Born in 1964, Leslie Mah (Leslie Mah Tattoo) is a cancer survivor, musician, artist, and founding member of the legendary San Francisco-based hardcore dyke-punk band, Tribe 8. Here she opens up about which comfort foods have helped her during her ongoing cancer recovery, as well as why she put soy sauce and parmesan cheese on everything as a kid.
*This interview was conducted in late 2016, hence the Standing Rock and Rogue One (Star Wars) references.
Hi, Leslie-- I’m trying to start a zine blending punk rock and food, two things I love quite a bit, and was curious if you'd be open to answering a few questions?
Good morning. Yeah. I am happy to answer a few questions.
(after seeing a Rogue One-related post on Leslie’s Instagram) Random: was Rogue One enjoyable? My wife is taking my oldest to see it on Sunday... not sure when I'll be able to do so due to work. Looks amazing, though.
Yeah. The movie was entertaining. So much better than the Revenge of the Sith, which I just watched to orient ourselves. Not a very happy ending. Just so you know. Not sure how it is for little kids, but some great characters.
Oh, boy. Gotta give my wife a heads up then. Thanks for the warning.
Well, I really appreciated the ending. It gives great context to the original movie.
Were there any comfort foods that have helped you through recovery? Or did you have to change your diet completely?
Everyone has had diet advice for me every step of my treatment. It became so annoying that I told everybody to STFU after getting about a dozen cookbooks and endless links. I have been so sick throughout all the treatment, and if people want their cancer patient friend to eat a certain way, they need to do the shopping, buying, cooking, then text them when you drop it off on your friend's doorstep. There were months I couldn't walk, and folks still wanted to advise me on my diet.
Oh no, I imagine that is/was beyond difficult.
The only advice I took to heart was from a beloved friend who is HIV+ and went through cancer treatment. He said, "eat whatever the fuck you want.”
That sounds like some amazing advice, really.
I ate a lot of mac & cheese and spring rolls during treatment. There were times where I couldn't eat at all, and I dropped to 95 pounds. When I was in Southeast Asia, I ate many street food and got my weight back over 105. I'm sure most people avoid street food who are healthy, but I had chronic diarrhea due to radiation enteritis, so I was happy to have company when my travel mates joined me!
I've heard only good things about Southeast Asian street food and how it can be beneficial for your mind, body, and spirit, so I guess there might be some truth to that?
How are you feeling now? Where are you in the treatment process?
I am 3.5 years into ongoing treatment. I'm currently on a break from any major medical procedures for the first time since I finished radiation three years ago. According to the data in the clinical trial my most recent chemo was based on, I've outlived my life expectancy last February. I live PET scan to PET scan and won't know what treatment is possible until I get there. My oncologist exclaimed he's never had anyone with my diagnosis live this long, so I am grateful.
You've started tattooing again, no? For Standing Rock? Which is more fulfilling to you, making music or tattooing, or are they similar to some extent? Has your art (which is wonderful, btw--- it's been great watching you hone your skills via Instagram) served as a sort of treatment as well?
I am doing whatever is possible. As I did not expect to live this long, I have spent all my money and traveled as much as I could. I also love tattooing. So I'm doing it for love and money. Right now no energy for music. I've always wanted to learn to oil paint, so I'm studying as hard as I can. It's given me challenging goals during this ordeal, and that's been so helpful to have something to live for. Something I always wanted, traveling, and painting.
I've made this worst time of my life also the best time of my life.
Music is complicated as it takes tremendous energy to create with a group of people. I don't have a regular band now, and the logistics of organizing other people is too much. I did manage to write and record one song with friends. But learning to draw academically is much more my pace these days.
I don't have anything that's more fulfilling. Music, tattooing, fine art. They fulfill different passions at different times.
Is that song available to the public? If so, I must have missed that somehow.
"I've made this worst time of my life also the best time of my life."
That is incredible. Thank you for this.
No. I haven't released it. My friend wants to re-record it. It was literally done on my laptop recording in my bathroom.
Your openness and heartfelt responses are very much appreciated. And I really need to figure out a way to make it out west to get a tattoo. I honestly can't thank you enough for everything.
Any (food) guilty pleasures?
Growing up in a mixed ethnic family, I put soy sauce and Parmesan on everything.
That is awesome.