Thursday, July 14, 2011

Little History Lesson at Work Today...

Umbrella Ink Tattoo hears it's share of stories.  Woven in and out through the days, clients come in with  a neat little cross section of daily "normal" life.  Sometimes they're cool, sometimes admittedly, I block them from my memory.  As the counter girl, I get to filter the nonsence into facts for my tattooers... So I hear a bunch.
Yesterday, for instance, I got to hang out with the coolest younger man (super fine)  getting a bearclaw with binding runes in blue.  I figured the fellow to be into some sort of celtic tribalism (an odd sort) but that was not the case; turns out 'John' wanted the claw because of his love for 'bears' in the gay community.  I instantly hovered near my own 'bear' the fury and unshakeable, Kevin Cole and remembered all the fantastic things about being in love with a large hairy man.  John and his tattoo were a bright spot in a hectic day of shoots and learning my computer.... I *heart* distractions AND interesting people.
Upon my mandatory "union break" (that is a moment when I have to step aside from the juggling act that is my work space, go outside and hold down the porch), I saw two folks sitting out front in our break-chairs later to be introduced as Mary Ann and Ken.  Suprised to see the interlopers, I asked them if they'd been helped.
"Yeah, we're waiting for the tattoo guy."  said Ken roughly.  "I wanna coverup."
"Oh yeah?" I said thinking they maybe Kevin's 6:30 looking to get a dragon.  "He should be finishing up on this bear claw in the next ten minutes or so."
"We'll wait."  Ken said.  There's nothing I love more than talking with someone who doesn't want to talk to me.  It's an intriguing little game... I've found they usually have the most interesting things to say.
"What are you covering up?" I ventured and the guy looked at his lady, she looked at him and pulled up his white with blue striped loose cotton short-sleeve to reveal the most fantastic and aged little Mexican mouse, an ancient take on Speedy Gonzales, complete with an unusual red, green, and white striped poncho.  The lines were fat and spreading, but the image was boldly held in place through the decades.
"Holy cannoli, that's built to last, who did it?" as I stared and the tattoo.
"Tatts Thomas."
In the region of NWI we don't hear that very often. sure we get old vets with "Some guy in Detroit" or the like answers, and many many many Roy Boy responses, but a Tatts Thomas tattoo has never come through to my knowledge.
I must of had an instantly falling in love face, because the guy beamed up at me and told me the stories...

A little background history of Gib "Tatts" Thomas (if you don't already know) is available at the Tattoo Archive (special thanks to historian Chuck Eldridge who's life calling it is to document and timeline the strange and patchwork times of  the history of modern tattoo), Tatts is also mentioned in nearly every historical project I've worked on in the past year with Skin&Ink dealing with tattooers from Chicago to Long Beach. He was a legend on South State Street in Chicago and had left his mark from Europe to CA he's often regarded highly in conversations and historical documentation with legends Cliff Raven,  Sailor Jerry Collins, Bert Grimm, and Amund Dietzel (to name a solid few). There's even a picture floating around of the giant back piece Tatts put on NWI tattooer Roy Boy, who would end up tattooing nearly everyone I knew in NWI at one point or another. Tatts got around, he had the freedom, integrity and skills to be successful in a time when not everyone wanted to be a tattooer, and certainly not everyone could be a tattooer because of internal control and societal hangups.  It was a thankless job, frowned upon the upper crust, and nearly sucker-free.  Working class and proud, it wasn't the a gentle profession.  But Back to Kenney, and the tattoos he's been wearing for forty-plus years:

Eagle Tatts Thomas circa 1967
Ken, known as “Kenney” in 1966-1967, had just graduated grammar school.  He was fifteen years-old and the only one amongst his friends with a car.  In the summer leading up to his first year in high school his friends would all pile up in his car to drive from Chicago to Kenosha Wisconson to see Tatts Thomas and get tattooed.  In those hot sticky months of postwar America, getting out of the city via the road trip must have been a welcomed relief. 
“Besides, you couldn’t get tattooed in Chicago without i.d., and I was only fifteen. You just showed him the money, he told you what you could get, and you where good to go, like I said I wasn’t even in high school when I got this one.”
Kenney’s friends would pull together their hard earned cash, pay for their desired tattoo, and then would give Kenny their leftover dollars so he could get something cool too.   
“By the end of my freshman year I had all of these, and some on my legs.”
 “They were all from Tatts Thomas --sometimes colored in by his apprentice “Greg”—we’d go see him in Kenosha, then Lake Geneva, after that we’d kind of lost track of him.”  (Greg May was apprenticed by Tatts in Kenosha along the same period in time)
$5 Parrot  Tatts Thomas circa 1967
Pointing to a large assortment of tattoos around his arms and leg areas, Kenney went on “These were all 7-8 dollars; the parrot I think was five dollars.  Like I said I’d say ‘I want something with color—gimme that thing’ and he’d say ‘okay’ .  It was all I had the money for, cuz I would bring usually 4-5 guys up there and they would pay for the gas and the tolls, and I would get whatever money was left. 
“And Tats knew me, and liked me ‘cuz I always brought him people.  I would go up there prolly once a month with a carload of guys.   And a couple girls went up there and got stuff.  That he liked, one of ‘em got a scorpion (motions around the breast area) that he looked at me smiling as he was picking up her breast and putting the tail of the scorpion around her breast. “ 
“I remember he had all sorts of tattoos, and that grey mustache, with the handlebars.  He had a dotted line on his neck that said ‘cut here’.  He had them (tattoos) on his ears, his face, and his mouth.  There wasn’t a part of his body that didn’t have a tattoo.  I forgot what kind of cigarettes he smoked – I think it was a non-filter, cuz he used to smoke mine all the time.  Like I said, the water, he’d be smoking a cigarette and put it in the same water he rinsed his needle out in.  Then when he got done, he’d take a little paper napkin, spray the tattoo with alcohol, and (makes smacking noise)
 Tatts Thomas circa 1967
“Getting tattooed was different, if you showed up in the morning you got the freshly clean needles, he’d have them sterilized the night before. Clean needles and clean water.  Later in the day, not as much.”
“You know, like I said I’d pick something out and he’d be like, ‘Alright where do you want it?’ then he’d stencil it wherever he wanted to do it.  I mean the razor he used was the old fashioned double edge, it would just cut you up, and then he’d you down with some spray alcohol after he was done, slap a napkin on it, and say ‘Next!’That was it.  And the needles he used I think were like roofing nails.”    Kenney reminisced honestly.                      
Did you ever have any problems, and infection? I asked him, hungry to hear more. “Honest to God, no, I think the dousing with alcohol woulda’ killed anything.”
“One time I remember he was talking to the other guys, looking around, it was the Mexican mouse, he was smoking and talking to them and I asked him ‘What if you fuck up?’  And he said ‘Oh I’ll just put a fuckin ‘x’ on it, I’ll just put it somewhere else—don’t worry about it.’ I was just like “okay”
Tattoo design $10, name $2 extra. They are still sweethearts.
 Tatts Thomas circa 1967
Did you ever go in drunk? “Nope, I would never. I did one time go in and try to get one somewhere else (a bumblebee on the head of his penis), and He started off and hit me with the needle once, and I had to have somebody blow in my ass to get it to come back out.  You know, he said ‘what are you crying about, c’mon, that don’t hurt’ I said ‘shit’. “A bumblebee on the head of a penis is no joke… his wife Mary nodded in agreement.  My partner and I made wincey faces.
“You know how they did it, was they took a towel, even if he did something like an arm, he’d wrap a towel around you and pull the skin tight with the towel between his legs, and if he wanted to make the skin tighter, he’d just yank on the towel.  There was nothing gentle about it, you know he’d cut the shit outta you with the double edge razor, do what he had to do for the tattoo, spray you down with alcohol, slap a napkin on it, and out the door you went.”
"Yup, 8 bucks"
By the time we were done with our little stroll down memory lane, Kevin was done tattooing the bear claw, and came outside for his own union break.  Ken and my partner talked about the tattoo he wanted to get, a Celtic symbol over the old Tatts Thomas Mexican mouse.  “It’s going to be more than seven bucks” Ken guessed. “But now I’m at the point of my life where I want and can appreciate a full design instead of little stuff here and there.  I guess I’ve matured a little since 1967.”
 Tatts Thomas circa 1967
Haven’t we all… luckily, maturing doesn’t mean losing touch with the anonymity and autonomy that is the foundation of modern tattooing.  Freedom to just take a road trip with your buddies, pick out a colorful tattoo, sit down get tattooed and leave with the souvenir of a good time.  Freedom for the tattooer like Tatts Thomas to pick up and leave Chicago or Kenosha, and be able to work wherever the hell suits him at the moment, because his name alone holds integrity among his peers and clientele trusting his work.  

Thanks Ken and Mary, and all the kick ass people who keep freedom alive in memory and form.

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