Tattoos brand the self; draw lines of demarcation. They separate, unite, and send messages that often get warped in translation. A bright bouquet of flowers wrapped around the arm can signify life ... and decay. The image is open to interpretation and invites commentary from strangers.
Permanent ink signifies choice—but whose choice? In 2013, we assume an individual displaying a tattoo on his or her body made an active decision to plaster his or her skin with a potentially polarizing piece of indelible art. But in 1850s America, out West where random ruled, who was privileged with access to choice? Again, assumptions are made. Women were relatively powerless, their voices subsumed by the white patriarchal choir. A woman did not choose to be tattooed. Well, that's how the story goes.
Depending on the source, Olive Oatman was 13 or 14 when Southwest Indians abducted her and her sister Mary Ann during their family's religious pilgrimage from Illinois to California. The Oatmans, devout Mormons who identified as Brewsterites before traveling cross-country in 1851, met their fate at the hands of the Apaches—or was it the Yavapais? Olive's memory might have been a bit hazy when she spoke with the Los Angeles Star upon being ransomed back to "civilization" five years into her ordeal. Though billed as an exclusive tell-all, the Star's expose includes nary a quote from "Olive Oatman: The Apache Captive." Like the tribe she left behind, Olive became a marginalized voice whose firsthand perspective is subsumed by one-sided myths of western progress and U.S. exceptionalism.
As a point of interest and cautionary tale she is textually silenced and ventriloquized by reporters who sidestepped meticulous fact checking for a quick turnaround at the presses. Who needs a nuanced portrait of cross-cultural immersion when a classic tale of Cowboys and Indians moves papers? A rush to sensationalize might explain why the Star fails to delineate between Olive's original captors—who it turns out were Yavapais after all—and the tribe that purchased her from them in 1852. Unlike the Yavapais, the Mohaves treated the Oatman girls with comparative decency, if not outright affection. The paper, however, does its best to downplay any affection Olive might have had for the "indolent" Indians, noting for example that while the Mohaves made it clear that their captive could "go to the white settlements as she pleased," Olive was allegedly too wary of their motives to risk departure. The article also mentions the manner in which Olive referred to the Chief's wife, speaking of her "in terms of warmest gratitude." Each time the Mohaves are mentioned though you can hear a pipe organ scream, its villainous chords hammering home how fortunate Olive was to escape such ... well, what did she escape exactly? Life among the Mohaves was, as the Star tells it, totally unbearable, and yet, Olive emerged in excellent health, with a quick wit and able body, proficient in reading, writing, and long-distance swimming. She was also quite fetching—a real beauty, if not for those horrifying tattoos!
Olive Oatman sported serious ink: five thick vertical lines stretched across her chin, markings acquired with charcoal, cactus needles and powder crushed from indigenous blue stone. The design reflects Olive's deep ties to the Mohaves who only tattooed tribal members as a method for ensuring safe passage into the afterlife. A sitting-room portrait of Olive taken in 1858 highlights a visible intersection of disparate cultural mores. From the neck down, she is a model of 19th century white female femininity, modestly draped in heavy fabric, waist constrained by a corset, her hand delicately placed atop an ornate chair. As the eye scans upward, past her frock's delicate white lace collar, the subject morphs into a "disfigured" creature.
Olive's strange appearance led to a series of speaking engagements across the country and inspired several copycat stories embraced by women who used their tattooed bodies to earn a living with circuses and at freak shows. Olive ultimately rejected life on the fringes to soak up white America as best she could, marrying a banker and residing in Texas where neighbors likely explained away her disfigurement as an act of unwelcome force. How else to explain her predicament? Even in this contemporary moment, the face remains a sacred space where only certain rituals may transpire to enhance western standards of beauty. Makeup, for example, even the permanent variety, is acceptable if it enhances preexisting traits. Venture beyond Maybelline, color outside the lines, and you must be some kind of monster.
In 2007, Utah media outlets circulated the haunting mug shot of Curtis Allgier, a neo-Nazi skinhead who murdered corrections officer Stephen Anderson in a failed escape attempt that occurred while the inmate was on hospital leave from the state prison. Allgier is covered in 115 tattoos indicating commitment to white supremacy. The markings on his face boast about the same level of craftsmanship as a teenage vandal's hasty graffiti, the dull army-green symbols of racial superiority blurred together in one uninspired mess. Allgier is the type of criminal one tends to associate with facial tattoos. Indeed, tattoos in general are largely considered irrefutable signs of moral bankruptcy. Not much has changed since Olive Oatman re-entered western society brandished like an outlaw. Today, a woman with chin tattoos is flagged as, at best, rebellious, though chances are she'd join Allgier as a perceived menace to society. As for Olive, people couldn't make heads or tails of a white woman made up like an Indian. That she belonged to the Mormon faith further complicated the question of her consent to the primitive ritual.
Not surprisingly, the LDS Church strongly discourages its members from tattooing or piercing their bodies. The most oft-cited reason for its ban on body modification is a passage whose point is familiar to many outside of the faith: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). Such doctrine suggests that a temple can only appear one way—beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but rather springs from strict guidelines in a one-look-suits-all manual.
My interest in tattoo culture dates back to high school when, as a bright-eyed high-school sophomore, I worked part-time at Einstein's Bagels. My managers and co-workers were slightly older, mostly guys in their early 20s who spent their downtime restoring Vespa's and listening to the Pogues. Cool but approachable, they associated with creative types that defied conservative norms. They gravitated toward Salt Lake City's 9th and 9th neighborhood, which in the 1990s was one of our few bohemian hotbeds. Utah is always about five years behind most national trends and this lag was particularly noticeable in the era of dial-up modems. The small businesses surrounding Einstein's included one of the city's first vegetarian restaurants, a cutting-edge smoothie shop, the Coffee Garden (in its original northwest corner location), indie record store Salt City CDs, indie film house Tower Theater, gag gift and sex toy emporium Cahoot's, and a new-age clothing store for dyed-in-the-wool hippies featuring lots of Stevie Nicks-worthy scarves. Individuals flocked to this district for a taste of counter-culture and to enjoy themselves in a relatively judgment-free environment. This is where I first glimpsed broad displays of tattoos and piercings adorning all types of bodies, from clean-cut outdoor enthusiasts rocking peace signs and Kokopelli on their ankles to young skate punks with elaborate sleeves. Who was responsible for all of this ink? It's hard to say given the serious lack of historical evidence supporting Salt Lake City's tattoo culture. Tracking down information about shops that opened even just twenty years ago requires some dexterity. A.S.I. Tattoo claims ownership as the first established business of its kind in Salt Lake City's metro area. Others single out Doc Holliday's as a pioneering institution. Of course, the case of who "started" first is really a matter of which individuals secured a proper business license before the others legitimated their trade according to state guidelines. These days it's impossible to drive down State Street without encountering a tattoo parlor of varying repute. And yet despite this proliferation of permanent ink peddlers the fact that Salt Lake City is per capita one of the most tattooed cities in North America is not a commonly known truth. It makes perfect sense that outsiders' initial perceptions of Salt Lake are dominated by the looming specter of LDS values, but subcultural resistance is just like Newton said—for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.
CJ Fishburn has searched high and low to substantiate oft-repeated stories of Salt Lake tattoo lore. Born in Utah, raised in Arizona and California, CJ moved back to Salt Lake at age 20 to make tattooing his trade. He apprenticed at the appointment-only Apparition Ink, working up the ladder from front desk manager to sought-after artist. Three years later, he helped open Eleventh Street Electric Gallery. The Sugar House shop enjoyed a successful five-year run but ultimately closed thanks to a terrible landlord and its partners' divergent goals. Now CJ co-owns the well-respected Cathedral Tattoo. Located across from the SLC Main Library on 400 South, the shop caters to appointment-based clientele and walk-ins, the latter of which CJ assures can obtain a tattoo that's just as high quality as one that's been planned out for months.
The back of Cathedral boasts a tiny museum displaying a portion of CJ's historical treasures including antique tattoo guns and vintage photographs. Modest in size but not scope, it's the best comprehensive source of tattoo memorabilia that's readily accessible in this town. Not many locals share CJ's passion for recovering the roots of his craft. He bonds with fellow tattoo artists, collectors, historians and specialists as a member of the Bristol Tattoo Club, an exclusive group founded in the 1950s and forever since shrouded in relative mystery. Its core members are wary of outsiders, a common thread, it seems, and partial reason for the scant traces of its presence in Utah and otherwise. Through his Bristol connections, CJ's managed to locate several starting points from which to hunt down solid leads on individuals like Owen Jensen, a Pleasant Grove native who in a letter to Paul Rogers (widely considered to be the father of the modern electric tattoo machine) explains that he first saw a tattooed man after walking 12 miles to Provo for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Two years later Jensen received his first tattoo from Bob Hodge at the Lucky Bill Show. Soon thereafter, he moved to Detroit and took a job working on tattoo machines before becoming a tattooist himself. Jensen returned to Utah briefly to get married, but quickly moved on to Long Beach where he established a reputation as one of the best artists in his field. Jensen's introduction to tattooing was not uncommon considering the transient nature of the trade. In the early 19th century, only a handful of tattooists taught others their craft, resulting in a tight nucleus of people who never ventured too far from their enclave. Still, outsiders managed to teach themselves by purchasing machines from ads posted in Popular Science. Artists then found a market on the road, joining circuses and freak shows, and traveling through towns where military bases were located. One has to assume some overlap occurred between these vagabond tattooists and Utah's military tradition.
Established in 1862, Camp Douglas protected the overland mail route and telegraph lines that ran through Salt Lake City. Later renamed Fort Douglas, the base expanded its presence and purview during World War I and WWII, attracting a slew of sailors and army men whose obligation to the service was kept in check partially through their painted flesh. In 1914, Lieutenant Edwin Guthrie was charged with monitoring fraudulent applications for enlistment in the navy, encouraged to crosscheck sailors' tattoos with records of previous fraudulence. Guthrie attributed a certain existential angst and superstition to the seamen's penchant for indelible ink. Certain symbols held more clout than others, including a pig tattooed on the foot to prevent against drowning. In 1916, Lieutenant Dewitt took to the Salt Lake Telegram to call on the services of a tattoo artist for the purposes of cleaning up one sailor's rated X ink. An applicant visited the recruiting center located in the 200 South Walker Building and was just about to complete enlistment when officers noticed three "September Morns" on his forearm.
These figures were modeled after a 1913 Paul Chabas painting whose depiction of a young nude woman bathing lakeside raised the ire of New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, and subsequently sparked a high-profile obscenity debate. Parodies of the painting's subject flourished, its image particularly appealing to military servicemen. In 1942, a letter to Life included a before-and-after photograph of another sailor's "September Morn" tattooed on his knee, her nudity covered by a shapeless black dress. Obviously there was a market for tattooing in Salt Lake City, but the names of the artists are less documented than their work appears to be. Besides the occasional trip to military bases, tattooists—whether living here or passing through town—operated under stairwells or in the backs of bars. One individual, Alvin N. Hale, profiled in the 1933 Salt Lake Telegram as "Salt Lake's Only Tatoo (sp) Artiste," is listed as occupying an address located at 343 South Street 400 West (where Positively Fourth Street practice space now stands), which according to Sanborn Fire maps was at the time a mixed-use commercial-residential space. When the interview took place, the 29 year-old was busy removing a woman's name from the customer's chest. No more John hearts Alyce.
Hale included among his clientele college students, Fort Douglas soldiers, cowboys from nearby ranches, and "more women than you would expect." The article goes into great detail about Hale's price scale and technique—he eschewed electric machines, instead using a three-pronged needle for outlining and a six-pronged needle for shading. With such attention paid to his craft, you'd imagine tattooing's popularity was on the rise. At the very least, it was a dazzling curiosity for Telegram readers. Why then does the press start and end with Hale? Two weeks after the profile Hale was arrested and eventually wound his way to Folsom Prison. It seems that once he served his time he abandoned his trade. CJ Fishburn speculates that, considering Hale's reluctance to adopt modern technology by sticking with non-electric tools he might not have ever been serious about tattooing. And the reporter who interviewed him might have entered his work space with little previous knowledge of the trade. It's certainly not the first time the media has been off the mark. Perhaps the Telegram, upon learning of Hale's criminal path, swore off tattooing as a subject of interest for its readers. Still, it's strange that no other papers picked up on the trend as it fluctuated in out of fashion for decades.
After months of research, I have more questions than answers. Why are there no tattoo shops listed on the Sanborn maps? Another address often mentioned among CJ's peers as a potential stomping grounds for tattoo artists is 1972 S. State, now home to Salt Lake Community College. Like Hale's place, the space is listed as mixed-use, its corresponding city directory entry identifying it as Huth Sanitary Grocery. So, a drugstore? Given that in the 30s 1-15 had yet to exist and that State Street served as a main highway in and out of town, and that Huth Sanitary Grocery was surrounded by motel "Tourist Courts," it's possible its owner invited tattooists to practice their trade on their way through town. Maybe Huth himself had a tattoo business on the side. We may never know. The lack of evidence supporting Salt Lake's tattoo culture is frustrating and ironic—how could an art form based in on the premise of permanence leave so little trace of its existence?