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.
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|
“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|
“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|
“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|
“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"|
|Tatts Thomas circa 1967|
Thanks Ken and Mary, and all the kick ass people who keep freedom alive in memory and form.