Friday, September 5, 2014

"Master of a Queer Profession": Charlie White and Toronto's Early Tattoo History

I recently met a local Toronto historian and artist, Teresa Casas, who is working to reconstruct the visual and social atmosphere of Toronto in the early 1900s through the photography of William James, combined with the text of the Toronto Daily Star (the precursor to the Toronto Star).

She pointed me to an image depicting a tattooed man, and a fascinating article in the Star on a tattooist working in Toronto at the turn of the century. I thought I would put together a little research to feature this important piece of local Toronto tattoo history. And don’t worry, regular readers, we’ll be back to henna in our next post!


Magic lantern slide of tattooed man, Toronto,
photo by William James, ca. 1910-1920.

The beginnings of professional tattooing in Canada have been hard to trace, especially due to the historical lack of scholarship devoted to tattooing. Some scholars of tattoo history have laid important ground, especially the crucial work of collecting oral histories; I have benefitted in particular from the work of Anna Felicity Friedman, Matt Lodder, Lyle Tuttle, Vince Hemingson and Lars Krutak, Bob Baxter, Charles Eldridge, and Clément Demers.

Maud Wagner, an early American tattoo
artist, ca. 1911.
Some context on turn-of-the-century tattooing: while tattoos had always been present in North American and European culture, they had become very popular by the end of the 19th century among all social classes, with nobles and royalty displaying tattoos acquired abroad (especially in the Levant and Japan) as well as at home. The Who's Who With Tattoos list includes King Edward VII and his son King George V, Czar Nicholas II, Charles Longfellow (son of Henry Wadsworth), and (according to legend) Lady Jennie Churchill (Winston's mother).

In 1891, Irish-American tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first prototype of an electric tattoo machine, which was refined by his student Charlie Wagner in 1904. Tattoos rapidly improved in quality and dropped in speed and price. The Harmsworth magazine wrote in 1898 that there were 20 tattoo artists working in London alone, with 100,000 tattooed clients. 

But what was happening in Canada? There are a few well-known names associated with early Canadian tattooing: Fred Baldwin, a former British soldier, and Vivian “Sailor Joe” Simmons both began tattooing in Montreal around 1910 — they were still using the old method of tapping tattoos with hand-held needles. 

Baldwin switched to the electric machine in 1916, and Simmons followed suit in 1918. In 1920 Baldwin opened the North Street Shop, on Barrington St. in Halifax, joined by another ex-Brit, Charlie Snow. Snow trained Sailor Jerry Swallow, another one of Canada’s legendary tattooists, who is still working today!

“Sailor Joe” Simmons eventually migrated to Toronto, where he died in 1965. In 1948 Simmons tattooed a young Toronto teen named Ken Cotterell, who became a famed tattoo artist in his own right under the name “Beachcomber Bill.” Simmons was featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the most heavily tattooed man in the world, with 4,831 distinct tattoos.

But Simmons was not the first tattoo artist to work in Toronto. A tattoo artist by the name of Charlie White was featured in the Toronto Daily Star on May 23, 1913, where he was described as the only tattoo artist working in Toronto; the reporter notes, however, that “there is a brotherhood of them, about thirty-five in all, through Canada and the States, which clings together by means of letters and occasional visits, telling each other of new designs and new methods.” Perhaps these colleagues included Baldwin or Simmons? It's clear that there was a network of tattoo artists who worked together, trained each other, and shared techniques and designs.

Queen St. and Terauley St. (today Bay), not far from White's
tattoo studio, ca. 1911.

I was not able to locate very much additional information about White. According to the article, he was born in Toronto around 1885, and went to the States around the turn of the century to work in Oklahoma on the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. He claimed that he learnt to tattoo there from a Native rancher, and in the typical rhetoric of the time period, declared that “with the white man’s mind, he improved on the Indian’s crude designs” (for a more respectful discussion of Indigenous tattoo traditions, check out the masterful work of Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados: Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America).

The article then describes how he practiced on his fellow ranchers (“blue initials and green snakes”) and then joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for three years. It was not uncommon in this period for tattoo artists to travel with sideshows and travelling circuses, as both exhibits (as “tattooed men/ladies”) and working artists. Bert Grimm, another legendary tattoo artist, also claimed to have started his career working with Buffalo Bill.

Tattoo ad, Toronto Daily Star, Aug. 8, 1908, pg. 12
Charlie White returned to Toronto "five years ago," i.e. in 1908, and opened a shop “in the more ancient and dowdier part of Queen street… only a box of a shop,” according to the Star

Tattoo ads which likely are for White’s studio first appear in the Star in 1908, advertising “persons cheaply tattooed by an expert” and “expert tattooing by an old country professional” at 193 Queen St. West. Another ad for the same Queen St. studio, placed on January 29, 1909, proclaims that "cold weather is the best time for tattooing — call."

It is interesting to note that Queen St. has therefore long been a centre for Toronto tattooing (both Simmons and Beachcomber Bill had studios there as well), and the tradition continues today!

Contemporary tattoo studios along Queen St., Toronto. 

According to the article, White had “10,000 designs [and] sixteen colors at his needle’s end,” and notes that he used an electric tattoo machine with a vibrating needle, vegetable inks from China, and a “powdered celluloid transfer” to trace the designs; he charged $35 for a full five-hour piece, and $3-$10 for smaller designs like flags, flowers, snakes, and names, making $30-$40 a week, by his own account. Unfortunately, all we know of White’s own tattoos is that he had a portrait of Bill Cody on his chest which he did using a mirror.

The article also describes his broad client base, including: “sailors, navvies, and lumberjacks” who got dragons on their chests, and hearts and enscrolled names on their arms; Scottish Canadians of the 48th Highlanders Regiment, “their bare knees decorated with thistles, crests, plaids, and dirks, for decency on parade” (presumably in kilts); women who want lovers’ names on their arms; and, interestingly, Chinese Canadians who had their names and addresses tattooed in Chinese characters (which he calls “Ch*nk letters… squiggles of identification”), which he explained was so their bodies could be identified and properly buried after death. I wonder how this is related to the general phenomenon of Chinese tattoos — while here Chinese Canadians are getting the tattoos, it seems to be the beginning of tattoo artists learning to tattoo Chinese characters, even if they couldn’t read them.

Partaking of a common trope of the period, the reporter exoticizes White by transcribing his dialogue in dialect, from his first line of “How do, partner” (whether or not he actually spoke this way), and emphasizing his time with the Native rancher and travelling with Buffalo Bill. Although Charlie White was a native Torontonian, his tattoos testify to his Otherness and inscribe his body with a certain marginality; this reminds me of how tattooed circus performers often invented exotic histories for themselves and their tattoos that nonetheless were believable accounts of how they became "oddities." As the reporter writes:

Tattooed man (Charlie White?), Toronto. Photo by
William James, ca. 1910-1920.
“Charlie is not more than thirty. But when he has talked for a few minutes, and his personality has come across, so to speak, he seems old, old. He has seen the world, for he traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s circus. He is master of a queer profession, and looks on all plain ones with a seeing eye. Hence, he is old, old.”

I have been unable to find any more evidence of how long White continued his tattooing studio, but he clearly was a pioneer of tattoo art in Toronto, and perhaps even the first professional tattoo artist to work in the city. He concludes the interview by cheerfully noting, "Oh, this is a flourishing business!"

This man, photographed in Toronto in the 1910s or early 1920s by local photojournalist William James, may likely be wearing some of White’s work. In fact, given that William James was a photographer for the Daily Star, this may be a portrait of Charlie White himself. He is certainly well decorated with tattoos, and the two nicely-executed portraits on his chest could be identified as Buffalo Bill on the left (with his characteristic moustache, goatee, and hat) and Annie Oakley on the right, which corresponds to how the article describes White's own tattoos. The man also has two other portraits tattooed on his upper arm, a cross (reading "Memory"?) and what looks like military ensigns.

So, I hope you enjoyed this short diversion into local tattoo history as much as I did. You can read the full article if you like, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library. The headline reads: "HAVE YOU BEEN TATOOED [sic] YET? There's a Man in Toronto Who Makes a Good Living at This Business — AN ODD CRANNY TOO — Is the Place Where He Works — He Has Traveled With 'Buffalo Bill'":

"Have You Been Tatooed [sic] Yet?"
Toronto Daily Star, May 23, 1913, pg. 5

If anyone reading has more information about Charlie White or corrections about Canadian tattoo history, please comment or get in touch! I’d love to learn more about the history of tattooing in Toronto.

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