In the 1990s, Tattooist Jonathan Shaw interviewed an iconic lineup of Tattoo Legends for ITA magazine. With his kind permission, Occult Vibrations is going to be digitizing these must-read interviews.
The first interview is between Jonathan and Col. Todd.
It originally ran in ITA Vol 1. No. 1, 1992.
Back in the early 1970′s, when I first became interested in the mystery of tattoos, tattooing was a closed world, almost a secret society. Most tattooers were very tight-lipped about their secrets, and tattoo supplies weren’t openly available. Col. William L. Todd was working alongside his long-standing partner, Bob Shaw, at Long Beach, in California’s famous Nu-Pike, a sprawling amusement park surrounded by military bases and studded with a dozen tattoo parlors- a very different scene from today’s genteel tattoo/art studio scene. The Pike is an important location in tattoo history, a place where history and tradition came aline for those of us who were fortunate enough to be around the the words, action and technically superior tattooing of guys like Col. Todd.
A tattooer’s tattooer of the old school, Todd is a perfect southern gentleman with a streak of the badass bootcamp drill sergeant. He always ran a tight ship!
Today, the amusement area of the Pikee is gone, paved over by developers in the endless drive for progress. All that remains of the glory days is one lone tattoo shop where the famous Bert Grimm tattooed for so many years.
Jonathan Shaw: We’re at the Bert Grimm Studio, probably the oldest tattoo shop in the country.
Col. Todd: That’s what they say.
JS: Col. Todd, when did you first start tattooing?
CT: I started in 1947. I was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I’d always been interested in tattooing. I had a couple of officers who were heavily tattooed, one of them having been in the Navy. I was raised on a farm where you didn’t see tattooing unless it was with a carnival or something like that passing through. I went into town in San Antonio, went up and down Houston street, where all the tattooers were, and down toward the end of the street was a circus trailer set up on blocks by itself that said “Tattoo”. It belonged to a gentleman named Jack Tyron. Anyway, Jack told me that he was tattooed all over when he was 16 by Charlie Wagner. He traveled with the circus for years then he bought a commercial lot and the circus trailer and set up shop. It’d be odd to see something like that today.
I went in, and after talking to him I got a little tattoo and asked him about buying a machine. Oh yeah, he said he’d sell me a machine. He started telling me about the mail order places.
JS: Zeis? Was it Zeis back then?
CT: Yeah, Zeis was in business in those days. I didn’t know the connections. I didn’t know how to go about it. It wasn’t as easy in those days. It wasn’t easy to learn, it wasn’t publicized in magazines like today. And the tattoo artists weren’t giving up their secrets. They wouldn’t give you any information.
To make a long story short, the next Saturday he made me a little package all wrapped up, and I paid him $35 for it. Me and my buddy went back to the barracks, and we got a little outline machine, a little bottle of black ink and about three stencils of Air Force designs, wings and a little transformer. No foot switch. You plugged it into the wall, and this machine started humming. When you wanted to stop it, you had to unplug it from the wall.
We had ‘em lined up in the barracks. I’d tattoo ‘em for a while, and my buddy would tattoo ‘em for a while. About the second week in, I was tattooing somebody and the company commander comes in. Somebody hollered, “Attention!” and we all jumped up, the the machine’s laying there running. The commander wants to know what I’m doing, and I said “Well, sir, I’m putting a tattoo on.”
He says, “Well, bring that stuff over to the orderly room.” And I start to wrap it up and he says “No, go ahead and finish what you’re doing.” So I took the stuff to the orderly room and they took it away from me. I didn’t know what they were going to do, and I was worried about it. One guy said I was going to get court-martialed and I’m gonna get the stockade, and another guy said “Naw, naw, naw, he’s government property, and he was working on government property, and they can’t do nothing to him.” I went on to finish basic and never heard no more about it. Of course, I went on without the machine, but that was how I got started scratching around.
I got transfered to Dever, Colorado, and there was a tattoo artist by the name of Art Farrel there. Art was a wrestler and a tattoo artist. Great big guy, redheaded. I got acquainted with him, bought some equipment off him, and he let me work in his shop. That was the first shop I ever put a tattoo on in. I got transferred from there out to California, and later was discharged.
I went back to Denver and opened my first tattoo shop. I was 18, ready to turn 19 years old.
JS: Was there anyone else in Denver when you showed up?
CT: Yeah, there was an elderly gentleman by the name of Jim Connors. He was a retired streetcar conductor, if I remember right. He opened up in the mornings, like about nine o’ clock and by four o’clock he’d go home. I’d open at noon and stay open till late at night. I wasn’t [in Denver] long, I only stayed the one summer.
JS: How did you come from that beginning in tattooing to this shop? You’ve been associated with Bert Grimm’s shop for most of your career, right?
CT: Well, I struggled along for about three years. Back in those days a lot of tattoo artists worked on AC transformers, and that’s all I knew anything about. I wound up in Clarksville, Tennessee, outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when I was 20 years old. I struggled around there about a year, and a gentleman came to town, name was Jack Wells. He called himself the original Sailor Jack. He’d worked with Coleman in Norfolk, he’d worked at Bert Grimm’s shop, he was an old timer. He was probably 61 years old when I met him, and I was about 21. Anyway, he didn’t have any place to work and I let him sit in with me. That was probably the smartest thing I ever did. He took a liking to me, and he got me off of the transformer and onto DC current, taught me how to adjust my machines, how to bend the needle bars. And I started to progress into a tattooer, a good tattooer. We worked together for a little while and then he moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. I worked around there for about 21 years. He did too, come to think of it.
Bob Shaw came to work with me there in Clarksville, and we worked together for about a year before we moved on over to Hopkinsville. We stayed together there until Bob went to work with his uncle at Bert Grimm’s.
JS: Bob tells me you were pretty busy there in Hopkinsville. He tells stories of you guys putting on 90, a hundred tattoos a day when it got real busy.
CT: It was that way off and on. Either you were busy or there was nothing. The tattoo wasn’t that popular with civilans. You tattooed a few coal miners and transient people, but you didn’t get that many. Your basic money came from the military. And if it was good, it was good. If it was bad, it was bad.
JS: Chicken today, feathers tomorrow.
CT: Yeah. It’s not like today. Things are altogether different. People that have got into the tattoo business in the last five or ten years, they don’t know how easy it is and how much help is available for them.
JS: They also don’t know some of the people like yourself, a lot of the old timers. If it wasn’t for guys like you, these people wouldn’t be making such an easy living today.
CT: Well, I think we contributed our part.
JS: You are the guys who sort of cleared the land and put in the runway, as Mike Malone put it.
CT: I know myself, I’ve go through about four different styles.
JS: How would you classify them?
CT: When I started tattooing, if a tattoo wasn’t black and bright, it wasn’t any good. I don’t care how artistic it was. If you didn’t get the stuff into the skin good to where it was going to stay there for years and years, it just wasn’t considered a good tattoo. And that’s what people wanted. The tattoo designs were simpler then, they actually were easier to tattoo if you knew your trade and had your machines running good and everything. That was considered the Coleman style. Coleman was real popular in that area, and Sailor Jerry. Between the two I always kind of liked Sailor Jerry’s work the best, but Coleman had a big reputation.
Then along about the time you had Bert Grimm start doing a little different style of work. Bert worked fast and neat, and his tattoos healed real quick and didn’t get much of a scab on them. But they weren’t as black.
Then you had Amund Dietzel, he was one of the forerunners in the area of fine line tattoo. Dietzel had good colors, he did nice neat work.
I went from that to the Bert Grimm style of work when me and Bob started working together. We decided that if the tattoo healed quicker and all, you were better off. So we were kind of in-between and everybody was happy with what they got.
Then Charlie Cartwright- who I’d like to say is one of the real gentlemen of tattooing, we call him Good Time Charlie- he was the first one I knew of having a professional tattoo shop that did single needle tattooing. Jack Rudy went to work with him later. When I first saw the [single needle] tattooing I was like a lot of other people. I thought “Is this going to stay?” It looked awfully light and scratchy, you know? But it seemed like people got to want it, this was what they wanted. If you’re going to make money, you’ve got to give the people what they want. So I started experimenting with single needle.
JS: You’re probably one of the first old timers, old school tattooists who adapted to that style. You could put on single needle work as clean as anybody. And that was a very unusual thing back in those days.
CT: Well, I got a few pointers when I went to visit with them. Every type of tattooing I’ve ever done was a whole lot of process of elimination. I would try different things. I’d try a different way of making needles, I’d try a different tube, I’d try a different spring on a machine. And most of them I improved by doing this process of elimination.
We all copy from one another. To me, tattoo artists are kind of like forgers even they won’t admit it. They will just subconsciously copy, because if you see somebody doing something you’ll automatically just pick it up and you’ll try it. It’s like, we had a fella working at Bert Grimm’s here for several years, a real good artist named Phil Sims. Now Phil had a way of shading things, he would take and leave the outline and bring the shade inside of it and leave a little skin between the outline and the shade. Now I had never done that, and I’d never seen tattooers do that.
JS: That’s something he might have gotten from the Japanese. That’s the Japanese style.
CT: Well, he studied that stuff all the time. Anyway, he started doing that in the shop, and when he’d shade an eagle he’d shade each feather individually. It looked good. Everybody in the shop started doing that. That just gives you one example. You work in a shop with five tattooers, and you watch every one of them, and you’ll learn. He may not be the best tattooer in the shop, but you’ll find things to copy.
JS: Take the best and leave the rest.
CT: Now Bob Shaw, I always thought he had one of the prettiest handwritings there ever was. He sits down with the machine and it’s natural. It wasn’t natural for me, I never had that kind of handwriting, it’s like drawing. I had to copy capital letters from him.
You’ll improve if you try, that’s what it amounts to. Some people are lazy, what they do is good enough, they’re never going to do any better and that’s it. I’m 62 years old, and today if I find something better, if I see something in another way, I’ll try it.
JS: I think that’s the key to success.
CT: Well, I think that’s the reason I’ve been as successful as I have.
JS: I think once a guy thinks he knows it all, he’s all washed up.
CT: He’s through. Somebody told me that when I started doing single needle. Jack said he thought that was great, that a man of my age would try something new. He thought that was really something. There are older tattooers who still tattoo the way they were 40 years ago. They don’t want to change, they ain’t going to change.
JS: There’s guys out there, you just want to pick their shop up with them in it and put them in the middle of the Smithsonian. They’ve got their place, too, but they’re only going to please a certain kind of person and even then it’s only half the time. That’s what you said before about tattooing. If you’re going to get by you have to give people what they want. That’s kind of what makes tattooing interesting and challenging. It’s not just you and a piece of paper, you’ve got people coming in and giving you all kinds of demands and you’ve got to think on your toes.
CT: You’ve got tattooers that will not draw anything for a person. And you know if a person tattoos for 30 years he’s got to learn to draw something. I never took no art classes or nothing, I’m not great at drawing. But if a guy comes in and wants barbed wire, I’ll draw some good looking barbed wire on him. I don’t like to do women’s faces, I never was any good at it. So I’ll do somebody else’s work.
JS: At least you know what’s available.
CT: You know, when you go from one part of the country to another, you find tattooing is a whole lot different. I don’t travel that much anymore, but I’ve traveled well- and you find that if you go a thousand miles and you go into a tattoo shop, you’ll find that it’s a different ball game.
When I came out here, it was a different style of tattooing, different designs. You were putting on a wider variety of things you met a wider variety of people. It was just altogether different.
JS: When you came out here it was basically Bert Grimm’s shop?
CT: No, Bob had bought the shop. I came out here in 1973. Bert was up in Oregon. Bert was a real interesting fellow. I used to sit and talk with him for hours about old tattooers that I had never met but I had heard about, and he could tell me all about them. He had met most of them.
JS Charlie Wagner…
CT: He told me all about Charlie and Lew the Jew- Lew Alberts, they called him Lew the Jew. He told me how Lew worked with Wagner for years. He told me something about Charlie Wagner that was interesting. Charlie was an honest person, and he got a reputation for good tattooing. Alberts did good tattooing, and Alberts worked in his shop, I believe he said twelve years. Then Lew decided to go over to Brooklyn. He said a guy came into Charlie’s shop and said “I want to get me a good tattoo!” Charlie said “I do cheap tattoos. I don’t do real good tattoos. Now if you want a real good tattoo, you go to my friend Lew Alberts. You’ll get a real good tattoo but you’re going to pay for it. This 25¢ tattoo will cost you three or four dollars.” It’s odd for a tattooer to be that way, you’d think he’d at least try to get him in the chair!
JS: Everybody’s had their contribution to tattooing. Some people like yourself, you’re a great mechanic, very technically minded, a good business person. Real professional, you give nice clean, solid tattoos. Other people in the business, maybe they weren’t quite as good at tattooing but they were better at promoting tattooing or getting out and talking to the press. Take Lyle Tuttle, everybody’s had their own certain contribution. Like Good Time Charlie, he introduced the single needle thing. IT’s kind of like a group effort. Even though a lot of tattooers don’t get along, everybody’s put their little ingredient into this big stew.
CT: That’s what’s made it what it is today. I’ll tell you something that I’ve noticed about tattooers. You take almost any good tattooer that I’ve met and gotten to know, and they’re always talented in other fields. I know a few of them are musicians- now, I know nothing about music, but from what they’ve done they must have had some talent in that field.
Bob Shaw is a very good sign painter. He is a better than average carpenter. Anything within reason that he wants to do, he can tackle and do it. I’m a lot like that myself. I can shoe a horse better than some professional shoers. And I’ve always been an average carpenter or better. There’s a lot of people that are lazy and just will not put out the effort. If it ain’t easy they don’t want to do it.
JS: Those people aren’t going to make it in tattooing or anything else. A lot of people that are good at tattooing might be just as good at selling used cars or flying an airplane. A lot of tattooers do have side businesses or hobbies or something to fall back on, maybe just because tattooing isn’t a guaranteed steady income.
CT: I’ll tell you something a lot of people don’t know. Just go back to when I was a kid in the 30′s. I talked to older tattooers, and most tattooer had to work at something else. You could not make a living at tattooing. Amund Dietzel, I mentioned him earlier, he was a sign painter, show cards, he had a business like that along with his tattoo business.
JS: Huck Spaulding had a wild animal show. A seasonal thing. He’d tattoo for a few months, then he’d have to head south and do some other thing.
CT: It was real common when I was going into the business that a lot of tattoo artists were sign painters.
JS: Charlie Wagner, he was German I think. They say he had an accent. A lot of the earlier people must have been immigrants to this country. I guess back then there must have been a real big difference between the European style of tattooing and what was going on over here.
CT: Now that you bring that up, that’s a strange thing. I was talking to Terry Wrigley, and he say’s they’ve been tattooing single needle in Europe and they’ve started getting away from it. They did it for years. Single needle, now maybe the style of it was new, but single needle tattooing wasn’t as new as a lot of us thought it was.
Huck made a trip over to England right when was first getting into tattooing to the Bristol Tattoo Club. He went over and visited those people, and they saw the heavy black work and that’s what they wanted. They started doing the heavy line work, five needle work.
JS: Bob Shaw told me that there were people in this country who were doing single needle work in the 20′s and 30′s. Artoria Gibbons, Red Gibbon’s wife, she had portraits of presidents all over her, and a lot of that stuff was done in the same sort of style that evolved in East L.A.
CT: I don’t know that it was single needle, I never saw the stuff in person. Bob was telling me that Red Gibbons was hard to get along with. He had one eye, and I heard that the eye got knocked out in a barroom fight. Red was working in Denver before I got there, and the guy that owned the arcade was telling me that Red was tattooing a guy and a couple guys came in to get tattooed , stood there and waited, and Red don’t tell ‘em that he’s closing up after this job. He let’s ‘em stand there. And when they’re ready to get tattooed he tells them, No, I ain’t doing no more. They both got mad and there was almost a big fight. Bert said that Red Gibbons thought that he was a world champion tattooer, and Bert said he damn near was. Said he did really nice work.
JS: Well, if he did that work on his wife, you can only see fuzzy old pictures of it, but it looks pretty damn good.
CT: You hear so many stories. I’ll tell you what Sailor Jack Wells told me, he told me that Artoria was a waitress in a restaurant when Red met her, and said she had a bunch of tattoos. He said Red reworked what she had and I guess covered here. Back in those days there weren’t that many people tattooed all over, and if you were tattooed all over I understand it was pretty easy to get a job with these circuses, and they paid you a good flat salary just to exhibit. You didn’t have do do nothing, just ride along and get up and exhibit and let them make their little pitch. You were like an attraction.
JS: The illustrated man sort of thing. Now all that’s changed. Even this place we’re sitting, Ber Grimm’s shop, this was a whole different ball game back then. This was right smack in the middle of a huge amusement park.
CT: I came here in 1973 to work, and never in my life had I seen anything like it, and never do I expect to again.
JS: This was sort like the west coast version of Coney Island. There were shops everywhere you turned, one right next to the other.
CT: There was four or five shops right around here.
JS: Even when I came to work here, and that was in the late 1970s, I remember there was this tattoo shop here, and the Rose Tattoo, where I worked, and right across the street there were two shops between here and the Rose, and there were a couple up on Long Beach Boulevard. Just about anybody in the whole Southern California area who felt like having a couple of beers and getting tattooed, they’d jump in their trucks and this is where they’d come.
CT: The amazing thing is that with all of these shops here, people were coming and going, this shop here employed five and six full time tattooers. I have come to work in the morning and found people waiting to get in, and I never got caught up- this wasn’t every day, but you have more than one day like this- and then the night shift would come on and you’d have a helper that would have six or eight people lined up for tattoos and you still haven gotten caught up! You’d catch a few slack hours of once in a while a slack day, but I’ve just never seen anything like it.
JS: This place was always busy, and there were a lot of shops here.
CT: Something that Ed Hardy said one time, he said that Bert Grimm had a reputation that when you spent fifty dollars, you got fifty dollars worth of good, neat tattooing. You always got your money’s worth. Ed had a reputation for doing good work. We have people come in and say, “Oh, my grandfather got tattooed here. I wouldn’t get tattooed anywhere else!”
JS: This is probably the oldest standing tattoo shop in the country and a lot of people don’t know it, but this shop, and a few other shops that were around this shop, this is the Mecca, the Big University of Tattooing. How many really world-class tattooers came through here? Ed Hardy, Bob Roberts, Phil Sims, Don Nolan, a lot of people got their chops together in this area before moving on.
CT: A lot of good tattooers have come here and I think all of ‘em where better when they left. I know myself, I was considered a good tattooer when I came here, and I heard Sailor Jack Wells tell me one time when I was probably 30, 35 years old, he said “You’ll do your best tattooing between 40 and 50 years old.” Well that’s not right. I’ve done better tattooing from 50 years old until now because I’ve been exposed. I’ve been around more tattooers.
One reason you have better tattooers today- well, there’s probably two reasons. We’ve got a lot of good tattooers and a lot of good ones coming along. I think the reason for this is that we have had more educated people who have gotten into the tattoo business, plus- I’m going to say there’s three things. People today are not as secretive about what they want, they’re more willing to share their ideas. And this is one reason that tattooing is as popular as it is today. It’s more popular because of better tattooing, people see a good tattoo and it makes them want a good tattoo. They see a couple of old blurred up tattoos and they say, “If that’s what they look like, I don’t want one.”
JS: People are starting to think there is no limit to what you can have tattooed on yourself. Twenty years ago, 40 years ago, that wasn’t the case. Now, when somebody has an idea in mind, they know that they can get it just the way they pictured it or even better.
CT: I’ll give you an example of what you have today in tattooing that was real rare 25 years ago. You seldom, if ever, picked up a customer that was 40 years old and had never been tattooed. I’ve got a guy right now, he came into the shop, his son is in the Marines at 29 Palms Marine Base. They decided to get matching tattoos, him and his son. This guy is 42 years old, never been tattooed. They come in the shop and he gets a heart and ribbon, an old standard tattoo, and he gets his wife’s name in it. He comes back after two weeks and gets another one. He comes back about two weeks later and I put a tiger on him. He came back for a big parrot in the middle of his back. Years ago you didn’t get this. And this is just one case.
JS: And these are good customers, too. They know what they want.
CT: And they’re the type of people that boost tattooing. This guy shows everybody his tattoos, he’s proud of them. In the past, when people had tattoos- and this used to really hurt me- somebody’d meet somebody with a tattoo and they’d say “Where did you get that at? What in the world did you want with a tattoo?” And the guy, instead of saying, “Well, I like it.” he’d say “Oh, I got drunk one time and everybody went. I don’t even remember getting it. I woke up the next morning with this bandage on me.” I hear that to where I got sick.
JS: And it’s never true. Nowadays people stand by it.
CT: That’s right. They’ve got the attitude, if you don’t like it, you do what you want. I’ll do what I want. I think it’s a real healthy attitude.
JS: Live and let live. That’s the big difference today.
CT: Well, I think this trend started on the West Coast.
JS: The West Coast is suck a melting pot, they always talk about New York being a melting pot, but for tattooing, the West Coast was definitely the melting pot of different styles. For one thing, you had the Oriental influence, Sailor Jerry in Hawaii, that sort of fusion of the traditional American style meeting up with Oriental styles and finding it’s way over here. You had this big culture of the Mexicans and a lot of people coming out of the barrio and the prison system– that’s where you got your single needle thing. And you have some real solid all around traditional tattooers like yourself and Bob Roberts and Bert Grimm. You always had a much bigger variety of styles on the West Coast.
CT: What amazes me about that is that you take your gang-type Mexicans, they all want single needle black tattooing. They don’t want color. You take your illegals from Mexico, they want all the color you can put in it and they’re not particular. You can put on a woman with one eye bigger than the other, one ear bigger than the other, and as long as it’s got lots of color they don’t mind.
JS: You get calls for everything. The tattooers down here are well versed in a lot of styles, they have to really be on their toes.
CT: I don’t know how it is on the East Coast or in the Midwest, I haven’t lived in the Midwest in 19 years, but when I was in the Midwest you hardly had anyone that wanted to get their back or chest covered. And when I come to California, Bob Shaw must have had eight or ten people that he was working on by the hour.
JS: To this day, he’s got a whole wall right here of nothing but back pieces, and I remember the first time I ever walked into this shop, I said, “Oh boy, this is the real thing!” I’d never seen a tattoo shop like this. This is what you call serious tattooing.
CT: Bob Shaw, he knew what would sell. He could design a painting sometimes and I’d think what’s he painting that for? And he’d put it on the wall and it’d sell like hell. He always had a know for knowing what would sell and what wouldn’t sell. Phil Sims called a couple of weeks ago, and I said “What is the tattoo business like today? Your younger bunch of tattooer can’t paint a sheet of flash, they can’t cut a plastic stencil, they dont know how to cut a set of springs for a machine. I always thought that if a guy was gonna put his stuff up to be a top tattooer he ought to be able to cut a set of springs for his machine and adjust it, and he ought to be able to sit down and pain a sheet of average flash- he doesn’t have to be a master at it- cut a good stencil and use a plastic stencil. I guess you can get away without it, it’s less work. It seems like tattooing is getting to be just a regular retail business!”
JS: There’s people getting into the tattoo business that are just a shock to the people of the old school. They just don’t think the same as the guys we met up with when we came into tattooing way back when.
CT: Everything reaches it’s peak. If a person gets into the tattoo business and he’s going to try and make a living for the rest of his life, he’s got to tattoo an awful lot of people. After you get enough people in the tattoo business, is there going to be enough people around who want to get tattooed?
I think that all these people that are making the money off the tattoo business, if they wanted to do something for tattooing should go into some of the cities where you can’t tattoo and promote it. And they’ll make even more money if they do that.
JS: We’re still in the Dark Ages here. This is still a young art form. We’re just starting to see the things that can be done technically.
CT: I met Bert Grimm about 1950 and Bert told me, “I don’t think we’ve got but a few good years to work. I think they’re going to do away with tattooing all together.” And there’s a lot of people that if they had their way, it would be gone. But what they’re going to do, they’ll drive it underground. You are not going to stop people from getting tattooed, even if they have to poke along by hand in the most unsanitary method. They always got tattooed and they always will. They tell me a lot of Christians used to get tattooed, they would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land an they got a little cross on their should to signify that they had made a journey to the Holy Land. Who’s to say that our society has the right ideas? Your different societies that get tattooed, that believe in tattooing, who’s to say that we’re more right than they are?
JS: People always got tattooed and they always will.
CT: Amen to that, buddy!
A very special thanks to Jonathan Shaw for his blessing on putting these interviews online.