Tattoo legend Merle K. “Tex” Rowe passed away in his sleep on November 8, 2009 in the Veteran’s Home of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Born June 21, 1921 in Kepple Hill, Rowe loved animals and owned and operated the Shawnee Game Farm in Schellsburg and was a member of a team that cared for the first two panda bears to reside in America at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. A tattoo artist for several decades, Rowe was a member of the United States Army, credited with twenty-five missions in World War II. A little-known fact: Tex owned the gun shop in Dallas. Rowe also performed as “Tex Newhall” in Buck Owens’ circus in the 1940s, had a petting zoo and ice cream stand in Shellsburg, Pennsylvania, near Shawnee State Park, and was part-owner of another zoo at Idlewood Park in Ligonier. He will be missed by humans and animals alike.
There’s lots of great stories and photos on our www.tattooroadtrip.com website. Here’s a teaser:
By Paul Sayce
One thousand and one tattooing facts were compiled during the last four years through video- and audio-taped interviews with many of the world’s leading tattoo artists and fans since 1983, when Paul started writing articles for Lionel Titchener’s Tattoo Club Of Great Britain’s Tattoo International monthly magazine. Other source material has been obtained from the British Tattoo History Museum in Oxford, England in his capacity as the museum’s curator.
1. Today in the lands of Aotearoa, New Zealand, many Pakeha and Maori people get tattooed using modern machines in a safe environment in regard to inks and health procedures.
2. In years gone by, the Maori elders prided themselves, as do the young Maori of today, on the fact that some of the very best wood carvers in the world have operated out of both the North and the South Islands of New Zealand. And not only were elaborate patterns and spirals carved into and onto the Maori house, weapons, war canoes and personal items, they also carved (tattooed) themselves with small chisels made from Pounamu (Greenstone) attached to wooden sticks.
For lots more Tattoo Facts, click HERE and go to HISTORY BUFFS.
Remember the 1990s? Remember cartoons? Of course you do… twenty years ago we all sat around the TV set and watched these (un)forgettable characters. Hey, some folks liked them so much that they got them etched indelibly into their hides. How many do you remember?
We are happy to announce that our new book, Captain Don Leslie—Sword Swallower, Circus Sideshow Attraction by Madame Chinchilla, is here! We are now accepting orders for this momentous publication.
Captain Don Leslie—Sword Swallower, Circus Sideshow Attraction by Madame Chinchilla is the official biography of Captain Don, one of the truly great legends of the tattoo world. During his final days, Captain Don strived to finish telling this fascinating story about life in the circus and his deep connection with the ancient art of tattooing. Read all about carny life during the last century, back when the traveling, canvas, outdoor sideshows flourished in America.
—Madame Chinchilla & Mr. G (Triangle Tattoo & Museum)
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.
No more acetate nightmares.
Catch you on the rebound.
The Ancient and Mysterious History
By Cate Lineberry/Smithsonian.com, January 01, 2007
Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment. Joann Fletcher, research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain, describes the history of tattoos and their cultural significance to people around the world, from the famous ” Iceman,” a 5,200-year-old frozen mummy, to today’s Maori.
What is the earliest evidence of tattoos?
In terms of tattoos on actual bodies, the earliest known examples were for a long time Egyptian and were present on several female mummies dated to c. 2000 B.C. But following the more recent discovery of the Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 and his tattoo patterns, this date has been pushed back a further thousand years when he was carbon-dated at around 5,200 years old.
Can you describe the tattoos on the Iceman and their significance?
Following discussions with my colleague Professor Don Brothwell of the University of York, one of the specialists who examined him, the distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on his lower spine and right knee and ankle joints correspond to areas of strain-induced degeneration, with the suggestion that they may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic. This would also explain their somewhat ‘random’ distribution in areas of the body which would not have been that easy to display had they been applied as a form of status marker.
There’s certainly evidence that women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs from figurines c. 4000-3500 B.C. to occasional female figures represented in tomb scenes c. 1200 B.C. and in figurine form c. 1300 B.C., all with tattoos on their thighs. Also small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt and dated to c. 1450 B.C. And then, of course, there are the mummies with tattoos, from the three women already mentioned and dated to c. 2000 B.C. to several later examples of female mummies with these forms of permanent marks found in Greco-Roman burials at Akhmim.
What function did these tattoos serve? Who got them and why?
Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of “dubious status,” described in some cases as “dancing girls.” The female mummies had nevertheless been buried at Deir el-Bahari (opposite modern Luxor) in an area associated with royal and elite burials, and we know that at least one of the women described as “probably a royal concubine” was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as revealed by her funerary inscriptions.
And although it has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases, I personally believe that the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth. This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts, and would also explain the specific types of designs, in particular the net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. During pregnancy, this specific pattern would expand in a protective fashion in the same way bead nets were placed over wrapped mummies to protect them and “keep everything in.” The placing of small figures of the household deity Bes at the tops of their thighs would again suggest the use of tattoos as a means of safeguarding the actual birth, since Bes was the protector of women in labor, and his position at the tops of the thighs a suitable location. This would ultimately explain tattoos as a purely female custom.
What instruments did they use?
It is possible that an implement best described as a sharp point set in a wooden handle, dated to c. 3000 B.C. and discovered by archaeologist W.M.F. Petrie at the site of Abydos may have been used to create tattoos. Petrie also found the aforementioned set of small bronze instruments c. 1450 B.C.—resembling wide, flattened needles—at the ancient town site of Gurob. If tied together in a bunch, they would provide repeated patterns of multiple dots.
These instruments are also remarkably similar to much later tattooing implements used in 19th-century Egypt. The English writer William Lane (1801-1876) observed, “the operation is performed with several needles (generally seven) tied together: with these the skin is pricked in a desired pattern: some smoke black (of wood or oil), mixed with milk from the breast of a woman, is then rubbed in…. It is generally performed at the age of about 5 or 6 years, and by gipsy-women.”
What did these tattoos look like?
Most examples on mummies are largely dotted patterns of lines and diamond patterns, while figurines sometimes feature more naturalistic images. The tattoos occasionally found in tomb scenes and on small female figurines which form part of cosmetic items also have small figures of the dwarf god Bes on the thigh area.
What were they made of? How many colors were used?
Usually a dark or black pigment such as soot was introduced into the pricked skin. It seems that brighter colors were largely used in other ancient cultures, such as the Inuit who are believed to have used a yellow color along with the more usual darker pigments.
What has surprised you the most about ancient Egyptian tattooing?
That it appears to have been restricted to women during the purely dynastic period, i.e. pre-332 B.C. Also the way in which some of the designs can be seen to be very well placed, once it is accepted they were used as a means of safeguarding women during pregnancy and birth.
By Dan Vergan/USA Today
Tattoos left on a 1,000-year-old Andean woman may cover acupuncture points, archeologists report.
In the current Journal of Archeological Science, a team led by Maria Anna Pabst of Austria’s Medical University of Graz, “describe tattoos from two body areas of a mummy from Chiribaya Alta in Southern Peru.” The team looked at the tattoos on the hands and neck of the mummy using various microscopic techniques.
“Tattoos displaying decorative elements are found widely on prehistoric mummies all over the world,” notes the study:
The oldest known tattoos date from 6000 B.C. from the Chinchorros culture. They show a thin pencil mustache tattooed on the upper lip of a male adult. One of the most impressive sets of decorative tattoos was found on the skin of a Skythian nomad prince from the Altai mountain (500 B.C.). Aesthetically designed pictures of mythical creatures were tattooed on his arms, shoulders, chest, back and the right leg. But not only men were tattooed in ancient times: an obviously upper class female mummy was excavated in the Altay. She was enveloped in silk, crowned with a half-meter-high headdress and had a Skythian- pattern tattoo on her left arm. During exca- vations in a tomb of the Menthuhotep-temple in Deir el Bahari, ﬁgures, ﬁsh, birds, and what appeared to be landscapes, at about 1000 B.C.
The female mummy in the study is much more recent, from about 1,000 B.C., and bore tattooed animals like “birds, apes, reptiles in addition to symbols.” Rings were tattooed on four of the fingers with soot.
Most intriguing to the researchers, 12 overlapping circles tattooed on the woman’s neck resemble “therapeutic” tattoo spots corresponding to acupuncture points used to relieve neck pain. A 1999 study (not without disagreement) suggested similar therapeutic tattoos adorn the famous Tyrolean iceman mummy, Otzi.
Summarizing the possible medical intention lying behind the circle tattoos, we assume local problems of the upper spine or headaches as possible reasons for treatment by the tattooing. In contrast with the soot used in the decorative parts of the tattoos, partially pyrolyzed plant material, probably burned herbs, was used for the therapeutic neck tattoos.
Whether acupuncture pointers or not, the study shows that the pre-Inca population of Peru did differentiate between decorative tattoos and others.
A HISTORY BY CLARK DAVIS
PART THREE—INDIANS OF THE NORTHWEST
The Northwest Coast area divides roughly into north and south; the north being the center of the culture and the home of the previously mentioned tribes and also the Coast Salish. South of these tribes was a multitude of small language groups and included the Puget Sound, Washington Coast and Oregon peoples. Virtually all of these tribes practiced tattooing, but it was very similar to that of the California Indians. There are really no illustrations or descriptions about them, just generalized statements. Chin tattooing on females was the most common.
The Plateau tribes lived in an area bounded on the Rocky Mountains on the east, the Cascade Range on the west, the Fraser River in Canada on the north and a line about midway through today’s Oregon and Idaho on the south. The region included parts of Washington, Montana, British Columbia and a wedge of Wyoming as well. There were several dozen major tribes in this area, the most famous of which were the Nez Perce. However, these Indians were more closely akin to the plains type of Indians. Most of the other tribes were interior Salish speaking tribes such as the Flathead, Kalispel, Spokan and others. Another dialect, Shahaptian, was spoken by Cayuses, Walla Wallas, Yakimas, etc. Lewis and Clark mentioned one tribe near the Dalles in which the women had lines of dots from the ankles to the calves, that would seem to imply tattooing.
The Indians of the northern plateau were predominantly of the Interior Salish group, consisting chiefly of the Lillooet, the Thompson Indians of the Fraser River Valley, the Okanagon, the Lake Indians and the Shuswap. These five tribes were very similar but were constantly fighting each other. They inhabited the mountainous regions of southern British Columbia and northern Washington and Idaho. James Teit, an anthropologist, worked most extensively with the Interior Salish groups. Teit has written extensively on the face painting and tattooing of the Thompson Indians. Tattooing was practiced by most of the tribes, and almost all of the Lillooet women had their wrists and arms tattooed
The Kootenai is a distinct language group that inhabited parts of southeast British Columbia and northern Montana and Idaho. They were driven west by their hereditary enemies, the proper Blackfeet (Siksika,) whom they called Sahantla (bad people.) They are also known as Kutenai, a possible corruption of one of the names they went by, Dutonaga. Bodmer and Maximilian had contact with several of these people on their expedition up the Missouri River from 1833 to 1834, and Bodmer painted several of those with tattooed faces. One chief had solid tattooing on his lower face.
No real record was found of Indians who populated the Great Basin, but that is not to say the practice did not exist. One account said the Indians of the Great Basin did paint and tattoo their bodies with earth pigments mixed in bone marrow. This is one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. It comprises 200,000 square miles and most of the Basin is in present day Nevada and Utah. Also parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado are included. The Utes, Paiutes and Shoshoni were the main tribes and were linquistically related although they could not understand the others’ languages. Sacagawea was a famous Shoshoni girl who trekked 4,000 wilderness miles with Lewis and Clark. White people en route to the California goldfields in the 1950s were appalled by these people who went about nearly naked, subsisted on a diet of insects and rodents, and who seemed to have no organized society as such.
BY THE SHORES OF THE PACIFIC
California had everything the Great Basin lacked. The climate was mostly mild, there was abundant rain and food was plentiful. Some people say there were as many as 300,000 Indians living there by the time the first white men appeared. They differed in size, appearance and language but the cultural patterns they developed were similar. More than a hundred distinct languages and dialects were spoken and the three major languages were Athapascan, Shoshean and Penutian. With the exception of the Mohaves in the south, these tribes were among the least warlike of all Indians. The majority of these tribes are extinct. The most famous of these aborigines was a man named Ishi. In the early 1900s, a small band of California Indians of the Yahi tribe resisted the fate that had all but wiped out their tribe, violent death at the hands of the white invader. Most of the Yahi were massacred by white miners in 1864. The survivors realized they could only survive by being a hidden people, In 1911, Ishi stumbled exhausted and starving into the town of Oroville. He was in middle age and the lone survivor of his tribe. Everyone who met him said he was a loving, gentle and dignified individual—as were probably the vast majority of the people in these vanished tribes.
The Yurok lived along the coast near the mouth of the lower Klamath River and their name means “downstream” in the Karok language. They are probably Algonquian in origin. From an estimated 2,500 people in 1770, there were less than 700 of them left in 1900. Tattooing was widely practiced among the women. When a girl was five years old, she was tattooed with a black stripe extending from both corners of the mouth to below the chin. To this line was added another parallel line every five years, so that it was easy to determine the age of every Indian. Some women had their chins tattooed solidly, also, to denote tribal affiliation (or to hide their ages, ha ha!) The Yurok felt that an untattooed woman looked like a man when she grew old. The men had marks tattooed on the arms for the purpose of measuring the strings of dentalium shells.
The Tolowa Indians lived in northwestern California and their language is sometimes referred to as Smith River Athapascan. These Indians are one of the few groups of Athapascan speaking people whose territory included a substantial stretch of seacoast. Tolowa girls were tattooed before puberty with three parallel and vertical lines on the chin. Another extinct, or nearly so, Indian tribe of northwestern California, the Wiyot, used solid tattooing on their women instead of vertical line tattooing. The men were not tattooed.
The Hupa Indians lived along the lower course of the Trinity River in northwestern California. Hupa women has three broad vertical bands tattooed on their chins, and sometimes marks were added to the corner of the mouth. Dentalium shells were used for money in the Hupa tribes, and standardized ways of measuring the “coinage” included matching five strung shells of equal size with one of a series of marks tattooed on the inside of a man’s left forearm. Fortunately for the Hupa, they lived in a secluded valley that was far from the missions and their valley contained little or no gold, so they remained isolated from the barbaric white people. In the late nineteenth century, when California was setting up reservations, one was established in the Hoopa Valley, so the Hupas did not have the problem of being displaced like the other tribes. Today they are the largest of the California tribes, possessing a strong ethnic identity and a stable economy.
Karok Indian women were tattooed with the same three vertical lines on the chin. Women were also tattooed on their arms. Chimariko Indian women started tattooing early in life, and it was done with a stone knife on the chin, cheeks, arms or hands. Shasta Indians used the same chin tattoos on women. Cahto Indians had optional tattooing in perpendicular lines on the forehead, chin, chest, wrists or legs of both sexes. Aboriginal natives like the Yukis were tattooed similarly. All of these tribes were aboriginal.
Some Indians used obsidian to make the incision, and rich pitch soot was rubbed into the wound. If a bluish-green color was desired, dye from a certain grass or spider web was rubbed into the wound. The Maidu tattooed by puncturing the skin with fish bones, pine needles or bird bones. Then a red pigment was rubbed into the skin. Men were more often tattooed with patterns of vertical lines on the chin or a single vertical line rising from the root of the nose. Tattooing was also applied to the breasts, arms and abdomen. The Konkow Maidu tattoo designs were made by cutting the skin with a sharp flint or obsidian, then rubbing the area with charcoal or a reddish pigment. Women were more elaborately tattooed with three, five or seven vertical lines on the chin. Lines or dots were occasionally applied to the backs of the hands. Nisenan women were tattooed with the juice of a blue flower.
The Miwok lived along the coast north of San Francisco Bay, in the southern basin of Clear Lake and on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas—the Coast, Lake or Central, and Interior or Eastern Miwok, respectively. They were the first of the California Indians to come in contact with English-speaking foreigners in 1579. Francis Drake spent five weeks among the Coast Miwok. During the Mission Period and after, the Miwok were often kidnapped for slave labor at the nearby missions and local ranches. The appearance of miners, settlers and new diseases added to their destruction, and today, the Miwok and their cultures have virtually disappeared. Tattooing appeared with both sexes, especially exhibiting vertical and zigzag lines on the chin and cheeks and in some cases on the neck. Some older people had the chest tattooed. Green oak galls made a blue-black ink for the color, which was applied with a sharp piece of bone or a sliver of obsidian. Tubatulabal women tattooed themselves using a cactus spine to prick out the design and charcoal for the dye.
The Pomo (earth people) lived north of San Francisco Bay along the coast and inland to the coast range. They were far enough away from the missions to avoid being kidnapped, most of the time. They are famed for their basketry—some of the finest in the world. They are active today in the Indian Rights movement, including the dramatic occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969-1971. Tattooing was done sparingly. Many women displayed the vertical lines on the chin. Few of the Pomo men were tattooed. However, there’s a story of a warrior who tattooed a fine representation of a sea otter on his chest, which was unusual for California because designs were almost always geometric. Another person, a woman, tattooed a crude picture of a tree or other object on her abdomen.
The Costanoans (Spanish for “coast people”) inhabited the seacoast from Point Sur to the Golden Gate and inland to the San Joaquin Valley. There is a great deal of information about them because of several artists who depicted them in the early 1800s. However, by 1816, these Indians were virtually wiped out by the half dozen or so missionaries in the area. (Kill them with kindness!) In 1971 the descendants of these people formed the Ohlone tribe of today. Face and body paint was heavily used, including cinnabar from nearby mines, which is a poisonous mineral. Men painted the arms, legs and chest with white vertical and horizontal lines as well as other designs. A girl was tattooed in designs of red, blue or green hues at the time of her first menstruation. The dots and lines had special significance—proclaiming her lineage and tribal relationships that were of importance in establishing which mate she could marry, for she could not marry within certain relatives the tribelet. The women sometimes tattooed a collar around the neck, and both sexes often tattooed a line from the chin down onto the chest. Some men had measuring marks tattooed on the arm in order to measure accurately the strings of clamshell disks used in trading. A watercolor, done by a painter in 1816, shows a Costanoan woman at the San Francisco Mission with a half dozen bands of straight and zigzag lines tattooed around her neck and upper body—like a necklace. She also had tattoos on her shoulders and chin, and two straight lines running from the “necklace” down between her breasts to her lower body.
LOOKING BACK—WORDS AND PICTURES
By Bob Baxter/Photographs by Maury Englander
We had recently published a Maury Englander photo essay on tattooed New York City Fireman. Englander even got to ride a hook-and-ladder to a real fire, and his photos showed teams of brave men who were proud of their tattoos and proud of what they did for a living. Sometimes it was tedious work (answering false alarms, rescuing stray cats from tree tops), but, when it was exciting, it was often death defying and life saving. The photos gave the readers an inside look at some of these dedicated heroes. Here are our recollections of the events of September 2001, starting with a weekend tattoo event in Long Island. It was like two parallel universes: one was normal, full of energy and celebration; the other was a hideous nightmare. Click the images to enlarge.
Saturday, September 8th, 2001
I flew from sunny Southern California to visit a The Second Annual Hot Rod Tattoo Convention in Plainview, New York, a town without an airport. But, since it was produced by Steve Bonge and Butch Garcia, I had to check it out. Bonge and Butch, you will remember, are the promoters of the New York City Tattoo Convention held regularly in downtown Manhattan (which is serviced by two airports). Since I consistently have a terrific time at the yearly celebration at Roseland, I wanted to see if our two entrepreneurs had the magic touch in Long Island. The flight from LAX was uneventful, as was the shuttle ride to the Rodeway Inn in Plainview.
I arrived on Saturday afternoon, and, as is my usual custom, I made a quick walk-through to check out who’s there. Although Hot Rod Tattoo is a local show and a great number of the booths were Long Islanders that I wasn’t familiar with, I immediately spotted Baba from Vintage Tattoo in Highland Park, California, the Kern boys from No Hope No Fear in Milwaukee, Clayton and Elsa Patterson, Matty Jankowski from Sacred Tattoo in Manhattan, Mike Wilson and Andrea from Inksmith & Rogers, Joe Capobianco, Civ from Lotus Tattoo, Billy Eason from Tattoo Planet, Eric Merrel, the Moskowitz brothers, Stanley and Walter, and, of course, out by the hotrods, Brian Everett from Route 66 Tattoo in Albuquerque (wearing his Beatniks Car Club T-shirt) and Jack Rudy from Goodtime Charlie’s in Anaheim. After a $5 hot dog and a $2 can of soda, I ran into Don and Flo Makofske, the husband and wife team responsible for the successful NTA convention in Reno, Nevada, the previous April. They thanked me for the “expose” on the NTA in the November issue and were very good-natured about the article stating, erroneously, that Crazy Eddie Funk was Flo’s ex-husband. “Ex-brother,” she laughed. “He’s my ex brother!”
One of the highlights was the outdoor car show featuring a wild array of ’50s-style hotrods and bus stop cruisers. I must say the response from car owners was tremendous, as these kind of auto-related events at tattoos shows are usually a bust. Not in Plainview. The entire parking lot was full to overflowing with chopped, channeled and shaved Mercs, Chevys and classic Fords. I was especially drawn to the ’56 baby blue Chevrolet Bel Aire, just like the one I had in high school. It even had twice pipes, just like mine.
At the end of the day’s events, about midnight, I realized it was dinnertime in California. After checking the motel to see if they had a restaurant (they didn’t), the best advice I could get was to walk down the pitchblack sidewalk past the crickets and croaking frogs, through the vacant industrial area and across the three major intersections to the local diner. I felt relatively safe, but it certainly would have been nice to have somewhere to eat less than two miles away. Especially at midnight. I guess Bonge understood the problem because, when he saw me coming through the door the next morning, he carefully wrapped the second half of his pastrami sandwich and offered it to me for breakfast. “It ain’t Katz’s,” he said. “But it’ll do.” I gratefully accepted.
All that is behind me now. Even the cab ride to the Hicksville train depot, the clickity-clack to Penn Station and the cab ride to Houston Street are just flickering memories. In light of what happened two days later in the World Trade Center, I’m glad I went. I’m always happy to support good events and hang out with people who obviously have their priorities in the right place when it comes to putting on quality shows at great locations. I hoped that everything returned to normal quickly and that the Butch and Bonge’s of the world continued to produce equally energetic events for those who love both tattoos and the red, white and blue.
After a couple of days in Plainview, I decided to stay an extra day in New York City to support my sister Cy’s fundraising auction for Friends in Deed, the ten-year-old support organization that she founded with Mike Nichols in 1991. Held on a drizzly night at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center on Monday night the 10th of September, the much-anticipated event buzzed with excitement as New York’s A List crowded the palace-like lobby of the venerable auction house to raise money for the organization that provides help to those with life-threatening illness. Just a short taxi ride away on West Houston Street, I stuffed my point-and-shoot in my pocket, slithered into my snow white short-sleeved, hand-stitched, cocoanut-buttoned silk number with the 3-D hula girl on the back (her skirt wiggles when you walk) and found my way meandering the hallowed halls, climbing the marble stairs and entering the huge, second-floor presentation area where some of the most wonderful photographs and celebrity memorabilia imaginable graced every inch of wall space and topped every alabaster pedestal.
A vibrantly-colored, flocked, long-sleeved, button-down shirt, size XL, owned by Mick Jagger (with signed letter of authentication by the man himself) was valued at $3,000. A barely worn pair of Gregory Hines taps shoes were on the block for $800. A Lauren Bacall custom voice mail message from the legend herself, ballroom dance lessons with Broadway star Sandy Duncan, a bit part on Saturday Night Live, Harrison Ford’s bullwhip from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a walk-on part in HBO’s Sex and the City and lunch with the show’s star and producer Sarah Jessica Parker—all listed as priceless—were just a smattering of prizes awaiting the highest bidder.
Armed with my paddle (a large card imprinted with my bidding number, 556), I strolled among the celebrities, and thanks to my sister, was introduced to my longtime hero, photographer Richard Avedon, performer extraordinaire Joel Grey and, of course, Mike Nichols, Chairman of Friends in Deed and an old family friend.
It was great fun pretending I had a lot of money and fantasizing bids on Joan Jett’s autographed Gibson guitar ($2,000), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo of Isabella Rossellini ($8,000), a 1968 cobalt blue XKE Jaguar coupe ($30,000), Annie Leibovitz’s Cibachrome photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken just hours before John was killed ($18,000) and, of course, the jewel of the crown, Richard Avedon’s unbelievably poignant gelatin silver print of Marilyn Monroe at 31 in New York City ($24,000). A stunner.
The highlight of the evening was the auction itself, with Broadway’s Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick sharing the gavel with the Christie’ staff. But, besides almost “purchasing” the Harrison Ford bullwhip by accident at $8,500 (I inadvertently waved at my sister, who was sitting in the front row), my main focus was on the silent auction where two of my friends, Don Ed Hardy and Spider Webb, had donated works of art for the event. Spider made a piece described in the catalogue as “A set of shading brushes, line brushes and tattoo guns, with elaborate feathers and each with a small ruby slipper ornament, housed in a black velvet-lined box with red-velvet jacket with beige lace and feather cover all handmade by famed tattoo artist Spider Webb.” Included with this amazing artwork was a tattoo session by the artist himself. Ed Hardy, on the other hand, donated a 22- x 30-inch signed shark lithograph and a copy of his book, Tattooing the Invisible Man: Bodies of Work. That is what I had my eye on.
I was really happy to be there. I was even happier that Don Ed Hardy and Spider Webb represented their fellow artists at the truly magnificent event. It made me proud to see these two geniuses, so different in their approach and contribution to the history of our art, make clear, once again, their undeniable status as true legends in the world of tattoo.
The next morning, none of this mattered.
A couple of months after Twin Towers, I found myself preparing to for my second visit to Apia, Samoa, at the invitation of Petelo Sulu’ape, brother of the late Paulo Sulu’ape. Even though I had my ticket, because of events in New York on September 11, I considered staying home. My head was crammed with images—exploding planes, cataclysmic fireballs. It made me think.
Let’s see: Samoa is situated in the virtual heart of the South Pacific, eight hours below Hawaii, 2,890 kilometers northeast of New Zealand and about ten airborne hours southwest of Los Angeles. That’s a lot of time over water. But then again, it’s pretty unlikely that terrorists would bomb a plane bound for Upolu. The big worry was something happening internationally. That might shut down all the airports! I’d be stranded in Apia.
Even though I had pretty much talked myself into it, as flight day approached, I hoped for an honorable way out. Some debilitating illness would be nice—nothing too dire, mind you—so I could to stay home and tend the roses. I had been in New York on the 11th. I was covering a tattoo event in Long Island that weekend. I had lunch on the tenth in Chinatown (in the shadow of the Trade Center towers, I must say). After waking up shortly after nine on the morning of the 11th and
seeing the horrific cloud of smoke rolling toward my hotel on Houston and O’Sullivan, I experienced, first hand, over 3,000 good reasons why not to board a jetliner. It was horrible. The fact is, my plane back to Los Angeles was scheduled to leave JFK a scant eight hours after the hearts and minds of America were turned to rubble by that maniac from the Taliban. It took nearly five days and seven cancelled flights to ultimately get a ride home, and even at that, as we were sitting on the runway late Saturday morning, two FBI agents and a huge, thick-necked NYPD sergeant with guns and handcuffs rattling, marched up the aisle and escorted two questionable gentlemen out of the plane and back to the terminal. I’m not sure why these fellows were ushered out, other than an obvious case of profiling—one looked like a Middle Eastern matinee idol and the other was the typical Hollywood cinema terrorist with the black muscle-T and shaved head you see in all the James Bond thrillers. Too obvious, if you ask me. They were almost caricatures of bad guys, and any self-respecting casting agent would be drummed out of Hollywood for choosing them. But, evidently, the FBI wasn’t going to debate the issue, and whisked them out the door.
It’s not terribly comforting to peek out the window and see fifteen squad cars encircling the aircraft, not to mention a stewardess crying hysterically in the arms of two of her comrades in the galley. These are the images that stuck with me as the flight drew near.
Respectfully following orders from the travel agent to arrive at the airport at least three hours early, I was quickly processed by the ticket counter, got through the X-ray machine without a peep and found myself inside the terminal, looking for gate 21. It was a short stroll, but my heart was pounding as armed National Guard soldiers patrolled the corridors with automatic weapons. And just as I spotted the gate, there were Bernard and Travelin’ Mick. I took a deep breath. Friends. After hugs all around and twenty minutes or so of catching up, any thoughts of turning back were quickly erased. While we waited, I took out my six-string and picked a tune.
Life goes on.
OUR WORLD—THE WORLD OF TATTOO
By Bob Baxter
Now that we have built a viable tattooroadtrip.com website and produce a Daily Blog that has generated, already, a dedicated audience of readers, it is time to reflect on the art form in which we are all to some degree involved. Many of you are artists and others are collectors. Some wear bodysuits fashioned by legendary craftsmen with a skill unheard of until today. Others have a small “pork chop” or a “tramp stamp” that was applied on a whim, on a dare from friends or a celebration of an eighteenth birthday. Whatever the case, we have all experienced the initiation, the modern-day version of a tribal rite of passage. We are all members of a family. A family in which each member has proclaimed, in ink, something about themselves, often something deep inside, that needed to be inscribed on the outside, on their skin… for all to see. For some it is a fashion statement. For some, a badge of courage. Others see it as a living gallery, a statement of their place in a world of color and form and design. And many, academics and dreamers alike, consider it our acceptance of who we are, where we have been and who we hope to be.
At the dawn of history, a lone tribesman accidentally poked his skin with a sharp stick from his fire. The next day, he singlehandedly killed a bear, and that random dot of carbon became magic. Other tribesmen wanted that skin-poked image, too. And the art―and power―of tattoo was born.
Over 2,000 years ago, two young Polynesian girls, the twins Taima and Tilafaima, swam from Fiji to Samoa with the wooden sticks―the uhi, a foot-long shaft with a sharp, boar’s tusk comb at the tip, and the hahau, the tapping rod―and, thus, the essence, the mana of tattoo was born and spread throughout Polynesia. No wonder that the tattoo symbols from Hawai’i, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa are similar in appearance, as are the names of the designs. Quite simply, living proof that ancient mariners sailed back and forth, from island to island.
Not possible said the naysayers. This could never be done across such vast expanses of empty ocean. Not without modern navigational equipment. But the legend became reality when, in 1973, a group of Polynesian mariners built a large voyaging canoe to sail from Hawai’i to Tahiti and back―without a sextant. The canoe, the Hokule’a was launched in 1975. Based on journal notes and illustrations from early European expeditions, along with verbal information from chants and legends, Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from Micronesia guided the canoe, using the stars and ocean swells much as the ancients did. The voyage was a success. Yes, tattoos were passed from island to island.
In the sixteenth century, tattooed tribal peoples were captured and displayed around Europe. Seafaring explorers Jean Baptiste Cabri and John Rutherford were forcibly tattooed by native peoples in voyages to the Marquesas and Aotearoa. Even Herman Melville was tattooed. Can we ever forget the elaborately inked Quequeg, the mysterious whaleman and harpooner from Moby Dick?
These covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms.
In recent memory, we’ve heard the stories of sailors, an uncle or a grandfather, on twenty-four-hour shore leave heading straight to the tattoo parlors of San Diego, Hong Kong and Hawai’i. Just as the pilots marked the planes with symbols noting bombing missions, sailors marked their travels with tattoo ink from the likes of Sailor Jerry Collins, Pinky Yun and Johnny 2-Thumbs.
And so it continues. Only a decade ago, Modesto, California, a small, rural town on the outskirts of San Francisco was home to two remote tattoo shops. Today, there are twenty. San Francisco has nearly forty, Los Angeles has one hundred and eight. A conservative estimate of tattoo shops in the U.S. is twenty-five thousand. There are tattoo-themed television shows, with more on the way. There is tattoo clothing, tattoos in advertising, tattoos as fashion, tattoos in sport, in music and in mainstream society. Using tattoos to make their statement, both individuals and cultures have discovered a new and dramatic vehicle for proclaiming their uniqueness.
A young Indian lad from Ship Rock, New Mexico, wears a tattoo of Custer’s Last Stand. A New Zealander wears an elaborate facial Moko, as his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. A heart surgeon from Philadelphia has a photo of his daughter tattooed on his chest. A stockbroker from New York City secretly wears a full bodysuit under his Brooks Brothers clothing.
There is no doubt. We are living amid the great tattoo resurgence. And just as the air of a tattoo shop is filled with the undeniable odor of green soap, our traditions are filled with the melancholy perfume of salt and sea. For, without the ships, without the sailors, the news would not have spread. The traditions would not be born and this great art form would remain landlocked and remote. Because of ships, canoes and, yes, even swimming twin sisters, every state, every country, every continent touched by water is joined together in a tattooed brother- and sisterhood that transcends wars, and politics, and hatreds and, yes, even fear.
It’s the young toughs cornering a victim in an alley, only to put down their bats and two-by-fours and, seeing his tattoos, ask, “Hey, dude, who did your ink?”
It’s the laughing women showing off a life-changing bouquet of roses tattooed where her mastectomy used to be.
The old man who draws a crowd of admiring youngsters in the supermarket with the Bert Grimm parrot he got back in the ’60s. A New York City fireman wearing a tattoo to remember his fallen comrades from 9/11.
Yes, tattooing is experiencing perhaps the greatest explosion of serious art in the history of the world. Tens of thousand of tattooists making original art. True, art appreciation and art classes have been squeezed out of grade schools and high schools and hand-drawn art has been made obsolete by innovative computer software, but no matter. Tattoo shops flourish and new artists enter the scene every day. A 2003 Harris Poll indicates that sixteen percent of all adults have at least one tattoo. Among Americans ages twenty-five to twenty-nine years of age, thirty-six percent. And that was seven years ago!
To commemorate this unique time in history―this unique time in art history―Tattoo Road Trip presents a diverse magazine of tattoo art, memorabilia and written word, bringing together ancient and modern cultures in a website and daily blog showcasing the leading collectors, journalists, craftspeople and artists from today’s tattoo scene. This electronic “magazine” offers an exciting multiplicity of views. You’ll read about the ancient, the modern, the living art form called “tattoo.” So, come join us as we explore the past, present and future of what has become the most all-encompassing, energetic and creative art form since the Renaissance.
—To be continued.