There’s one thing that is absolutely essential to working at The Takeout—a love of food. Just how deep is that love? I’d say it’s more than skin deep, and for some people skin is the perfect canvas to show it off.
Tattoos in general have grown both in popularity and acceptance over the years. In 2019, 35% of people had at least one tattoo and less than 40% said they’d never consider getting one, according to Statista. As someone with a couple of tattoos, I’ve always felt there are two reasons people get ink. Either the tattoo has a very deep, personal story behind it or you had an idea or saw a design and said to yourself, “that would be cool, let’s do it.” Either way, tattoos are a form of personal expression and if your passion is food what better way to let the world know than to permanently stamp it right onto yourself.
So, who are the people who get food tattoos? Chef’s tattoos (good and bad) are definitely their own category. Takeout writer Danny Palumbo has aptly pointed out how many chefs are guilty of getting their most used tool, a knife, as a tattoo. Palumbo writes, “I’m not sure what the point of the kitchen knife tat is. You’re already holding a knife most of the time anyway. It’s right there; you can see it whenever you want. Sure, I guess knives are a little macho, but if you’re a good cook, what you do with a knife is actually quite gentle.” I, on the other hand, am in no position to judge anyone because I am a writer with quotation marks tattooed on my wrists, a punctuation I literally use on a daily basis.
Julia Helton, executive chef, and food writer, echoes Palumbo’s criticism. Helton, who has an entire sleeve of food tattoos, says, “Those tend to just be outlines of a whisk or a knife or a knife and a fork or a knife and a fork and a plate.” Helton’s inspiration for her first food tattoo was a globe artichoke on the inside of her right arm, which she said is her favorite vegetable and just so pretty. From there, Helton wanted to build an entire sleeve of artwork highlighting her absolute favorite foods to work with as a chef. Her sleeve depicts a sort of cornucopia-style spread of black cod, certain shellfish, and alliums. Helton says, “It actually makes a couple of recipes.”
Jesse Valenciana, cookbook author, food writer (including here at The Takeout), and a self-described beer professional of sorts, created the perfect marriage of food and tattoos. In 2011, with the help of some professional tattoo artist friends, Valenciana created TattooBQue, a tattoo and food-focused event in which people could pay to get food tattoos and enjoy some great food. TattooBQue took a break over the past couple years, but Valenciana is eager to bring it back. He told me about the moment he realized the impact of TattooBQue. “A guy walked up to me and was like ‘Hey, how does it feel knowing that like 600 people in Chicago have food tattoos because of you, and I’m like holy shit I never thought of it that way,” says Valenciana.
Valenciana’s personal food tattoo collection includes “Meat Life” spelled out in cartoon-style meat letters on his stomach, a Hot Doug’s logo on his right butt cheek that got him free food at the Chicago hot dog spot before it closed in 2014, and happy little pig going into a meat grinder on his left thigh, spelling out “meat” in sausage links. However, my favorite of Valenciana’s food tattoos is a cartoon-style bowl of ramen noodles puking noodles onto a spoon and above it in Japanese Kanji it reads, you guessed it, “meat life.” The story behind this artwork is actually a personal joke for Valenciana. As part of a planned trip to Japan, he purposely wanted the tattoo to read “meat life” but when he would reveal it to people in Japan he would tell them the tattoos says “chef life.”
“They would all giggle and nobody would correct me, and I was like, ‘It says chef, right?’ And they would all be like, ‘yes, yes.’ But I knew it said ‘meat life’ so it was like joke’s on you,” Valenciana laughs.
The term “meat life” holds special significance for Velenciana, as the precursor to TattooBQue was ManBQue. ManBQue is an event started by Valenciana and friends in which they grill lots of meat, drink beer, and simply catch up with each other. The gathering grew to such a point that its creators earned spots on The Today Show and Chicago’s Best TV.
Having just scratched the surface of the food tattoo genre, I wonder what other food tattoo stories are out there? And will this be the path to my next tattoo? Only time will tell. Share your food tattoo stories in the comments below or share them with me on social media. Who knows, your ink might be featured in The Takeout next.