Tattoo History 18: Bert Grimm

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.

Astraea painting by Bert Grimm and posted by Bert Grimm Official
Leo Lipe tattooed by Bert Grimm. Posted by Vintage Tattoo Archive

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 Grimm tiger by Darren Quinn at Sang Bleu Tattoo in London
Ed Caldwell and Bert Grimm, posted by Vintage Tattoo Archive

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 Grimm’s Sundancer
Bert Grimm suns by Hans Blue Arms at Blue Arms Tattoo in Oslo

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.

Ed Caldwell’s back tattooed by Bert Grimm and posted by Bert Grimm Official
Crucifixion back by Bert Grimm on Jack Flux and posted by Bert Grimm Official

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. 

Sailor Larry’s Homeward Bound back done by Bert Grimm posted by Bert Grimm Official
Lyle Tuttle’s Duel in the Sun by Bert Grimm

Do you have a Bert Grimm Tattoo?

Blog post edited by Harrison R.

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Sun Dancer Tattoos:

The Sun Dancer tattoo is an easily recognizable American traditional design, first painted by Bert Grimm, a pioneer of American traditional tattooing who worked from around 1916-1970. An important part of Indigenous history and culture, the Sun Dance is a spiritual ceremony that was and is still very important to different groups, primarily to those of the plains cultures in America and Canada.

Sun Dancer with eagle and heads by Fabio Onorini.
Blackwork back done by Clemens Hahn.

The ceremony is a gruelling but important one, primarily (though not entirely) performed by males. The dancer fasts, going without both food and drink for days at a time, while dancing around a sacred fire and traditional pole meant to represent the sun. Others drum and sing prayers while the dancer dances until exhausted.

Sun Dancer true to Bert Grimm by Kim-Anh.
Backpiece true to Bert Grimm by Gustavo Silvano.

As part of the ceremony, piercing and suspension is also common. This involves a leader piercing rods into the chest or back of the dancer, while they drag a bison head until the skin rips. Other variations involve horses pulling at the rods, or the dancer being suspended from the pole by the rods in their skin. This inspired modern suspension.

Blackwork interpretation by Flurick Ruslan.
Cute foot Sun Dancer by Heath Arnolde.

Often times the dancer would become delirious and hallucinate both from the physical and mental exertion, topped with dehydration and extreme hunger. Unfortunately the ceremony was banned in Canada in 1885 under the Indian Act, but the ban was dropped in 1951, though Indigenous people continue(d) to be treated unfairly. Today the Sun Dance is still performed by some communities.

Sun Dancer with dragon in this piece by Florian Santus.
Big thigh Sun Dancer done by Nick Griffiths.

One of the first examples of this ceremony being painted is Bert Grimm’s Sun Dancer flash and tattoo. The original painting depicts a girl dancing with her left knee raised, right hand holding a spear, with a shield depicting a bald eagle in her left hand. A red sun and traditional roses make up the background.

Sun Dancer and dragon by Rich Hadley.
Skeletal Sun Dancer by Roger Oliveira.

As the design was first made by a pioneer of American traditional tattooing, it is mainly tattooed today in the same style. Though people do take artistic liberties, sometimes including animals or other flowers, and even changing the subject of the tattoo. It is often done as a back tattoo, but can also be seen on arms and legs, usually as still large pieces, though through adaptation artists have created smaller pieces as well.

Punk interpretation in a painting by Miguel Neils.
A more neo traditional animal version of the Sun Dance by Robson Nagata.

To read more about the Sun Dance please check out https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sun-dance

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