Baxter's Blog


Posted in Bakaty's World, History by misterroadtripper on October 8, 2010


I’ve been wondering how many people are out there, still working, that got started back in the days of the acetate/charcoal stencils? I could come up with a handful or so. There is no doubt that, these days, there’s a lot more that haven’t than have. That’s probably a good thing.

What brings this to mind is our new guy in the shop. He’s young, full of piss and vinegar and a fire in his belly. He’s named Wiley. That’s right, Wiley, as in coyote. He’s only been tattooing for five or six years and lays down some kickass neo-old-school-style work. When he set up his workstation, one of the first things he stuck up on the wall was some old acetate stencils. He framed them, like objects of veneration. Hmmm.

Now, as nice as they might be to look at and reminisce over, to me, they are like revisiting a bad, re-current nightmare. I haven’t thought of those things in more than twenty years. They were the Devil incarnate. They were the demon in disguise. I wonder if Wiley would have framed them had he ever experienced the reality of working with those damned things.

I’ve come to realize that the old acetates dictated simplicity. There was no tolerance for detail. They also dictated the manner in which you could work, from the bottom up. You could blot but you couldn’t wipe. One false move and the stencil would be gone. Poof! They were very unstable. I’d spent a number of hours back in ’74 and ’75 up at Big Joe’s watching him, Zeke and whoever else put these things on. It was before I started tattooing. I was hoping to get the hang of it. It looked so easy. To lay one on, you simply applied a spray of green soap or a thin layer of Vaseline on pre-washed skin. Then, with a saltshaker, you dusted the stencil with charcoal into the pre-cut image. Then you had to clean off the excess to keep the transfer from being too smudged.

All that stuff was easy enough. For me, the big trick, especially with bigger pieces, was in taking the charcoal laden/semi-rigid tool of the Devil hisself and transferring the image to the compound surface of the human body. All this with the hope that the imprint would be readable, knowing that I’d better not sneeze, or it would be gone. In a sense, I got lucky. I only worked with those things for five or six years. I got better at getting them on after a bit.

One time, back in the eighties, I had gone down to Jaxvillle to work with Zeke. It was at the Lucky Tiger down on Court Street. It was next to the cabstand, across the road from the bus station. Court Street was a few blocks of honky tonks, bust-out joints and hockshops, not to mention any number of tattoo shops. It was the R and R strip for all those young marines. The police station was on Court, too.

Anyway, I think it was summer. Hot as hell. I had this somewhat large young marine flat on his back on a foldout utility table. He was getting that classic unicorn from back in the sixties, the one with the fiery mane and tail. We’ve all seen them by now. I got the stencil on him in a couple of tries, in the middle of his chest. Very good for me at the time. Then, about halfway through the outline, for whatever reason, I absentmindedly gave the piece a spray of water and a green soap wipe down. OH SHIT!

I froze with the realization of what I had just done. It was gone. This poor bastard would have to go throughout life with the legs, ass and tail of what was to have been the most magnificent unicorn ever etched into the human hide. GONE! I doubted my skills in lining up with what I had already completed, in trying to put the stencil back into the concave hollow in the middle of his chest. Damn!

With the young marine seeming to grow larger by the minute, I excused myself. With my heart pounding, pouring sweat, I anticipating the worst ass-kicking of all time, so I semi-calmly walked over to Zeke, who was also in the middle of a piece. I quietly informed him of my situation. Armed with the offending acetate stencil, we sauntered back over to the still prostrate, very large young marine. Old Zeke, who was much younger back then, without a blink, popped that stencil right back on there. Everything lined up perfectly. About a half a pack of Kents and a dozen excuses later, I had calmed down and gotten my wits about me enough to finish the piece.

The marine went away a happy man. He was sporting a semi-magnificent unicorn and grinning from ear to ear. I got paid, I even got a tip. But more importantly, I kept my ass intact.

The arrival of Hectograph transfers made the process more stable and allowed for greater detail. Hooray. The thermo-fax guy should get a Nobel Prize!

No more acetate nightmares.

Catch you on the rebound.

―Mike Bakaty


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