One day last fall, I encountered—by pure chance and good timing—a collection of early 20th century tattooing materials credited to “Professor Percy Waters” in the Benson Ford Research Center. The box had yet to be re-shelved, left over from a visiting school group earlier in the day. I was lucky to overhear my colleagues talking about the “tattoo collection,” and when they showed it to me, I was drawn to the contents like a moth to a flame. I had a hard time containing my excitement, showing the staff how some of my own traditional tattoos compared with the “flash” designs the box contained. This collection had an effect on me—a sort of giddy feeling of recognition—like I’d just been reunited with an old friend.
The materials nestled within the box were so complete, and yet so mysterious. There were stencils that had once been in contact with human skin and a book of tattoo flash reproductions from the 1920s. Some designs were filled in by hand with color ink, others abandoned for another task, half-finished. It also contained a handwritten, unpublished manuscript about the history and technique of tattooing called Skin Deep. And towards the bottom of the box, a black leather-bound sketchbook, its 37 pages full of original tattoo flash—ink scratched across the paper with a nib pen, colorful watercolor paint filling in the lines. This gem turned out to be one of the original sketchbooks of the well-regarded tattooist, Professor Percy Waters. These were the emerging thoughts of a tattoo artist, which appear crudely executed, but would have been redrawn and refined upon “flash sheets” for customer perusal. Historic flash is often broken up and sold to collectors sheet by sheet, and so I was astonished to see such a rare and complete collection all in one place.
The Education of Professor Percy Waters
Percy Waters (1888-1952) was not an academic, but anointed himself as a “Professor” in the tradition of many other early to mid-20th century tattoo artists and circus acts. Waters was introduced to tattooing through the transient carnivals that passed through his hometown of Anniston, Alabama at the turn of the 20th century. In the apprenticeship mode, Waters began to learn to tattoo in the carnivals, and later travelled to New York’s infamous Bowery District to further his inking education. But Waters was undergoing a double apprenticeship of sorts: he was learning to tattoo, but he was also learning the art of machine molding. Eventually he became a tradesman at a foundry, using his pay to purchase his own tattoo equipment to feed his true passion. Legend has it that Waters was forcibly run out of Anniston in 1917 when he brazenly tattooed the daughter of a wealthy family. Leaving the South, Waters landed in Detroit.
He established his first tattoo parlor near Electric Park amusement park in Detroit. At 70 Monroe and 1050 Randolph Street, adjacent to present-day Campus Martius Park the city’s downtown core, he set up two shops that would become his main business locations. At this time, this district of the city housed a combination of short-term commercial tenants and was also home to a rising high-class entertainment center. In fact, the first movie theater in the city was opened on Monroe Avenue. From 1906-1915, John H. Kunsky operated the Casino Theater at 70-72 Monroe Avenue—the future site of Waters’ business.
His illustrated business card proclaimed that he did “High Class Work Only,” and as “An Artist with the Needles,” was the “World’s Best Electric Tattooer.” Waters’ hand inked up famous painted ladies and men including Mrs. Ted Hamilton, Shelly Kemp, Red Van, and Detroit Dutch. “Mrs. Ted,” or, Pearl Hamilton, was a carnival circuit performer in the 1920s, and sported a show-stopping peacock tattoo on her back by the hand of Waters. Her risqué backless dress allowed carnival visitors to observe her designs, and the most intrigued patrons could then proceed to visit her husband, awaiting in the next tent with his own portable tattoo studio. With extended bodily canvases of circus performers and more demurely painted customers roaming the world to prove it, Waters claim that “My Work is my Best Advertisement” was seen far and wide.
The Tattooist’s Toolbox
From approximately 1918 until 1939, Waters ran his two shops in addition to one of the most successful mail-order tattoo supply businesses in the world. Waters was keen to spread the love and art of tattooing to others, and so he offered a variety of starter kits and home study courses. These kits ranged from professional grade (complete with all the machinery, flash, ink, pigments, instructions, and stencils) to Hand Tattooing Outfits (of the pre-mechanical “stick and poke” style).
A brief digression is necessary here to outline the “afterlife” of the Edison Electric Pen. To speak of Edison usually raises thoughts of electrical systems and phonographs—not “Thomas Edison, forefather of tattoo technology.” But as bewildering as it seems, Edison’s 1876 “Autographic Printing” device—more commonly known as the Electrical Pen—is in fact the foundation of electrical tattooing. It is not a huge leap to imagine how the fine motor-driven needle at the tip of Edison’s pen could be deployed as a mechanical tattooing apparatus. Samuel O’Reilley saw the potential to use this technology in his tattoo parlor, modifying it by adding an ink reservoir and an updated tubing system. He received the first American patent for an electric tattoo machine in 1891. O’Reilley’s machine came as a welcome addition to the toolbox of artists, and tattoo recipients likely applauded as improvised treadle-powered devices (like modified dental drills!) became obsolete.
Electric tattooists like Waters would have encountered versions of O’Reilley’s system, and a later modification patented by Charlie Wagner in 1904. Waters had a hand in the evolution of mechanical tattooing too; his patent from 1929 for a two-coil electromagnetic system allowed the design of tattoo machines to become standardized. By adding a fingertip power switch, adjustable stroke, and a variety of needle tips, he created the first highly marketable tattoo machine. What we now think of as the “tattoo gun” has not changed much since Waters’ design.
Percy Waters was an early advocate for safety and quality in tattooing equipment, and was especially concerned with the source of pigments in tattoo inks. In his 1925 catalog he tells us: “Use only the best colors purchased from reliable dealers. They are chemically pure and harmless to the skin, while imitation colors sold by so-called importers, are nothing more than common house paint—and likely poison.” The toxicity of pigments sometimes led to skin reactions. Red inks could contain high levels of mercury; other issues included fading, color shifts, loss in clarity and line quality. In Waters’ time, inks were pungent, mixed from pigment powders and cut into a base of distilled water—and minty-smelling Listerine. Pigment companies were unwilling to work with artists to adapt their products for tattooing, and would cease contact with an artist if they discovered what the purpose of the purchase was for. The aversion of suppliers was based on several factors: the unknown health risks of pigment use for tattooing (and thus, legal concerns), the impracticality of bulk pigment suppliers breaking product down into small amounts for tattooists, and above all—a general apprehension of tattoo culture.
Folklore Made Visible
Design traditions, like oral traditions, have been distributed widely and altered over the course of time. When Captain James Cook and his crew of men sailed to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 18th century, they were greeted by the heavily tattooed natives residing in Kauai. This is often cited as being the origin of the handshake tradition between nautical life and tattooing. Sailors formed their own tattoo design typologies; they transferred these images onto their bodies as protective charms. Many were intended to prevent drowning (pigs and roosters on the feet), act as love tokens (pierced hearts), religious strength (crosses and biblical images), memorials (gravestones), to ensure safe passage (compass rose, nautical stars), and a swift return home (swallows).
Even today, tattoo apprentices are required to learn “old school” styles that reference the visual traditions of sailor tattoos. The genre has established symbolism, but also standards of line, shading, and color against which beginners can compare their work. In his pamphlet, How to Do Tattooing, Harry Lawson, warns: “Lots of tattooers try to paint their own designs in order to save some money [but] you will find that you will do more business with a fine display of designs than what you will do with a bunch of bad designs.” Tattoo designs are essentially the equivalent of public domain images today—artists continue to adapt historical flash and one another’s ideas. Designs are often so removed from the originating artist that no one remembers “the first” person to ink a particular design. In Percy Waters time, tattooists, finding fine examples, would even take tracings straight from the body.
Motifs found in Waters’ sketchbookcontinue to be used today. There are intricate floral and heart designs, portraits of exotic ladies (both tasteful and risqué), sailing ships, fraternal markings, badly rendered cartoon characters, and good luck symbols. There are Biblical characters and staid Native Americans representing strength and perseverance. Some evoke nostalgia: “rough riders” and cowgirls are tough, independent characters, yet speak to the romance of freedom, and of riding the range. Mythological and symbolic real-world animals appear on their own, intertwine in battle, or weave through skulls: snakes, panthers, roosters, mermaids, and dragons. Disembodied hands shake—a traditional symbol of honesty and friendship. And there is the truly bizarre: a shoe with a woman’s head on it, peculiar monsters, disembodied eyes, skeleton kings, and mosquitos landed on the skin.
If an archive is defined as “a trace on or in a surface,” or “a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved” isn’t it possible then to think of the tattooed human as a sort of “walking archive,” that can be “read” like a text? Whether you frown upon, embrace, or are ambivalent towards tattoo culture, it is easy to see how tattoos are closely linked with traditions of storytelling, and act as visual gateways for oral histories. In 15th century Europe, it was common practice among travelling pilgrims to ink their bodies like living maps— marking the places they had visited, their hometown, and their spouse’s name—should they perish along their travels. Beginning with the Civil War, tattoo flash in times of conflict reveals an alternate visual history of patriotism, bravery, and allegiance. Designs on military men could be read to glean of how far one had travelled, equatorial boundaries crossed, battles fought, ports entered. During WWII, a new trend occurred: soldiers began incorporating social security numbers into their designs—“calling card” information that was intended to quell fears of becoming separated from identification when injured or deceased.
My encounter with the Percy Waters materials led to thinking about how our knowledge of tattoo history has largely relied upon a balance between the continued use of traditional designs and the availability of intermediate artifacts and resources like artist’s flash and tools, photographs, and oral histories. In this way, tattoos are caught in an interesting tension between being both ephemeral and permanent. Like folklore, tattoos have established motifs and are artistically adapted as needed. For those brave or brash enough to “go under the needle,” the tattoos received continue to move through the world—but their meaning remains only so long as the carrier is living. Understanding the history of tattoos and its intricate web of the personal, the public, and the fleeting—is not an easy task—but having access to primary source collections like Percy Waters’ allows us to get just one step closer.
The prominent tattoo artist Sailor Jerry, playing the part of a wise oracle of tattoo taste famously said: “Good work ain’t cheap. Cheap work ain’t good.” And so, to solve the problems of the “cheap and ugly” tattoo, I would also like to point out that this collection includes a handwritten manuscript on the topic of tattoo removal.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Sign Up For Our eNewsletters
Get the latest news from The Henry Ford. From special offers to our series of popular Enthusiasts eNewsletters, you can tailor the information you’d like us to deliver directly to your inbox.