I first met Nico Ratoff at an Odyssey Storytelling series meeting in founder/director Penelope Starr's living room where we all took turns practicing our stories. I loved Ratoff's heartbreaking story about how he lost custody of his young son. It was cinematic and beautiful.
I chastised myself at the end of the evening for not knowing Ratoff, or maybe not bothering to know him before that evening. Epic Cafe is in my neighborhood, and while working there, I've seen him come in on his roller skates, and I've seen him fly down University Boulevard on his bicycle in a bright pink dress.
When an opportunity to interview Nico for TQ&A came up because of a show he's doing at Epic, I couldn't wait to tell a little more of his story. At the end of the interview, Ratoff talks about being a muse—i.e., invisible. I understood what he meant. It wasn't until I sat with him in Starr's house, heard his story and gave him a ride home that night that I knew he was much more than roller skates, butterfly wings or pink dresses. I'm so glad that on most days in my neighborhood, I get to see Ratoff flying through my streets, being a muse—but now I really do see him.
For more info on Ratoff's show, look up Tiger Eyebrows on Facebook. Here's an extended version of the interview that's in this week's Tucson Weekly:
Nico Ratoff can often be seen around Fourth Avenue and University Boulevard on a bicycle wearing a bright-pink dress and heels, or perhaps roller-skating with hair in pigtails and butterfly wings on his back. The work of Ratoff, who has called Tucson home for 20 years, can be seen along with work by other artists in his collaborative puzzle-themed art show currently on display at Epic Café. In Out Through Tiger Eyebrows is named after the ink across Ratoff's forehead: a set of tiger tattoos for eyebrows, and a Celtic spiral as a third eye centered in between. On Monday, May 17, there will be a book-release party and puzzle-play event at Epic, 745 N. Fourth Ave., from 8 to 11 p.m.
You don’t like using pronouns to describe yourself, why?
Pronouns assume the illusion of true gender, a mostly modern invention which I do not embrace. True gender creates huge and often false assumptions about peoples' sexual preferences, their bodies, and their cultural roles, identities and abilities. Worst of all it, creates a static assumption. I think all people are more complex than this, and I know that I certainly am.
Where did you get the name for the show—or I guess I should ask: Why tiger eyebrows?
The tiger eyebrows were drawn from an image of a tiger, but I think of them as shamanic big cats—in North America, these are jaguars. I wrote a story called "Invisible Tiger Box" about a special breed of tiger that lives inside you. I used to be a professional juggler, and so these three shamanic big cats—the one inside and the two leaping "in out through" my third eye—are always being juggled, dancing.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
It came from the need to piece together my past and memory. I was really debilitated by trauma and further debilitated by medications used to keep me somewhat whole and I wanted to change all that. I told my friend Daria Sandburg, who did the illustrations for my new Scissor Jack book this. I was telling her that I really think I can do it; I would like to shed all the Western medicine. Get to that place and just look out those windows. Getting to those windows took 2 1/2 years and traditional Chinese medicine. At the same time, the other thing I did was rebuild an amazing family in Tucson, including my own parents and sister, but specifically, I'm talking about a new friend circle of amazing Tucson artists. I also really needed the support of my art and writing.
Windows is a theme in your new book. Is it a children’s book like your last?
I thought writing the story of the event would be like a children’s-style story, like my other children’s-style books. After I wrote it, it turned out to be somewhat more—my whole family history, the politics of the country right now and the narrator goes from a child's voice to an adult voice. … I actually wrote this in the Epic Café crying … and Daria was the first person I showed it to.
Where did the whole puzzle theme come from in the show?
From the book and my granddad. This part in the book, “Now let me just tell you my life has been very strange before and I have managed to wrestle it flat to the ground and put it together jigsaw puzzle style. ... My granddad who escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930’s on a bicycle when he was 12years taught me how to do this.”
Although the story is about this joy ride you and your friend took on a scissor-jack, is it really about why you lost custody of your son?
The story is about myriad things. It is about being punished by governments because of your identity, gender and actions. And although I have been punished and jailed by the state many times for my anti-war activism, I have never been punished and tortured as brutally as when my son and I were torn apart by, among other things, the negligence and twisted logic of the state and society. These things ... have resulted in absolutely no contact with my son now for six years. The story celebrates many of the things my son and I shared and enjoyed together, and asks if maybe this is why I am being punished so severely for a "crime" so ridiculous.
There are two parts the show, right? The large puzzle pieces were actually made by different artists, and then the other part, against the far wall at the Epic, is a puzzle of one of your poems.
The physical forms of the show were created with my other "super helper"—Laura Milkins (Perfect Woman Project). We’ve worked together on many projects, and I think we both see art very differently from most people including from most artists. She drew the puzzle pieces on the boards and others cut the pieces from her drawings. I think it’s really cool. Laura drew them all by hand and then others cut them by hand with a jigsaw. It could have been "machine fabricated," but it was not. Each artist was given a puzzle piece with explicit instructions to create something on them that was inspired from something in one of my two new books. Even though we will only be putting together the puzzle on the back wall, every last piece could be put together into one puzzle—the artists' pieces are actually the outside edges and rows of my puzzle.
How do you publish your books?
In 1990 I founded Rebel Butterfly Press, and did the entire infrastructure work to get ISBN numbers and all the things that big publishers do. I didn’t want to sign my rights away. The first RBP book I published was Poems From the Wreckage. It was around the same time that I had a street art project called the Mad Poet, which didn’t fit into publishing at all. But then later I published a series of children’s books. I’ve been in printing most of my life. My son always used to answer the question, “What does your father do?" with, "He’s a book artist." I always thought that fit.
At the party on May 17, we’re all invited to come down to work on this puzzle.
Yes, let’s put a 100-square-foot puzzle together. I don’t think that’s ever been done at Epic. I’m calling it a puzzle-play event. On one hand, it is a book-release party, and in a way, the books are part of the puzzle. Then it’s also an opportunity for everything/everyone to interact with each other as real living body people, which is becoming rarer with things like Facebook. When you come here, you’ll see two people sitting at a table, and it will seem like they’re on a date, and then up the computer goes. “Are they chatting with each other?” (Laughs.)
What should we expect?
Craziness, chaos and fun. It will be the busiest (art event) the Epic has ever had. We will have at least two large groups, the people who did the puzzle pieces performing their roles as artists. Hopefully they’ll be able to explain what their project is about and what inspired them, and then we’ll have another group of people called enigmatists, who will be seeking in riddles. I’m curious how that will interact. I will be reading from the Scissor Jach book. we’re going to have the WINK! troupe—women in costume—it’s kind of like living theatre burlesque but interactive with the audience ... improvisational puzzle games, Powhaus! people. I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, but for this kind of community event, I don’t think it’s ever been done like this. I’ve been telling people that if you’ve ever had any desire to put together a 100-square-foot puzzle, you better get here rather than miss it and have this regret. (laughing)
You mentioned being an artist in Tucson for 20 years that now you feel like a muse. Can you explain that?
(In a) big chunk of the past ... I wasn’t able to focus on anything for very long, and certainly wasn’t able to focus on writing for very long. I started to paint myself, getting into costumes, making clothing—that’s what I mean by street art, or making stuff out of found objects. But I really felt like I was the art, because it was the most I could do at the time. I started to build a family of people who identified themselves mostly as artists. My self-perception at the time was that I was lonely and separated, but suddenly I discovered that a lot of people seemed to know who I was. But then sometimes I felt literally invisible. You know, I’ve been hit five ties at that crosswalk out there (Fourth Avenue and Speedway Boulevard) when I’ve been on my roller skates, and even when I’ve been wearing a bright pink dress and a crazy hat. I told Daria, “I think I’m turning into a muse. I’m becoming a muse—a vapor creature.” It was partly a joke, but partly a reflection of how I was feeling. When I started to tell it to other people they told me. "That’s not bad at all." I guess in some ways I could change it, I could, but mostly, it’s not a bad thing.
(Edited to remove a phrase at the request of the child's family.)