back control and rewriting your ever-evolving redemption story. So, talk to me about the role that how these setbacks play a role in tattoos and give us an idea.

Cause I think that the sort of perception that most of us have of somebody who's as inked as you are is like, oh, that guy's gonna kill me if I go up

Drew Plotkin: I get that at times. And I, remember, I remember, but I remember

Srini: The breastfeeding group thing you said, like when you showed up at that woman.

Drew Plotkin: Yeah. Just to clarify, I just wanna make sure your listeners, you'd probably have to take that one a little further. Yeah. We give them the context. One of my, of my newborn babies, needed breast milk. And since we did not have the ability to provide that milk naturally, I joined a mommy's breast milk donation group. We were very kind moms who were milking and making extra donated to people who need and I guess my name Drew can be a guy's or a girl's name, I don't know. But apparently, I'm the only male who joined this local group. So when I showed up with my empty milk carton, a cigar in my mouth, my pajamas in the early morning, 6:00 AM and my beard, my tattoos, and my flip flop with a jug at the door ready for my milk yeah. She was not what this sweet, kind milk donating lactating mama was expecting. And man, she let out a scream.

Yeah. Just to clarify, I just wanna make sure your listeners, you probably have to take that one a little further. Yeah. We give them the context. One of my newborn babies needed breast milk. And since we did not have the ability to provide that milk naturally, I joined a mommy's breast milk donation group. We were very kind moms who were milking and making extra donations to people who need it. And I guess my name Drew can be a guy's or a girl's name, I don't know. But apparently, I'm the only male who ever joined this local group. So when I showed up with my empty milk carton, a cigar in my mouth, my pajamas on at 6:00 AM, my beard, my tattoos, my flip-flops, and a jug at the door, ready for my milk, yeah. She was not what this sweet, kind milk-donating, lactating mama was expecting. And man, she let out a scream!

Srini: So now that people have the context about that, talk to me about tattoos as a form of telling your life story. Because it seems to me like your tattoos are really the story of your life.

And as I said, part of the reason I chose the tattoo that I did was it literally is the most important reminder I need on a constant basis for my mentor.

Drew Plotkin: That's exactly right. And everybody has their own methodology for their tattoos, and I really go out of my way to be non-judgmental. It's art, and it's subjective. Tattoos are art, and you can walk into someone's house and see a $50 framing of a print they got at a flea market you might like that more and feel more moved by that than a $10 million Picasso in the museum.

Whatever you feel, what moves you, what you connect with—that's good art. That's the best art in the world. What works for you? So for me, symbolism has always been very important. Tattoos, out of the gate, from my very first one, were almost what I refer to as my own type of therapy. I refer to myself as a giant Post-it note, my own reminders, things that were important to me to know about myself, to remind myself to not forget.

I always realize now I've had a deep-down fear of not living up to my potential, of not being the type of person that I feel I need to be, should be—not just for myself

Srini: The other thing I wanted to ask you about, did you start in the military, right?

Drew Plotkin: No, I did not. I, oh, you know what? I know people pretend to think that, but

Srini: You knew what it is, I think there were like these, it's because I had this stupid net galley version of it where the formatting is screwed up because you seem to have these vignettes of other people's stories in there too.

Drew Plotkin: And we do have a guy Clint Emerson, who was a Navy SEAL Team.

Srini: Six. Okay. That's where my confusion was. Sorry about that. The thing that actually I wanted to talk about was the fact that you have adopted children. And I think in particular, this is the thing that stood out to me; you say that, so adopting a black child did not give me any pause or hesitation whatsoever, but that doesn't mean it didn't affect them. When Zoe was six or seven, she came home from school one day and asked me if we were a biracial family. It was, honest to God, the first time I ever realized that, from a terminology perspective, I guess we were. But then I told her I never thought about color; all I knew and cared about was that she was my daughter and I was her dad. I guess my mind was simplistic beyond what someone might expect on such a topic.

Years later, as racial tensions began flaring up, I did realize I needed to be more deliberately cognizant of how race could impact my kids, especially my son. In my head, my kids never had anything to worry about regarding race or anything really, because I would be there to protect, handle, and shield them no matter the scope. But now I

Drew Plotkin: I think it's a great question. It's a deep, powerful question. It probably is hours and hours of discussion. I don't know how effectively I could dive into it in a short window. But the best thing I could say is that my kids know that they have nothing but unconditional love and support. And I do believe that it's almost, and this may not make sense to people, but it makes sense to me at least, and I do believe it makes sense to my kids.

I see things really both ways. I see my kids as my kids. They're part of me. I've never seen, and I talk about this in the book, I don't recognize a difference between biological kids and adopted kids. Yeah. They're my kids. They're my everything. I'll say all the time if someone looks at my kids and is, "Oh my God, they're so gorgeous!" I'll say they get it from their dad, and I'm clearly referring to me. I don't stop and think that, oh, I'm not referencing their birth dad. I'm referencing myself because it doesn't enter my mind. I'm their dad, they're my kids. And

Srini: Question about your kids. And you mentioned people wanting to know about their origins and I had a really good friend when I studied abroad in Brazil, who was adopted by a Danish family. And he was of Colombian origin and he had spent years looking for his birth mother.

And I remember he finally told me he found her, but I remember when we were in Brazil, he said, yeah, he said, the thing is he was like, yeah, it's a landmine. Or Pandora's box to open up because Colombia is basically potentially sketchy. He said, for all I know, she could be a prostitute somewhere. We just don't know.

And he did finally meet her and I remember him feeling like he had so much clarity on his personality and why he was so crazy, so I wonder, do your kids ask about their birth parents or are they ever curious about, where they come from in their origins and how do you handle that conversation?

Drew Plotkin: My three little ones are little. They're six and seven, so at the appropriate time when they're ready, that's a conversation we'll have with them personally, privately. And as far as my daughter at 15, it is, I always say I'm an open book, and I know that when you write a book and you mention your kids, then it's a fair question, but I think that's probably one of the few things I'll just keep, private for her to, because it's her dynamic, her relationship.

I will say, and again, every family is different, but I'll say, our kids' mannerisms and the way they speak, and I just, people will come up to us and it's meant as a compliment. And this is what I mean about not being overly sensitive, because I think a lot of people can be overly sensitive, especially in today's day and age.

A lot of times people are just making a comment about something that makes them feel good or happy. And at times people will come up and they'll stop and they'll look at, myself and my kid's mom, who's also white, and they'll see four black

Srini: I want to finish with one final quote from the book, which is probably one of my favorite quotes from the book, and that, as you say, our skin is alive. Just as the stories we write on it are very much alive. Those stories live and breathe with our massive casing or cellular sleeping bag shielded from public view. For some, like me, those stories are sprawled along the surface, a visual conversation piece with myself, arguments, celebrations, pep talks, and negotiations alike. Each tattoo might be a physical evolution or reinvention, but the transformation doesn't stop there. The moment the ink hits the flesh is just the beginning of the next chapter portal into a dialogue that is both recorded and permanent ink and forever retold and reinterpreted. Talk to me about the idea of tattoos as a tool for evolution, reinvention, and transformation.

Drew Plotkin: Yeah, I mean it, look, there's an old saying that, "history is written by the victors". Which goes back in time, we'd read about Greek history and the Roman conquest. The people who won the battles wrote the history. So they can certainly be written as glorious as you want.

If you go to the Middle East, depending on what country you're in, the actual history of the Middle East is written very differently in kids' history books depending on the geographic location of where the kids are learning. So again, history is written by the victors. I like the concept of tattooing.

I like being in control and being able to track my own history and chart my own future. I think it requires you or allows you to be as real as you want with yourself open and honest, and raw. And certainly, it opens the door to bullshitting yourself beyond belief. That's a personal choice everyone makes.

With my tattoos, I've tried to be very real and honest with myself, almost painfully so at times, not in a depressing, sad way, but I'm just a realist. I've always believed

Srini: I have one last question for you, which is how we conclude all of our interviews. What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

Drew Plotkin: Unmistakable, yeah. Authenticity. I think it's the most overused, throwaway word that there is. I think I probably used it at times in my life without having two shreds of an understanding of what it really is and what it really meant. And I think you have to have enough of a life to understand it. I think you have to get kicked in the teeth and kicked in the balls enough times and get back up and really take a look around and take yourself inventory and make certain decisions about how you're gonna live your life. And when you do that, it's not about telling people that you're authentic. It's, people will know it, see it, feel it. It's in your aura, it's in the air. It's about you. It's not something that you can claim. It's not a birthright. It's not something that you can buy or demand. It's something that you either earn and exists within you and emanates from you, or it doesn't. So I would say authenticity. Beautiful.

Srini: I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story, wisdom, and insight. Little listeners, where can people find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything?

Srini: And for everyone listening, we will wrap the show with that.

Drew Plotkin: What's that you're up to? I appreciate it. No, it's been great. The simplest way is to go to our website, Derm Dude, D E R M D U D E.com. So, Derm is in skin, and dude, D U D E.com, Derm Dude.com. We have our whole entire brand there, which is, yes, we have all of our products and things that we think are great, but we're not ramming stuff down your throat. We have a great blog, which is all written by myself and updated weekly.

And you'll see it's pretty raw stuff. There are not a lot of people selling like our 3 0 1 body wash where our headline on our website says, "Proudly, life is full of assholes, don't smell like one." And that's how we promote our body wash. So, we're pretty blunt about everything.

What's that? It's the book. The book is called, "Under My Skin". It does a pre-launch on October 25th and then does our full-fledged launch on November 8th. Dermdude.com/undermyskin.

Drew Plotkin: At St. John's Health Center Foundation, we partner with physician leaders and researchers to bring you compassionate care and innovative treatments in a healing environment. When you make a donation to St. John's, you are funding the brightest minds in medicine who are committed to providing the best leading-edge care to patients of West LA and beyond.

To make a donation, call 310-829-8424. That's 310-829-8424.

Srini: Have you ever heard our podcast guest say something that you wanted to remember, or maybe you read something in a book, and then the day goes by and you can't remember what it was or where you heard it, or where you read it? And in the world we live in, there's so much competition for our attention. We're constantly inundated with blogs, social media posts, text messages, emails, Netflix, whatever it is. And if you ever tried to build a second brain, you probably noticed that you end up spending a lot of time maintaining and organizing folders, which ends up becoming a part-time job in and of itself.

What if there was a better way? Our new Ultimate Guide to Building a Second Brain and Map will show you how to build a second brain that allows you to capture everything and find anything without creating any folders or spending any time organizing the information you need. If you want to be able to put the information that you consume to use and organize your digital life, be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to Building a Second Brain and Map.

You can learn more@unmistakablecreative.com/brain.