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Harry V. Lawson’s Norfolk Tattoo Shop
By Carmen Nyssen
Tattoo artist Harry Vivian Lawson left his mark in many arenas of tattooing —exhibiting as a tattooed man, tattooing with carnivals and dime museums, running a supply business, and operating the swankiest of tattoo parlors. Although today he’s mostly thought of as a West Coast character, his long and varied career brought him to many legendary tattoo towns. As a matter of fact, he was part of the first wave of tattooers to grace Norfolk, Virginia’s Main Street.
World War I Norfolk
Before World War I, Norfolk’s tattoo shops were scattered about the city. But, at the War’s onset, Norfolk Naval Station expanded ten-fold and Downtown Main Street transformed into a sailor’s haven—a menagerie of diners, arcades, pool halls, burlesque theaters, and at-the-ready tattoo shops. In 1918, excited by the prospect of teeming tattoo clientele, Lawson closed his Detroit sideshow museum and—as did fellow tattoo artists Cap Coleman, Andy Sturtz, and Lady Lenora—opened for business on this now infamous block, welcoming crowds of carousing sailors.
In addition to racking up a healthy bank roll at his 601 East Main Street tattoo shop—situated just West of the Victoria Hotel in Joe’s Café—Lawson became a key player in the unfolding of some rather interesting historical events.
Lew Alberts-Harry Lawson
By September of 1918 (See WWI Draft Card), Lawson was joined by New York Bowery tattooer Lew “The Jew” Alberts (real name Albert Kurzman)—one of tattooing’s greats, known for his major contribution to tattoo designs and flash. Through this partnership, a good deal of Alberts’ history, which otherwise might have slipped through the cracks, was preserved.
Around 1927, Albert Parry, who said he had never met Alberts himself, interviewed Lawson for a September 18th Forward newspaper article. Lawson relayed anecdotes about working with Alberts in Norfolk and filled Parry in on the details of his career. Parry later recorded some of Lawson’s reminiscences in his groundbreaking, widely distributed, 1933 book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art.
First Class Tattoo Designs
Lawson’s association with tattoo design master, Lew Alberts, in turn, probably influenced his wartime tattoo design business. Although it’s not clear exactly when he launched this endeavor, it was definitely during his days in Norfolk, and likely inspired by the wartime tattoo demand. In November of 1919, a year after the official end of WWI, Lawson placed an ad in Billboard Magazine announcing his retirement from the trade and a clearance sale of his top-of-the-line design sheets—which, apparently, he had been selling beforehand.
1919 Nov 29 Billboard pg. 55
“Prof. Harry Lawson, tattooed man and showman, has decided to retire from the tattoo business. Lawson made a great success in the tattoo branch of the profession and has a fine display of designs, which he is advertising for sale in this issue. After disposing of his tattoo material Prof. Lawson intends opening a first class museum in one of the large cities, in which he will exhibit A-1 attractions.”
Intriguingly, this seemingly last ad was not the end of Lawson’s tattoo design venture. Shortly thereafter, he engaged in business with two English tattoo artists, John A. “Jack” Walker and William “Billie” Fowkes. As of yet, this tattoo pair have not been credited in tattoo history. Luckily, just as with Alberts, some of their history can be traced because of their connection with Lawson; many clues in documents revolve around him and his Norfolk shop.
Lawson-Walker-Fowkes Tattoo Business
In February of 1919, John A. Walker left his Nottingham, England residence at 35 Windsor and sailed to the U.S. By 1920, he’s listed as a tattooer in the 1920 Norfolk City Directory.
In March of that year, his friend, William Fowkes, also of 35 Windsor in Nottingham, voyaged to the U.S. as well. The passenger manifest states he was going to visit his “brother J. Fowkes” at “253 Port [sic] St. Norfolk, VA.” “253 Port,” as it happens, was a misspelling of 253 Court, Harry Lawson’s home address. (“J. Fowkes” was obviously John A. Walker. For one, there isn’t a record of another Fowkes in Norfolk. Secondly, genealogical evidence indicates that Fowkes was an only child and Walker had a different mother and father).
In wouldn’t be surprising if Lawson had invited Walker and Fowkes to partner with him in Norfolk. Fowkes lived in Detroit from 1912 to 1916 at the same time as Lawson. What’s more, while Detroit city directories only list Fowkes as a janitor, when WWI commenced in Europe and he left Detroit for England to serve in the British Army, he had ties to tattooing. The passenger manifest for his trip home, dated September 1916, gives his occupation as “tattooer.” Military records from October list his distinctive marks as “racehorses on chest; devices on arms and back.”
Who tattooed Fowkes and taught him to tattoo is still unconfirmed. But the main Detroit tattooers within the aforesaid period were Jesse Barber, Amund Dietzel, William Grimshaw, and of course, Harry Lawson.
However the three met, by July of 1920, the Lawson-Walker-Fowkes tattoo team was in business at 601 East Main Street. Billboard Magazine ads claimed they sold the best tattoo designs—design sheets and stencil impressions—on the market.
1920 Aug 7 Billboard pg.40
“Tattoo Artists-Designs and stencil impressions that cannot be beat. Stamp for price list. Lawson-Fowkes-Walker, 601 East Main St., Norfolk, Virginia aug14.”
“Tattoo Designs-Colors, stencil impressions. Best on the market. Stamp for price list. Lawson-Fowkes-Walker, 601 East Main St., Norfolk, Va. Aug 14.”
Harry Lawson Tattoos Solo
The story of 601 East Main Street takes a few more turns from here. In October of 1920, after working with Lawson just a short while, Fowkes and Walker returned to England. Harry Lawson, solo again, continued selling tattoo designs on his own—providing a typical assortment in the way of 10×14 design sheets, separate chest designs, and stencil impressions.
1920 Dec 25 Billboard pg. 99
Designs-Designs-Designs-Designs-6 sheets of designs, colored, on sheets 10 x 14; 400 fine stencil impressions, 6 chest designs, colored; 6 chest design impressions, 1 enlarged picture of a tattooed lady, all in colors. Price $5.00. Send P.O. Money Order, Express or Registered letter. Harry V. Lawson Box 31, Norfolk, Virginia
Walker & Fowkes
That wasn’t the last Norfolk saw of Walker and Fowkes, however. In February of 1921, after 4 months in England, Fowkes and Walker returned to Norfolk. Notes next to Walker’s name on the ship manifest state they were visiting “Mr. H. Lawson-253 Court St (Lawson’s home address);” notes for Fowkes say they were visiting an “Uncle-601 Main St. (Lawson’s tattoo shop address)” Evidently, the three tattooers had business dealings to sort out.
Soon after, Walker and Fowkes took control of Lawson’s shop and started running their own supply business at this location. Ads in various publications indicate they sold everything from designs and inks to tattoo machines and even a booklet on tattooing.
1921 Oct 8 Billboard pg. 60
Tattooing Outfit-4 machines, switchboard with rheostat, colors 2 alphabets, 265 well-cut stencils. $40 Stamp for catalog. Walker & Fowkes, 601 Main Norfolk, VA.”
Lawson, who considered himself a top supplier of tattoo designs, no doubt influenced Walker and Fowkes. While determining the exact nature of these influences is near impossible, a tattoo collection that recently turned up in the Henry Ford Museum holds some insight. You can read about the possibilities in the Buzzworthy Tattoo Time Capsule at the Henry Ford feature article.
601 E. Main Street’s Last Days
Lawson remained in Norfolk for less than a year after handing over the 601 East Main Street shop to Walker and Fowkes. By 1922, he had moved to San Antonio, where he worked in William Grimshaw’s old shop for a spell, then he headed to Los Angeles.
Except for a bout in Charleston, South Carolina, Walker and Fowkes operated out of the Norfolk shop until the end of 1922. Afterward, they parted ways.
1922 Mar 4 Billboard pg. 63
“Send $2 and 200 Arm sizes, 6 chest pieces, sheet lodge emblems, 12 wristband impressions Walker & Fowkes, 310 King Charleston S.C. mar 4”
1922 Apr 15 Billboard
At Liberty for Circus or Carnival-Lady Novelty bag-punching act. Husband tattooed man and tattooer. Have own banners. State all in first. Billy Fowkes, 6 Liberty St., Charleston, South Carolina apr22.”
1922 Dec 16 Billboard pg. 101
“Tattooing Supplies, Write for tattooing book free. Walker and Fowkes, 601 Main, Norfolk, VA.”
By 1923, William Fowkes had, once more, set up in Detroit (at 307 Adams) and continued in the supply business. Later in the decade, he worked from 8430 John R. Street. Finally, in the 1930s, he returned to Nottingham, where he died in March of 1976.
1923 Nov 23 National Police Gazette
“Tattooing Outfits-Machines, designs, colors, No. 12 needles, sharps, catalog free. Wm. Fowkes 307 Adams, Detroit, Michigan.”
John A. Walker ended up in Camden, New Jersey working as a sign painter. He died there in April of 1964.
English native, Burt Thompson, worked at 601 East Main Street in 1922; its not clear if he was associated with Walker and Fowkes. William Greenwood appears to have been the last tattooer at this location in 1925.
Related Tattoo History
For more history and images related to Lew Alberts check out the Hardy Marks book Lew the Jew Alberts: 20th Century Tattoo Drawings
For a photo of Harry Lawson’s 1943 tattoo studio in Los Angeles see: 1943 S. Main St. Tattooers: Harry Lawson, Pat Dimidies, Duffy post
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