Tattoo Time Capsule at the Henry Ford: Insights into Early Tattoo Design Sheets
By Carmen Nyssen
Each time a cache of tattoo material surfaces, in which related tools of the trade and ephemera remain intact, we are gifted key pieces of the tattoo history puzzle. Such collections stand as authentic tattoo time capsules; they reveal connections and insights otherwise lost and deepen our understanding of the past. One intriguing tattoo treasure trove, housed in Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum, proves this point quite well.
In 2014, when Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology, happened upon the collection, she realized its historical value right away. Be sure to read her blog on the Museum site: An Artist with the Needles. When I came across the digitized collection a couple years ago, I contacted Kristen, and in the spirit of sharing knowledge, she kindly granted me permission to do a write up as well. So, finally, here it is (in 3 posts). Many thanks to Kirsten and the Henry Ford Museum, and to Jimmie Skuse, Henk Schiffmacher, Dana Brunson, Ahmed Eldarrat, Eric Perfect, Scott Boyer, and Nick Wasko for providing images for this post, examples of the production flash for study, help with contacts, and sheet measurements.
Tattooing from Norfolk to Detroit
The four main tattooers represented in the Henry Ford collection are Detroit’s Percy Waters, Harry V. Lawson, John A. Walker, and William Fowkes. Before continuing, be sure to read the Buzzworthy post about “Harry V. Lawson’s Norfolk Tattoo Shop,” which details the movements of the latter three tattoo artists. This background history precedes Fowkes’ move from Norfolk to Detroit in 1923, and explains how Lawson-Walker-Fowkes items ended up in a collection with Waters material.
Now, for the unfolding of the clues…….
Lawson’s “Tattooing Notes:”
Of all the gems in the collection, the most logical one to start with is Harry V. Lawson’s “Tattooing Notes” (Object ID 80.63.16), a handwritten instructional on tattoo removal procedures and formulas. Although the booklet’s contents are a great value to tattoo history, the handwriting is of primary interest for our purposes. As you’ll notice, Lawson’s letter Gs are quite unique.
The Gs, as well as the script, match the handwriting in the collection’s unidentified Skin Deep manuscript (Object ID 81.98.8). This confirms that both the tattoo removal instructions and the manuscript were written by Harry Lawson.
What’s more, both pieces apparently date to Lawson’s time in Norfolk, 1918-1921. Although Lawson possibly offered tattoo removal much earlier, the first related advertisements uncovered, so far, are from this period.
1919 May 18 Denver Rocky Mountain News
“Tattoo Marks Removed-Formula and Directions of Wonderful Discovery Price $1.00 Harry V. Lawson 253 Court St., Norfolk, Va.”
A mention of the recent flapper craze in the Skin Deep manuscript identifies it as a 1920s work as well. The time period of both these items is further supported by the high probability that they were brought from Norfolk to Detroit by William Fowkes in 1923.
What dating these items establishes is that we have been afforded a glimpse into a very specific era of tattooing.
Skin Deep Manuscript:
Skin Deep is an informative 1920s document covering many facets of tattooing, including a fascinating section on how to make a tattoo machine. I’ll leave the subject of tattoo machine building to the experts. But please refer to the 1920s Tattoo Machine blog post at your leisure for a few noteworthy tidbits.
The real highlight of our study concerns the section about tattoo designs, stencils, and stencil impressions. In Chapter 3 of Skin Deep, Lawson explains that stencils can be cut with a jewelers starret on celluloid sheets (motor car side curtains) available at any automobile supply store. He gives detailed instructions on how to make them by tracing over designs. He then goes on to describe stencil impressions, or rubbings, which suppliers sold, so tattoo artists could trace them and cut their own stencils.
Chapter 3, Sheet 3: “Stencil Impressions are sold by tattooing supply houses and are made by filling the grooves of the stencils with stencil ink or by going back over the grooves with a soft lead pencil and placing a piece of fairly thin, rubbing over the paper with the fingers. This causes a replica of the stencil to be transferred to the paper.”
Curiously, in a printed tattoo supply booklet, presumably from the same era, Lawson presents a slightly different description of stencil impressions.
Harry Lawson’s Tattoo Supply Booklet:
In Tattooing by Prof. Harry V. Lawson (not available online), Lawson emphasizes that stencil impressions are merely line drawings, without color, intended as guides to cut stencils. What he doesn’t specify is whether or not the stencil impressions he was selling then were stencil rubbings.
“Then there is another class of design which is called the stencil impression. This design is merely an outline without the colors, which makes it very easy to cut stencils by.”
“There is another kind of design that is very nice to have on hand in case of fire or loss of some kind, and that is what is called a stencil impression. It is merely an outline of a design without colors. With this kind of a design it is very easy to cut a stencil. I also have thousands of them for sale and can supply you with as many as you should want.”
Actually, evidence suggests that Lawson also sold a different type of stencil impression—possibly implemented because of the World War I business boom. At a time when customer demand for designs was particularly high, manually cutting large volumes of stencils or rubbing stencil impressions would have been time consuming—not cost effective at all. Though suppliers still sold both, the goal was to offer a larger selection of designs for the least amount of effort and the most reasonable prices. This dynamic led tattooers to invent ingenious methods of producing stencil impressions in bulk. (Additional contributing factors might have been the celluloid shortage mentioned in numerous 1920 newspaper articles).
In the early 1920s, Lawson and his Norfolk partners, John “Jack” Walker and William “Billie” Fowkes, boasted “the best” tattoo stencil impressions on the market “that cannot be beat.”
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” “Tattoo Designs-Colors, stencil impressions. Best on the market. Stamp for price list. Lawson-Fowkes-Walker, 601 East Main St., Norfolk, Va.”
After Lawson left the partnership and moved to Texas then California in 1922, Walker and Fowkes continued advertising stencil impressions. Because there’s a surviving Walker & Fowkes stencil impression sheet in the Henry Ford Collection, we have some idea of how they were produced.
If you look closely, you can see that the sheet’s original inscriptions stated “Walker & Fowkes (top)” and “601 Main St. Norfolk, VA (bottom),” dating it to between 1920 and 1922, their Norfolk period. (Fowkes’ Detroit address, c. 1923-24, and his name were later written over the top).
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”
This sheet of 12 wristband impressions—matching the description in a 1922 ad—is visual proof Walker & Fowkes were not selling manual stencil rubbings. Rather, the sheets, consisting of multiple “printed” designs on large print paper, were produced with some type of gelatin duplicator from a master sheet. Given the time frame and the association, these were undoubtedly the same type of stencil impressions touted by the tattoo team Lawson, Walker, & Fowkes (and possibly Lawson before their partnering).
Tattoo Design Duplicating Methods:
Prior to the 1923 invention of the ditto machine (spirit duplicator), a variety of hectograph devices (gelatin duplicators) were in use in offices and print shops (some more advanced than others). With this process, exact copies of text and illustrations could be reproduced from a master sheet—usually with Aniline (violet) dye for high contrast, but sometimes with red or black. Copies were made on fiber paper, like the Walker & Fowkes sheet, which was typically rolled through the duplicator and trimmed. They were called “impressions.” Depending on the equipment, 1 master sheet yielded from 50 to 100 sheets, at a low cost.
In years to come, tattoo artists employed similar creative methods of providing customers with a large volume of cost-effective designs; i.e. Diazo prints (blue on white), ditto prints, which came in various colors, though Aniline was most common; they yielded up to 500 copies. Some methods worked better for design outline sheets (stencil impressions), while others were used for making copies of flash display sheets meant to be painted.
Excerpt from For the Record: The Zeis Studio Flash: Tattoo Archive, 2009
“Tattoo suppliers are always looking for ways to get new designs to their customers cheaply. Percy Waters used the century-old cyanotype process to produce blueprint flash, which entailed producing the tattoo designs as white lines on Prussian blue paper. Waters offered dozens of these 18″ x 24″ sheets at the price of $14.00 for forty sheets. Milton Zeis updated this process with the cheapest method of his era called the diazo print that produced the tattoo image as blue lines on white paper. He then sold ten 10″ x 15″ sheet for $7.50.”
Successful tattoo supplier Percy Waters is known for a particularly unique offering of tattoo design outlines. His 1923 letterhead advertised 18 x 24 blueprint sheets, which because of their size, were chock-full of designs.
“Blueprint-copies can be had of any master chest, back, or leg design. As well as many thousand arm size, wrist bands, shoulders, etc. etc. These are printed outlines only. 18 x 24 sheets.”
Waters smartly hyped his tattoo design outlines as “master” designs. A major perk of master-duplicated tattoo design outlines—made by hectographs, blueprints, and the like—is stencils cut from them were (potentially) more precise. Stencil rubbings tended to skew design lines, so there was more of a chance that stencils cut from them would deviate.
As an aside, Waters’ blueprint sheets are often mistaken as flash display sheets, understandably so. Although Waters blueprints were produced exclusively for tracing and cutting stencils, it didn’t stop resourceful tattoo artists from coloring them in and using them as display sheets. They weren’t necessarily the best choice for this purpose though. In a c. 1940s tattoo supply catalog, Norfolk tattooer, Eugene J. Miller, warned against using colored up blue prints or photo sheets (see information on photo sheets below) as flash. He recommended hand-drawn/painted sheets that would not curl up and look unprofessional.
1918 Tattoo Portfolio:
All of this leads to the main collection item up for examination—a portfolio of traditional tattoo design sheets (Object ID 80.63.3) from the World War I era, which in contrast to stencil impression sheets, were intended to be painted and displayed on tattoo shop walls. Notably, renderings of the same designs appear on the Walker & Fowkes stencil impression sheets, including the one labeled Norfolk. The inference is that the portfolio, like other items in the collection, made its way to Detroit from Norfolk, via Fowkes. The portfolio, however, which bears the date 1918 on one sheet, was probably not the work of either Walker or Fowkes, who were not in the U.S. in 1918.
The portfolio designs are exceptionally well-executed, but exactly who drew them or produced them remains a mystery. Some speculate they were drawn and/or sold by New York Bowery tattoo artist-supplier Charlie Wagner. A closer look, however, calls this attribution into question. (Note: the last few designs in the portfolio appear to be drawn by someone other than whoever drew the main designs)
The 2nd and 4th design examples below are from the 1918 Portfolio. The designs to the left of them are from a sheet with Wagner’s name written on it from the Henk Schiffmacher collection (originally owned by Les Skuse). While very similar, they appear to be drawn by a different hand.
Further insight is provided by the size of the sheets.
During this period, the design sheets Wagner advertised were 16 x 20.
A visual comparison of the sheet with Wagner’s name on it, next to an 11 x 14 Owen Jensen sheet (below), illustrates the sheet’s dimensions.
The 1918 portfolio sheets are much smaller than 16 x 20. The portfolio, including the cover, measures 10.5 x 16—slightly bigger than the sheets inside. Production copies of these sheets that have survived (many “signed” by the tattoo artists who once owned them) measure about the same—10 x 14, with ½ to 1 inch variation.
Photostat Reproduction Process
Both the 1918 portfolio sheets and the known production copies were printed on specialized photo paper. They were most likely created by a photostat process, which would account for the minor size discrepancies. Photostat paper came in a roll; it was cranked through the photostat machine and trimmed to size by hand as each print was developed. Photo-stat paper, as opposed to flimsier print paper, provided a relatively sturdier medium for painting tattoo flash sheets for display. (In later years, display sheets were produced on individual sheets of photo paper, instead of a roll, by a variety of developing methods).
Tattoo Designs by Who?
By no means do the style and size differences rule out Wagner as the author or supplier of the 1918 portfolio sheets; we just don’t have all the facts. At the same time, we can’t ignore the alternative possibilities sitting right under our nose. We now know that the Henry Ford collection is teeming with Harry Lawson tattoo artifacts and they spill over from his Norfolk days. Wouldn’t you know! In this very era, Lawson advertised 10 x 14 design sheets. While surely others did as well, the context of the portfolio strongly suggests a connection.
Harry Lawson might hold a very interesting place in tattoo supply history. In his short stint in the supply game, Lawson himself proclaimed he was a design specialist, and he offered a large and fine array of tattoo designs. Along with Wagner and Waters, he was one of the main supply advertisers in Billboard magazine at the turn of the 1920s decade.
Harry Lawson Tattoo Supply Booklet (c. late 1910s-early 1920s), pg. 4 “The main thing in tattooing is to have a real fine assortment of designs, and that is the one thing that you can get, as I make a specialty of designs. I sell designs in sheets, size 10 x 14, or in book form, twenty-four designs in each book. These designs are all colored and make good flash. It also is a big help to the tattooer, as he can see where to put the different colors while tattooing.”
1922 Mar 4 Billboard pg. 63: Tattoo Supplies-Tattooing designs, 500 Stencil Impressions, 2 Sheets of designs, 10×14, nicely colored; 17 wristband designs, one sheet of lodge emblems, 6 chest designs, 6 formulas to remove tattoo marks. Price $5.00. Harry Lawson, Box 1206 Los Angeles, California mar4″
Additionally, although we should use caution when assessing tattoo work from this early era of sparse records, it’s difficult not to notice a certain continuity between the portfolio designs and the designs attributed to Lawson today. The tricky part is …how does that factor in?
Note: Lost Art of Tattooing’s Past includes additional Lawson flash sheets.
Lawson-Alberts-Wagner Tattoo Designs:
None of these findings substantiate Lawson as the author or producer of the 1918 tattoo portfolio, or excludes Wagner. But the circumstances surrounding the portfolio are thought-provoking.
Assuming the portfolio did originate in Norfolk, in 1918, we are looking at a very specific time frame. This, theoretically, narrows down specifics. In 1918, the main tattoo artists in Norfolk were Cap Coleman & Andy Sturtz, Lenora Platt, Elmer Getchell & Jim Wilson, and Harry Lawson & Lew Alberts. Since we are focused on Lawson, the latter partnership certainly stands out. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if this episode is part of the story.
Let’s say Lawson did sell the design sheets through his supply company and possibly even drew them; were there outside influences …from Wagner or even Lew Alberts?
Consider these factors:
♣Lawson and Alberts were partners in 1918, in Norfolk, just after Alberts’ many years of working with Wagner. As far as we know, Alberts had been working in Wagner’s highly successful tattoo shop up to this point. So, why did he go to Norfolk? Is it possible Lawson invited him there with the intention of collaborating on a set of designs?
♣The portfolio designs—in style and arrangement—are similar to those on the sheet attributed to Wagner from the same period.
♣There’s also the fact that Alberts studied mechanical drawing at a technical institute. The portfolio designs are elegantly drafted—made for quick and neatly applied tattoos. The robust shading is also similar to the Alberts drawings that Ed Hardy owns.
♣We can’t forget oral tradition either, which upholds Alberts as the person who improved upon and standardized tattoo designs.
♣Perhaps the most intriguing factor in all this is that Lawson, a self-proclaimed tattoo design specialist, regaled Alberts’ artistic ability and his contributions in reminiscences to author Albert Parry—which Parry later iterated in a September 18, 1927 Forward article and his seminal 1933 book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art. The following excerpt from the Forward article sums up Parry’s impression of Alberts:
As with the Lawson sheets, there’s a certain continuity in the Alberts designs and the 1918 portfolio.
Distribution and Derivation of Tattoo Designs
With the surfacing of the Henry Ford collection, we have been granted a lot of clues. But, as it stands now, they are merely points to mull over—to keep in mind in case further evidence should surface. We still don’t know the origin of the portfolio.
Sorting out the origins and authorship of various tattoo works is a frustrating task. There are many variables and missing pieces. Tattoo artists signed their name to artwork that wasn’t theirs; suppliers sometimes drew their own designs, but also often outsourced artists; and so on. Additionally, because of collaborations and converging styles, and passed along designs that were copied and re-copied, threads of influence are hinted at in many surviving tattoo artifacts. With so much overlap, making absolute attributions can be problematic.
Production tattoo designs (in all forms), of course, were meant to be copied. In fact, as previously outlined, suppliers produced them so it was easy to do so. Production sheets helped suppliers keep up with customer demand at a low cost, and provided customers the tools they needed to run an effective business. In this past era, tattoo artistry was more a matter of personal technique/style/ability, than it was about originality of designs. Standardized, aptly drawn (tattooable) designs facilitated the execution of attractive, yet cost-effective, tattoos.
Although it’s not clear exactly when the first production sheets were implemented, their wide distribution popularized certain designs. Some tattoo artists used production flash itself for display. Others re-drew the designs and painted them in their own style. Either way the designs made an impact. Take a look at the 1918 Portfolio and the sheet with Wagner’s name on it and you’ll see that the same designs, drawn quite similarly, appear on multitudes of surviving flash sheets that span decades. Suppliers, too, appropriated the designs. For example, most of the same designs can be found on sheets produced by Percy Waters and Milton Zeis, two highly successful tattoo suppliers of their generation. Which way the influence funneled, and what other influences were at work, is still out of our reach. But, no matter the influences, the 1918 portfolio is an important piece in all this.
At the very least, the portfolio and the other tattoo material in the Henry Ford collection reminds us that there were many cross influences in tattooing, and many players in the tattoo world who have not been given their due credit—yet!
There are plenty more nuggets in the Henry Ford’s tattoo collection that might help tie things together. Check it out!!!!
Tattoo Tidbit: As an interesting side note, Tattoo Historian #10 (Fall 1986) pg. 37, which includes a 1922-23 letter addressed from William Fowkes in Detroit to Fred Marquand, shows a Fowkes “hand holding a tattoo machine design” that is close to the one Waters is known for.
In fact, what we might be looking at in the Henry Ford collection is Lawson, Walker, and Fowkes’ influence on Percy Waters.
Related Harry Lawson Articles:
Published December 7, 2016 @ 17:04:23