Oral History

Rudy Inhelder


I first met Rudy in the early/mid 1990s through the UNIQUE classified ads. A self described ‘tattoo and piercing enthusiast’, Rudy and I exchanged letters and photographs over the years, sharing stories of our own tattoos and experiences. Our correspondence eventually fell off and, as is prone to happen, we lost touch with one another. I’m not sure what ever happened to him, though many of his letters are still in my collection.

Clipper Ship (center of chest) by Sailor Eddie Evans.
Dragons by Alan Oversby.

Rudy is briefly mentioned in an article by Gauntlet’s Jim Ward: http://runningthegauntlet-book.com/BME/jimward/20050715.html

In 1996 Rudy sent me a photocopy of a profile on him from the NTA’s magazine- what follows is a transcript. He did not provide a month/year/issue number.

My interest in tattoos became activated as a youngster in 1954 when I read a critique about Hanns Ebenstein’s book “Pierced Hearts and True Love” in a local newspaper in my native Switzerland. I wrote to Hanns, who in return put me in contact with one of the most famous British artists, Rich Mingins in London. 1955 I was sent to London for further education and then met Rich in person. The same year, probably the first national convention to place in a pub in London, organized by Rich Mingins, , Les Skuse from Bristol and Jessie Knight from Aldershot. This was also the start of my photo collection.

In 1957 I emigrated to the United States and got really involved in tattooing. My first tattoos were done by sailor Eddie Evans in Camden, New Jersey and Paul Rogers who then work with him. Work by Phil Sparrow (Chicago), (then Crazy) Philadelphia Eddie Funk, Huck Spaulding (Albany, N.Y.) and Buddy Mott (Rhode Island) followed.

I then realized that very many people are interested in tattooing, but had difficulties meeting others of the same interest. Therefore, in 1963 some friends and I in New York decided to do something about it. We found it the “Tattoo Club of America “, probably the first American Tattoo club. I collected news items related tattooing and in January 1964 published the first periodical dedicated tattoos, the “Tattoo News”. As a supplement the “History of Tattooing” was added from time to time. Tattoo tidbits and instructive news items, very much in the vein of the column now written by Lal Hardy for “Tattoo international”, where the main attraction of the publication.

On 5 October, 1964 I organized probably the first tattoo convention in the U.S.A. – and if you hadn’t already guessed it, Elizabeth Weinziril was, of course, there. That was the time when a few young artist such a sailor Jerry Collins of Honolulu started to change the style of American tattoos. The beginnings were small and the magazine only mimeographed, but it was a start. Unfortunately my job became more and more demanding so that the December 1966 issue of “Tattoo News” was the last to appear. I had nothing to do with the later magazine which took over my title.

In 1970 the cutback in the defense industry in the USA for which I worked as a physicist, forced me to look around and I went to Munich, Germany to work for a German firm. In 1973 this firm sent me to England, where George Bone and Alan Oversby in London have mainly worked on me since. I have not missed a single convention of the TCCB be since its beginning and felt very honored when I was asked on several occasions to be on the jury of the beauty contests.

It is good to see that the Tattoo tradition continues, many more people get tattooed with better designs, more clubs are founded , more publications printed and more conventions held. It shall continue.

Benefitting Zeke


I talk about this all the time, but there was a point in my life where I was terrified to walk into a tattoo shop. Back when there was still an air of mystery to the whole thing; it had it’s own language that I didn’t speak, smells that I didn’t recognize and often unsavory characters behind the counter doing what to my eyes looked like magic.

A few decades later and I’ve learned the lingo as good as anyone else; I know what a dummy rail is and that I’m the dummy. I know that the smell of green soap can make me travel back in time, the proper use of SpeedStick deodorant and that some of those characters- and God were they characters back then- were some of the most amazing people I’m ever going to meet.

One of my early tattooers- willing to put up with the nagging questions of a Plant City farm kid- was ‘Just Plain Bud’ Pierson who owned Ancient Art Tattoo on the Orange Blossom Trail of Orlando. This shop was smack dab in the middle of the Trail, flanked by nudie bars and not too far a drive to the Orlando Naval Training Center and it got all kinds of foot traffic coming through. When I started getting tattooed by Bud I was still wet behind the ears, but getting tattooed was still something I looked forward to (times have changed. Lyle Tuttle calls it the ‘World’s Dumbest Hobby’ and the older I get, the more I hate it) just because of Bud’s stories.

All of those old timers had stories to tell and once I got over the fear of making an ass of myself and nutted up enough to talk with them, I’d soak it all up. it was never work talk. I’m not a tattooer and had no interest in asking them what needles they used for what kind of job. It’s not for me to ask what powdered pigment they use for that super bright purple or any of that- but you get them talking about breaking up a fight between a bunch of sailors or having to stash a mystery package for a local biker gang and I’m all ears.

One of the tattooers that Bud always talked about in absolute reverence was Zeke Owen. It’s not an understatement to say that I grew up hearing Zeke’s name, given how young I was when I first started getting tattooed at Ancient Art, yet fate would conspire to never put me in the same place at the same time with him. At least until a few years ago when I saw him wandering around at the Philly Tattoo Convention, casually strolling from booth to booth and checking out what was going on. I was going to go up and introduce myself, but for the first time in a long time- I was nervous.

It was ZEKE. And I didn’t want to make an ass of myself, gushing all over him like some sort of sap. So I chickened out. I ran into Mike Schweigert of Electric in NJ and told him that I felt like a gigantic goober for being so nervous. Mike told me a few Zeke stories that made me chuckle (and made me even more nervous about saying hello) and thanks to him I finally gussied up the stones to go say hi.

When I approached Zeke, before I even got to say hi, he started flexing a tattoo on his arm to make it dance, and said “give this a look.” And I did. And that old fear was gone and I was able to do exactly what I was worried I was going to do- gush and come off like some sort of sap, but it was fine. Zeke told me a few stories, cracked a few jokes at the expense of some of the younger tattooers working the show, and was every inch of him that (not quite) unsavory character who could do magic.

Zeke is currently in Sanford, Florida and is unfortunately suffering from serious medical issues that are taking an extreme financial toll on him.

If you’ve ever met Zeke or heard a Zeke story, you know the impact he’s made on tattoo culture. If you have a few bucks to throw into the pot it would really help him out.



An evening with Doctor Matt Lodder: Sutherland MacDonald

10614268_962482807113038_4900246450809471345_nFor our UK Readers:
My friend Dr. Matt Lodder is going to be giving a talk on 29th January 2015 at the wonderfully named Cock a Snook on the life and times of British tattoo artist Sutherland MacDonald- including never before seen photos of Sutherland’s work.
You can send an email to cockasnook@hotmail.com for more information.

“For nearly forty years crowned heads and famous people climbed the narrow staircase in Jermyn Street to visit Macdonald and to leave bearing some of the most wonderful ornaments ever placed on human skin. A well spoken, intelligent and gentle man, Sutherland Macdonald made friends of his customers, who treated him as an equal.”- George Burchett



Occult Vibrations Book Shelf: LOST LOVE


Bob Collins

Things go in cycles.
Back in they glory days of the 1990s, before large publishing houses realized that there was money to be made by mass producing generic tattoo books, we had it good. The books that were available pretty much fell into three basic categories:

Independent Press.
Art Books.

1579927_10203135474375783_1196755382_nWhile clearly for profit, these books were niche sellers, made for a specific demographic (though in the case of Scholastic or Medical texts, often a shared one) who generally had to seek them out. I spent almost every Saturday during those years driving to Ybor City to check out the new pickups at Cindy Wheeler’s Three Bird’s bookstore; a one-stop-shop for zines, cult authors and tattoo books. The majority of my Hardy Marks collection came from those visits; Rocks of Ages, Forever Yes, Pierced Hearts and True Love… the best of the tattoos books were put out by and for tattooed people.

Things changed. Things always change. Someone realized that books on tattoos- culled from stock photos with a hack-for-hire to churn out ‘expert’ text illustrating biomechanical, tribal or newschool tattoos for casual readers in middle America- were a guaranteed seller. You went from Permanent Curios to The TOTAL Tattoo Book! overnight.

For a while it was absolutely possible, with due diligence, to track down and purchase almost every commercially released tattoo book available, and what’s more,  most were good. Better than good really. Some transcended and became iconic. Then things went a little crazy, with books by authors or photographers you never heard of flooding retailer shelves, each more bland then the one before it. The soul was gone.

After the mass production/consumption phase, we were in a black hole. Hardy wasn’t releasing books with any regularity. The internet became a depository for a quick fix (after all- photos could be uploaded real time from conventions and shops the world over; no more waiting for the latest issue of Tattoo Revue or Hardy compilation to be released) and things got stale.

Lost Love preview.

Lost Love preview.

The cycle thankfully started to shift back in our favor a few years ago when tattooers began investigating the self publishing world, and thanks to online retail, were able to skip the middleman and find a global audience hungry for content. Dave Fox’s HAUNTED, Grime’s TWO YEAR AUTOPSY and a handful of others became instant classics and started a wave that we’re now fully enjoying.

For my money, the best and brightest in this new generation of tattoo publishing has to be Yellow Beak Press. Started by tattoo collectors Scott Boyer and Kayla Grosneth, YBP burst onto the scene with 2012’s mammoth undertaking ‘Tattooing as you like it: The Legacy of Milton Zeis.” The book was an instant success; Boyer and Grosneth not only researching the life and times of Milt but also gathering 95 of the world’s top tattooers to reinterpret classic Zeis designs.

They followed it up with my personal favorite Yellow Beak offering, 2013’s ‘Born Weird’, a companion book to the art show of the same name with 29 amazing tattooers contributing disturbing, vile, prurient tattoo flash for a no holes barred adult audience. It remains my most recommended tattoo book that was released in 2013 though I admit given it’s lower than lowbrow designs it has a hard time ingratiating itself to casual readers.

1477700_10202668090211471_567420024_nFor 2014 they’ve taken another look into the past with ‘Lost Love’,  collecting (some for the first time) classic tattoo flash by  icons like Cap Coleman, Sailor Jerry Collins, Stoney St. Clair, Percy Water,Owen Jensen, Bob Shaw,  Zeis Studios and more. The pages lovingly highlight the roots of European/American tattoo designs that we all but take for granted today; dice, cards, snakes, panthers, Girl heads, Skunks and Ducks, Hotstuffs and Horses… 260 pages packed with designs that are as “ancient as time, as modern as tomorrow.” Scott and Kayla present the flash sheets along with archival photos, newspaper clippings and ephemera that influenced what went on to be classic designs and very little in the way of text. These images speak for themselves and will undoubtable influence a whole new generation of artists.

With more and more publishing being done digitally and Kindle and iBook editions starting to take market share, it’s nice to see a small publishing house stick to tradition and release honest to goodness print books, particularly when it comes to tattoo culture. With their third book they’ve proven themselves to be committed to properly documenting the best of tattooing’s past, as well as the brightest of it’s future. 

You can purchase Lost Love directly from Yellow Beak Press.

Krooked Ken: Unedited

Rachel Timmins Interviews Krooked Ken at Black Anchor Tattoo from rachel timmins on Vimeo.

I’m lucky to have talented friends.
One of them, a talented Maryland based artist named Rachel Timmins, interviewed folks active in the Body Modification industry (re: not just tattooers) for a paper in her Masters program and was kind enough to share the unedited footage of the legendary Krooked Ken with us here at OV.

When you watch the video, keep in mind that it was intended for print and isn’t edited. None the less, it’s a fascinating peek into Ken’s world.

Thanks, Rachel!

(if you’re into jewelry- both metal work and textile- check out Rachel’s blog. )

Bob Shaw Interview.

I could sit and read these interviews all day. Another one from the very gracious Jonathan Shaw; this time interviewing the legendary Bob Shaw. Bob (1926-1993) was known as an innovative flash painter and letterer. He had full sleeves from Bert Grimm by the time he was sixteen years old and later went on to run Bert’s shop at the Pike. If you haven’t already read the Col. Todd interview I posted, check it out!

Originally Published in 1993, International Tattoo Art magazine Vol. 1 Number 5.

Bob Shaw: The Life and Times of a Tattoo Hero.

Paul Rogers and Bob Shaw.

This interview was conducted with Bob Shaw, several months before his death, at his Aransas Pass home. His frankness, humor and generosity of spirit are clearly felt through his words and anecdotes. Even at death’s door, he was never too preoccupied to share his all with the tattoo world to which he lovingly dedicated to his life and times.

Jonathan Shaw: Bob, you’ve been tattooing for a long time now, over fifty years, right?

Bob Shaw: Fifty-one years.

JS: Fifty-one years. Thats a long time to be doing anything. How did it all start?

BS: It’s kind of strange, I guess. My father died when I was a kid, and my mother remarried when I was 13, and the fellow she married wasn’t very good at taking care of the family. Everything I did was ass-backwards. My brother two years older than me had left home and went into the city about six months before that, and he invited me there in the summer of 1941.