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 the whole puzzle theme in the show come from?
From the book and my granddad. This part in particular is from my new book, My Friend Tony and Our Amazing Scissor Jack Ride: "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 1930s on a bicycle when he was 12 years taught me how to do this."
Is the story also 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. ... 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.
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.
What should we expect at the event on May 17?
Craziness, chaos and fun. I'm calling it a puzzle-play event. On one hand, it is a book-release party. ... Then it's also an opportunity for everything and everyone to interact with each other as real living body people, which is becoming rarer with things like Facebook. ... 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. (Laughs.)
You mentioned that after being an artist in Tucson for 20 years, now you feel like a muse. Can you explain that?
(In the past), I wasn't able to focus on anything for very long. ... 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 times 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 (a friend), "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.(Edited to remove a phrase at the request of the child's family.)