Melrose poses in Lancaster, Calif.
“This one looks good,” says the photographer, after leading the writer deep into the frozen section of Seafood City, a Filipino supermarket on Maryland Parkway. He picks up a frozen octopus in a bag, inspects its weight on the packaging, checking its heft by gently tossing it once. “If it’s too heavy, it’s more difficult to work with and slips and slides off the model. A one-pounder is perfect to shoot with.”
Just another day at the “office” with Julian Murray, 24, a commercial photographer who moved to Las Vegas a few months back to escape traffic-gridlocked L.A. and continue work on a new project that your grandmother likely can’t comprehend. It’s called Tattoos and Tentacles, a forthcoming and so-far DIY-produced coffee-table book featuring heavily tattooed women (and a few men) with octopuses draped over their flesh.
The results so far—50 oddly beautiful, strangely alluring images shot in Las Vegas and at West Coast tattoo conventions—are impressive. In one taken at Clark County Wetlands Park, a gorgeous, redheaded, gold-pantied nymph seemingly pulled from a Roxy Music album cover lies next to what looks like a cliff’s edge, an octopus draped across her chest. In another, a stunning, smirking Bettie Page brunette raises a martini glass full of octopus, its tiny suction cups glistening like fleshy stars.
Indeed, looking at these images, you can’t help but think of Japanese tentacle erotica (shokushu goukan), which dates back to Katsushika Hokusai’s still-searing 1814 print called “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” wherein a woman fornicates with an octopus. (It’s an oft-rendered image among old-school tattoo artists.)
“I had no idea women and octopuses were such a weird, freaky and popular thing in Japan,” Murray says. “Maybe then they’ll like the book? Who knows?”
The shrug is typical of the laid-back Murray, who claims the idea just fell together one day after looking for a creative outlet from his day-to-day freelance work shooting rappers and celebs such as Cheech and Chong for hip-hop mags such as The Source.
“We grabbed an octopus from Coastal Seafoods in Minneapolis,” he recalls, citing the out-of-nowhere inspiration he found in his hometown. “I had a friend with a huge tattoo on her belly and a full sleeve. Then I needed one more series to add to my website and got three more girls to pose with an octopus. From there, it just kept growing.”
Murray didn’t think of a book-length project until clients urged him to expand the series. It was also a good way to keep his mind off the struggles of freelance photography.
Eventually, he left L.A. in July because it felt too crowded, too expensive. “Vegas is still a close car ride to L.A. for business reasons,” he says. “Also, Vegas is a great central location to travel to the other areas we need to shoot in—L.A., Phoenix, Salt Lake City.”
Clearly, it’s a big undertaking. So why DIY? Julian’s fiancée and graphic-designer accomplice, Lacey Haire, says they decided to self-publish the book because they’ve invested so much time and money into the project, and they want to maintain complete creative control from beginning to end.
“Doing the book independently will allow us to tour with it ourselves at galleries and conventions instead of just handing it over to a company to cash out and make money,” Haire says. She says they’d prefer to put the same amount of effort into selling the product as they did in creating it. They’re also considering Minnesota printers to support a local business “back home.”
“I don’t have any tattoos myself,” Murray blurts out. (Haire has a few small ink jobs.) Despite this, they’ve braved giant tattoo conventions around the Southwest to find models and to drum up interest. So far the response has been “super-positive.”
“The expectation is that I’m a creepy old dude or covered in tats,” Murray says. “The fact that the shoots only last 15 minutes is another surprise to the models. … Honestly, the smell still gets to me a little.”
Of course, Murray isn’t just slinging squids at these ladies and clicking the shutter. There’s a whole process in place, whereby Haire removes the octopus from the bag, thaws the octopus in warm water, dries it off with a towel, and strategically places it on the model.
“We’ve had vegan models politely decline to do a shoot,” Murray says, “but they’ve been supportive. We’re not doing anything to disrespect animals or models. We pop ’em back in the freezer and reuse them for shoots so we don’t waste—typically we refreeze each one three times. They turn purple the more you work with them.” Note to self: Don’t eat purple octopus.