Jeremy Sweet sat in Colin McClain's tattoo chair for two years — and that was just to work on his Native American backpiece.
But their connection runs deeper than a tattoo shop, they even co-owned a gallery space together for a time.
So when Sweet, the Associate Director of the Grunwald Gallery, pitched the idea for an art exhibit about tattooing, he knew McClain needed to be his next call.
Over the last year, the two have contacted tattoers
, historians and collectors around the country to try and weave together the narrative of tattooing in Indiana over the last hundred years. And it's a story that covers everything from tigers to sex research.
"It wasn't supposed to be as big as it is now," admits Sweet. He's worked in the Grunwald Gallery for six and a half years now,
has a degree in printmaking and is a tattoo enthusiast.
The growth of the show (Indiana Tattoo: History and Legacy) was a blessing and a curse. The wealth of information caused delays — the show, which opens January 13 in Bloomington, was supposed to be held in August of 2016, but due to sheer
volume of history that the two men found, the exhibit needed as much time and space as they could give it.
"[The extra time] gave us an opportunity to spread into the historical side," says Sweet.
Now, the show is divided into two parts: the history of tattooing in Indiana and the current legacy of artists working in the state. A large chunk covers the time when tattooing was illegal in Indiana, from 1963 to 1996.
Yes, that's right. Illegal. Doctors with a medical license were the only ones who were allowed to tattoo during a large swath of the twentieth century because it was considered a "medical procedure."
"Everything that was happening in the state was in this speakeasy fashion," says McClain. "There is this dark ages thing going on where we are trying to get history and information at a time when there was no public identity to it. ... Everything we are getting from that time period has been essentially handed down from tattooer to tattooer."
There are a few tattoo historians around the country, but none with a sole focus on Indiana tattooing. So Sweet and McClain both played researcher and curator.
"[Sweet] came to me because he needed a tattooer to make it work because the history of Indiana tattooing is more or less this kind of passed-down oral history," says McClain.
The legacy of Indiana tattoos
The Indiana Tattoo: History and Legacy exhibit at the Grunwald Gallery in Bloomington shows the illegal history of tattooing in the state and modern artists. These photos are from artists who are featured in the show.
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"I started thinking about it and what I knew about the history of Indiana tattooing — which was very little — which kind of speaks to how difficult this all is and how interesting it is," he says. "I have been tattooing in Indiana for 16 years and don't know much about it at all."
So he started calling artists around the state. One of those calls was to Eric Smolinski, a tattoo artist up in Lowell, Ind. And he owns one of the rarest pieces of tattoo art in the state — a painting by Roy Boy Cooper.
Wild Man Roy
"He was the ultimate fucking wild man," says Smolinski of Cooper.
Eccentric barely scratches the surface of this guy.
Roy Boy, or Roy Craig Cooper, was known for his underground tattoo shops in Gary, Ind. He was most remembered for keeping live tigers in the shop, and his second tattoo shop — called The Bad Lands — also served as a weight lifting
gym and film studio. Roy Boy was a national draw for his tattoos and his outlaw attitude. Smolinski mentions that his work can be found on Cher, Lenny Kravitz
and Nicholas Cage, to name just a few.
Roy Boy stories are endless. The tattooer used to walk tigers up and down Broadway Street in Gary. One time, Smolinski says, he was flying his plane and the Coast Guard threatened to shoot him out of the sky if he didn't make an emergency landing. (He had failed to call in his flight plan.)
"The wildness of Roy Boy just took me over," says Smolinski. "...The whole tattoo idea was so cool to me as a young child."
Smolinski grew up in Roy Boy's shop. His father was Roy's weight lifting
partner. Roy even babysat Smolinski.
"When he started getting sick I knew I needed to be by him as much as I could," says Smolinski. "I knew I needed to grab as much information as I could."
Every Tuesday beginning in 2006, Smolinski would visit Roy, bringing an offering of a fifth of tequila and a cup of black coffee from Dunkin Donuts.
"He never drank the coffee," says Smolinski.
Roy referred to him as "Smo's
kid," never by name. Smolinski says there were times Roy Boy wouldn't even turn around from his desk to look at him when they were talking. (The famous tattooer wasn't known for his bedside manner.)
After Roy Boy's death, Smolinski became friends with Debbie Cooper, Roy's third wife. Slowly he started buying things around the shop from her. Now, he owns most of Roy's photos of tattoos and conventions; photo shoots in the shop; images of Roy's ex-wife holding a hundred-pound python above her head as she stood naked and covered in tattoos; bits of old paperwork; Roy's wrestling boots; and more.
Smolinski blew up the pictures on polyurethane so they could be displayed. The photos saw their first round in the public eye at the gallery space inside Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago. The show on Roy Boy was one of the busiest days the shop has ever seen.
"You were lucky if you got tattooed by him," says Smolinski. "Sometimes he was picking out what you were getting."
Smolinski explained how tattooing was a different time then. Back then, tattooers didn't wear rubber gloves or change the needle between clients. Bucket shops — which were popular before running water — meant tattooers put a cap of Lysol in a bucket and reused the same water for a week.
Roy Boy was a huge player in the tattoo world during these times, and all while tattooing was illegal. He got away with it by not calling either of his two businesses a tattoo shop.
"This guy had a tattoo shop in a major city with wild animals inside his tattoo shop when tattooing was illegal," says Smolinkski
. "That's pretty amazing."
There is one painting in existence by Roy Boy, and Smolinski owns it.
"I would never be able to put a price tag on it," he says.
Smolinski notes that he wouldn't support keeping tigers locked in a cage.
In May of 2010, four of Roy's tigers were removed by the USDA when they were found underweight and with skin problems. Centerville's Exotic Feline Rescue Center took over care duties.
"Keeping a tiger in a cage isn't cool," says Smolinski. "It's like keeping a man locked up in a bathroom. I am not really into that, but, to me, it was another time."
It was a different time in terms of the risk artists took to tattoo as well. Many would assume needle names so that their families weren't ostracized. The act was associated with bikers, circus performers
and rebellion. Artists had to be on their toes to protect themselves legally. The term "flash sheets" (the paintings that hang in most tattoo shops today) had to be on a single piece of paper that artists could fold up and slip into their pocket if the cops came — you had to be gone in a flash, see. It was Tattoo Prohibition, but Roy Boy refused to be quiet during it.
"There's little things that go along with what he did, the character, the man, the everything that he was," says Smolinski.
The connections to Roy Boy can be found scattered around the country. Bob Smolinski, Eric's father, has a face tattoo. And according to Eric, it's the reason Mike Tyson has a tribal piece on his face. There was a photo of his dad doing a dip with 10 weight plates stacked on his legs, hanging in Roy's shop. Mike Tyson sold one of his tigers to Roy Boy, and during the sale
he saw the picture when Roy was showing him his basement gym.
Smolinski believes that by preserving the work and artifacts from one of the most famous underground tattoo operations in the Midwest, he is saving part of his home.
"I feel like what I am doing is good," says Smolinski. "... I feel like it's preserving and holding tight to my area.
"Most of the stuff I have doesn't even have to do with tattooing, it has more to do with Roy Boy himself," says Smolinski. "But to me, Roy Boy was tattooing."
So when Jeremy Sweet asked him to share his collection with the museum, Smolinski was ecstatic. To him, the show is about more than Roy Boy
though. It's a representation of Indiana.
"I see from my area, everybody is really good at what they do," says Smolinski. "Indiana doesn't have a lot of those names, but Indiana has a lot of roots. Indiana is about doing work. We're not about the fame and the flashiness."
The show at the Grunwald will host a modern side — boasting around 30 modern artists — and the local historical view, which goes far deeper than Roy Boy.
One of the connections that shocked Sweet was through Carmen Nyssen, the great-granddaughter of Bert Grimm, a world-famous tattooer. Nyssen studies tattoo history extensively and lent material related to Bernard Kobel, who collected and cataloged photos of tattooed people and circus people in the early 1900s. Kobel created the Kobel Catalog where many "traditional" style tattoos came from. He ran the catalog out of Frankfort, Ind. and donated the photos to the Kinsey Institute before moving out of state.
"That's an Indiana person who played a tremendous role in tattoo history," says Sweet.
Sweet also discovered that Fred Clark, an Indianapolis tattooer, was associated with Amund Dietzel, also a famous tattooer, who did work in Indiana.
"As we dove deeper, we found that Indiana has a significant link, with Indiana being a crossroads," says Sweet. "... There is a lot of stuff that hasn't been collected. This history is elusive, to say the least, in some ways."
"It's been frustrating and really difficult but really gratifying in different ways," says McClain of the research.
One of their breakthroughs though was when they discovered the gold mine that is the Kinsey Institute archives.
"This is stuff that has been right under my nose my entire career, and I didn't even know it," says McClain.
Samuel Steward, one of Ed Hardy's tattoo mentors, was an English professor in the '50s — that is,
until he decided to quit his job in academia, buy a tattoo operation and move to Chicago.
Steward was good friends with his academic colleague Alfred Kinsey, who encouraged him to study his tattoo clients and send his finding to Kinsey for sex research.
Steward ending up with dozens of interviews that eventually became a book called Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos. When Stewart died, he donated everything he had to the Kinsey Institute.
"One of the interesting things is that Indiana tattoo history may not be really as rich as some of the other states, but because of where we are at in geographical location, it's kind of a crossroads for people in general but also for tattooers," says McClain. "There were a lot of tattooers who were passing through and leaving their mark in what is considered the hay day, early 1900s
to when it was made illegal. I've been really intrigued by the whole story of how it became legal again."
Legalization — again
David Knox "almost single-handedly was responsible for making tattooing legal again in the state," McClain says.
Here's how McClain tells it:
Knox, a tattooer in Fort Wayne in the '80s, had his shop raided by police and was arrested for "practicing medicine without a license," which led to a massive legal battle. Knox won, and tattooing in Indiana was once again legal.
"So here is this guy who fought for the legalization of this artform, where all these people are dedicating their lives to, and no one ever talks about this stuff. No one ever associates him with that."
An analog art
While the legal cases fought and won have a clear paper trail, word of mouth is the backbone of tattoo history in the Midwest.
"Tattooers are notoriously strange," says McClain. "Some of them are crazy and some of them are introverts. Some of them are drug addicts — which makes it even harder to get a clear idea of how everything went down. ... [Finding this information is] kind of like having a metal detector on the beach." he says with a laugh.
For McClain, who runs Time & Tide Tattoo in Bloomington, the profession is a living history, by nature.
"With tattooing being this hands-on, analog thing, it's really steeped in tradition," says McClain. "It's really not too different than it was... The technology of the machines has not changed since the '30s and '40s. We are using the same technology to tattoo. It's really interesting to me because I feel like it's one of the few things that in the world now that isn't getting swept up in technological advancement."
For Sweet, the talent behind the show makes perfect sense to have inside a traditional gallery space.
"When you think about them performing on the spot that really shows their skills," says Sweet. "You can't hide behind a computer or revisions. They have to get it right and they have to do it quickly... It's amazing to see some of them sketch out ideas as a client is talking to them."
As co-curators for the show, McClain and Sweet have high hopes that the show will frame Hoosier tattooers in a stronger light.
"Tattooing being an outsider art and being subversive — and how being illegal for decades in the state — those things, those characteristics of tattooing make it something that isn't really taken very seriously a lot of times," says McClain. "It isn't really addressed with the respect it deserves.
"And what I mean by that is, when we are speaking about American tattoo history we are talking about American art history, we are talking about American culture, we are talking about American folk art. If we don't take the initiative now to collect what information we can and make some sort of comprehensive narrative of the history of this American folk art, it's going to get lost.
"The longer this information stays in the basement of these tattooer's houses or in the backroom of tattoo shops and gets pushed away, the more likely it is that we will never have a narrative for what happened," says McClain. "... This needs to be acknowledged as actual American history,
because it is."