Tattoos in the LGBT Community
02:02 PM
cliff raven tattooing.jpg
Photo of Cliff Raven Tattooing via Cliff Raven Wine

Late Friday night, New York became the largest state to legalize same-sex marriage, making this weekend's NYC Pride celebrations fiercer than ever. Inspired by it all, I've been looking into the history of tattooing within the LGBT community but not finding a significant amount of information, especially considering the prominence of body art in the community. For this post, I've pulled together just a few resources for you to explore. I welcome other suggestions and leads to more info.

One of my favorite reads on tattoo culture is Samuel Steward's Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks. The book is a personal diary that chronicles Steward's life as a tattooist for 18 years, in which he went by the name "Phil Sparrow." He also kept a daily journal for the Kinsey Institute, offering volumes to sex research on gay and fetish experiences as well as the sexual motivations behind getting tattooed. And so it's no surprise that homosexuality and tattooing is discussed in Bad Boys. Here's an excerpt:

One change, however, came about in the homosexual attitude towards tattoos around 1954 following the national release of the movie The Wild One with Marlon Brando; the original motorcycle film, it seemed to crystallize or release, the obscure and long-hidden feelings of many homosexuals. In a sense the so-called leather movement began with this movie...
These leather guys began to get symbolically violent tattoos--black panthers crawling up arms, or daggers or snakes or skulls or combinations of all the symbols of death and violence and sexuality and masculinity. I was overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of so many of these figures, and abandoned all records as the impulse of many homosexuals to be considered more masculine--by the addition of a tattoo--grew stronger.

Even before this leather movement began, however, there were undoubtedly many homosexuals getting tattooed or at least coming into the shop--perhaps as many as twenty percent of the visitors were homosexuals whom I was unable to recognize as such.

It's a fascinating read. I recommend picking up Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos, along with the biography on his life: 
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist & Sexual Renegade. While the Secret Historian focuses more on Steward as "a furtive but exuberant erotic adventurer" it does include a bit of discussion on his life as a tattooer.

I do wish more was written on his importance in modern tattoo culture, especially as
a strong influence on Ed Hardy and for launching the career of Cliff Raven.

Cliff Raven (born Cliff H. Ingram). As best said in BMEzine's encyclopedia, Cliff, with Ed and Sailor Jerry,
"pioneered the adoption of the Japanese tattoo aesthetic in the U.S." [He was also an innovator in neo-tribal tattooing later in his career.] Cliff was openly gay, which was rare in such a homophobic industry at the time. BME adds:

The importance of Cliff's contribution to tattooing--and particularly with respect to the gay tattoo subculture--cannot be underestimated. Cliff was a resource for many gay men who began to explore the fetishistic aspects of tattooing. Some of Cliff's work featured the first overtly homoerotic tattoo images.
In the mid 1960s, Cliff opened, what is today, The Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Company -- the oldest tattoo studio operating in Illinois. Read more on the shop's history here. He later moved to California where he founded the Tattoo Works studios with his brother Bob--one studio on Sunset Strip in LA and the other in San Francisco. He retired from tattooing in the early 80s and, from that time, ran a rare and used bookstore, Raven's Books, until his passing in 2001.

For more on Cliff's life in tattooing, check excerpts of an interview with him on the Tattoo Archive. You can also view some important (albeit shaky) videos with Cliff on the fabulous  Occult Vibrations YouTube Channel.

Phil Sparrow and Cliff Raven [notice the bird names] are just a couple of artists who have paved the way for top LGBT tattooists today, and in the next few days, we'll be highlighting the work of a number of artists in the community.

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