“Queer Trades To Live”

In 1901 The San Francisco Chronicle published an article (later reprinted August 25, 1901 in The Washington Post) discussing unusual jobs that people (who they called “celebrities”) could make a decent living at — this included widow-consoler, tail-biter (someone who amputates the tails off of dogs), prayer-seller, and tattoo artist. Here’s what they wrote about the option of becoming a tattoo artist — the profession hasn’t changed much, other than the fact that tattooing is no longer painless* and the pervasiveness of blood borne pathogens requires modern artists to focus more strongly on cross-contamination.

Oh yeah, and most of the time these days, tattoo artists are not called “the professor”. Well, if I ever start tattooing again, I’m going to try and re-popularize that nomenclature.

A Professional Tattoo Man.

He works in a little hole in the wall between a saloon and a shooting gallery. The front is plastered over with photographs showing some of his best work and with designs for the human body, each having its accompanying price. Plain initials he will put on your leg or arm for 25 cents, and he will add a decorative frill for a little more. An American flag costs $1.25 and a full spread eagle twice that sum. He will take the photograph of any friend and transfer a copy to the skin of a customer for $3.50, the process taking a half hour.

The professor does not work with the old-fashioned sailor needle, but with an electrical machine that looks and acts like the fiendish “buzzer” of a dentist. At the point is a battery of half a dozen tiny needles, which shoot like lightning back and forth when the power is applied, each leaving a tiny microscopic prick. When he has a customer the professor takes a stencil, marks out the design, and then follows the line with his buzzer, dipping it in the proper ink as he goes. This is for customers who patronize him openly in his office. For those who avoid publicity and want the work done at home he sends his Japanese assistant, who works by hand, after the old-fashioned method.

“The tattooing is perfectly harmless and is not painful at the time,” he says. “It swells and inflames afterward, but little more than an ordinary pin prick. We generally tattoo the ladies on the shoulder just below where a low-neck dress comes. I have tattooed lots of the toniest people in town; in fact, they are my best customers. People used to have a prejudice against tattooing; they are getting over that.

I love the last paragraph — you could read the exact same thing (well, other than “toniest” which I had to look up to know what it meant) in a tattoo interview in 2006. It’s funny how much things stay the same, but through the eyes of the moment they always feel so fresh. Oh, and to put the pricing into context, $3.50 an hour in 1901 dollars is about $80-$150 an hour in today’s dollars.

* Until 1914, tattoo ink was often mixed with cocaine to make the process painless.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by BMEzine.com LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by BMEzine.com LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

14 thoughts on ““Queer Trades To Live”

  1. Wow, I somehow missed 1901 until re reading the article… I was so confused about the prices. I blame my contact lenses for ripping.

  2. Thanks for posting that article. I got a kick out of the last paragraph, too! I loved the part about “The japanese assisantant, who works by hand, after the old-fashioned method”. and “toniest” which is a happy new word I can add to my lexicon.

  3. Mechanolatry – As it says above, this is excerpted from the August 25, 1901 edition of the Washington Post. You can purchase a copy from them directly or get it at some libraries with good archives. If you mean which edition of the SF it’s in, I’m not 100% sure.

  4. I love this whole, the more things change the more they stay the same perspective on the universe. Seems like no matter how mainstream things become it’s no different, really, than what has come before.

  5. cocaine in the ink…kinda makes one wish they were back in 1901 doesn’t it? ok,maybe not so much but that was a cool article

  6. Hehe, these old articles are fantastic! Don’t know why but the writing style really makes me smile too :)

  7. I agree with ‘S’ up there, it makes me smile too. I’m so used to reading about these things in anthropological books, this is a lot more light hearted.

    Keep ‘em coming Shannon!

  8. Definitely keep these coming, gives an interesting perspective on mods to read about them so far in the past.

    Cocaine in the ink? Sounds even better than my idea. I recently had to have my doctor do a little exploratory surgery on my foot and my doctor sprayed the area with ethyl chloride before injecting the anesthetic. My first thought was hey I want this sprayed on my skin next time I get tattood and my second thought was I really want a shot of this local next time too.

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