101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 8)—Good Time Charlie Cartwright
THE MAN WHO STARTED IT ALL
What can you say about the guy who basically invented single-needle, black & gray portrait tattooing (if nothing else, Good Time Charlie Cartwright mentored the artists who did, including Jack Rudy, Freddy Negrete and, later, Brian Everett)?
I first met Charlie over fifteen years ago at his shop, End of the Trail Tattoo, in Modesto, California, and hour and a half east of San Francisco. I was doing a story for Skin&Ink magazine and, along with a car full of people, we were in the area for the Crowe and Dwyer Tattoo Tour event in the City by the Bay. I remember the graciousness with which we were received (Charlie has proven himself to be a consummate charmer and story teller then and in the dozens of times I’ve seen him since). Aside from his cool attire, I also remember his amazing collection of End of the Trail collectibles (he told me that the items at the shop were only a fraction of the total collection). Ashtrays, paintings, lampshades, playing cards, you name it, all around the shop were samples of the famous Indian on a horse that was the shop’s namesake. (The iconic End of the Trail sculpture, by James Earle Fraser, depicting an American Indian warrior slumped over on his horse, is located in Waupun, Wisconsin and was was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.)
I also remember that Charlie made a point of why he passed on having a shop in the big city (San Francisco) and, instead, opened a shop, in Modesto, which, at that point, was only “one of about one-and-a-half” tattoo shops in town (a town which, in the year 2000, was populated by maybe two traffic signals, a chicken and a pig). Charlie moved there because he didn’t want to invade the terrain of artists Lyle Tuttle and Ed Hardy, who had already taken up residence in San Francisco. A far cry from tattoo artists today, who happily open shops right across the street from their competition.
In any case, here’s the interview Charlie did with Permanent Mark about fifteen years ago, and, as an extra bonus, a letter penned by Charlie himself, that he was kind enough to write as an addendum to the article.
GOOD TIME CHARLIE CARTWRIGHT MODESTO’S MAIN MAN SPEAKS HIS MIND
An Interview with Permanent Mark
PERMANENT MARK: I’m here with Good Time Charlie at End of the Trail Tattoo in Modesto, California. I’m lucky enough to be asking some questions about where the art of tattooing has evolved and where it’s come from. So Charlie, how did it all start for you?
GOOD TIME CHARLIE CARTWRIGHT: Well, I started tattooing when I was 15, hand poking them back in Wichita, Kansas. And I worked on nearly everybody in the neighborhood, in fact in all parts of town.
PM: There wasn’t a tattoo shop on every corner in those days?
GTC: No. It was actually illegal to tattoo in that city. Just about the time that I became interested they had just run the last two guys out that worked on anybody that would lay money on them. Irate parents finally got rid of these guys that were tattooing their kids. It still is a city ordinance there. So when I went back and tattooed there after selling the shop in LA, I operated in the county area and had no problem. I eventually had two shops, 17 miles apart. That’s where it all started for me. And then I came full circle and spent quite a bit of time there.
PM: You started in Wichita and then you went and opened your first shop in L.A.
GTC. Yeah. The first shop that was my own personal shop was in East L.A. on Whittier Boulevard. I was only there three years and sold it to Ed Hardy in 1977. While I was there, I must say, I did a great amount of tattooing along with Jack Rudy, who worked for me, and Creeper and also Lady Blue. That was the crew of tattooers.
PM: In those days, what was the popular kind of styles for tattooing? Was is still all the low rider style?
GTC: Oh yeah, because it was low rider—
GTC: Oh yeah. In fact when I first went there, the comment by several of the old timers was, “Nobody’s worked that area since World War II.” And I said, “Well don’t you think it’s time that somebody did?” I even made the comment that I’d been poking holes in Mexicans since I was kid and I knew what kind of tattoos they liked and how they liked them done. So I knew it would work, and it did, from day one. Quite often we would have them beating on the door after locking up, and they’d say they’d driven all the way from Fresno or wherever. But there’s only so many hours in a day.
PM: [Laughing.] I hear that Jack [Rudy] just worked at night.
GTC: Well, that’s the way he started and he just never got over it.
PM: Is that right, Jack got the night shift?
GTC: That was what one would call a turning point in tattoo history for the single needle type action, because, at that point in time, most people still worked with a tight three and there wasn’t a lot of photo realistic tattooing. We started doing strictly single needle stuff, almost exclusively. And black and gray work. It did open a lot of people’s eyes as to what could happen. So I guess I can say I was in the right place at the right time to see that turning point in the tattoo world.
PM: I find that the single needle is not for everybody. It’s damn hard. When I started, I started with a single needle, and I’ll tell you something, I walk down on Venice Beach and see one of my pieces and just have a heart attack. I have to grab the guy and cover the thing quick. I wish I had a different name in those days, or maybe I’ll change my name now. Single needle tattooing is definitely hard. I still can’t get used to it. Well, on to other things. And then you moved back to Kansas. How long were you there?
GTC: Ten years.
PM: That shop was End of the Trail, right?
PM: The first one was—
GTC: Good Time Charlie’s. In Wichita I called it End of the Trail, because of the association with Indian people in that area, and that famous End of the Trail picture is so Americana. Almost everybody’s relative in those days or in that part of the country had one of those pictures hanging in their house somewhere. I painted a big mural on the side of the building knowing that, if they couldn’t remember the name, they could simply look for the Indian on the horse. And it worked. It was life size. So it was pretty much of an eye catcher, that mural.
PM: So you were there for ten years and—
GTC: And in that particular shop my boy started with me early on, drawing and painting flash.
PM: His name is Nick. Correct?
GTC: Right. My oldest son is Tony, who is in the Air Force. He stayed with it five years before he joined the Air Force.
GTC: Well he did for a little while, but he finally gave up because of the lack of understanding about schedules. Tony beats the pavement for 12 hours and comes home to guys sitting on the porch, drinking a beer, wanting an eagle tattooed on them. He’s not really excited about that. But Nick is a well known tattooer in the Los Angeles area of Harbor City. He has a shop called Joker’s Wild. He started at the age of 13 drawing and painting flash. And engraving stencils, the old plastic acetate kind. He actually starting tattooing at 17 in the shop. He’s now got a 15 year history under his belt.
PM: Already? But he’s got a lot to do to catch up to you. How long have you got now? Forty—
GTC: Forty-two years now—of decorating.
PM: Well there you are. And then after the 10 years in Kansas?
GTC: We relocated to Modesto, California. And quite often people asked, what in the world are we doing in this little berg? [Laughs.] But our best friends from L.A. have moved here and encouraged us to stay. Actually, we came and visited the year before, then changed our minds. I kind of halfway decided against it at that time. We tried the Virgin Islands. That didn’t work out, due to me getting poisoned over there. Food poisoning. And eventually I said to my wife, “I’ll go anywhere you want to go. You went with me over there. And so, here we are; ten years later, and it’s been okay.
PM: It looks like it. It’ a great shop. Probably the last real tattoo shop in this country, as far as I can see. This is the way a shop should be.
GTC: You mean in Northern California?
PM: All over. In America. You know, San Francisco’s only an hour away, and over there you spend all day trying to draw shit that people dreamt up the night before. [Laughs.] I can’t relate with that stuff at all. This is definitely a number-one shop. And it’s amazing, since it’s so close to even LA. If I were in the district I would be up here in a heartbeat just to check it out.
GTC: Concerning my move to Modesto, that brought on a change also with my third child who was Reyna. I was quite amazed when she came out here a year after we’d moved here. She worked with my wife, doing office work for a while. Then, she told me at the age of 22, or whatever it was, that she’d like to learn to tattoo. And I asked her why she waited until she was a woman. “Where were you when the boys were at the shop all the time?” She got a tattoo when she was 18, but never really did pursue it. And I never did see evidence of her interest in visual art whatsoever. When I made the comment to her about that she said, “Okay. So I’ll take some art.” And I said, “Well, you don’t just take art. You have to be a tattooer!” And she says, “So, are you telling me no?” I said, “No. Other than love, I can’t give you anything but knowledge. That’s gonna stick. So I’m obligated to give you that. I know about skin pictures, so I should give you that.” Anyway, she started with me in Modesto and was here probably three to four years before she moved to Maui and worked over there in a couple of the shops for Taunee at Skin Deep. But in recent years, since she’s been back on the Mainland here. She tattooed periodically for me during vacations and so on. But she certainly had it in her genes, because it just flows right out of her. Whatever she wants to put out, it just happens. She’s got it.
PM: You have an interesting family history as well. You were telling me about your father, who was preacher—
GTC: Yeah. My dad was a Pentecostal preacher for 47 years with one organization, and his father before him was a farmer. But back in the family, my great-great-great grandfather was a real famous Methodist circuit rider. In fact, in pioneer days, he was the first traveling preacher west of the Cumberland Gap. He fought the Indians and the town rowdies and so forth, spreading the gospel. And in fact, I just went back and got his desk from my mother’s place. They can all be traced back to the Revolutionary War period.
PM: Wow! And what did your father think of you being a tattooer at 15 years old?
GTC: There was great disagreement early on. My father rained on my parade real regular, to the point where I was actually out of the house quite often because of that activity. But we finally resolved it, when I was 17. I told him, “You can beat me. You can cut my head off. But I’m gonna die digging skin pictures. And I don’t know how to explain that to anybody, and I don’t even know if I need to explain it to anybody. We’re just different guys that live in different times and pursue different things and have different interests. And I just know it’s something I’m attracted to and probably always will be. So we never want to talk about this again if I’m going to come back under this roof.” And he said okay.
PM: Right on. That got sorted out.
GTC: Yeah, he threw me out.
PM: I heard you tattooed your brother. Is that right?
GTC: Yeah, when he was ten, I started on him.
PM: [Laughing.] Oh lord!
GTC: Yeah, he was the only kid in the fifth grade with tattoos.
PM: Cool. I wish I was ten with tattoos. That would have been great. I wish I’d known better then. I would’ve been covered with tattoos and nobody would have ever messed with me. I was always small. That would’ve helped.
GTC: Yeah, he was the only kid in the fifth grade with three tattoos.
PM: So over the years, with the business changing and everything, what do you think is happening? Your pet peeves? I know I’ve got a few. Now I want to hear it from someone who been in the business as long as you have.
GTC: I just think that the longer it goes on the more confusing it all becomes to the general public. And the less magic it has for those entering the business. Tattooing is not the same industry it was. I guess the Internet, pretty much anymore, just tells you everything. What do you want to know about anything? Well you can go to somebody’s convention somewhere every day of the year and have these guys spilling their guts. And I don’t understand that, why everybody is so willing to just open up, because there’s nothing left to learn in terms of hidden pearls. I just don’t quite understand it. I believe in sharing with those who have the right stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I think we’ve got to pass it on. I think we’re obligated to pass it on. People have shared with us, so I think if they’ve earned the right—
PM: They’ve got to earn the right.
GTC: Yes, if they’ve got the right stuff and the right motives for being in the business, I think they’ve got it coming. But I don’t know who sit downs and decides who is qualified and who is not.
PM: There used to be a bit of ethics. You had to show up, do your time, get tattooed, and, if the guy liked you, and you were lucky enough, you could scrub his damn floor. Maybe it gets to the point where you could do it yourself. But now, everybody’s just got off the apprenticeship themselves, and they hire two apprentices and tattoo in a year. So where’s it going from there.
GTC: I think that the circle is getting littler and littler, because the information on the superhighway is more available to everybody. Everything is quicker. You can get on a jet and go to any foreign country in a matter of hours where, in pioneer days, it used to take days or weeks or months to cross the country by foot. The same thing applies to the trade today. The same guy that was scrubbing floors or was cutting stencils until his hand was numb, that guy, it took him sometimes years before he was really given the—
PM: The honor.
GTC: That’s exactly it. The honor of making money. But today, it’s like these guys just want to get their equipment today and start tomorrow without any education.
PM: Be world famous within a month.
GTC: They don’t know the history. It helps to know what it’s all about. Knowing the history of it is something these guys don’t know. Most of them can’t even tell you who is working in another shop across town, let alone who tattooed 30 years ago. The history part of it and the respect aspect of it is totally different. People don’t even care who was here or there. All they are looking out for is their own bones. It’s always been that way to some extent. There’s always been those that say that the best place to open a shop is next to another guy, because, if he can’t do them all, then you’re gonna get the overflow. But, if he was made out of the right kind of stuff, in my opinion, he wouldn’t be right there next to the other guy. That’s where I differ from that carny type of operation.
PM: They were also really secretive in those days. Like Johnny Two-Thumbs in Singapore had the machine with the big box around the iron so you couldn’t see how it worked. And still, to this day, I think he’s got the only shop around there. I know his son Richard and he still works there in the same way, with a box around the machine. What the hell’s going on there? They’re giving no secrets. It’s been in that family for I don’t know how long. I think it’s 40 years!
GTC: Well Little Abe Spellman in L.A., he built a curious electronic affair that consisted of many switches and lights and gauges. And he used to tell them, “Without one of these, you can’t do this.” For those guys that are just sitting there trying to pick your brain, they’re never going to figure that animal out by looking at it. So that was, I guess, a little taste of that carny mysticism.
PM: I blame it on the supply ads. That is really how it all deteriorated. I mean, any asshole with a couple hundred bucks can get a machine and start out of his kitchen. I think there should be law about buying a sterilizer before you’re allowed to buy a machine. At least some kind of law like that. I mean, Christ, how are they going to be able to afford a $3,000 sterilizer? They’re selling packs of three needles. Obviously you’re going to reuse them! I think that’s what started it all. Then people look at it and they think, that’s easy, I want to be a tattooer. Is there a lot of money in this? Hell no, a lot of hours. What do you say to these guys?
GTC: If they only knew all the inglorious aspects they wouldn’t even dream of wanting to dive off into it. They don’t see how many untold hours are spent soldering needles, and troubleshooting electrical systems or tuning machines. Of course the industry has changed in some positive ways. I suppose you can think about it in that respect. The colors, of course. I don’t know anybody who sits down and blends their own colors anymore. They just order them. And who even knows if all that stuff has been researched? But back to the inglorious aspects of it; nobody sees all those hours that you spend trying to accumulate and put together the right kind of package for the buying public. It’s not just sitting down there and smiling and collecting the dough. It’s leaning on real heavy people in very uncomfortable positions, sweating bullets, trying to put miniature designs on these soft parts. Some heavy person doesn’t want to give you any exposure and they’re hung up about the modesty aspect of it. And that part of it is as inglorious as any of that needle making. And you’re uncomfortable and you’re in a bad position to deliver, and you’ve got a practically unwilling participant. So the bottom line is; every dollar you earned was well earned, and then some. But all they see is the guy sitting there with his shoulder blade. They don’t see you when you’re plowing acres of belly, trying to paint it black with some big tribal thing. Well, believe you me, it’s not all glory. There’s many of those inglorious aspects of the business and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s nothing. It’s also the mental hurdles that you have to jump with the average customer. They all want to make a major project out of petty little additions. And not to downplay anyone’s progress, and I know they all have a different appetite and all, but there just seems to be this never ending pursuit of the perfect design or addition for that area. It seems like it has to be discussed forever. And to all of that I say, it’s a lot of nonsense, because I can make them happy by not even thinking about it.
PM: You’ve just got to get them to sit down and trust you. You’re a professional and they choose you to get tattooed. So let them do their thing. Otherwise, go somewhere else.
GTC: And they’re going to end up with a far superior tattoo. If they’re looking for a deal in terms of money, they’re probably going to get a better deal, if that’s their major concern. Simply because you’ll probably put something on there that is bigger, nicer, slicker, more original, and something that will make both of you happy in the process. Rather than just stroking them. You’re there to accommodate them. I realize that. The artist is only half the team. But why shouldn’t both of you get something out of it?
PM: I agree.
GTC: I just don’t think at this point there’s any way to stop it, because there’s just way too many people involved in the business. So many are willing to just pass on what little they know to more undeserving souls that don’t even deserve to know what they don’t know. It’s getting reduced down now to the point where I think it will be literally just like nail salons, where there will be one on every corner, and everybody’s doing it for ten dollars. It reminds me of this billboard I saw concerning coffee which said, “We saw this coffee craze coming 105 years ago.” Well, I saw this tattoo craze coming 42 years ago! That’s how I look at it. So I don’t think there’s anything new about it. I don’t think there’s anything more interesting about it now than then. It still holds that mystique. I think those that want to be tattooed will be tattooed. I just think it’s a damn shame that the art of tattooing is being propagated and promoted to the point where anybody and everybody, regardless of their ethics, morals, etc., can be called a bona fide tattooer.
PM: How many tattoo shops were in L.A. when you were there?
GTC: Well, in the Los Angeles area proper there was only a couple in Van Nuys, and one downtown. Well actually, one in Van Nuys, one downtown. The Pike had worked its way down to about three shops, and I guess in it’s heyday there were 17 shops there, somebody told me. And when I first went there in 1959, there was as many as 13 shops still in operation in the area.
PM: The Long Beach Pike.
GTC: Right. But then, over a period of years, it whittled down to the three. And then it went back up to four and then five and then deteriorated again. So anyway, in that immediate area of Long Beach, L.A. and Hollywood of course, too—Lyle [Tuttle] had opened Sunset at that point in time, or shortly after. ’59 I guess. I can’t think what year that was. Anyway, there was probably less than ten shops in the total Los Angeles area. By opening in East L.A., I was not infringing on anybody. And I did that deliberately. And since that day, I avoid going to anybody else’s territory or area, even if I don’t like the guy.
PM: So over all those years, who have you had work on you personally?
GTC: Mostly 40-something people now are responsible for what’s on me. I’ve tattooed myself 70 times.
GTC: Right, 70 times. And probably one of my favorite guys of all times, as a person, was Lou Lewis, who is not even a real well known name except on the East Coast and the Long Beach area. He tattooed me several times. And I’ve got work from Fred Thornton who is an old timer. I’ve got work by Bert Grimm, Bob Heyman, Jimbo Leport, Johnny Anderson and Flame. I’m not sure if that guy’s still around anymore. I haven’t heard anything about him in years. Tennessee Dave from L.A,. Jack Rudy, of course. Bob Roberts, Little Dave Spellman, Ed Hardy and probably a few others too. There’s got to be more, because I’ve figured it out and there’s 40-some people who have tattooed me. And you as well. And my sons and daughter also. I’ve actually been tattooed by my grandson, who was probably four or five at the time.
PM: I love those tattoos. Just do a dot on me. The most painless ones you can get.
GTC: And your friend Horiken, and your friend George. Jack Rudy has worked on me on 40 separate occasions. And also Mike Crowe is another one who’s now dead. He worked on me as well. Buried beneath all these things, I’ve got treasures by Painless Nel and her cousin Joe at the Wooden Leg, and Tahiti Felix and several San Diego tattooers as well. Tahiti Felix is dead. Dick Warsaki did this [showing different tattoos]. This is a Painless Nel.
PM: Right on. You’ve got the whole collection. I haven’t got that many on me, but I’ve got a few little trinkets here and there. I like the smaller ones; they don’t hurt so bad. I think they hurt too much these days, and I don’t like to cry in front of my mates. Well, thanks a lot. It was really good to talking to you. And we have your own letter here that we’ll be publishing along with the article which will pretty much say exactly how it is. Thanks a lot, Charlie, and, as usual, I love working here with you. It’s my favorite place.
GTC: Well thanks. And I’d like to say that another guy, Lucky [Bastard] has worked on me as well. He’s been with me six years now, so he’s got the longevity record over anybody. But I love them all. Anyone who has worked with me, we still have a good relationship. I’d say that I’m a blessed man, to have the crew I have. They all can deliver the stuff and I’m thankful for that.
Dear Tattoo Friends:
Having been involved in tattooing since I was a teenager (42 years now), I feel I can speak as an authority on the subject, to some degree.
Tattooing has always been around and will always be accepted by some and rejected by many. So be it. However, for those who choose to decorate their bodies with tattoo art, it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out that, since tattoos are permanent pictures, they should be applied by an artist! Meaning; someone who can draw! This someone should also be an experienced professional tattooer. The key words here are experience (water under the bridge) and professional (having a certain moral fiber and integrity).
In recent years, there has been an increased interest in tattoos, due to media exposure, publications, conventions, etc. Although there are many, many more entering the business than before, there aren’t very many that are pursuing it in a proper manner. Remember, “Pots and pans do not a cook make!” Just because you have the equipment doesn’t mean that you know what you are doing. This is what is happening on a massive scale not only here in Modesto, but everywhere in the world!
Few seem to realize or care what repercussions this has and will have on the big picture. Never before have so many been led astray. What a sad state of affairs for the tattoo world when total amateurs pray on the buying public and become the voices of authority. When this happens; everyone loses.
The customer loses because he or she not only gets an inferior tattoo (which leaves a bad taste in their mouths for future work) but erroneous information is repeated, thereby perpetuating the falsehoods concerning that inferior work. Yes, I can repair it or cover it up, but the original design is often changed from what the customer first wanted. This sends out a negative message to others. They are turned off from getting a tattoo when they see what has happened to their friend.
The professional tattoo artists who are concerned about the client and love the art and craft of tattooing also lose, because they are forced to share the skin with an increasing amount of so-called tattooers who are in the business for all the wrong reasons. These scoundrels spawn scoundrels, and the beat goes on, slicing the pie even thinner. The viewing public also loses because they are not getting to see and admire the best work.
I’ve been in this town, in this valley, for ten years now and was the only shop in a 50 mile circle when I came here. Everyone was guaranteed a fine tattoo. Now there are at least 12 to 14 shops in that same 50 mile circle, and it is very rare that I ever see an acceptable tattoo from any of them. These are my reasons for venting my frustration by writing this to the buying public and the ones who are spitting in the sacred fountain of tattoo. You know who you are.
Rejoicing in the truth of His love,
P.S. The sweetness of a low price is soon forgotten. The bitterness of low quality remains for life.