Professor Sam Steward is best known to the tattoo community as Phil Sparrow, a meticulous tattooer whom many credit with raising the bar of body art. Steward wrote the seminal "Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks," a sort of diary on his 18 years tattooing during the 50s and 60s.
Last year, a much lauded biography was released revealing the many different lives of Steward beyond tattoo artist -- the academic, the writer and the "exuberant erotic adventurer." "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist & Sexual Renegade" by Justin Spring is lush with sexy stories culled from 80 boxes of letters, drawings, sexual paraphernalia, even pubic hair from Rudolph Valentino (with whom he had an affair). There's some talk of tattooing, but homosexual life dominates the narrative. I guess I wasn't clear about this in my first post on the book because I received a few emails from those who ordered it asking why I was pushing gay porn. It seems not many of you are exuberant erotic adventurers.
For those who are, a limited edition companion book was released by Spring entitled "An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward." This art and photography compilation, complete with explicit sexual imagery, inspired the "Obscene Diary" exhibit at the Museum of Sex in NYC. The Museum says of the show: "This exhibition features the most comprehensive group of artifacts from the Steward Archive that will ever be made available for public view and asks patrons to reflect on what it would look like if their own sexual histories were documented and what this would say about the times in which we live." [In the age of sexting and kissy-face profile pics on Facebook, I think our sexual histories are not so secret.]
Yesterday, the NY Times offered a multimedia feature on the exhibit, which is fantastic. It includes six photos accompanied by audio narration by Spring, giving context to the image. For example, in the photo above, Spring discusses Steward's tattooing and notes that he was the official tattooer for the Hells Angels from 1965-1970 in San Francisco. Each image is worth a click for these kind of gems.
Many thanks to Bill of TattoosDay for the NY Times link!
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...
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.
Samuel M. Steward, PhD was an English professor, a writer of esteemed literary works and gay porn. He was also "a furtive but exuberant erotic adventurer." [Put this on my own tombstone please].
Sam Steward was also "Phil Sparrow," a tattoo artist for 18 years who chronicled these years in a book that should be on every tattoo lover's shelves: "Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks."
As Sam notes in the intro, the book was autobiographical, a journal of his tattoo life with "no intention to retell old stories, to perpetuate myths or errors, to upgrade the 'art' of tattooing, nor to make more dense the fog of the mystique around it."
It does talk about the characters he tattooed, the politics between tattooers, and sex. Lots of it. He says, "...in one way or another, more than three quarters of the tattoos applied were put on because of some aspect of sexual motivation." No wonder sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey took such an interest in it.
Now, a biography of Steward, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist & Sexual Renegade," will be released August 17th, which looks even deeper at the man's life as a "sex historian," with stories culled from 80 boxes of letters, drawings, sexual paraphernalia, even pubic hair from Rudolph Valentino (with whom he had an affair).
The book is by biographer Justin Spring, whom the NY Times says had "no idea what this sexual outlaw and little-known literary figure had left behind after his death in 1993" when Spring finally tracked down the executor of Steward's estate. The NY Times adds:
You can pre-order the Secret Historian on Amazon for $20.25 (saving $12).