By Carmen Nyssen
Born: February 8, 1900 Springfield, Greene, MO
Died: June 15, 1985 Warrenton, Clatsop, OR
Burial: Ocean View Cemetery, Warrenton, Clatsop, OR
Bert Grimm endures as an outstanding figure in American tattoo history. Over an exceptionally longstanding career, he made innumerable contributions to the trade and cultivated a professional standard tattoo artists embrace to this day.
Bert didn’t start on the path to greatness. When he decided to become a tattoo artist, he was a novice without much direction. But eventually, as any ambitious craftsman someday does, he steadily and purposefully worked his way to the top of the trade.
Early Years Tattooing
Bert ran away when he was just fifteen years old, set on making his mark on the world. Almost immediately, he took up working with carnivals, where in time he learned to tattoo.
Into his twenties, he made a living as a sideshow tattoo artist; traveling the carnival circuit in the summer months, and in the offseason plying his trade in the numerous amusement arcades along Chicago’s South State Street.
Tattooing On the Road
Throughout this period, he crossed paths with an array of tattoo artists, each of whom undoubtedly contributed to his skill. Among them were: Percy Waters, Moses Smith, Joe Darpel, Jack Tryon, Hugh Bowen, Shorty Schultz, William Grimshaw, Frank Kelly, and Long Andy Libarry.
Because Bert was constantly on the move, short-lived, happenstance encounters accounted for the bulk of his training in these early years; his work lacked uniformity. At some point, he came to the realization that his inking ability was mediocre at best. This revelation, along with several other sobering experiences, prompted Bert to alter his course. In 1923, he abandoned carnival life intent on pursuing his chosen profession in a more deliberate manner.
Tattooers Charlie Barrs & Sailor George Fosdick
Luck was on his side. Shortly thereafter, he secured an apprenticeship with Portland, Oregon’s premier tattooer Sailor George Fosdick. Less than a year later, he made his way to Los Angeles, where he commenced a two-year apprenticeship with the master —the “Granddaddy of all good tattooing” —Sailor Charlie Barrs.
Both Fosdick and Barrs were champions of what is now referred to as the American Traditional style of tattooing, marked by bold tattoos with striking visual appeal. Expert application entailed not only precisely inked, defined outlines, but also nuanced black shading. Fitting placement of an arm or chest piece was equally important, as curvature of the body further accentuated the look of the tattoo.
Through his apprenticeships with the two veteran tattooers, and other 1920s influences Bert named, such as Ben Corday, Bert acquired both the competency required to achieve these effects and a solid foundation from which to expand his skill set.
St. Louis Tattooing
In 1928, inspired and ever more dedicated to his calling, Bert set up shop in St. Louis, Missouri, not far from the Mississippi River docks, where a daily barrage of dock workers offloaded into the city. Also nearby was Jefferson Barracks, home to scores of military men. The vast customer base allowed Bert the opportunity to perfect his tattooing and his business methods.
In a relatively short time, Bert built up a highly respectable and successful tattoo shop; a remarkable feat considering his start coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. Determined to overcome any obstacles, Bert often worked seven days a week —tattooing, painting multitudes of flash, and running an adjoining arcade and photo studio. His diligence paid off.
Enduring Tattoo Career
Bert plied his trade in St. Louis for 26 years, inking the arms, chests, and backs of hundreds of military men and in-port riverboat workers, and covering the bodies of numerous tattooed attractions. He rode the ebbs and flows of not only the Depression, but also World War II and the Korean War, as well as the resulting post-war slow-down. When it was all said and done, he’d established himself as one of the leading tattoo artists in the country.
Amazingly, Bert went on to tattoo nearly another thirty years, operating shops in Long Beach; San Diego; Portland, Oregon; and a final shop in Gearhart, Oregon set up in his home.
Bert Grimm Style of Tattooing
In the span of his seven decade career, Bert Grimm accomplished much. But it was his iconic tattooing style that spoke to the whole of his success.
The Bert Grimm style was basically a stripped down version of the American Traditional style —simpler, more open designs, and a very limited color palette, expertly executed with effective outlining and shading.
Bert’s tattoos had dimension. They popped. His identifiable, individual style of tattooing symbolized a lifetime of perseverance and plain hard work. He made a conscientious effort to learn from the best and honed his abilities every step of the way from then on.
Not many had the chops to pull off such pared down, yet quality, tattoo work. Bert Grimm narrowed it down to a science.
This article is a general overview of the life and career of my Great, Great Uncle Bert Grimm—an indepth book is in the works! This unprecedented biography has been years in the making and will reveal previously unknown information and exciting new insights into how Bert came to rank among the most revered tattoo artists of the 1900s era. If you have information about Bert or the tattoo artists he worked with (see Bert Grimm Book website for list), I would love to hear from you! Contact me at email@example.com.
For additional information on the legendary tattoo artist Bert Grimm read my related Buzzworthy articles:
Granddaddy of all Good Tattooing: Sailor Charlie Barrs (An article about Bert Grimm’s tattoo mentor)
Charlie Barrs’ Tattoos (More examples of Bert Grimm’s collaborations with Charlie Barrs)
Domingo Galang (Article includes image of Bert Grimm’s ‘Domingo Galang’ tattoos)
Bizzare Tattoo History Gift (A Bert Grimm gift to the author)
And listen to Watchtower Radio’s podcast:
Travels In My Skin Podcast, Great-Uncle Bert (By Carmen Nyssen, great grand niece of Bert Grimm, and host, Jeff Moss)
Pay Your Respects:
Visit my Find A Grave memorial for burial information: Bertram Cecil Grimm
Need a cemetery map of Bert Grimm’s gravesite? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bert Grimm Articles: