Tattoo History 17: Shanghai Kate

Kate Hellenbrand AKA “Shanghai Kate” AKA “America’s Tattoo Godmother” got started as one of America’s most well known female tattooers in the early 1970’s, and still tattoos now (though she is semi retired). She works out of Holy Work Tattoo in Austin, Texas, and works tattoo conventions with her husband.

Classic rattlesnake
1970’s flash

Kate has worked alongside some of the greatest American tattoo icons of the 1900’s including Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, Jack Rudy, and Ed hardy, and was also good friends with the late Lyle Tuttle. 

Classic pinup
Black cat and 13 for Friday the 13th

Kate has a background in art and became interested in tattooing when she lived in New York with her partner Michael Malone at a time when tattooing was actually illegal in the city. The two worked out of an apartment and would hand out business cards to anyone they came across who had a visible tattoo. Tattooing was difficult at the time, and they even had to make machines using parts bought at bike shops, or pretend to be nursing students to acquire medical equipment.

Crossed pistols and desert themed florals
1970 Jack Grice, Kate, Thom Devita, Sailor Sid

In 1972 Kate was invited to be one of the seven tattooers at what was the first international tattoo convention in Hawaii that was hosted by Sailor Jerry. This group was called “The Council of the Seven.” This lasted around one week, but when the other tattooers left, Kate stayed behind to work with Jerry for a number of weeks. Sailor Jerry was notoriously protective of tattoo culture and disliked most newcomers to the industry particularly women, but Kate seemed to be an exception and was welcomed wholeheartedly and taught a lot.

Bright and bold dragon
Fortune Teller

As well as still occasionally tattooing, Kate also sells tattoo memorabilia including old flash from the greats, tattoo books, and also gives talks at tattoo conventions around the US. 

Kate’s signature added to an old back piece by Sailor Jerry
Kate tattooing that same signature

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Tattoo History 16: “Dainty Dotty” and Owen Jensen

Owen Jensen and “Dainty Dotty” were artists who married sometime in the mid 1900’s. Owen was a tattoo artist with a number of cities and shops under his belt, and Dotty was initially a circus performer working as a “fat lady” before she started tattooing. 

Dotty and Owen with their business cards
Owen tattooing a sailor. Posted by The best Traditional Tattoos

According to a letter written in 1972 to Steve Rogers, Owen Jensen was introduced to tattoos in 1911 in Utah after walking some 12 miles to see the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, which featured James Malcolm as a performer, who had been tattooed by Charlie Wagner. A few years later Owen got his first tattoo from Bob Hodge. 

Owen Jensen flash posted by Andreas Schwertfeger
Owen and Dotty’s shop front. Posted by Eye Love Tattoo

It’s unknown who taught Owen to tattoo, but during WW1 he served overseas and tattooed other military folks while abroad. When he returned to the US he never stayed in one place too long, working in cities such as Michigan, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, Norfolk, and finally Long Beach, just to name a few. He eventually met Dotty and the two married and settled in Long Beach, working near Bert Grimm. Around the early 1970’s Owen had a disagreement over flash with Bert who then apparently “ran him off.” Owen then worked with Lee Roy Minugh until he was stabbed in the back and beaten on July 5th 1976. Owen never fully recovered from the attack and died July 24th 1977. 

Dainty Dotty tattoo flash. Posted by Iciar Wallace
Dainty Dotty performing. Posted by My Flash Showcase

Dainty Dotty was initially a circus performer as mentioned above. She first worked as a “fat lady” in the Ringling Brothers circus in the 1930’s and 40’s. Dotty learned how to tattoo after meeting Owen, and he supposedly tattooed her, but there are no known photos of Dotty with tattoos, though there are photos of her tattooing people, and her flash is still floating around!

Owen working on a chest piece.
Owen’s tattoo flash. Posted by My Flash Showcase

Dotty is famous for being the world’s largest female tattoo artist, though she is in fact not the largest woman on record. Both Dotty and Owen tattooed classic old school designs such as eagles, skulls, roses, snakes, and patriotic pieces such as the statue of Liberty, American flags, and military designs.

More of Owen’s tattoo flash.
Dotty tattooing a customer. Posted by Yellow Beak Press Publishing.

Edited by Harrison R.

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Tattoo history 14: Percy Waters

Percy Waters was a well-known American tattoo artist from the early 1900’s. Born in 1888, in Anniston, Alabama, he was (allegedly) first introduced to tattooing through the sideshows of traveling circuses that passed through his hometown. At the time he was learning the trade of molder, and tattooing locals became a hobby on the side. 

Man tattooed by Percy Waters from Docks Weird Years
Percy Waters at work, featuring Pharaohs Horses. From Gabriele Donnini

He’s known to many as a Michigan artist, and not from a small town in Alabama, due to the fact that in 1917 he tattooed someone he shouldn’t have and got in trouble. He left Anniston and moved to Detroit, Michigan. He built up a successful tattoo business where he also sold supplies to other tattoo artists. In 1929 he even got a license for his tattoo machine design, which was an adjustable two-coil electromagnetic machine that hasn’t changed too much in modern tattoo machines. It had also taken almost 55 years (from 1875) for the tattoo machine to be adjusted after Edison’s machine. In 1939 he moved back to Anniston and ran what was most likely the biggest tattoo supply company in the world at the time until his death in 1952. 

Two men tattooed by Percy Waters
Man tattooed by Percy Waters in 1921

Percy was very modest and was known to call himself “just a good tattooer”; However, he was quite well known regardless of his humility, particularly in the sideshow world where he tattooed “tattoo attractions” such as; Bobby Smith, Red Van, Detroit Dutch, Shelley Kemp, Clyde Williams, and Mrs. Ted Hamilton among others. 

Percy Waters flash from 1923 from Docks Weird Years
Battle Royale painted by Percy Waters from Docks Weird Years

His style stays true to early 20th century old school designs. With classics such as portraits of women, dragons, eagles, snakes, panthers, good luck symbols, ships, and more. His original designs are still redrawn often today, and many contemporary artists are heavily inspired by him in their own styles. 

Percy Waters design by Ryan Cooper Thompson
Percy Waters flash from Docks Weird Years

Some of the most well-known tattoos he did were Pharaohs’ Horses as a back piece, an image of a woman riding an eagle, and whole-body suits made up of patriotic American pieces coupled with images such as butterflies, flowers, dragons, snakes, and ladies. 

Percy Waters business card from Celluloid Dreams
Percy Waters business card from Celluloid Dreams

Do you have a Percy Waters tattoo?

Edited by Harrison R.

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