By Bob Baxter
Bricks through tattoo shop windows. Pissed-off artists sledge-hammering competitors’ fingers. Setting fire to buildings. I hadn’t heard about any of this, but it was the ’90s and my exposure to the tattoo world was limited to the usual convict movies and gangland photos in the newspaper. I thought cobwebs on elbows and tattooed teardrops were simply fashion statements, like cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeves of T-shirts, sneakers without laces and solid-gold front teeth. It wasn’t until my son Riley and his older brother, Jesse, tried to open a shop in Las Vegas that I got an inkling of how the tattoo world really worked.
This was before Riley got hired by Sunset Strip or worked at Venice Bob’s. During their teens, my kids lived in Vegas with their mother, helping her out with a small ranch that demanded constant fixing. Hauling hay bales, cementing rock walls and sweeping sand off the porch were everyday chores. I remember Jesse telling me that, when he visited his mom, she, typically, opened the door and handed him a rake. Although Vegas was way too hot for me, they liked it well enough and had pretty much built a large cadre of friends. Jesse was tarring roofs for a living and Riley was into his rock ’n’ roll. Both of them were tattooing. Not full-time or at a shop, but mixed in between sessions of drawing T-shirt designs or posters for Riley’s various bands.
I was living in Los Angeles and got most of my family news by telephone or chance encounters. You know, friends of my kids who lived in SoCal and occasionally reported the latest adventures of the Baxter boys or, as they were more commonly known, the “Tuesday” boys. My three eldest children were born on Tuesday and given Tuesday as their middle name. They liked it so much, in fact, that, over the years, all three experimented with interchanging the Tuesday with Baxter and calling themselves Holly Tuesday, Riley Tuesday or Jesse Tuesday, a name he still uses today.
The boys had built a pretty good following for their tattooing, and, after awhile, word got to me that they wanted to open a full-on tattoo parlor. This was good news, since I was always a strong, vocal supporter of anyone who was crazy enough to be an artist, especially my kids. Visions of these two having their own business and making money doing what they loved was exciting. I was thrilled about every little scrap of information, every phone call or rumor about what kind of tile they were planning to put on the floor, or how they had found the “perfect” place and were busy designing their own cool, custom cabinets to hang on the walls. But it was never to be. The Vegas tattoo scene wasn’t, back then, like it is now, and there wasn’t room for a new, state-of-the-art shop.
Although there were way fewer shops in all the big cities—only a half dozen in Southern California, for example—there was a different kind of competition than there is now. It simply wasn’t cool to open a new shop in someone else’s territory. Charlie Cartwright, for example, opened his shop in Modesto, some fifty miles from San Francisco, so he wouldn’t trample on the feet of the three or so existing tattoo parlors in the City by the Bay. It was a professional courtesy thing. There was also a lot less people wanting tattoos, in those days, and a new shop stood out like a sore thumb. This was especially true in more remote places like Vegas, places that had their own unwritten laws about competition.
So, wanting to work at a professional, quality shop (they were pretty much tattooing under the radar) and no chance of opening their own, Jesse moved back to L.A. and Riley showed up a few months later. Basically, they sought greener pastures. Those were the rough-and-tumble, establishing-a-foothold days. Those were “tacky signs in windows that advertised ‘Free Oil Change with a Tattoo’ days.” Tattooing in Vegas, like so many other towns in America, was closed to newcomers.
Not to be discouraged, Jesse moved back to L.A., got a job with Jill Jordan at Red Devil Tattoo in a nondescript building in West Hollywood (I think it was on Highland near Santa Monica Blvd.) and, soon after, joined Pote Seyler at Body Electric on Melrose. Riley ultimately returned, ended up at Sunset Strip and, for a short time, worked alongside his brother and Pote.
Thoroughly entranced by the tattoo culture and, since my boys were back in town, I started to show up at Body Electric on weekends, learning, bit by bit, who was who in the tattoo community. It was a new, intriguing world to me and I remember telling Jesse that “tattoo people are like one big happy family” or something equally naïve. The look of astonishment on his face said it all, but it took me some time to figure out why. Except for the prison and biker movies, what did I know? Everyone at Body Electric was polite to me, shared their stories and technical expertise openly. I felt at home. This was the neighborhood gathering place for glamour girls, hipsters, rock musicians and tattoo enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes. The best people-watching in the world.
It was there I met Pote, Running Bear, Clay Decker, Joe Vegas, Permanent Mark and an endless cast of characters. These were my teachers, the guys who patiently showed me the ropes and accepted me into the club. I didn’t know what they were talking about, at first, but started to pick up the lingo and laughed along with them and their stories about the old-timers in the business, people like Doc Forbes, Bert Grimm, Johnny 2-Thumbs and Pinky Yun. Slowly, I pieced together the chronology and the important names, all the time noticing the obvious love they all had for the history of the game. They seemed to thrive on the exploits of Paul Booth, Jonathan Shaw and Don Ed Hardy. I heard about tattooists in Europe, like Hanky Panky from The Netherlands (up until then, I’d always called it “Holland”), Henning Jorgenson from Denmark, Alex Binnie in England and the Maoris of Aotearoa (which I’d called “New Zealand”).
So, there I was, occasionally hanging out at Body Electric and operating a professional writing business during the week. I had long left the music industry and was making a living, in Glendale, as a resume writer. I had my own office in a ten-story building that looked like something out of film noir, complete with rickety fire escape, wood-paneled office and Venetian blinds on the windows. Back in the ’20s, it was Glendale’s high-rise doctor’s building, but now it had simply receded into old age and hosted a wide variety of small businesses like mine. It was out of this office, for fifteen years, that I got people jobs in the corporate world, the entertainment industry and just about every category of employment imaginable. I even got someone a job in the circus. I was settled into a daily regimen, writing resumes, customers’ irate letters to the editor, speeches and even a couple of lifestyle columns for the Pasadena Weekly, a quasi-political, freebie newspaper catering to Pasadena’s local intelligentsia. Life was pretty good. I liked my job and, whenever I got bored, I simply drove forty minutes to Melrose Blvd. and hung out with tattoo artists. And then the phone rang. It was the King of Porn. Larry Flynt.
to be continued...
As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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