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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Ol' Macdonald

Updated: Feb 3

Here we are again readers and followers of Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles. It's hot. Why is it hot? I'm not okay with this hot.

Anyway, enough idle small talk about weather. Last week I touched a little on some of my biggest tattoo artist inspirations and dropped some names as if everyone just knows who they are. And while many with even a shred of knowledge of tattoo history are certainly familiar, at least on the surface, with names like Sailor Jerry or Don Ed Hardy (unfortunately for the wrong reasons), some of the true pioneers and masters are often overlooked or forgotten. In fact, much of what we often refer to as "American Traditional" is not American in origin (how typically American).

Enter Sutherland Macdonald. Probably someone I hold in the highest esteem among all the greats.

Sutherland Macdonald, like another of my #1 inspirations Andrew Eldritch (of The Sisters of Mercy) was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England a whole year before the American Civil War, 1860. By the age of 16, he was serving in Royal military as a phone operator. It was in his military service that he first encountered the art of tattooing, something very common at this point among soldiers. Of note, around this time troops were actually encouraged to get tattooed was easier to identify bodies......boy oh boy, isn't war cool kids??

Out of the Army, he worked at the Hammam Turkish Baths in London. This was located adjacent to the famed Piccadilly Circus. Truly a forward thinking pioneer, Sutherland set up a professional tattoo parlor in the basement of the Turkish Baths. By 1889, his time outside of his work at the Turkish Baths was entirely dedicated to tattooing. Thus, like many of us who do are accustomed to doing our art during our "free time," his time was no longer free.

Unlike the more common bits of think-lined, bold flash, common among sailors and circus acts of the time, Sutherland's style was a more elegant, fine-lined Japanese-style tattoos. As if keeping the fabled Opium dens in mind, he set up his studio with a similar aesthetic. Fancy Eastern motifs and an ever abundance of substances to imbibe in. All in hopes of attracting a clientele of status, also known as rich. According to an article from 1889: “Victims, though, I must not call them, for I was assured that by the use of cocaine, which is injected under the skin, the operation causes not the slightest pain.” (Keep in mind, cocaine was in nearly everything from kid's medicine to soft drinks at this time)

(source: Rachel Dawson

In 1894, Sutherland made tattoo history. He was the first officially registered professional Tattoo artist. He had gone legit, in the eyes of the government.

During this time, Sutherland developed his own electric tattooing machine, which he patented. Quite literally an electric pen, having more in common with the modern cartridge-pen machines of today rather than the classic coil machine. Ironic, considering pen machines are shunned with a wild disregard by traditional artists who remain "loyal to the coil."

A number of practices we take for granted today were first developed by Sutherland, including the practice of stenciling designs rather than the time-consuming process of drawing a design entirely by hand before even starting the tattoo. Further, he brought more color to the tattooing world. One thing to keep in mind is that during this time it was extremely common for pigments to be made using lead. Hell, lead was used in household paints in the US up until the 1970s and even longer in the UK. Obviously, lead is toxic to humans, so many colors (purple, green) remained unavailable to tattooists of the time. Sutherland was the first to create a green pigment that was harmless to the human body.

Something familiar to anyone living here in LA, his services also included permanent cosmetic makeup. Something that wouldn't return to prominence until nearly a century later.

In the late 1930s (you do the math) Macdonald was still at it. Ultimately, he passed in 1942, a life span including two World Wars as well as both the American and Spanish Civil Wars. The roaring 20s, the Industrial Revolution. The Victorian Era. The Jazz Age. Art Deco. Art Nouveau. What an insane time to live. Unceremoniously, and quite possibly insultingly, his death certificate listed him only as "water colour artist."

Sutherland Macdonald's importance to the craft cannot be overstated. He is absolutely one of my biggest inspirations. Take some time to google image search some of his tattoos as I have only included a small sampling of his amazing works.

For more detailed reading, check out Rachel Dawson's wonderful article at Lots of great images as well!

Hope everyone has a great weekend. And as always, we are all taking submissions for summer!



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