Remembering Anthony Bourdain: The Late Chef On Tattoos, Japan And The One City Where He Could Have Lived Forever
To honor the one-year anniversary of his death, revisit Maxim’s final interview with the iconic traveler, in which he revealed his absolute favorite city to visit.
This article was originally published in 2017.
It’s a February morning in Brooklyn, and Anthony Bourdain is lying on his side on a tatami mat, being poked in the arm by a very pointy stick.
There’s a glass of whisky nearby, from which Bourdain periodically sips to help dull the pain, while cameras capture every moment. The man doing the poking is Japanese-born tattoo artist Takashi Matsuba, who owns the studio that Bourdain and his crew have taken over for an episode of the Balvenie’s Raw Craft.
The web series, which premiered in 2015 and begins its third season next month, profiles America’s most talented craftspeople, all chosen by the host. For this episode, Bourdain is getting a large tattoo on his shoulder of a chrysanthemum. The tattoo is done in a style called tebori, a traditional stick-and-poke method. Matsuba makes his own ink and uses a tool called a nomi, which he crafts by hand.
Bourdain has a growing number of tattoos on his lean, jiujitsu-trained body, each of which tells a story. And Bourdain, whose life has veered from drug-addled chef to best-selling author and beloved host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, has a lot of incredible stories to share.
Taking a break from his tattoo (which he insists wasn’t as painful as it looked), Bourdain sat down with Maxim to talk ink, Japan, and ghost stories.
In following your career, it’s clear Japan is a very special place for you. Is your interest in tebori an extension of that?
It’s a natural extension of my obsession— fascination—with just about everything Japanese. It’s so different than the aesthetic I grew up with, the society and culture I grew up with. When I first went to Japan, it was an explosive event for me. It changed my life in very real ways. I went to Tokyo the first time and my head kind of exploded. I compared it to taking my first acid trip: Nothing was ever the same for me. I just wanted more of it. If I had to agree to live in one country, or
even one city, for the rest of my life, never leaving it, I’d pick Tokyo in a second.
There’s a tradition in Japan of the shokunin— master craftsmen. They spend a lifetime dedicated to making the perfect sword, the perfect knife. Is this style of tattooing similar to that, in terms of the quest for perfection?
I like very much the notion of “beginner’s mind,” where the master shows up every day, no matter how good they are at what they do, assuming that they’re a student, they know nothing, and that there’s more to learn. I think it’s aspirational, in the sense of, I wish I had that attitude. Many of the things I love about Japan come from the fact that I recognize that I don’t have those things.
I don’t have those qualities; I don’t have the discipline. I don’t think the way they do in Japanese flower arranging, for instance. It’s almost like stripping away the unnecessary to arrive at the absolute core beauty. I wish I could unclutter my life in that way, but I tend toward maximalism rather than minimalism. But it’s something I really admire. The attention to detail, the perfectionism, the concentration on what are the most fundamental elements of beauty, pleasure, relaxation.
How did tattoos come into your life?
I got my first tattoo when I was 44, shortly after the publication of Kitchen Confidential. It’s a very beautiful, very thick tribal tattoo—and my first wife was not pleased. I just went out and did it to congratulate myself on my sudden change of
fortune after 30 years’ toiling in obscurity. I’m not going to say poverty, but I wasn’t paying my rent on time for any of those 30 years. I thought, I deserve to go do something for myself. I really enjoyed it. You get one, you want another right away.
Do you still get a rush out of it?
I do. Always. There’s a big endorphin rush. As I say often, “Look, I’m 60 years old. I well understand that any additional tattoos are not going to make me any younger, any hipper, any more relevant, or even more attractive.” It’s a selfish, personal thing. I jokingly say, “I’m driving an old car. It’s filled with dents. One more dent ain’t gonna make it any worse than this.”
Some tattoos mean more than others to me. They all mark a moment in time. I don’t overly place importance on them, but they do commemorate in a way that photographs can’t. I stopped taking photographs a long time ago when I travel. There’s this realization that the lens is inadequate to capture the moment, so maybe I’m just looking to mark time in another way that’s very personal.
This isn’t tattoo-related, but do you do much writing these days?
Yeah, I’m writing. I’m always writing.
Do you make it part of your routine? Do you still get up early in the morning to write?
No. I have the luxury of time right now, but if I face a deadline, then I’m delivering on time; I wake up every day with a routine. I’m in the middle of shooting a season [of Parts Unknown]. I write when I can, when inspiration strikes. If I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel it, I’m not going to force myself.
But I’m working on something: Hungry Ghosts—about these spirit houses in Asia Pacific, Thailand, Vietnam. They need to lure the hungry ghosts away from the main house, and I’m obsessed. I’m interested in these figures from folklore and history. In some way I feel a kinship with them—a wandering spirit, never satisfied.