Collecting Tattoos (or) I Could Really Use A Hand, An Arm Or A Leg Here

Every day I receive a number of requests from vintage collectors. Most are fairly normal inquiries. A teak wall unit, a Russel Wright completer piece, a set of bar stools, a Murano glass lamp. Normal, practical, wonderful vintage.

But there are those requests that are not so easy to classify, let alone find. I’ll save some of the more peculiar for another chat, as they are often odd, curious, disturbing and sometimes even sick. Such is retail. Let he who is without sin cast the first Stonehenge.

Now there was a time when the tattoo artist was a lowly profession– and  it wasn’t because they lacked extraordinary talents. Most certainly did. However when your clientele are thieves, murderers, con men, rapists, etc., it’s hard to get good press. Word of mouth is always the best advertisements– so long as your happiest customers didn’t get their throats slit. Repeatedly.

No, being a tattoo artist 100+ years ago carried the stressed-out baggage of today’s dentists. Sure they turned YOUR dentist’s office into a SPA, but he’s still a DENTIST, remember?

Thankfully those robust sailors of yesteryear helped polish up the image of the socially underground  tattoo artist. Their infamously rowdy and randy behavior, their drunken binges and the sexual experimentation that followed (HIDE YOUR LIVESTOCK!) all fueled a tattoo renaissance that continues to this day. Now there are countless tattoo books, clothing labels/designers, cable TV shows and fake tattoo media most everything. You gotta love those child transfer tattoos for the up and coming Hell’s Angels Tykes Without Bikes.

Which brings us back to collecting. Short of a few rare vintage books and pamphlets, CDVs and Cabinet Card photographs, or some (often unsigned) tattoo etchings that come along in a blue-inked moon, it’s a tough arena to build a collection. But, like your mother who won’t stop talking, I have some advice.

Next time you’re at a bar, on the bus, or picking up your cat/dog at the vet, and you notice some incredible tattoo on any (even if undetermined) sex, start up a conversation. Ask them who did their tattoo. I guarantee that 9 out of 10 people will give you the tattoo artist’s name. Some may even have their card. (Future collectible!)

So whatever information you can garner, write it down and Google it later. This is precisely why Al Gore invented the Internet. You’ve been given permission to stalk, just be nice about it. Use it and build your collection.

And how does this put skin back into the game, you may ask?  Because these artists have sketches, drawings, ideas by the basket.  Contact your favorite artists. The more well known artists will be quite savvy and may have tattoo art that is not only for sale but beyond your price range. Again, if you really love the work, try to acquire those delicate onion skin drawing drafts–Have them sign and date a card you can keep along with it (and later frame).

Lesser known artists may have similar pieces for a fraction of the price of the big boys, but the same rules apply. Often they will be most flattered that you tracked them down. You’re a fan!  Tell them so.

But the old maxim still applies. Buy what you like. Maybe these purchases will supplement your retirement 40 years from now. Or maybe you’ll just live with the best kick-ass tattoo art collection and be the envy of your lazy-ass friends. Either way, it’s win/win.

This is still an underground art form. It’s still an ancient art, it’s still borderline taboo. Yes, it’s  impacting our media now in ways never imagined. But this is not a medium kept easily silent in a box.

So go ahead: cover yourself in tattoos from head to toe. I don’t care. But unlike your young tattooed skin that will eventually fade and wrinkle away, professionally framed and preserved tattoo art can last longer than the clearing of your final social security check.

EPILOGUE:  Please, please read Justin Spring’s voyeuristic and historic book “Secret Historian.” It documents the life of Samuel Steward: Professor, Novelist, Sexual Autobiographer Extraordinaire… not to mention a legendary tattoo artist of 1950’s/60’s Chicago. He was also one of Kinsey’s favorite sexual case studies. Yet if Steward’s claims are true, he was collecting DNA as a hobby before anyone. And if this wasn’t juicy enough, he supposedly slept with many of the greatest male stars of Hollywood. And all of it kept in his now infamous and forever-sealed “Stud File.” (Hint: he liked sailors… like alot!)

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