Gwen Tulin is a big wig at Gorilla Tango Theater Bucktown, a venue perhaps best known for their “Geek Burlesque” series, but with plenty of all kinds of shows going on. CFT’s Erica Reid came home from choreographing a show at the theater and said, “Gwen has a great Chicago quote on her arm, we should interview her”. We managed to finagle a few minutes of her time when she wasn’t running around keeping the venue going and talked in the basement of the theater.
CFT: Gwen, what’s your Chicago tattoo story?
Gwen: I got these tattoos in stages, five or six years ago. Actually the text in the background was a cover-up on a different tattoo and I just always really liked Nelson Algren and the history and the meat packing districts and all that stuff about Chicago because well, before I moved here, I loved The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, all that stuff.
So, that kind of gritty component of it was really appealing to me and then we transplanted from the East Coast and I’ve here eight years. So I wanted to acknowledge my transplant official-ness.
CFT: Awesome. So I mean it’s “Chicago, City on the Make”. What’s the other side?
Gwen: The other one is “Your very flesh will be a great poem,” which is from Leaves of Grass. It’s kind of a common section of it that’s quoted out, basically, about not being an asshole, not being judgmental.
CFT: Has Chicago been a city on the make for you or are you on the make or has it made you or … ?
CFT: You’ve been made.
Gwen: Yeah, I mean the reason I moved here instead of New York because I’m from Boston and so a lot of people from Boston go to New York for theatre and the main reason I moved here was that this is the kind of place where you can come and you can start your own theatre company. You can get a space and you can have a house that’s not ten feet wide.
I mean I was able to come here with no connections, like one friend, get a job, start a theatre company. I now have essentially a family out here that’s a network of artists and everybody I know who moved to New York has moved since - just because the cost of living is so exorbitant. But more so than that, I think that there’s a level of support in the theatre community out here that has absolutely made it someplace where I’ve made an identity and been able to grow as an artist and I plan on staying. I think it’s also a hub where you can go to either coast if you wanted to and still make this your home.
So absolutely, yes, I feel like it is a city on the make, continually, albeit with some issues but …
CFT: Well, I was going to say because I think “On the Make” is sort of - I think the connotation there is ambition with a little unscrupulousness.
Gwen: Yeah, there’s like a political - a little flavor of the mob, a little flavor of like “every man for himself” for sure. I mean it also belies the era. It was really a time where the city was - politically speaking - there were a lot of imaginations, lots of like all sorts of things.
But there’s something about Chicago and especially a lot of the neighborhoods that many people move here don’t spend time in but is still - that’s the authentic character of the city to me is that you really can just - you can make it. Like there are ways to do it.
Yeah, there’s also an element of corruption to Chicago that I think is endemic and is never going to change. I mean that’s why like our parking meters got sold to a privatized industry and Ventra. All that stuff, it’s like, of course, this is how the city functions. There’s a level of greed and illegality that I think is at the core and probably will be for a long time.
CFT: Awesome. What does it cover up if you don’t mind?
Gwen: Oh, sure. Well, I got these birds done and the tattoo artist was—he was an interesting guy—he was very grim and very toothless and like very … It was A+ Tattoos which is actually really close to my house on Belmont and I was a little shy about being very clear and he just decided to put a background on that was this purple splash background and it was really, really strange. It didn’t look bad. I’m sure someone with maybe a more girly aesthetic would have been fine with it. But I just wasn’t into it. It was confusing-looking and to me it was not grounding, artistically, for the way that the birds were kind of set on the arm.
So I ended up going to Revolution Tattoo which is where I’ve gotten pretty much everything else done, because I really like it there. There’s a guy Marshall who believes in aliens and stuff and he’s amazing.
He does great work. He has done a lot of my friends’ tattoos. So I went in. It was like what can we do. It wasn’t anything crazy. It wasn’t somebody’s name. It wasn’t like a swastika. It was just this color that I was not into. So he was like well, we can just put like a big banner in the back. Like, find some text that you are happy with and we will put it on there.
So, there’s an element, too, that this is imperfect. Like this isn’t centered. If I had done it all as one piece, I probably would have gone about it differently. But part of what I’ve actually liked about having tattoos is that this is what it is.
I teach with kids a lot and sometimes I make a decision to roll my sleeves down if it’s a new family. But then I kind of got to this point like maybe a year and a half ago where I was like “fuck it”. If you have a problem with this, then we probably shouldn’t be working together anyway. So it has actually been very character-building to that effect.
There are parents who didn’t like it, but honestly they’re not the parents that I work with long term. Every family I’ve worked with says, “Why would you care about such a thing?”
Also, I got these when I was doing very little acting, I really came to the city and was an actor for a long time. When I did this, I was kind of like, oh well, I’m moving on to directing. I don’t give a shit. But especially in a city like Chicago, this is absolutely marketable as an actor and if I get my headshots redone at some point, this would be part of it, because it’s a huge bonus. I mean there are plenty of actors in this city with huge tattoos that in a place like New York or LA, they would be like “you have just shot yourself in the foot. What are you thinking?” What I love about this place is there are actors of all shapes and sizes. You can have a gigantic back piece and be in a show and that’s awesome.
Gwen: It’s such a huge appeal to me about the city. I mean my mother hates them. Don’t get me wrong. She hates them! Every time I see her, there’s always like a brief adjustment where she looks and is like, “Oh, why would you do that to your body?” But it’s fine now. It’s like it’s just the way it is.
CFT: We were just talking about my new tattoos. They’re not in a very marketable style. Like on paper, “long gray beard, visible tattoos on forearm” then people would be like, “Oh, OK. Get that guy because we need a biker guy.”. But they’re French abstract tattoos, so they’re like just weird. “You have a French cat and a flower lady.”
Gwen: I think if I get through this year, like I’ve decided from the business angle if we get through this year and at least break even for our first year in business, I will get another one. That’s my goal because I had to pace myself. I had like a year and a half where I was a little crazy and then I realized like I have pretty much like one set of skin. So I should pace a little bit. So I’m pacing it out a little bit now.
CFT: Just a little. It’s hard to do that.
Gwen: It is. It really is addictive and not because like I enjoy - I’m not somebody who’s like, oh, I enjoy the pain process of it. It’s like just great.
Yeah, it’s a fun experience. It’s like a haircut but a little more permanent. So the next one I’m hoping to get next year. I have some time to plan it out. I wanted to get something Colonial because I’m from Lexington, Mass where it’s all Colonial history. But the Tea Party has appropriated so much text from the American Revolution, completely wrong. Like a complete bastardization of what all of that meant. So I have to be real careful because I’m going to look insane if I choose things that have been lifted from that era. We will figure it out.
CFT: It’s disappointing.
Gwen: I know. It was such a bummer. I was like, that’s not what that means. That’s not what the American Revolution was going for, guys. What a shame.