Legends of the Traditional Tattoo

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Image source: Larry Mora – Fine Arts America – Bert Grimm

When most people think about tattoos, the style that comes to mind is the traditional one. Thought of as “tattoos that look like tattoos,” this old-school style boasts bold, clean lines and vibrant, classic colours which draw in many admirers, and make it one of the most popular tattoo styles in the world.

Tattoo artists have been perfecting the traditional style since the art of tattooing itself began to pick up steam in the 19th century, and especially after the invention of the tattoo machine enabled artists to begin creating more intricate and detailed designs.

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Image source: Google Patent Search

Many of the most influential traditional style tattoo artists got their start when serving in the military, especially the Navy. These men would go off to serve their country and be aboard huge Naval vessels for many months at a time, and travelled all over the world. They were introduced to native tattoos in Asia and the Pacific islands that impressed them so much that they learned the art themselves and soon bore tattoos that served as souvenirs of where they had been and their military service. When they weren’t actively involved in their duties, they began to practice the art of tattooing on their fellow sailors and quite a few chose to make tattooing their career when they returned home from the seas.

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By Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975) for the U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This may explain the deep patriotic and Naval roots that we continue to see in the traditional tattoo style today, with some of the most popular designs containing anchors, flags, stars, mermaids, fish, diamonds, ships, eagles, daggers, and military regimental banners.

Some of the artists also began tattooing at very young ages, practising on their schoolmates and siblings with safety pins and pen ink long before they picked up their fist tattoo machine and began to create the tattoos that became such a huge part of tattoo culture, the influence is still seen today. Some of these legendary artists had such an impact on the tattoo world, that their work can be seen today not only on ink collectors skin, but also on clothing and shoe lines.

No matter where the leaders of the traditional tattoo style got their start, or what design elements they chose to include in their work, the fact remains that these men forged a path of greatness with their hard work, innovative ideas, and trend setting artwork.

Some of the most influential and industrious traditional tattoo artists continue to be a source of inspiration to the current generation of tattooists, and have come to hold a place of favour and respect in the eyes and hearts of the tattoo world.

These men have become icons, and their history and life’s work continues to be a source of education and motivation for both artists just coming onto the scene and those that have been around the block or two.

Sailor Jerry

Born as Norman Keith Collins in 1911, Sailor Jerry became world famous for his distinctive tattoo designs and his strong and opinionated personality. Jerry believed in working only with people that deserved respect and worked as hard as he did, and only shared his hard won tattooing secrets with those students that he felt took the art and industry as seriously as he did.

03 Norman Keith Collins

Image source: Wikipedia

Jerry got his start in the tattoo world in the city of Chicago, after leaving home as a teenager to travel the country by train. Along the way, he began tattooing his fellow travellers by hand with whatever items that were available, and was soon bitten by the “tattoo bug,” discovering that he loved the practice and wanted to learn more.

In Chicago, he met Gib “Tatts” Thomas and learned all that he could from the great artist during his time in Tatts shop. It was here that he was introduced to the tattoo machine and began perfecting his tattooing technique. For practice, he would bribe local homeless men with cheap wine for the privilege of using their bodies as canvases for his art.

Many of the clients that came into Tatts shop were sailors from the nearby naval academy, and they so impressed young Jerry with their tales of adventures on the high seas, he went down and signed up with the Navy. Looking at it as a way to see even more of the world, the 19-year-old embraced Naval life and took to the regimented ways and deep traditions of the Navy like a fish to water.

Jerry did indeed see much more of the world, and was greatly impacted by the culture and art of Southeast Asia. He admired the way of life that he saw there so much, that when his time in the Navy was up, he moved to Hawaii in an effort to capture that same Pacific island feel. Jerry soon settled into island life and began to give tattoos to the sailors at the naval base, as well as the field hands from the nearby sugar cane plantations.

Unfortunately, the peaceful days of travelling tattoos didn’t last. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and set off World War II. Still full of the patriotic pride that was instilled upon him during his time in the Navy, Jerry tried to re-enlist and return to the armed services. Much to his disappointment, he failed the physical exam due to a heart condition and was unable to join in fighting America’s enemies. Not to be completely deterred, Jerry chose to join the war effort by signing up as a Merchant Marine, and spent World War II navigating the hostile waters of the Pacific on supply ships.

After the war was over, Jerry opened a tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown that catered to the sailors and soldiers that continued to pour into the local Naval base. While his shop did very well, he despised the choke hold that the government placed on him in the form of taxes, and he closed the shop down and went back to working in the local shipyards.

However, Jerry couldn’t avoid the siren call of the tattoo world, and he returned to tattooing full-time in a new shop on Smith Street, which would be his permanent home for many years to come. In the Smith Street shop, Jerry truly became a legend by creating the iconic flash that we have come to identify as the Sailor Jerry style.

Jerry definitely left his mark on the tattoo industry and became an icon of the traditional style by creating the first purple tattoo ink and incorporating aspects of Japanese tattooing into his designs, as well as inspiring and even mentoring some of the greatest tattoo artists of today.

George Burchett

Known as the “king of the tattooists” for both his artistic talent, innovative modifications to the tattoo machine, and A-list clientèle, George Burchett-Davis was born in a seaside town in England in 1872 and began tattooing at the ripe old age of twelve.

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Image source: BME Encyclopedia

Using is younger brother and classmates as his subjects, George would use household items to create his “scratchings” on their skin and was quite popular amongst his peers. Unfortunately, his tattoo creations weren’t as popular with adults, and he was expelled from school.

No longer able to go to school, George went against his parents wishes and joined the Royal Navy and travelled all over the British Empire on board Naval ships, picking up tattoo knowledge as he went, and continuing to practice his art on his shipmates.

George never truly took to regimented Naval life, and while on leave in Israel chose to abandon ship and instead set up shop as a tattoo artist in Jerusalem for a short period of time before boarding a Spanish merchant ship to try and avoid capture and punishment from the Naval authorities.

Eventually, George grew homesick and returned to England where he dropped the “Davis” from his last name in the hopes of continuing to elude the Admiralty. He worked as a cobbler and picked up other odd jobs in South London to earn a living while he continued to tattoo on the side when he had the chance.

Luck was with George during this time, and he had the opportunity to not only meet and observe two tattooing masters, Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald, but was also taken under MacDonald’s wing and taught many of the great artist’s tricks and techniques.

While continuing to work as both a cobbler and tattooing apprentice, George met and married his wife, Edith and they set up a household in Bow together. George’s reputation as a tattoo artist continued to grow during this time, and he set up his own studio on Mile End Road in 1900, where he drew some very high profile clients, as well as the sailors, dock workers, and transients that were drawn to the area by word of George’s talent.

Wealthy Londoners and even members of the Royalty visited George to have a tattoo done, including King George V, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and King Frederick IX of Denmark. George also gained tattooed the famous performer the “Great Omi,” who covered his entire body in a symmetrical stripe pattern in order to bill himself as a “human zebra,” as well as for appearing on both radio and television to talk about the art of tattooing.

George also gained fame for inventing the practice of “cosmetic tattooing,” where he would lighten and colour a woman’s complexion. Women from all walks of life came to George for this practice, and many of them stayed to have more traditional tattoo work done, as well.

The “king” continued to practice his art on Mile End Road until the age of 81, when he died suddenly on Good Friday of 1953. His work and designs are still highly respected and emulated to this day, making him one of the icons of the traditional tattoo style.

Bert Grimm

Born in Missouri in 1900, Bert and his family moved near Portland, Oregon when he was a child. He began hanging around local tattoo shops around the age of twelve, and the shops became his home away from home.

Although sources vary about when Bert first started his own shop (some say as early as 1916), one thing that is fact is that he became one of the legends of the tattoo world.

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Image source: Lucky’s Tattoo Museum

He began his career by tattooing in Chicago and St. Louis, but eventually settled in California in a shop on Long Beach. This first shop was at 22 Chestnut Street and is still in operation today. In fact, it is the longest operating tattoo studio in the United States.

Bert was quite the storyteller and very confident in his talent. He would tell people that came into his shop all about the time that he tattooed the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Pretty Boy Floyd and many other members of the Chicago crime underground.

t was this confidence and flamboyant storytelling, along with his high level of talent, that would draw people into 22 Chestnut Street and gave Bert his legendary status.

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Image source: Lucky’s Tattoo Museum

In 1970, Bert decided to retire and returned to Oregon, but he soon grew bored with retirement and opened a shop in Portland, where he continued to work for the next seven years. Poor health finally drove Bert to retire for good, but he would still visit other local shops frequently and regale the customers with tales of his life while they were tattooed.

All told, Bert tattooed for over 70 years and was inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame two years before his death in 1985, and many people still believe that he was the greatest tattoo artist of all time.

Ben Corday

Known as “Big Ben” for his large size, Corday was born in 1875. Public record shows that he was born in England, but he was known later in life to tell people that he was born in Hong Kong or Singapore. Ben loved a good story and wasn’t above “upping the ante” when it came to entertaining folks with tales of his life and work.

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At the age of 14, Ben was itchy to see what else the world had to offer and ran away from home to join up with a sailing crew. He travelled with them for a bit, but ended up joining the Royal Marine Corps and fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa.

After leaving the service and returning to civilian life, Ben decided to move to the United States and applied for citizenship there in 1912. He found work with a small circus there and was part of their sideshow attraction. At almost 7 feet tall and over 300 pounds, he was billed as both the sideshow’s giant and strongman.

“Big Ben” also found work as a wrestler, provided personal protection for wealthy families, and even worked as an actor for a short time, appearing in two silent films by director Hal Roach.

During this time, Ben was also developing his tattoo skills by working on and off in various back-room tattoo shops all over the country. Finally settling in the Los Angeles area of California, Ben managed to convince the great Bert Grimm to become his mentor and teach him the ropes of the tattoo world.

Bert had many stories about Ben, and shared some of them with another tattoo great, Lyle Tuttle. One of the tales that Bert told Lyle was about Ben’s love for drinking. Bert said that Ben would get it in his head to go on a drinking binge and he would sell off all of the flash art that he had created. Once Ben sobered up, he would work feverishly to create a new portfolio of designs and set up shop all over again.

Ben integrated Japanese style with Western design elements, and was known especially for one particular full-back piece that was inspired by the legendary cowgirl, Annie Oakley. This detailed tattoo featured a large American flag as its backdrop and showed Annie on horseback, thundering across the plains with a whip in her hand and a gun on her hip.

Ben was an influential artist whose work is considered by many to be foundational in the modern tattoo world. He died at home in 1938, but his flash is still highly respected and widely circulated.

Amund Dietzel

One of the most colourful and heavily tattooed legends of the traditional tattoo style, Amund was born in Kristiania, Norway in 1891 and joined the Norway merchant fleet at the young age of 14 after the death of his father.

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Image source: Jon Reiter via Milwaukee Art Museum – Amund Dietzel flash art

Amund learned the craft of tattooing while travelling the seas, and would practice on his shipmates with hand-crafted tools that he made by combining needles, blocks of wood, and bits of cotton that he found lying about the ship.

After several years as a merchant marine, Amund’s ship was damaged in a storm and it was unable to be repaired. At the age of 17, Amund decided to move to move to America and settled in New Haven, Connecticut where he became friends with English tattoo artist, William Grimshaw. The friends practised their art on each other, and were soon covered with tattoos from the neck to the ankles.

Amund and William began travelling around the country with carnivals and appearing in sideshow attractions as “inked men.” To make money, they sold souvenir photographs of themselves while continuing to tattoo when there was a demand between shows.

During their travels, they visited the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Amund liked what he saw so much, he decided to leave the life of travelling sideshows and make Milwaukee his home. He set up shop as a tattoo artist there next to the Hotel Wisconsin at the age of twenty-three.

Amund developed a reputation as a stellar artist and was soon very successful with his shop. When the start of World War I brought a flood of sailors and soldiers wanting to be tattooed before being shipped out, the demand was so great, Amund had to open two other shops nearby and bring in more artists to keep up with the work.

After the war rush, Amund moved his shop a few doors down and shared working space with a sign painter, where he soon picked up the craft and began painting signs and advertisements for local businesses to supplement his income while continuing to tattoo Milwaukee citizens.

In 1930, with World War II gearing up, Amund knew that the demand for tattoos amongst military men would rise once again, and moved to a new shop close the Great Lakes ‘Naval Training Center’ to be near the action. He was soon tattooing as many as 12 sailors a day.

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Image source: Jon Reiter

Amund continued to tattoo in Milwaukee for 50 years, and sold his shop to his friend and fellow tattoo artist, Gib “Tatts” Thomas in 1964. Amund didn’t stop doing what he loved though, and stayed on to work with Tatts for another four years until the city banned tattooing in 1967.

Although he died of leukaemia in 1974, Amund remains one of the iconic traditional tattoo artists of the world and has even been the star of several flash art collections throughout the United States to this day.

Owen Jensen

Born in Pleasant Grove, Utah in 1891, Owen had a quiet start to life and worked on the rail-road as a young man. His love affair with tattoos would come later when he walked the twelve miles into town to see the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. It was there that he came across the sideshow attraction of the tattooed man and his passion was ignited.

Two years later, Owen moved to Detroit and got his first tattoo. It was there that he became fascinated with the operation and design of the tattoo machine, and his career as a tattoo artist was born from that fascination.

Owen served in World War II and was stationed in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he spent his weekends learning to paint flash and tattooing when he could. After the war, he stayed around Detroit and worked at the Ford Motor Company, but eventually decided to move back home to Utah, where he worked as a “trunk artist,” travelling around the area with his tattoo machines and supplies, and followed local carnivals and circuses to grab customers that were as inspired by the shows tattooed men as he had been in his youth.

After a few years of the travelling life, Owen settled in Los Angeles, California and set up shop with fellow tattoo artist, Charlie Barr. In addition to tattooing clients, Owen also began creating and selling his own tattoo machines and flash art, and was soon known as the only tattoo supply shop on the West Coast to offer reliable and innovative supplies to the tattoo industry.

Towards the end of his life, Owen decided to move his shop to the infamous Nu-Pike amusement park on Long Beach, where he was just a stone’s throw away from another tattooing legend, Bert Grimm.

By 1976, the area had become increasingly dangerous, and even though Owen took the added precaution of carrying a small pistol with him to and from his shop, he was robbed, beaten, and stabbed by a group of young criminals for the $30 that he had in his cash register. Owen never recovered from his injuries, and passed away soon after.

Owen was one of the most celebrated tattoo entrepreneurs of the world. He made his mark by combining hard work, a good business sense, and artistic talent to become on of the legends of the tattoo world.