Bert Grimm was one of the most influential American tattooers of the early 20th century, getting started in the tattoo business at the age of about 15. Grimm first started hanging out at tattoo shops in Portland, Oregon, but his first job was working at the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. After working and traveling with sideshows he secured his first apprenticeship in the early 1920’s with Sailor George Fosdick in Oregon, and later he completed a two year apprenticeship with Sailor Charlie Barrs in Los Angeles.
Throughout his 70 plus years of tattooing Bert worked in Chicago, Honolulu, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Seattle, Los Angeles, Long beach, St Louis, Portland and Seaside Oregon, and even in China. He also worked with some of the other greats of the time such as Domingo Gulang, Charlie Barr, Tatts Thomas, Red Gibbons, Walter Torun, Bob Shaw, Percy Waters, William Grimshaw, Col Todd, Owen Jensen, and others.
Bert’s World Famous Tattoo was a historic shop that he ran in Nu Pike in Long Beach, CA from the 1950’s through the 60’s where hundreds of sailors were tattooed before shipping out.
Bert was inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame which was located at Lyle Tuttle’s Tattoo Art Museum in San Francisco. He retired in Seaside, Oregon but continued to tattoo out of a small shop in his home, doing around 10 tattoos a week according to a letter written to Paul Rogers.
Some of Bert’s most well known pieces include the Sun Dancer, the smiling sun, and Lyle Tuttle’s Duel in the Sun. Other popular designs from him include tiger heads, ships, and patriotic pieces for those in the military.
David O’Connor is a traditional tattoo artist working out of Trophy Tattoo in Hamilton, Ontario. The shop caters specifically to those looking for American traditional tattoos, and all of the artists who work there do fantastic work.
Davids Instagram is full of classic flash and finished pieces that would have been seen on the walls of tattoo shops throughout the 1900’s and on the bodies of sailors.
When booking a tattoo with David you can choose from pre-drawn flash or bring your own idea to the table. David and the rest of the shop also take walk-ins.
The majority of his work is done in colour, with the traditional colours of black, red, and green, but if you’re looking for some black traditional work he’s got you covered as well.
Whether you’re looking for a small walk-in piece or a full back, David does it all, with style. If you’re in Hamilton or just passing through he is a must see artist for all your traditional needs.
Tony Torvis is the owner of Mortem Tattoo in Montréal, Canada. His work consists of traditional old school designs without colour, making his clients look like the brilliant black and white photographs of days long past.
Tony’s work is reminiscent of the great tattooers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but is still recognizable as a Tony Torvis piece.
Expect crisp clean lines and bold, powerful motifs such as dragons, snakes, lady heads, portraits, and flowers. There is original flash in the shop to choose from, or you can bring your own idea to him, or re-create an old piece of historical flash.
Tony’s Instagram page is full of both large and small scale work, from chest pieces to full backs, sleeves, and little filler pieces.
You’ll also notice from his Instagram page that the majority of clients are repeat customers. Tony’s tattoos are kind of like chips, you just can’t stop at one! Mortem tattoo is a must visit shop if you’re in the area, and there are other brilliant artists working there as well.
Doc Forbes is one of the most famous early tattoo artists in Canadian history, having learned the craft from Frederick Baldwin, the first tattoo artist in Canada to use an electric tattoo machine, in the 1920’s.
Doc Forbes trained under numerous brilliant artists including Pat Martynuik from San Francisco. Much of Doc’s work can be found in Lyle Tuttle’s collection, although unfortunately Doc suffered a stroke in the early 70’s which led to severe depression, which in turn led to him destroying a lot of his work.
Doc Forbes tattooed in the classic old school American traditional style, and most notably worked near the navy base in Victoria, and then on Davies Street right in Vancouver from the 1960’s through to the 1970’s. He died in 1977 on Lyle Tuttle’s birthday; October 10th. Though Doc was a pioneer of old school tattooing in Canada, he also performed medical tattoos on burn victims, and cosmetic tattooing on women’s lips and eyebrows.
Doc tattooed everyone, but his main clientele was young men in the Navy who often got classic military and navy designs such as eagles, skulls, roses, ships, and lover’s names.
A brilliant documentary about Doc can be seen here on CBC’s website. Made in 1964, and entitled “The Diary of a Tattooist,” the short documentary and interview features CBC host Harry Mannis visiting Doc in his shop in Victoria. Numerous people are tattooed in the short film including a mother of four, a man in his 80’s, a close friend of Doc’s, and two sailors. Throughout the documentary Doc talks about hygiene and safety in tattooing, how he makes his colours, the technicality of running the machine, who his clientele are, and much more.
Francesco does classic old school tattoos that are bright and vibrant in colour, with bold black lines. Looking at Francesco’s work, you’ll only see black, red, and yellow/gold making up these beautiful pieces.
His portfolio includes both one shot smaller pieces, and large full back or front pieces. Among these gorgeous designs you’ll find classics such as the Rock of Ages, Sun Dance, devils and angels, lady heads, and animals such as snakes, eagles, and butterfly’s.
Whether you live in Rome or are passing through, Francesco is another must see artist.
Mike Roberts is a tattoo artist working out of Grizzly Tattoo in Portland, Oregon. His style is mainly old school with a tendency towards darker imagery such as horror movie icons, weapons, and the undead, but you can catch him making more Japanese inspired pieces such as flowers and dragons as well.
Mike is the perfect artist to feature in October, as much of his work consists of the macabre; everything from wolves and spiders to medieval torture devices and undead warriors that give me strong Evil Dead and Army of Darkness vibes.
But don’t worry if you can’t make it to Mike in October, he’s tattooing spooky pieces all year round, doing both large scale pieces and one offs. Grizzly Tattoo is a must stop shop if you live in Portland or are passing through.
Joey strives to make a welcoming environment for all who wish to get tattooed, regardless of body type, skin tone, gender, etc. They are a fierce defender of Queer folks and also do their part to call out anti-Semitism, particularly in sub cultures of tattooing and alternative music. You can read an interview that features Joey and other Jewish artists here.
When you check out Joey’s instagram (linked above) you can expect to see lots of flowers, (Jewish) lady heads, and Hebrew script intermingled with classic old school tattoo designs.
Now (August 2020) Joey also makes face masks with other local Toronto artists, and has flash, shirts, tote bags, and more available on their Etsy.
Be sure to check them out if you live in Toronto or are passing through!
For over 100 years, “The Tattooed Lady” was an attraction not to be missed at circuses, carnivals, and freak shows all around the world. While men also performed and showed off their tattooed bodies, women were what people wanted to see. Pick a time in history, or modern day, and sex and danger sells. Thus, tattooed women sold tickets wherever they went, and attracted tourists and locals alike.
Some of the most famous tattooed ladies of the 1800’s and 1900’s also had fabricated back stories to make themselves seem more interesting. What’s more interesting (especially given the times); “woman tattooed by force after capture by ‘savages'”, or “woman gets tattooed by her common-law partner?” This was part of the fabrication and later true story of Nora Hildebrandt.
Nora Hildebrandt is known as the first professional tattooed lady. She was tattooed by her common-law partner, Martin Hildebrandt (some people refer to them as father and daughter but more evidence points to them being romantic partners rather than father and daughter). Martin Hildebrandt is a hard person to pin down due to the amount of traveling he did. But according to numerous reports it looks like he eventually settled in New York in the 1850’s. Nora Hildebrandt began performing at sideshows in 1882, with over 365 tattoos all over her body. This number helped her fake back story of being captured by “Indian savages” and forcibly tattooed one per day for a year (which she later admitted was false and just helped sell tickets). Nora most famously performed with Barnum and Bailey’s circus in the 1890’s as their main tattooed lady.
Artoria (Anne) Gibbons is another well known tattooed lady. She worked for over 30 years in circuses and sideshows in the early 1900’s including Barnum and Bailey’s, the Ringling Brothers, and others. She met Charles “Red” Gibbons, an already well known tattooer, and the two eventually married. After being married for 4-5 years, Red started tattooing Anne, and she became almost like a business card or canvas to showcase his work. She was apparently so beautiful, and the tattoos on her body so well done, that she stole the show wherever she went. In an interview in 1934, Anne said that she was often asked if she was born that way (seriously). From medieval times to the mid 1900’s many people believed in the “mark of impression,” that something the mother had done or seen would leave a physical mark on the baby. Doctors legitimately thought that her mother had watched too many movies while she was pregnant with Anne and that’s why she was covered in images.
A third well known tattooed lady was Betty Broadbent. She was born in the early 1900’s and at the age of 14 went to work for a wealthy family in Atlantic City as a nanny. It was there that she came across the heavily tattooed man, Jack Red Cloud on the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. He was performing as a Tattooed Man and was happy to talk to her about tattoos and art. Betty started her body suit after being introduced to Jack’s friend, the famous Charlie Wagner. She spent her life savings tot ravel to New York City to and start being tattooed by Wagner. She was also tattooed by another New York artist named Joe Van Hart, and eventually collected pieces from Tony Rhineagear and Red Gibbons. The process took about two years and included 365 individual pieces, varying in theme. They covered her arms, legs, back, and chest. Pieces included historical figures such as Queen Victoria, religious figures such as the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Though one of her most notable pieces is a huge eagle that spreads from shoulder to shoulder. When asked about it she reportedly said “it hurt something awful, but it was worth it.”She joined the circus in 1927, working with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s. Betty was also one of the few well known Tattooed Ladies who didn’t use a fabricated story about her tattoos.
The last Tattooed Lady I looked at is Maud Wagner. Along with being a Tattooed Lady, Maud also performed aerial acrobatics and was an accomplished contortionist who travelled with multiple circuses. She was born in 1877 in Kansas. Maud met her husband, Gus Wagner at the Louisiana World’s fair in 1904, and learned how to do hand-poked tattoos from him. She would become America’s first known female tattooer, along with her work as a performer in the circus industry. The couple had a daughter, Lotteva, who learned the family trade at the age of 9 and continued tattooing throughout her life. Maud’s tattoos included patriotic art, and animals mainly.
It is often assumed that men dominated the tattoo world, but through research it’s clear to see that women have been just as important in shaping tattoo culture. Tattooed Ladies brought tattoos to the forefront of underground society, and helped make them “more acceptable.” Tattooed Ladies were able to make a name and living for themselves for over 100 years, from the late 1800’s to mid 1990’s through circuses and carnivals, and now are able to through websites and magazines.