Oral History

Jonathan Shaw Interviews: Col. William L. Todd

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.

Enjoy.


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.
(more…)

Letters from Mr. Goldfield- Dylan

One of the best things about logging into Facebook these days are the occasional “back in the day” posts by tattoo icon and all around nice guy Henry Goldfield. These pieces of history are amazing; snapshots of tattoo shop life before they were televised and mass marketed. With Mr. Goldfield’s generous permission, I’ll be posting some of them here on OV. Maybe we can convince Henry to put it all down in book form one of these days!


Beginning in the late 50s, there was a man in San Francisco that was totally Tattooed. One of us, family so to speak. His name was Dylan. He was a gentleman when he was off his meds. You would think it would be the other way around, but his MO was to save them up and go way out there. He usually roamed the streets shirtless and barefoot. Sometimes I would see him at three or four AM wandering the city wearing only pants, regardless of how cold it was. When this happened, I would stop and ask him if he was OK. He would come out of his stupor just a little and say, “Oh, Hi Henry.” I would give him a few bucks and he would go on his way. When He came into the shop during business hours, it was to make sure we had a bad day. We would have to throw him out pronto. The idiocy he could unload on us in just a few minutes was amazing. But in that short span, he would borrow twenty bucks or so, while screaming, “Don’t hit me, don’t hit me!”

No one would ever think of violence on this man, but he liked the drama. He would come back for more money for another day or two, until the NO! became final. This started with me in 1978 and continued for about twentyfive years. Not once, not ever, did he ever fail to pay the money back. He didn’t need to. No matter how loaded and sick he was, he always remembered and appreciated. There was a time or two when he was in some psychiatric unit somewhere, he would send someone in the shop the money he borrowed maybe two years prior. Then there was the time he went to a rehab organization and told them that I had put out a hit on him if he didn’t pay me the fifty bucks I loaned him (it was only thirty). They sent me a letter warning me to lay off. Then they sent me a check in full with a stipulation stating that in the cashing of the check, I agreed not to harm Dylan. He knew how to tip. There was the time he went to St. Francis Hospital having a heart attack and told them he was me. It took me a long time and some rough times getting their billing department off my back.

Just before I met him, he called the San Francisco police and told then where he was (Tenderloin phone booth) and that he had a panther on a leash and that he was going to turn it loose. Crazies were doing things like that then. The Police showed up and Dylan stepped up and told them who he was and it was he that called,and asked the dangerous question, What are thy gonna do about it? They beat the living hell out of him. The next day, after getting out of Jail, he went to Lyle Tuttle’s shop where the help took photos. He took those prints to a lawyer, sued the City, and a deal was worked out for him to get disability pay for the rest of his life and legal fees to be covered. Dylan, the retiree! Later we can discuss the time he was arrested for bank robbery and beat the rap. Dylan, gone now, but ever a memory of a friend that kept life jumping for his friends.

Crazy Eddie

I can’t remember the first time I met ‘Crazy’ Philadelphia Eddie Funk.
It was probably sometime in the early 1990s, and you can bet that he had on some godawful suit (who knew that meringue was an option for suits?) with a trademark screwdriver in each hand. But every time I’d see him at a convention over the years, he’d always make me laugh and, despite how old I get I doubt he’ll ever stop calling me ‘kid’.

Eddie, along with ghostwriter/PhD Dr. Eric Foemmel, has been chronicling his life and times in book form with the series “Tattooing: The Life and Times of Crazy Philadelphia Eddie”. They run like a standard oral history with Eddie narrating his life (and I believe come in audio form as well, read by the author) and are extensively illustrated with amazing photographs from the last hundred plus years of tattoo history.

I picked up volume one from Eddie this weekend at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention; I’ve skimmed through it with plans to pick up the other available volumes soon.

Here’s a snapshot of Eddie signing my copy of Vol. 1.
Godawful suit, screwdrivers on the table and a ‘here ya go, kid’ when he handed it over. Seems about right….

You can find our more about the book series here: Crazy Philadelphia Eddie.

Lyle Tuttle in San Diego

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The first time I met Lyle Tuttle in person was in the hotel bar at a convention in New Orleans, probably 4am. I remember all the details like it happened yesterday; Iron Eagle was on tv, the bartender looked less than politely disinterested in having to work the shift and Lyle was entertaining a few people at the only fully occupied table in the bar.

I joined in, probably 20 at the time, and did the only respectful thing I could do- shut the heck up and listen to Lyle tell stories, pontificate and simply BE Lyle Tuttle.

For better or for worse Lyle has been a key figure in the modern history of western tattooing; he’s one of those old timers that you could listen to ad infinitum and learn not only about tattooing, but about being a character (and probably even a few dirty jokes you’d never heard before) in a time when character was more important than technique.

This is another excerpt from Ace’s ‘Colored People Invade San Diego’ video.

The Lightbearer

Another update from musician Bobby Beausoliel on his Lucifer tattoo. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the soundtrack for Anger’s LUCIFER RISING, swing by White Dog Music for the download. (OR the LP!)

From Bobby:

“Hey Shawn,

Yes, I tattooed LUCIFER on myself while at San Quentin, back in ’73. I had been caught up in a serious fracas on the SQ yard, and was in the infirmary mending a broken jaw and broken left hand. A friend smuggled some ink and guitar string into me, and I did several tattoos on myself in the weeks I was in the infirmary with my jaw wired shut and my hand in a cast. The Lucifer tattoo is below an eagle that had been done earlier. It represents a personal vow I made then to dedicate my life to creativity, renouncing violence and destructiveness, to live and express as an artist (i.e. “lightbearer”) for all of my life thereafter. I have stuck to that vow.

Bobby

PS: Hardy’s description of meeting me and what my apartment was like was the only accurate section on that page from Spring’s book you sent me.”