Good morning friends, family and fans of Speakeasy Tattoo Los Angeles!
First and foremost I want to shoot Nate a heartfelt thanks for the warm welcome last week. Being a new apprentice is a nerve racking experience but the Speakeasy team has made it a great experience. For anyone that missed it, my name is Sweeve, the new apprentice here at the shop. It is with great pleasure that my first announcement as an apprentice is that, yes, the rumors are true!
How appropriate that I am brought onboard and business can resume during the best month of the year; Black October.
Needless to say, the pandemic has hit the tattoo industry pretty hard so now is your chance! Polish them shoes, get that quarantine mullet trimmed and come get that sick wolf tatt you’ve been dreaming about since March!
As you may have gathered from Nate’s mini-interview from last week, my style leans heavily toward the traditional tattooing art and with that style comes a rich and profound history; most of which is passed down via word of mouth, becoming the oral myths and legends of the profession. And with the official go-ahead from the state of California what better way to catch up on business than to honor the tradition and history of tattoo culture than to spend a day riding the winds at sea.
“Sailor” Scott at the helm!
There are few more intrinsically connected archetypes that a swarthy sailor and bold tattooed imagery. Be it an anchor or a screaming eagle, tattoos and Naval service almost seem on in the same.
As with many aspects of the cultural melting pot that is Americana, what better place for “exotic” concepts and practices to get imported and adopted from cultures often visited by service members who have been sent to far-off shores. Naturally, port-towns became centers of new ideas and new arts. And while the idea of modern tattooing can be traced as far back as the 15th century when pilgrims from Europe would mark their arms in remembrance of the ports they visited, the classic art of electric tattooing came into its own in the 19th century.
“Tattoo Jack” in Denmark, 1940s
From the shores of Hawaii to the ports of Denmark, most of what we today identify as “American Traditional” tattooing can be traced from imported English styles into New York City’s rough and tumble Bowery District or into the ports of San Francisco. On the most surface level, the connection is somewhat apparent. Sailors wanted a souvenir from the ports they visited, but on a deeper level it also fostered the connection and brotherhood amongst fellow servicemen’s. These were momentos of their service, which is why so much of the classical traditional tattoo iconography involves ships, or flags carried by bald eagles, or something as seemingly whimsical as a bee holding a mop. In the words of legendary Bowery tattoo artist Stanley Moskowitz, son of the groundbreaking tattoo artist Willie Moskowitz, put it simply when talking about tattooing in the 1940s “…real tattoos…seaman style. Patriotic stuff. It was all Army, Navy, patriotic stuff. Tattoos had meaning in them days. That was their purpose, to show patriotism. Or love of their their wives, girlfriends. A guy never had to talk, or make all kinds of crazy things. They saw their stuff. Something hit them on the wall..Boom, they were in the chair.”
“Cap” Coleman in the 1940s
Beyond the mementos that tattoos represented, one must also bare in mind that sailors tend to be very superstitious. Something as simple as “H-O-L-D F-A-S-T” across the knuckles acts as added insurance that a sailor wouldn’t let the rigging slip. Hinges tattooed at the joints at the elbows protected from career-ending painful arthritis. A tattooed portrait of Jesus on the back of a sailor might seem an obvious representation of devotion to faith or to have the protection of a higher power right? Or perhaps such a portrait might make the administration of corporeal punishment somewhat difficult when the prescribed punishment is to be lashed on the back. Who from that era would want to get on the bad side of their lord by whipping his face??
Portrait of Jesus done by the master Sutherland MacDonald in 1899
1920 flash from Cap Coleman
Just like the traditions, myths and legends of tattoo culture are passed down through oral histories, the designs themselves are passed down, creating an almost uniform look to what is now called “American” traditional. To many, the imagery might look crude, almost cartoon-like (in fact, when you dig through the archives of vintage flash sheets, its not uncommon to see designs pulled directly from 40s era cartoons such as Pepe’ Le Pew). This simplicity is by design, not by a lack of skill. As the name itself explains, it’s tradition. One cannot mention traditional tattooing without certain names that helped define the style. “Cap” Coleman was designing and tattooing images in 1910 that are still in use today. Bull Wicks brought a much more refined and clean aesthetic to the traditional look. But one name cannot be overlooked nor this name be overstated in its significance: Norman Collins, or perhaps better known to even the general public as “Sailor Jerry.”
Sailor Jerry’s name is absolutely synonymous with classic tattoo design. To this day, Jerry’s designs remain relevant and contemporary, despite some being over a hundred years old. From his Hawaii shop in the 1940, what Jerry did was tighten the craft. His lines were clean. His imagery was bold. His simplicity was dynamic and, at times, sexy. Hey may not have been the first, but he certainly defined the look by taking the designs he saw from his time in the Navy and refining it.
Today, one need not be a sailor. Tattooing has moved into the mainstream and along with it, the iconography is no longer as deeply rooted or coded in its roots. On a personal level, there is little more visually appealing than a bold, anatomically cartoonish but oh so beautiful than a Jerry-style pin-up, or a snarling black wolf, bold lined fur and upturned eyes. With time, tattooing has evolved into countless styles from the simple black stick-and-pokes seen on baristas in Oakland, to some of the insane photo-realistic portraits produced in this very shop. And while trends can will always fluctuate, which is certainly a good thing, there will always be room for the classic, for the bold, for the traditional.
I’m looking forward to bringing some of that classic, tradition to the Speakeasy Tattoo family while also infusing my own bit of dark/gothic seasoning.
Check some of it out here!
And remember, we are now open and slots are filling up fast, so NOW IS THE TIME! Make that appointment you have been waiting for here!
For a great read, full of insane interviews from some of the most important names in the burgeoning days of modern tattoo art, check out
Enjoy your weekend!