A while ago, I did a post on the Early American Tattoo. I have been meaning to do a follow up for some time so here it is… Americana Tattoo pt. 2!
Even though the word “tattoo” describes indelible body marking and goes back only a few hundred years, the practice is prehistoric and found in most cultures. Sailors, traditionally thought of in connection with tattoos, are believed to have introduced the practice in Europe after encountering it on their voyages to the Pacific islands.
American sailors for centuries followed suit, acquiring tattoos to relieve boredom or tension; to symbolize love, brotherhood, patriotism, victory; to serve as talismans against the dangers of seafaring; and even to identify themselves.
A fascinating exhibition in Philadelphia illustrates what since the well-decorated sailor might wear via his tattoos since the late 18th century. On his fingers one could read either “HOLD FAST” or SHIP MATE,” one letter per finger, facing out. The tops of his feet would show images of the two animals known – and envied – for surviving shipwrecks: a rooster on the right foot and a pig on the left. (Neither one swam but both often survived because the crates they were kept in would often stay afloat and make it to land.)
Below, a back tattoo in typical 1900 Sailor Style :
One such tattoo artist is none other then Franklin Paul Rogers.
Born in 1905 in North Carolina. Paul started his tattoo career in 1928 and for the next 61 years, Paul pursued this art form. He not only was a tattoo artist but he also built tattoo machines and was a mentor and friend to tattooers both young and old. When Paul died in 1990, he donated his extensive tattoo collection to the Tattoo Archive.
Below is Paul Rogers tattooing “Carolina” Slim Deal 1940’s
In 1926 when Paul was 21, he got his first tattoo and found his lifetime occupation. Only two years later he was tattooing with a kit he mail ordered from E.J. Miller in Norfolk, Virginia. He had a supply place in Norfolk, Virginia! It ran off dry-cell batteries.” Rogers found out about the tattoo supplier through his interest in the traveling circuses. He had seen an advert for it in Billboard, the well known U.S. entertainment magazine. “I always wanted to travel with a circus,” he stated in an 1982 interview with Ed Hardy inTattootime. “I decided to learn how to tattoo and travel with the carnival and work on the sideshow.”
Rogers began tattooing from his bedroom, experimenting on himself and any willing neighbors. But he soon ran out of flesh and, in his search for new customers and experience, joined one of the traveling circuses. In 1932, he worked on his first sideshow in Greenville, South Carolina, where he vividly recalls striking up a friendship with the three-legged man. “He was fun to be around,” mused Rogers in Tattootime. “He used to kick a football with that there third leg. He said that, when the streetcar was crowded, he would use that extra leg for a seat. He could sit on it like a stool.” Later that year, Rogers joined the John T. Rae Happyland Show where he met his wife, Helen. She was working as a snake charmer. Rogers spent seven months of that year traveling around in a Model T Ford and living in an “umbrella” tent. “I had a ball,” he told Ed Hardy. “But I only grossed $247. So, I guess I ate a lot of peanuts that year, “he recalled, laughing.
Below are some images of that era…
As well as learning how to tattoo, Rogers trained hard in acrobatics. “I used to train religiously,” he stated. “Even when I started tattooing, I still trained. I have always been interested in the physical end of things.” He was also very careful how he treated his body. He never smoked, drank coffee or touched alcohol. Rogers explained that during that period many tattooists made their living working with the traveling shows. This was during the great depression and times were extremely hard. Throughout the 1930s, to make ends meet and to help support his wife and two children, Rogers would spend his winters working in the Cotton Mills and the summers tattooing with the circus. Helen’s stepfather owned the Happyland show, so the family worked together. Rogers recalled that, initially, the circus owners wanted the tattooists to double as the tattooed man and be on display, but later Paul was able to work purely as a tattooist.
As well as working out of a mobile tattoo studio, Rogers also worked in an assortment of poolrooms as well as army boot camps. “In Spartenburg, South Carolina, I worked in a combination shooting gallery and shoeshine place with a jukebox,” he recalled. “They sold hot dogs and bootleg whisky and had card games going on. They had it all covered.”
n 1942, Rogers got a chance to get off the road and set up his own shop in Charleston, South Carolina. A friend and fellow mill worker F.A Myers, who had taken up tattooing, invited Rogers to go into a partnership. Up until that time, Rogers’ largest pay packet from millwork was $42 for a 40-hour week. Once he got his shop up and running, Rogers was able to make up to $200 a week. At last he was able to forever turn his back on the exploitation and slave wages of the mills.
Below is an Early F.A Myers Ad –
It was during this time that Rogers saw many examples of Cap Coleman’s tattooing on the sailors who came through the shop. Rogers immediately recognized Coleman’s work, as it was far superior to any of the other tattooists working at the time. “I patterned myself after him,” he explained to Ed Hardy. “I used to copy any tattoo I could off the sailors.” Rogers would use celluloid sanded on one side, so the rough surface would grab a pencil lead. This way he could make to make a copy of Coleman’s tattoos. “I got a copy of a Panther head that way. A panther climbing an arm, that was a new thing back then. I would try and duplicate it. Shade it the same way Coleman had.”
Below is an image of Cap in his studio –
Cap Coleman first became aware of Rogers’ tattooing from a sailor. Rogers explains the story. “Coleman would always say to the sailors, ‘You haven’t got a good one on you.’ It was his way of getting them to get one of his tattoos. So, he twisted this guy’s arm saying, “There’s one I did and there’s another.” But the sailor told him, ‘This isn’t one you did.” Coleman was amazed that anyone could tattoo well enough for him to confuse it with one of his own. Later Rogers wrote to Coleman and then visited his shop in Norfolk, Virginia. Coleman then offered him a job in his shop, once the war was over. “It was the job offer from heaven,” explains Eldridge. “You have to remember that Coleman was considered one of the best tattooers in the world at that time.
In 1945, Rogers began a five-year association with Coleman. Coleman had been tattooing since 1918 and was so well known that he didn’t even put his address on his business card. Coleman’s studio was strategically located on Main Street, next to an old striptease and burlesque house commonly frequented by sailors. Norfolk was a navy town, so there was no shortage of customers. Rogers recalls Coleman with mixed feelings. He was in no doubt that Coleman was one of the greatest tattooist in the world, but he was certainly not in awe of his personality. “He was a very selfish guy,” remembered Rogers. “He would never give anyone the time of day.
Below, the studio of Mr. Cap Coleman on Mail Street in Norfolk,Va.
Coleman was a people hater. Quite the opposite of me, I was everybody’s friend. He was sort of a hermit and practically lived in the shop. He kept canned food there, so he wouldn’t have to go out. And he would have a can of tinned spinach for breakfast!
In order to save money, Coleman would tell service men that he couldn’t use brown or green inks in the tattoos, if they had been vaccinated. He told them it would make them sick. “That way he got by using just black and red all the time,” recalled Rogers. “Black and red, black and red.” Despite these sly tricks Coleman was able to apply high quality work. His work was clear and well shaded. Consequently, his tattoo designs epitomized what came to be known as the classic American-style tattooing that dominated the 1920s to the 1940s.
Despite Coleman’s eccentric personality, Rogers learned a great deal about tattooing from him, especially about machines. Prior to working with Coleman, Rogers had to learn everything the hard way, through trial and error. While working for Coleman, Rogers began fixing the machines for all the tattooers working in Norfolk. “There were 11 of them at one point,” he stated. “And you could count the good ones on three fingers.”
Below are two images of vintage irons made and used by Paul in his early years (New images, Old Irons FYI)
Black Shadow 1/2
In 1950, Rogers’ association with Coleman came to an abrupt end. The city of Norfolk decided to ban tattooing. This forced most of the Norfolk tattooists across the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth. Rogers eventually formed a partnership with R.L.Connelly, a talented tattooist who worked briefly with Coleman. The two set up shops in Petersburg, Virginia and Jacksonville, North Carolina, with Rogers eventually owning the Jacksonville shop.
Below is an image if Mr. Huck Spaulding doing his thing –
While working in the Jacksonville shop, Rogers met Huck Spaulding. Rogers described Spaulding as ” a real scratch artist,” a tattooist with very limited experience who had worked a little in the traveling sideshows. Rogers helped Spaulding improve his technique and when, in 1955, the studio Rogers and Connelly used was torn down, Rogers moved into Spaulding’s shop half a block away on Court Street, giving birth to the now famous name of Spaulding and Rogers. This shop became home to the famous supply business that is known worldwide.
During the 1970s, Chuck Eldridge befriended Rogers and spent much of this time with him at his home in Jacksonville. “Paul was from the old school,” states Eldridge. “His machines were built almost entirely with hand tools. Machine heads from around the world would gather in that small shed and hang on every word, hoping to gain some of Paul’s understanding.” Eldridge is keen to emphasize just how important the working of a tattoo machine is. “It’s a very subtle device. And it’s vital for a good tattooist to have a machine that is properly designed and balanced. It’s impossible to execute high quality work without this. It’s an absolute prerequisite. Why do Ferraris have such a great reputation in car racing? Because they win races, and you can’t do that without fantastic equipment. Its exactly the same with Paul’s machines.”
From left to right in the image below is -Huck Spaulding, Jack Willis,tex Howard, Paul Rogers,Subie DeLane and Colonol Todd in 1956
In 1988, when Rogers was working on his autobiography, he had a stroke and was rushed to hospital. Later he suffered another stroke that paralyzed his right side and deprived him of his ability to speak. Ironically, the stroke occurred on the 60th anniversary of the day he began tattooing. He died two years later in a nursing home at age 84 leaving behind an legacy and an unforgettable formate for us all to enjoy.
Below a TYPICAL image of a Master, Holding it Down to the fullest!
….We hope this makes you go out and get that arm done!