Tattoo history is often a visual or spoken one, where cold hard written facts are left aside for tall tales that are a mix between fiction and fact. To illustrate this even further, I am going to share some of my favorite tales involving Tatts Thomas.
Thomas was born in New Orleans around 20th century, but spent much of his tattooing career in Chicago and made a name for himself in the 1910s. Sailor Jerry credited him as one of his early teachers who taught him how to use a machine and also gave Phil Sparrow his first tattoo in the 1950s, who went on to learn how to tattoo from Amund Dietzel, considered to be one of the greatest tattooers in America famous to work in a tie, a vest, and sleeve garters.
Thomas really set the stage for many influential tattoo artists of all time from the beginning of their career. But, what I found to be most fascinating about
him was his crazy tales and tense relationship between him and Phil Sparrow. Interestingly enough, they did not have the greatest relationship as Sparrow cynically gave Thomas a nickname “The Preacher” for he felt that Thomas only pretended to have high moral and ethical ideals about tattooing.
In his book, “Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos” Ed Hardy recalls a story he heard about Tatts Thomas. When Thomas was asked by his customer if the needles were clean, he took the cigarette that he was smoking and dunk it in the same water he rinsed his needles out in and said, “See, that sterilizes it.”
Such stories like these, make you chuckle out of shock and amusement but Sparrow was not amused one bit by this practice. He wrote in his book “Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo With Gangs”, “If legislation against tattooing becomes universal, it will be the fault of the tattoo artists themselves, and their lackadaisical conformity to sterile techniques, or their deliberate rejection of such methods because they are too much trouble.”
According to Sparrow, the poorest month for Thomas meant a net of a thousand, a figure which doubled during the peak season. Such money enabled Thomas with a luxury car and expensive jewelries such as a huge diamond ring that he sported regularly.
One of my favorite stories pertaining to this is when the manager of the arcade raised Thomas’s rent from $90/month to $200, he exploded as he reached into his pocket to draw out a thick roll of hundreds as he proceeded to yell, “I could buy and sell every goddamned one of you!” I hope I’m not the only one who can visually imagine Thomas furiously shaking his cash in the air as he yells out this hilarious phrase which I will definitely use at some point in my life. There is, of course, no concrete proof of this incident other than from Sparrow’s words.
Thomas was notable for another tale in the tattoo world. He claimed that most of his time was actually spent in hospital tattooing eyeballs. Apparently, Thomas got this idea from an article he read about a European doctor who had tattooed the irises of a blind man to mimic some color into the white eyeball. Above picture is an actual image of his business card.
Sparrow was once again not amused as he wrote, “…they sense the disapproval of the patristic element, and are continually giving out tales calculated to raise the profession to a socially acceptable level, like the late Tatts Thomas, who archly claimed to do most of his work in hospitals on eyeballs.”
Today, tattoos can be considered such an ubiquitous part of our mainstream culture and such stories like these would be horrifying in our current society which I think is charming in its own way. You can tell that the old tattoo sub-culture was not a socially acceptable thing nor was it a fashion statement for many. Being a tattoo artist was a thankless job that was frowned upon with cutthroat competition , so to read about these old artists’ and skills they had to have to be successful in a time when not everyone wanted to be a tattooer is fascinating and also humbling.