Happy Friday, friends, family and fans of Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles!
What a week. I know things here in the Sweeve household have certainly been distracting, as I am sure it has been with all of you after Tuesday’s presidential election.
As crazy as things may be in the 2020 era, one thing is certain (at least for most of us); time may pass, but your hair still grows and your beard still needs a trim. Now that both tattoo shops and barbers are open for the foreseeable future, it seems like an appropriate time to explore the interwoven relationship between barbers and modern tattooing.
Everyone has seen a classic barber pole, typically blue and red candy cane striping, oftentimes rotating vertically above a doorway into a barber shop. But why? Surely this is merely a way of getting the attention of potential customers, right? Well if that’s the case, why dont we see the same thing on cobblers (shoe makers and repairmen for all you zoomers), or grocers, or any other businesses? Why is it always blue and red? Why not neon green and pink? Wouldnt that get more attention and set your parlor apart from the rest? Maybe it’s just a patriotic thing. Believe it or not, the barber pole has a long-standing coded meaning.
Let’s go back. Before Gillette and the disposable razor came around, barbers were an essential worker in all societies. Barbers were held in high esteem in nearly all cultures basically as far back as the invention of sharpened metal. Picture an Egyptian pharaoh, or a Japanese Edo Emperor. Do they look like unkempt Visigoths? Of course not. But we are focusing on the modern era. The barber pole is a modern thing, like from the 50s, right?
How could you be so wrong in your wrong assumptions?
Dont worry. Dr. Sweeve is here.
The barber pole actually can be dated all the way back to the middle ages in europe. And while Dr. Sweeve may not be a PhD, “doctor” is more accurate than you may think.
In the dark medieval times, barbers were actually the community surgeons. That’s right. Shave and an appendix cut, two bits! Without going into the barbaric (yes, there is a pun in there) history of medieval “medicine,” let us just say it was a bit of a bloody experience for anyone involved. This brings us back to the barber pole itself. Not just a flashy icon, the barber pole represents very specific things:
-At the top we see a bowl-like cap. This represents the bowl in which leeches (yes, leeches) were kept to use in blood-letting. Afterall, what remedies an upset stomach caused from the lack of an FDA telling you not to eat 6 month old goat meat thats been sitting out since the harvest festival, like bleeding out 6 gallons of demon-infested blood?
-This brings us to the pole itself. The pole represented, you guessed it, a pole. Patients would grip onto a staff or pole as they were being bled-out. There was no anesthesia at the time so gripping a pole was about as good as it got.
-The red stripe? Well it doesn’t take much abstract thought to realize that this red stripe represents the blood that dripped down.
-At the bottom, another bowl, now to catch the blood.
In Europe, barber poles
are just red and white. The blue addition was purely an American invention. That’s right, patriotism.
“But Dr. Sweeve, why are you rambling about barbers. This is a tattoo blog. I come here for sick wolf tats with daggers through their heads, not leeches. That’s gross. Stop being gross.” I’m getting there, man, don’t rush me, I’m old.
Were I to distill it down as much as possible, it all comes down to the similarity in the needs of the professions; individual stations within a clean and sterile environment. But there is more to it than that.
In my last post, we explored the connection between tattooing and sailors. Well, we’re back to the sailors. As we discussed, sailors would get tattoos in the ports of the towns in which they would stop on their travels. Tattooing, however, is not a rapid process and tattoo artists can only accommodate so many drunken seamen at any given time. Naturally, some sailors would miss out on the chance to get marked on shore and feel that oh-so-common sense of fomo while their fellow shipmates showed off their newly acquired work once back at sea.
It was common practice in most navies to have a barber on board, and like we mentioned above, the barber’s duties often went beyond a simple high-and-tight. So where would the sailors who missed out on getting a tattoo at port go? Who else but the ship’s barber? He had sharp instruments, after all. After a tour was complete, these ship-bound barbers would step ashore with unique skills. Why not set up shop? Boom. The seeds of an interconnected subculture were born.
Tattoo artists would set up shop in the back of berber shops, often sharing billing on the front door. Oftentimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, barbers would also double duty as tattoo artists. New York City tattooing legend Stanley Moskowitz talks about his father, WIllie Moskowitz: “He had a barber shop in Chinatown. He was just a barber. He went to barber school, he was a good barber. He was never really good at tattooing. He was always in a hurry. He’d be shaving a guy, the guy would fall asleep…he’d tattoo a guy. Give a guy a haircut, he’d put a hot towel on a guy’s face, the guy would fall asleep… he’d tattoo three guys.”
One aspect that cannot be overlooked is the fluctuating legality of tattooing. For instance, in the 1960s, there was a ban on tattooing in New York City. Reasons are contested, so insist it was for health reasons, some allege that children as young as twelve were getting tattooed on Coney Island, which caused an uproar, but the general consensus among tattoo artists that were there was that a well-known “high society” type was given the cold shoulder when she stepped in a shop and asked to watch. Upon feeling shunned (how dare these ruffians treat her so!), she used her connections to push for a ban. During this ban, tattooing adapted by simply operating in secret in the back of barber shops. It was nothing new, after all, just the nature of the industry.
But it doesn’t necessarily end there. As generally accepted and mainstream as tattoos have become, they traditionally have and still do (albeit to a lesser extent) represent a subcultur
e. The outsider. The underground. And while barbers certainly do not represent anything “outsider,” historically a barbershop was a gathering place. A safe space, for lack of a better term, where men could go to express themselves. This type of environment almost naturally lends itself to tattooing. Both professions play a role in helping define and forge identities and give an outlet for personal expression. Going to a barber shop is not simply “oh, i need a shave” but rather an experience. The same goes for tattooing.
So now that they are open, support your local barber shop! They deserve it and there is nothing quite like a nice straight razor shave. And don’t forget to book your appointment here at Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles!