Nick Colella

The History of Tattooing in Chicago

23 posts in this topic

So in response to recent inquiries about Chicago and its place in tattoo history and to try to up the ante here at The Last Sparrow Tattoo Forum I will try to breakdown what I know and have acquired about tattooing in Chicago from early on up until present day. All of this will revolve around the history of Chicago Tattoo because honestly I don’t know or care to know about any other present day shops in the city.

This of course will give a broad range of information at first because most of the photographic history was lost to the trash or to the flea markets at the time. The stories of South State Street are very few, 99% of the tattooers that dominated that street in its hey day are long gone. There are a few still left and their stories are amazing, some look upon those times fondly as the last truly honky tonk time in tattooing other look upon South State as Chicago’s tattoo demise.

The 4-block area of South State Street in Chicago from the early 1900s to the mid 1960s was considered the worst red-light district that ever existed in this country to date. It consisted of skid row flophouses, porn theatres, liquor stores, wino bars, shooting galleries, arcades, and of course in every corner of every arcade were the tattoo shops. Chicago was supposedly home to hundreds of tattooers through out the early years. All making tattoos cutting their chops and making their bones on the abundance of fresh sailors from Great Lakes Naval Base just north of Chicago, and the working class folks looking to let loose on South State Street.

These first photos show the very early days of south state notice in one of the photos the Armed Services recruiting center, this later became and Army Navy Surplus store. This is one of the main reason I believe that attracted the tattooers to South State they had a fresh abundance of young men signing up to serve their country and at that time service men especially sailors and tattoos went hand in hand.





These other three photos show the burlesque barkers looking to get customers in to see the show




Thanks for your interest, more to come later

Dan S, Tick and Lochlan like this

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This is sooo awesome!! Nick you did a great job with this thread and I really love all the pictures. It's also really neat to learn the history of a great city! Thanks for sharing!!

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Thanks for sharing this, Nick. It's important stuff, and it's nice to see someone who cares about preserving the history of this thing.

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Part Two

Chicago’s Tattooing past is as deep and influential as both the Bowery and The Pike and South State Street was the spot for all of these tattooers to come through. Like I stated before hundreds of tattooers came through to work on South State Street, from the early 1900s through until the demolition of the area in 1967.

Here are a few of the oldest photos I have found of unidentified tattooers tattooing on South State Street, if anyone knows who they are I would be stoked to hear it. These photos looked very staged, but it looks like the typical arcade style tattooing, just a small little corner or spot underneath some stairs where these arcade owners could house a tattooer as well. These photos where found in an online archive of old Chicago pictures from a local paper that no longer exists.




A lot of the tattooers where complete winos and would tattoo for the Mob owned arcades just long enough to get some drink, then would disappear until they needed to work again. Other like the ones I will mention below made South State their homes if not only for a short while. Most notable tattooers that worked on South State are but not limited to.

Ed Thornton

Bill Moore (Chicago Tattoo Supply House) not affiliated with Chicago Tattoo Co

Paul Hansen

Bill Killingworth

Jerry Pope

Ned Resinol

Ernie Sutton

Randy Webb

Mickey Kellet

William Grimshaw

Owen Jensen

Bert Grimm

Philadelphia Eddie

Don Nolan

Oakland Jake

Stoney St. Clair

Amund Dietzel

Phil Sparrow

Buddy McFall

Cliff Raven Ingram

Sailor Jerry Collins

Ralph Johnstone

Tatts Thomas

So there are 22 of the heaviest hitters to ever hold a tattoo machine and they all came through Chicago at one time or another and the history is relatively unknown or not talked about. To me this makes Chicago’s history even more intriguing. When people talk about tattooing they either mention The Bowery or The Pike, but Chicago was home to some pretty amazing tattooers that helped shape not only the look of what tattooers today call traditional designs but they where also trying to improve their tools and techniques.

Out of the list you have a few stand outs that are obvious you have of course Sailor Jerry, he was said to be introduced to electric tattooing by Tatts Thomas, here is the only card in existence that shows Sailor Jerry was tattooing on South State Street in Chicago. This card was in China Sea when Rollo bought it after Jerrys death, Kandi Everett had it in her possession for the last 20 something years and passed it on to me recently.


Bill Moore had the Chicago Tattoo Supply House and worked closely with Tatts Thomas over the years, Tatts and Bill moved shops a bunch of times during Bills stay on South State Street. Bill used to run ads in Popular Mechanics at the time touting his “Tattoo Outfit” so there you have tattooers selling to the general public way before Spaulding ever graced the back cover of Tattoo magazine. Bill Moores earliest ad was found in Billboard magazine in 1932, where he is listed at 434 South State the same address that Sailor Jerry used to work at. This was the Burton Arcade, which a lot of other tattooers had worked at as well. Bill Moore died in Chicago in 1944.

Ralph Johnstone to me is one of the most under rated tattooers of this time. Not only was he one of the most amazing circus banner painters but he also was an amazing tattooer that by all accounts was extremely kind and never had a bad word to say about any other tattooer. Ralphs business cards used to say he would work off of photographs, which meant photo realistic portraits in the 1950s. Ralph and Tatts Thomas worked side-by-side for Ralphs entire State Street Career which lasted I believe until everyone left in 1963. Johnstone also painted flash for Milton Zeis who at the time had a supply business and tattoo correspondence class out of Rockford Illinois. These business cards below show some of the address that Tatts and Johnstone worked at. The cards where also drawn by Ralph himself, as you can see he was light years ahead of his time in the way he approached illustration and tattooing for that matter.



Here you have a couple of Ralph Johnstone’s clients with full chest pieces, and the third pic is of 3 backpieces with Johnstone in the front the center was done by Tatts Thomas it is on Sailor Bill Killingsworth the other 2 where done by Johnstone.




Thanks for your interest more to follow on some of the other tattooers that shaped South State Street.

Lochlan, Tick, Petri Aspvik and 3 others like this

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Damn Nick! Awesome photos and that's a list of some pretty huge names that I had no idea went through Chicago at some point in their careers. Great to learn all this history!!!

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Nick, you have upt the ante and it is much appreciated as a whole new gratitude for starting this new project with Scott has been felt and experienced. Thanks for taking the time to start and write a historically rich history that is much needed on how Chicago influenced various aspects of tattooing. The pictures are just extra treats that enrich the words and names. With that in mind I do want to ask people to not rip these photos from the site as Nick is trusting us all with stuff from his personal collection as well as pictures and stories that he has done lots of research on finding and obtaining. If you like it enough and want to share the photos and stories leave them here and just send people the link.

I had no idea about tattooing in the back of arcades until recently when Freddy Corbin shared some of San Francisco and Oakland's tattoo history with me.

If you enjoyed this tattoo history here are some other ones LSTers have written:

Was Tattooing as popular 100 years ago?

Swinggates and The Pike

Dan Higgs

Tattoo books

Old Tattoo Pictures

Spaulding and Rogers

222 Tattoo

Scottish Tattoo History

Tattoos Today and Research

Thanks again and I await the next instalment but until then will enjoy the ones thus far!!!

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hiya, i am trying to find out more about Amund dietzel. i notice you mentioned his name up there. what little i have seen of his flash i really really like and i want to see more pictures but google is really not that helpful. is there anywhere else i can look that someone can recommend to me?

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deb, the book looks amazing but i just need to find someone that has a copy so i can look it over!! :) :)

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Some how I missed this thread until now. Great stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out. I especially like the Ralph Johnstone stuff. Anytime I see any of his flash I am blown away by it, and his panther neck tattoo is the toughest tattoo that I have ever seen.

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Thanks Nick. Awesome! The girl who's talking about the Dietzel book... why don't you just buy the book? It's worth it. He's also Following it up with a second volume.

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I just revisited/rediscovered this thread and hope it is not the last installment on the series of Chicago's tattoo history and/or new threads on other cities tattoo histories!

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Thanks Nick. Awesome! The girl who's talking about the Dietzel book... why don't you just buy the book? It's worth it. He's also Following it up with a second volume.

I did end up buying the book! It's amazing and well worth the money I spent on it. At the time when I wrote that post I was trying to be a responsible adult and pay off my debts first. After months of not buying myself anything I treated myself to a new book! I am really really looking forward to that second volume!!

RockelMan and kylegrey like this

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When I talked to Nick last, about 3 weeks ago? He told me that he will definitely be writing more on this as he has the time.

Just as a teaser, he also told me that he has over 50 pounds of paper from Cliff Raven. Flash, pix, you name it...

Lochlan likes this

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Love the thread on Chi tattooing. As a huge geek I love history of any kind, but ever since I got serious about tattooing it's all I can talk about it. Drives my lady crazy all my second and third hand tattoo things.

I've been looking into artists that have not been house hold names, but never the less left a mark. Tex Rowe, Danny Danzl, and Ernie Sutton come to mind right away, and since this was about Chicago, one of the places Sutton worked, I thought I would post a picture of him and his partner Lou Lewis, who he worked with and ran the LA Supply company with. (I have to give credit to shaneenholm for his masterful and pretty darned funny entry on the Pike and Swingates, which proves that the more I know I know diddly. Read it here:

Mr. Sutton is on the left and Mr. Lewis is on the right. Sutton worked with Tahiti Felix, Sailor Ted Warner and taught Mr. Zeke Owen and Tennessee Dave.

He was also a bank robber from what I understand too. I think his flash book is out there although I haven't picked it up just yet.

If anyone has more information on him let me know. Thanks

For the pic... 1b4606dcf91739c0f27f5750b01a5993.jpg

Graeme and Johannes like this

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