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Freaks and Inks: Self-Identifying Jack Dracula

An Oral History Document by Daniel Schwartz for History 206 at the University of Pennsylvania, Spring 2010

May 11, 2010

Introduction

Jack Baker is saturated. The sallow skin that covers his immense frame, now expanded with the weight of health maladies and a stationary lifestyle, contains as much ink as I’ve ever seen on one human canvas. Tattoos envelop his 74-year-old body, creating a dizzying topographical map of objects, designs, and words that add up to a stimulating gestalt. Indeed, even lying horizontally in his bed in West Philadelphia’s Park Pleasant Nursing Home, Jack’s appearance struck me as overwhelming when I walked into his room for the first time this past January. As I thought then, before we exchanged any words, Jack’s potent visual appearance surely indicates that he is saturated with much more than just tattoos.

This essay is about my interviews[1] with Jack Baker, or “Jack Dracula,” “Prince Dracula,” or “The Marked Man,” as he has alternatively been known. The documentation and analysis that follow arise from the oral history I gathered during a series of three meetings, subsequently bolstered by various modes of archival investigation. The research project as a whole arose from a history seminar taught by Dr. Ann Farnsworth-Alvear at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring of 2010 and was facilitated by Frank Innes, a friend of Jack’s. With their various forms of assistance, I was able to meet Jack and record several long conversations with him.

During the course of these conversations, I took into account numerous methodological considerations. As this was explicitly an exercise in oral history, my focus was on obtaining a large quantity of verbally recounted information at the highest quality level possible. Quality in this regard, refers to both strong descriptive language and clear narrative explanations. Jack’s memory, like all people’s, is predicted upon emotional complexities and the subjectivities of the self. Moreover, the eroding nature of time has certainly begun to work upon many of Jack’s narratives, which often made extracting dates and details difficult[2]. My task was aided by the fact that Jack is a well-practiced showman, having told many of his

stories to many people. Yet, this also led to many instances in which I found myself passively swept along in his entertaining narratives rather than listening with the critical ear of an oral historian.

While the word “interesting” is often used in vague or euphemistic syntax, I find it broadly appropriate when speaking of Jack’s transmitted memories. As a former navy man, self-taught tattoo artist, and freak show performer, his life provides an abundance of material to study. Specifically, I have chosen to focus on Jack’s mode of self-identification. With the various names he uses for himself, conspicuous inscriptions on his body, and autobiographical stories of complex yet patterned themes, Jack’s oral history is one of self-formation and image-creation. Using the lenses of tattoo culture, freak show history, and trickster mythology, this paper provides a framework to understand how Jack Baker conceives of himself and who that self may be.

Biographical Summary

Jack Baker was born on Christmas day in 1935 near the Brooklyn shipyards. He grew up there, as his father worked in the yards and found steady employment as throughout World War II and the Korean War[3]. His mother had finished high school and was, as Jack describes, resourceful and intelligent. However, her work was solely that of a mother, taking care of Jack and his younger brothers. Jack completed high school when he was 18, and quickly enlisted in the Navy in order to avoid being drafted into the army[4].

The four years he spent working as a petty officer were not Jack’s favorite. While he happily reminisces about numerous sexual relationships and partners from New York to Spain to Monaco, he also describes his degeneration into a sailor that lived to “pretend to get drunk” at the next port city[5]. By the end of his enlistment, he had been demoted in rank, transferred to work in the hold of another ship, and then discharged. When he returned to Brooklyn in 1957, he worked a variety of odd jobs until one afternoon when he walked into a tattoo parlor on Coney Island and his life changed forever.

Owned by Brooklyn Blackie, then a prominent tattooist in the city, the shop was operated by two of his younger brothers. When Jack came in to get a tattoo to compliment the few small pieces he acquired in the Navy, the two brothers thrust the inking machine in his hand and told him to do his own work[6]. After successfully drawing a tattoo on his thigh, Jack was hooked and soon began working as a tattooist at various shops in the area. It was also during this time he acquired many of most prominent tattoos, including the black mask that circles his eyes and the images of Bella Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein on his stomach. The breadth of Jack’s tattoos gave him a calling-card to work in various freak shows—most of which were in Manhattan such as Hubert’s Dime Museum in Times Square and Barnum Baily’s Circus in Madison Square Garden. For a short period of time, he also traveled throughout the Eastern states with P. Cortez’s sideshow, but he missed his hometown and abandoned the show before it moved West[7].

When tattooing was outlawed in the state of New York in 1961, Jack tried working in freak shows exclusively. This job, however, was neither wholly satisfying nor lucrative, so soon he moved to New London, Connecticut, where the coast guard academy and a large submarine base were located—prime demographics for a tattoo artist to work within. The town had one tattoo parlor at the time, and within a short period of time, Jack was gaining much of its business[8]. During the one year he lived in New London, he had a chaotic and lustful affair with a married woman named Lillian Devona, was photographed by Diane Arbus, and gained a reputation with locals as a friendly—if not freakish—personality.

New London’s city council banned tattooing in 1962, causing Jack to once again find a new home. He eventually relocated and opened up shops in Philadelphia and then to Camden, before returning to Philadelphia for good. He closed his Kensington tattoo parlor in the early 80s[9]—he can’t remember specific dates—and moved to Center City with a friend whose debilitating illness required full-time care. His friend passed away several years later and by 2003 Jack’s own deteriorating health required his relocation to Park Pleasant. The diabetes he developed in the early 90s soon caused complications and both of his legs were amputated from the knee-down. Presently, he spends his days with television, movies, and library books—mostly in the Egyptology and Occult genres. He has been the subject of several journalistic stories, such as a recently published article in the Connecticut-based

newspaper, The Day[10].

Self-Identifying Through Tattoos

In order to understand Jack’s concerted—and often antagonistic—use of tattooing as a form of identify-creation, I argue that one must locate it within the practice’s social origins. The context that has influenced Jack’s relationship to “inking” are distinctly Western, though rich and indigenous traditions of tattooing and other forms of purposeful bodily mutilation have long been practiced within hundreds of populations around the world[11]. Indeed the physical tattoos that coat Jack’s body, and the ways in which Jack conceives of these tattoos as metaphoric and cultural entities, are grounded within the European and North American history of corporal inscription.

In brief, Western tattooing has been marked by flows of globalized culture and changing moral climates. Ancient Greeks and Romans used tattoos in religious rituals to demarcate spiritual beliefs. Perhaps in reaction to this tradition, Jewish theology explicitly condemns tattoos[12]. Meanwhile, Christian scripture is more ambiguous, as certain New Testament passages reference the practice in neutral or even vaguely accepting language[13]. In pre-modern Europe, tattooing was not particularly popular in any social group or class, but it was also not wholly rare. Many

explorers, such as Captian Cook, reinvigorated interest in the practice as they returned from expeditions with reports of tattoos from the Pacific Islands and South East Asia[14]. This cultural lineage inspired tattoo’s first prominent champions within Western society—circus and freak show performers. Dime museums and traveling shows, starting in the 1870s, began to showcase “made-freaks,” as tattooed men and women were classified[15]. These performers often made up elaborate and mostly false background tales of how they were captured by “savages” in exotic locales and forced to receive excruciating amounts of tattoos.

By the turn of the 20th century, while tattooing was normally connoted with soldiers and the urban underclass—prostitutes, criminals, and the homeless—many European dignitaries covertly got tattoos such as King Edward VII of England, Czar Nicholas II and even King Willhelm II of Germany[16]. The steady increase in demand for tattoos paralleled technological innovations within the blooming trade. Around 1880, the American Samuel F. O’Reilly fashioned an electric inking machine, which both sped up the time it took to tattoo and decreased the pain involved. While O’Reilly’s invention has received modifications since its inception, the basic design has not changed significantly.

Tattooing soon fell out of favor amongst the fashionable elite, and while much of the young, male populations of Europe and America received patriotic inscriptions during the First World War, tattoos were still viewed as uncouth in middle and upper class culture. During this period, it was not unusual for tattoo artists to travel in their pursuit for work, as clientele would often dry up after short periods of time within a certain city’s neighborhood or more rural towns[17]. World War II, like its predecessor, proliferated tattoos into much of middle class America and Europe, but the cultural practice was still viewed with scorn in many strata of society.

The 1960s proved to a catalytic moment within the history of tattoos—particularly within America. As a “New School” of tattoos became associated with biker gangs, youth delinquency, and rebellious hippy culture, opposing cultural forces attempted to eliminate tattooing through the courts and legislation[18]. What would later be identified as falsified and exaggerated reports alleging a strong link between tattoos and outbreaks of hepatitis, became the tool of politicians and government officials who outlawed tattooing in many localities across the US.

By the 1970s and 80s, however, the stigma surrounding tattoos had begun to dissipate. And as the anthropologist Margo DeMello has recognized, a “renaissance” of tattooing came into existence during the early 90s, marked by new aesthetics and a widespread popularity in a diverse array of subcultures across class lines[19]. Celebrities and professional athletes now flaunt tattoos, few local governments have maintained bans on tattooing, and tattooists are often highly trained artists that go through years of apprenticeship.

Though Jack has not given anyone a tattoo in about two decades, he still considers himself to be a relevant member of the tattooing community. This attitude is bolstered by his occasional appearances within books[20], magazines[21], and blogs[22] devoted to the trade, and his remembered experiences that situate his life within the arc of mid-twentieth century tattoo culture.

Jack, like many in his generation, first got tattooed while serving in the Navy. Patriotic symbols remained a consistent theme throughout all of his tattoos, with eagles, anchors, and stars featured prominently all over his body. And while Jack insisted that he was not overly political, he did inscribe a short homage to President John. F. Kennedy on his chest shortly after his assassination. Even amongst the various cultural references and iconography that populate his body, Jack carries the visual weight of Americana patriotism and is proud of the fact.

Similarly, Jack consciously—and proudly—placed himself within the anti-tattoo movement of the 1960s and 70s with his highly visible markings.

As a matter of simple geographic orientation, Jack’s trade turned him into an economic migrant. He made sacrifices for his appearance and therefore his

constructed identity, constantly moving to new shops, cities, and states depending on where authorities would allow him to work.

In numerous stories relayed to me, he described forms of discrimination he experienced due to having facial tattoos. In one instance he was denied drinks at a bar because of his appearance, and in another he was pulled over while driving in New York (after tattooing was outlawed) by a police officer that wrongfully claimed his facial tattoos were illegal[23]. Importantly, in both instances, Jack describes his outraged reactions to these adversarial forces with relish—he got the bar owner’s liquor license suspended for a month and threatened the police officer with a multi-thousand dollar suit against the city for abuse of power. Jack’s tattoos, while a sometimes a source of conflict in his daily interactions, also became a source of

self-affirmation. This was an external representation of how he internally felt different from the society around him.

During our first interview, when I initially asked Jack why he got the facial tattoos—a black mask around his eyes complimented by colorful, speckled designs on his chins, cheeks, and forehead—he gave me a well-rehearsed and partially-true answer. “To make sure I didn’t have to go into the Navy again,” he said. This seemed plausible, but certainly not complete—surely there were less dramatic and socially stigmatizing ways of avoiding conscription. I did not press the matter much further until our second interview, when we backtracked and the topic came up again[24]. This time, however, Jack volunteered more information that revealed a good deal of self-awareness. He said:It kept me from every getting married. Women were my weakness and I was a good-looking guy. They attracted o me like crazy. And I said to myself, one of these witches is going to snag me as a husband and that I don’t want because it never worked out. It brought me nothing but trouble.[25]

Here, Jack disclosed that his tattoos were purposely meant to foster his ostracization from normal social conventions, though he was happy to let people create their own stories about why he looked the way he did. This inverts much of the traditional anthropological models of how tattoos were used within communities, most of which describe the practice as a mode of social cohesion and even status improvement[26]. While tattoos provide the means to create a literal demarcation of group identity, they also provide a means create individuality. Jack, in a sense creates a battleground on his skin—one where he can fight out his emotions regarding self and society.

Self-Identifying Through Freak Shows

Freak shows do not exist like they used to. As Siegel[27] describes, the amusement industry is now, “dominated by squeaky clean, multimillion dollar theme parks. These giant corporate concerns filled with thrill rides and costumed characters have no room for dangerous-to-emulate or morally questionable entertainment.” Even economically, it just doesn’t make sense to pay room, board, and salaries for human talent when you can get more money out of the durable roller coasters and other forms of mass-manufactured diversions that make up contemporary carnivals.

When discussing the disappearance of his former workplace and community, Jack speaks in terms of both distress and pride. At one point, he explained to me that he wants to see the Coney Island Boardwalk, where he used to tattoo and perform in several dime shows, before condominium developers demolish much of the existing architecture and ambience. On the other hand, he cannot help but repeatedly mention that he was frequently the youngest performer in many of the freak shows, and thus he possesses a rare type of expertise[28]. Very few performers from Hubert’s Dime Museum, Barnum Bailey’s old freak shows, or the traveling P. Cortez Show are still alive. Whether he hoped for it or not, Jack has indeed become one of very few individuals who can describe working in the world of American freak shows with first hand experience[29].

Despite this self-proclaimed allegiance to his former work environment, Jack is deliberately non-committal when identifying his place within freak show culture. In one sense, he clearly identifies as having been a part of these communities—sharing a bond with many of his fellow performers that was as strong as any he shared with blood relations. He relied on them for housing and food and came to their defense at the potential cost of his personal safety[30]. And he is still a cunning showman, as evidenced when he waited until I had packed away my recording equipment to display his operatic singing skills.

In another sense, he becomes aggressively defensive when describing his motivation for joining the shows as anything other than economic [31]. Perhaps this is a result of a certain stigma that “born freaks” assigned to “made freaks,” as historians have described within dime show culture, but it also points to an aspect of Jack’s sense of self that is resolutely contrarian. Depending on his mood, Jack wants to be seen as both Dracula and an honest workingman. This trait, I argue, is indicative of Jack’s self-situating stance as a trickster.

Self-Identifying As a Trickster

In many ways Baker’s self-identification aligned with that of the archetypical trickster. As exemplified in numerous recounted stories, such as his almost-marriage to the “crippled midget” Jackie Morris[32], Baker portrays himself as a figure that subverts the social norms of an already subversive community. In a sense, Baker creates the narrative space through tales of lovable deviance selfish buffoonery to be both a human and freak amongst freaks. This is, as numerous anthropologists and literary scholars have identified, the role of a trickster.

Yet I do not wish to holistically categorize Baker as a classic trickster. As anthropologist Ellen Basso[33] implores, too often trickster figures are separated from their narrative contexts and defined in terms of literary themes, epistemological categories, and moral compasses gone awry. Instead, the mythic and narrative qualities of a trickster, like the role Baker imagines within his autobiographical discourse, are best understood as “scattered” and “dissolved” interpretations of the self—an emotional and subjective self-awareness. To analyze the role of a trickster demands not just the acknowledgement of deviance and self-contradictory morality, but further questioning of these phenomena’s significance and utility within a story. How does reaffirming one’s humanity, while also subverting normal human standards, create opposing conceptions of the self? How does psychological liminality reveal developmental processes, as opposed to static positions of being?

Baker’s own words are ripe for this line of questioning. In his telling of the relationship he developed and ended with Jackie Morris, he frames himself in multiple roles of deviance. In the beginning of their relationship, he adamantly stood opposed to the bourgeoisie notions of stable, long-term relationships. Yet, this subversive stance is neutralized as he grows a deep appreciation for being with Jackie, who he emphasizes, is subversive in appearance and action whenever they go out together. He proposes to her, and they plan a wedding date, which in fitting form, will be held

as a show on the Coney Island boardwalk, where the two of them met and work. When the wedding day arrives, however, Baker “sleeps in” and then sneaks

away from Jackie’s caretakers before they can force him to show up for the ceremony. From here, Baker strikes conflicting tones of indignation and guilt

as he oscillates between explaining his righteous desire to avoid dutiful homemaking and attempts to apologize to Jackie in subsequent encounters.

While the classical trickster moment may be identified as Baker’s last-minute escape from attending the ceremony, I view the concluding self-awareness of dueling emotions and implications to his actions as equally indicative of trickster-ism. His shifting between radically different and incompatible emotions indicate a likely sense of scattered distress, though Baker never directly concedes this. Basso writes eloquently about a narrative moment such as this, explaining:The very attributes that make such tricksters inventive heroes and clownish fools in the first place are, after all, necessities of human intelligence, operating in practical, concrete, face-to-face relations that people negotiate all the time, sometimes with considerable immediacy. Moreover, the terrible feelings of hatred, envy, greed, and jealousy that so often seem to accompany these trickster activities are also fundamental ingredients of

human life. (295)In this light, Baker’s morally questionable actions undermine the traditional dimensions tricksters and reveal a more complex self-awareness of how Baker conceives of himself. He is not just an anti-establishment here, but nor is he only an emotionally-violent clown, and indeed, his narrative reveals that he is like most other humans in his desire for radically different things at the same time. And as he uses the trickster device to explain these competing desires—sexual independence and monogamy, individuality and community, or self-assurance and regret—he admits to a high degree of self-awareness without having to do so outright. Here, Jack constructs his self-identity like many people, even if the intricacies of this construction are utterly unique.

Conclusion

Jack Baker, like all human beings, is a product of his place and time. The ways in which he has constructed his sense of self are closely tied to the circumstances in which he lived. Yet, he obviously took a unique path in life and consciously worked to shape the way people viewed him and how he viewed himself

In retrospective self-analysis, Jack’s acquisition of facial tattoos as a form of creating individuality was a highly active process. Jack conceded, eventually, that the mask around his eyes is an hommage to his favorite boyhood heroes—The Lone Ranger and Zorro[34]. Given Jack’s fondness for strong, solitary male figures from television and film—like Dracula and Frankenstein—this reference is entirely consistent with his identity. Indeed, in some ways I believe as the tattoos created an exterior shell of monstrosity, they also gave him the space to keep youthful desires and passions.

Yet, I wonder how active this identify-formation was at the time. Did he openly explain to his tattooist friends that he wanted to escape the “witches” who might suck him into marriage or foster an sense of childhood security. Jack’s stories generally followed this meta-narrative—the creation of individuality in the face of both normalcy and freakishness. However, this meta-narrative may be the product of decades of self-reflection and self-acceptance, and while it may be a sign of positive mental health that Jack has embraced his insecurities as a matter of fact and principle, it makes understanding his past sense of self more difficult. This is by no means a novel line of questioning within oral history, but it is certainly one that

deserves more study: How is the process of self-acceptance in later stages of life an obfuscating factor in identifying youthful internal states? And to broaden this query outside of the realm of age, how do different personalities, genders, and classes grapple with competing visions of identity creation? These are dense questions with too much material to unpack for any one paper, but future researchers may find useful platforms from which to embark on investigation.

Jack’s life, or at least his orally transmitted memories of it, covers a wide and rich array of topics,. In this paper I did not delve into his time spent in the Navy, though he told me many fascinating and provocative stories from that epoch. I also chose not to focus on Jack’s descriptions of his childhood in Brooklyn or the later stages of his life in Camden and Philadelphia, though he spoke at length regarding those periods of time. I hope that Jack’s words will not be forgotten and may continue to inspire research and intellectual curiosity. I know, at the very least, they will provide an ample amount of enjoyment for any curious listener.

youtube playlist

playlist 15 videos 39 min.

1.Introducing Jack Dracula

2.Jack's First Tattoo

3.Jack in the Navy

4.Jack Baker on his Facial Tattoos

5.Jack's Encounter with a Police Officer

6.Jack's Last Tattoo Shop in Philadelphia

7.Jack Joins the Circus

8.Jack on Jean Carol the Bearded and Tattooed Lady

9.Jack on Encountering Racism in the Freak Show

10.Jack on Jackie Morris

11.Jack's First Visit to New London and No Dates

12.Jack Returns to New London

13.Jack on The Passing of Coworkers and Friends

14.Jack Dracula on Diane Arbus

15.The Marked Man

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xhooliganx, this is great! Is this by you?? Can't wait to watch these videos at home tonight.

I seem to remember from interviews with a lot of the New York guys (from McCabe's New York City Tattoo) that they seemed pretty dismissive of Jack Dracula.. maybe because he was more of a circus performer than a hard-and-fast tattooer?

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no its not by me I just happened to find the videos which led me to the article.From what i understand people didn't think much him as a tattooer.Ive read stories of the neighborhood kids in Philadelphia would dare each other to get tattooed by him because he was scary as hell,not just the way he looked but attitude as was well." You what a panther?Here's a panther."and you got what he gave you.It was strange to find out in his personal life he was more refined and into Opera.

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Jack's lady got tattooing shut down in New London. When it opened back up a shop opened between the police and fire departments. The guy who ran it, who's name escapes me in the early morning hours, sold out to the guy who trained me. Funny how these things turn out...

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