owenjensenOwen Jensen: Tattooer-Supplier Traditon
By Carmen Nyssen

Born: October 10, 1891 Pleasant Grove, Utah, UT
Died: July 24, 1977 Los Angeles, CA
Burial: Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, CA

Tattoo artist Owen Jensen was one of the celebrated entrepreneurs of the tattoo trade, whose success was owed to hard work, business savvy, and well-rounded talent. Like many of the greats, Jensen had procured his knowledge “apprenticing” with some of the trade’s big-hitters over the span of his career. In time, he became skilled at:

Drawing & Painting Tattoo Flash: First learned from long-time tattoo artist & supplier Edwin Earl Brown, c. 1919-1920.

Tattooing: Learned early on from E.E. Brown, c. 1919-1920. Later honed with tattoo master, Sailor Charlie Barrs in Los Angeles c. 1926-1928.

And…

Building Machines: As early as 1914-1915, Jensen began learning the ins-and-outs of tattoo machinery, while working in the machine shop of well-known Detroit tattoo artist and tattoo supplier J.F. Barber. He without a doubt picked up substantial know-how from his time with tattoo machine genius Charlie Barrs as well.

A #1 Tattoo Supply Company

After 20 or so years of refining these skills, Jensen put them all to use in a special endeavor. In 1939, in Los Angeles at 412 S. Main Street, he officially launched what soon developed into an immensely successful tattoo supply business. Though well-manufactured, superior tattoo machines were his niche, flash, stencils, tubes, and inks, as well as complete tattoo outfits, later also entered his repertoire.


Harry Lawson's San Diego Tattoo Shop WWII

Harry Lawson’s San Diego Tattoo Shop, WWII Era. Courtesy of San Diego Reader.

War-Time Tattoo Boom

As it happens, Jensen’s new venture coincided with the tail end of the Depression era and the beginning of one of tattooing’s biggest business booms brought on by World War II. Rather than stay put in Los Angeles during the surge, he hit the road and strategically operated from several lucrative locations.

He spent a short time in Sailor-town San Diego working with Harry Lawson. Then made a quick trip to Navy-town Norfolk, Virginia to work in Andy Stuertz’s shop. That’s when he was invited to partner with one of the top tattooers in the trade—Norfolk’s famous Cap Coleman, who was incidentally also a one-time student of both J.F Barber and Charlie Barrs, and hence, an equally seasoned machine guy.

At the height of the war, in 1942, Coleman and Jensen joined in the tattoo supply business in Norfolk. Advertising in Billboard Magazine, the pair offered “machines, ink, colors, stencils, designs, needles, and complete tattooing outfits.”

ColemanJensenTattoo

A real go-getter, Jensen additionally tattooed and sold supplies in Detroit, working from a second floor balcony at 440 Michigan Avenue. After shuttling back and forth between there and Norfolk for a bit, by 1944 he was operating solely from Detroit.


Dainty Dotty: Tattoo Partner & Wife

It was in the course of conducting his supply business in Detroit that he met his next partner and second wife Florence Sprague, better known as Ringling Bros. fat lady, Dainty Dotty. (His deceased first wife was a divorcee from Colorado named Virgie Salyer). While it’s unclear how Dotty broke into tattooing, in 1944, she was set up in a booth in Archie’s Playland Arcade. As Jensen explained to radio personality Art Linkletter in a c. 1950 interview, their paths crossed when she serendipitously came to him for tattoo supplies.

Owen Jensen-On the Air!
Listen to Jensen’s story about meeting Dainty Dotty!

This Art Linkletter radio episode aired October 1949
The year of Owen Jr’s birth (August 14, 1949).


West Coast Tattoo Works

Not long after meeting, Owen Jensen and Dainty Dotty were married en route from Detroit to Los Angeles in Reno, Nevada on November 24, 1945. By the years’ end, they were tattooing together in Fred McKee’s Fun Palace at 243 South Main Street.

Owen Jensen's 243 S. Main Tattoo Shop

The Jensen’s 243 S. Main tattoo shop. Pictured in the 194os film Of Scrap & Steel  by the Union Rescue Mission. Courtesy of insroland.org

Around this time, the Jensen’s also established a supply operations/machine shop in the back of their new home at 120 West 83rd Street, where they built up a rock solid business. Supply ads from this period tout: “The Jensen’s” “World’s Finest Tattooing Machines.” In addition to machines, they sold inks, tubes, stencils, and some of the most professional tattoo outfits of the era. Among their superior offerings was a set of tattoo design sheets drawn by their good friend, St. Louis tattoo artist, Bert Grimm (Further context about the Grimm-Jensen design sheet collaboration will be included in the Bert Grimm Book).

Bert Grimm Owen Jensen Flash Collaboration

Bert Grimm production sheet, left. Design sheet from Owen Jensen’s 1940s tattoo supply catalog, right.


Owen Jensen Tattoo Artist in his 70s

Owen Jensen, 1970s. Collection of Carmen Nyssen

One Tattoo Company Ends, Another Begins

Once Owen Jr. was born, in 1949, Jensen temporarily focused on making animal markers for Chinchilla ranchers, but he soon returned to the tattoo supply game. Unfortunately, only a few years later, tragedy struck the family when Dainty Dotty died (December 17, 1952) and Jensen was left to care for 3-year-old Owen Jr. alone. It became increasingly difficult for him to run a supply business, tattoo, and care for his young son.

Though Jensen tattooed until his death in 1977, his days in the supply business came to an end in 1957. This was the year his last ad appeared in Billboard magazine and the year he sold all his equipment to North Carolina tattooer Huck Spaulding, who he had met while working with another ace machine builder Ace Harlyn in North Carolina. Just as Jensen had once done—and as is part of the rich tradition of tattooing—Spaulding and his partner Paul Rogers spawned a whole new era of the tattoo supply business, springboarding from the collective knowledge of both Jensen and their combined personal influences.

 


Sailor Charlie Barrs

Speaking of passed on tattoo tradition, Charlie Barrs is a name that keeps surfacing in Buzzworthy Tattoo History blog posts. He seems to have left a mighty big footprint in tattooing!!!

In the case of this snippet of tattoo history, Owen Jensen, Cap Coleman, and Paul Rogers were each influenced by him in some way. (Paul Rogers learned his machine set up and tuning from Charlie Barrs in Norfolk, Virginia in the 1940s).

If you haven’t already, be sure to read more about how esteemed Sailor Charlie Barrs was in the eyes of his fellow tattooers for further context.


For more history on Owen Jensen’s machine mentor J.F. Barber see:

Buzzworthy Tattoo History Post: J.F. Barber: Tattoo Trade Professional
Tattoo Archive: J.F. Barber Biography

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