IX. Spreading the Word and Remembering Sailor Sid
A huge part of Gauntlet’s success was probably the result of the tireless effort I put into promoting, not just the business, but body piercing itself. Over the years I traveled regularly giving presentations to everything from S/M organizations to university human sexuality classes.
A lot of people take it for granted that they can go into almost any tattoo shop and get a body piercing. Believe it or not, that has not always been the case. To some of us it seemed self evident that tattooing and piercing go together like salt and pepper. But there was a time when many tattooists were outraged at such a suggestion. Having a personal interest in both and knowing many others who shared it, it seemed logical to me that the tattoo community was just waiting to embrace my efforts. It didn’t take long for me to find out otherwise.
Early in 1977 the International Tattoo Artist’s Association (ITAA) was having a convention in Reno. In an effort to reach out and spread the word amongst the tattooed, Doug suggested that I get a vendor booth there. I submitted the necessary forms and was accepted. This would be one of our first appearances in public.
I made up an assortment of jewelry and gathered a selection of piercing equipment and set off with Eric and Doug for Reno. We were greeted by a number of familiar faces. Cliff Raven and his lover were in attendance as was our friend Tattoo Samy from Frankfort and his wife Ella. We also met Ed Hardy who was doing very extensive tattoo projects on a couple of members of the T&P group. Fakir was present and had been asked to provide entertainment at the banquet.
Outwardly everyone was courteous and curious. During the course of the convention a number of people made arrangements to come to our room for private piercing appointments. Among them was the girlfriend of Dale Grande who had done tattooing with Cliff Raven when he had his shop in Chicago. I was even asked to do a nipple piercing demonstration on the floor of the vendor area. A good looking young tattooist named Steve Richards volunteered to be my subject.
The demonstration went well, and many people stopped by the Gauntlet table to ask questions. On the surface it appeared we were well received. But unknown to us there was trouble brewing. A number of the big name tattooists, among them Ed Hardy, were not pleased.
Fortunately not all tattoo organizations were as hostile as ITAA and NTA, but the Reno convention was the first and last tattoo event that I recall Gauntlet ever vending at. For years to come the applications for at least some conventions carried a statement reading in effect that, “we will not rent vendor space for piercing or anything else that might give tattooing a bad name.” This is pretty much a direct quote. What I would love to have pointed out, but never did, was that bad tattooists were far more likely than we to give tattooing a bad name.
This attitude toward piercing persisted with some tattooists for a decade or so. Then in the late 1980s when the popularity of body piercing exploded, some savvy tattoo artists realized there was money to be made doing piercing. Almost overnight there was a huge shift in attitude, and tattooists around the world began setting up shop as piercers whether they were qualified or not.
The following April another tattoo convention was to take place in Texas. Although vending was no longer an option, Doug and I planned on going to hand out business cards and meet people and promote our favorite form of body adornment.
Plans were progressing well until shortly before we were to leaving for Texas. Doug approached me and said that after giving it some thought he felt it wasn’t worthwhile and that instead we should take a vacation to Key West and then go up to Fort Lauderdale and spend a few days with an outrageous piercing and tattooing enthusiast, Sailor Sid. I took him at his word and didn’t think anything further about the change of plans. Later it came out that the real reason for the diversion was that Doug had learned his youngest son Robert would be attending the Texas convention and that he wanted to avoid running into him.
We flew into Miami, rented a car and took to the road 160 miles south to Key West. I particularly remember the series of bridges that link the chain of small gulf islands with the mainland. We passed through Key Largo, an easily forgettable place whose name at least we’ll always remember thanks to Bogart and Bacall.
It’s funny how memory plays tricks on us. When I first started writing this article it seemed like Doug and I had made only one trip to Key West. But when I began looking through photos and examining the dates stamped on slide borders, I realized that we had actually made two trips to that sunny destination.
In truth much of the memory of this trip is pretty sketchy. I’ve no recollection whatsoever of the hotel where we stayed. I do recall doing many of the usual tourist things. We explored all the usual tourist traps on main street. I still have a hand made silver belt buckle we bought on this trip. We visited the home of Ernest Hemingway and lunched at some roadside shack on the beach where we ate stone crab — the first I’d ever tasted — simply prepared, fresh, and delicious. Doug also hired a boat for us to have an afternoon and sunset Gulf excursion. I still have the slides we took.
Doug had a personal connection to this Southeastern tip of the United States. He told me that the island might well have belonged to Cuba, but in 1821 an ancestor of his had purchased it thus making it part of the US.
One of the sites we took in was an old fort that had been turned into a museum. In one of its many rooms we came across a portrait of John Simonton.
After our Key West venture came to an end we loaded up the rental car and headed north to Fort Lauderdale to spend a few days with the self proclaimed “freak nut” who went by the name Sailor Sid Diller.
Sailor Sid in a photo I took of him in 1980.
To say that Sid was a character is putting it mildly. Generally speaking I think he was a kindly and good hearted person. He could be a source of endless humor although he had a tendency to repeat the same joke or bit of business often to the point of painful irritation. I found him to be genial for the most part, but after spending some extended periods of time with him, discovered he could be quick-tempered, irritable, and occasionally petty especially where money was concerned. From my perspective he was a difficult man to get to know and warm up to. The freakish side of his persona was always on display. It was a façade that was firmly in place, and he rarely allowed anyone to see the real person behind the mask.
Sid was in his late sixties when I first met him. He had been fascinated with tattoos from the time he was preadolescent. Sid had been a member of the Coast Guard which, during World War II, was a part of the Navy. It was in those war years, the early 1940s, that he got his first piercings — ear and frenum — and tattoos. If memory serves me correctly he became an electrician after leaving the service and settled down in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where he retired.
Sid’s passions were tattooing, piercing, and very heavy S/M. He had managed to connect with a large number of other enthusiasts throughout the world and was a voracious correspondent, writing at length — on a typewriter, no less — about his experiences. Photos of his exploits and those of others were often included. No doubt BME enthusiasts would hardly find them shocking, but for their time these included some of the most extreme S/M I had ever seen documented, including extensive play piercing scenes and some involving opening the scrotum and exposing the testicles.
Doug piercing Sid’s ear.
Doug’s and my visit did not include any of these particular activities. Sid took us to a gay bar or two — pretty tame ones by LA standards. He also arranged a big piercing party at his home for various gay friends and fellow motorcycle club members so they could drop in and get pierced.
At this point in history the Jim Ward name didn’t mean very much in piercing circles. Sid didn’t really know me, and his assumption seemed to be that Doug would be doing a lot of the piercing. Aside from acquiescing to Sid’s desire for a piercing or two from the hands of the “Master,” Doug very graciously sang my praises as his protégé and made it clear that I would be doing whatever piercing services were required.
I pierced at least eight people that night, some having multiple piercings. Doug got into the spirit of the evening by letting me pierce his ear. Being as closeted as he was, it came as no surprise that he removed the jewelry by the time we returned to LA. Sid got his wish when Doug added another piercing to his ear and gave him an apadravya. The atmosphere was congenial and supportive, and everyone seemed to leave on an endorphin high.
During our visit Doug and I also met a kinky straight friend of Sid’s named John. My impression was that John enjoyed cross-dressing or at least expressing the feminine side of his nature. Both legs were tattooed with lace stockings made up of hundreds of tiny spiders. His toenails were painted. In many of his piercings he wore jewelry of a decidedly feminine character. John was probably the first man I ever encountered who had split the head of his penis. It wasn’t difficult to understand why he and Sid were friends.
Sid’s kinky straight friend John,
perhaps the first man I ever met with a split penis head.
Our stay in Ft. Lauderdale was pleasant, and we returned to LA having made many new piercing friends.
A closeup of Sid’s genital piercings taken during my 1980 visit.
I visited Sid again in 1980 to interview and photograph him for PFIQ. That interview appeared in issue #10. I’ve never considered my skills as a photographer to be particularly outstanding, but I have to say the pictures I took of Sid are among the best I’ve ever done. He was relaxed and open and never camera shy. The photos I took that day always remind me of one of the most unforgettable characters it’s been my privilege to know.
Sid kept two collections of personal papers that I know of: the correspondence and photographs he’d accumulated over the years relating to tattooing and piercing. When he died May 24, 1990 — age 80 if my calculations are correct — he had already made provisions for his collections to go to people he trusted. I believe he left the tattoo papers to his good friend Jack Yount. I’ve no idea what happened to these after Jack’s death. The piercing collection Sid left to me. A few months after his death a couple of large, heavy boxes arrived for me at Gauntlet’s corporate office. In them were a number of three-ring binders filled with photos in plastic protectors, not to mention a large stack of correspondence. Not only were there many letters from his various and sundry friends, but oddly there were photocopies on thermal paper of many letters Sid had written to them.
For some time I pondered how best to preserve this unique collection and also make it accessible to interested individuals. I considered using some of the material in PFIQ, but since there were no photo releases, and I didn’t know most of the individuals pictured or how to contact them, I abandoned that idea.
As time went by my health became somewhat uncertain, and I was forced to face the fact that I might not have that many years to live. I was concerned about the future of the unique collection Sid had left in my care and felt the best thing I could do was to find a better home for it. Eventually I made the decision to donate it to the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. It’s clear from their web site that the collection is still there. I’m assuming anyone interested in exploring this resource can make arrangements to view and study it.
Sid was one of a kind: a man who marched to a different drum and made no apologies for it. Despite any differences we might have had, I consider myself fortunate to have known him.