101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 17)—Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla
Noted for their catch phrase, “Art with a Pulse,” tattooists and historians Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla opened their famous Triangle Tattoo & Museum in 1986. A full-time tattoo shop open seven days a week from noon until six p.m., upstairs is a lavish and meticulously displayed collection of tattoo artifacts from a wide variety of countries and indigenous cultures. Both seasoned tattoo artists, Chinchilla is the author of several books (Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed, Electric Tattoo by Men and Electric Tattooing by Women) and Mr. G is the respected bon vivant and historian who writes Tattoo Road Trip’s popular column, “According to Me with Mr. G.” Chinchilla’s latest, Captain Don Leslie—Sword Swallower, Circus Sideshow Attraction is the official biography of Captain Don, one of the truly great legends of the tattoo world. During his final days, Captain Don strived to finish telling this fascinating story about life in the circus and his deep connection with the ancient art of tattooing. Read all about life in the circus, during the last century, back when the traveling, canvas, outdoor sideshows flourished in America.
It is because of Chinchilla and G dedication to the tattoo community in deed and spirit that merits them a place on our list. They don’t just take from the current popularity of body art, they give back. Their personalities harken back to a time when tattoo artists had stories to tell and myths to build. The museum, their travels, their wise counsel and opinions have shaped our history and built groundwork for the success that tattooing is enjoying today. They create, they document and they archive, all in the name of uplifting the art of tattoo to a position of greatness, in a time when there is often little to cheer about. We wish there were more like G and Chinchilla, but that is impossible. They are unique. There is no one quite like them.
Conveniently located in the center of the quaint little coastal town of Ft. Bragg, California (just a couple hours north of San Francisco), admission to the museum is free and you can even bring the little kinder (if you promise to keep them out of mischief). Plus, if you call in advance, personal guided tours for individuals and school groups can be accommodated. Video taping and photographing in the museum is prohibited and children must be accompanied by an adult, so please leave your cell phone cameras in your pockets.
Just climbing the stairs to the second floor studio is a treat. The walls and ceiling are covered with traditional tattoo designs from World War II to the present. Once inside, several rooms are dedicated to showcasing tattoo history from Maori portraits featuring facial Mokos to ethnic hand tools used before the invention of the electric tattoo machine, from “Tattoos Without Consent,” a disturbing exhibit featuring tattoos that were forced upon Europe’s Jewish population during the Holocaust to a Japanese tattoo exhibit displaying antique hand instruments, portraits of the tattoo masters and examples of their work. Tattooing in the Circus Sideshow is another must-see. Featuring a fascinating and colorful collection of designs, photographs and the retired costumes of the late, great Captain Don Leslie, my favorite is a beautiful lace handkerchief Don received after performing in the home of none other than―get ready for this―Miss Dinah Shore! And don’t miss the Women’s Wall, an entire exhibit dedicated to portraits of tattooed women from different cultures and eras.
As Gregory M. Vogel, segment producer of the series Tattoo on the Discovery Channel lauded, “Visiting Triangle Tattoo was like panning for gold, and finding it. Our documentary crew went wild as we explored this treasure trove of tattoo history, lore and culture. Madame Chinchilla and Mr. G have compiled a wonderful collection of tattoo art and artifacts, which by itself is well worth the trip to Ft. Bragg. But unlike a traditional museum, it is also an old-style, working tattoo parlor. In a sense, the collection at Triangle Tattoo grows with each tattoo customer.
I always look forward to my visits to Triangle Tattoo & Museum Not only is it a beautiful drive, there’s always a super-friendly welcome by Chinchilla and G, and an unhurried, no-crowds opportunity to poke through the beautifully displayed memorabilia and paraphernalia from tattooing’s multi-faceted past.
As G points out, “Our collection is not the biggest, it’s not the most, it’s not the best. With so many big collections, they’re private. People guard them, hoard them and brag about them. What we pride ourselves on is being open to the public, being accessible to families, and having a display area that is isolated from the tattooing action.”
Yes, there are a number of wonderful museums around the country, but this is definitely, one of the most intimate. And, being in Ft. Bragg, there’s always a cool, afternoon fog rolling in as you walk just a few doors to some wonderful restaurants. In other words, a visit to Triangle is a great day trip from San Francisco or southern Oregon. Hey, include a drive through the giant redwoods along the thirty-one-mile Avenue of the Giants and you’ve got a terrific vacation the whole family can enjoy.
The museum itself is a feast for the eyes. It begins at the street-level door, climbs up both sides of the stairs to the second floor, and wraps itself around the hallways and display rooms of this colorful and spacious, old-school shop. There’s wonderful exhibits enhanced by newspaper clippings, magazine pages, photographs and carefully-typed labels all designed to educate and entertain the visitors.
“We were really surprised to see how many people did not have a clue about tattoo history,” says G. “They really think it started in the sixties with the bikers or World War II with their uncle’s tattoos. They don’t realize it started at the beginning of civilization. That’s why our museum is so important; it opens up a lot of eyes.”
G and Chinchilla have, obviously, gone to great pains to make each visit to the museum an enlightening trip back in time. There’s even a moving tribute to the late Capt. Don Leslie, complete with handbills and costumes the Capt. wore while performing around the world. My favorite is a lace handkerchief presented to Capt. Don after an evening entertaining a small crowd of celebrities at the Brentwood, California home of none other than Miss Dinah Shore.
The Triangle collection was the natural result of Chinchilla’s and G’s early interest in tattoo collectibles. They were initially exposed to Lyle Tuttle’s collection in San Francisco and Chuck Eldridge’s Tattoo Archive in Berkeley, California (now in Winston-Salem, North Carolina).
“It was the second or third week of my apprenticeship with Bert Rodriguez,” says G. “I was taken to Lyle’s and Chuck’s. After that, Chinchilla and I would go down and go through everything. We’ve were fascinated. When we started, there were very few books, magazines or videos on tattoo history, so we were hungry for it. I had the chance to buy a couple collections, early on, but I missed those opportunities because it was pretty lean back then. But, after we began to make a little money with tattooing, we began to invest in things that we could afford.”
From the start, the museum got a big boost from some tattooing’s most dedicated supporters.
“We had a very modest collection,” says G, “until we moved to our current shop on Main Street in Ft. Bragg, where we had more room. Henry Goldfield, Bert and some other old timers came up for our grand opening and gave us some gifts of flash and other collectibles. Now, our collection consists of one-hundred to one-hundred-fifty pieces.”
In the beginning, Triangle had been using the space for art galley shows similar to the ones at La Luz de Jesus at the Soap Plant in Los Angeles. “Shortly after the earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989, Lyle closed his museum, and we felt there was a real need to start putting up more for the public to view. We had hosted a couple shows, but we decided to knock that off and focus on tattoo history. That was back in 1986.”
The first collectibles that tempted G were part of Bert’s collection. “When I started my apprenticeship, I stared at some Cap. Coleman flash everyday I went to work. Bert had very rare Cap. Coleman flash, about four sheets of it. Our first donation was from Lyle Tuttle in 1986, some flash from his Milton Zeis collection. After that were some acetates I was given as a gift. I was given a whole shop-load of acetates that came from the Davy Jones’ collection.”
One of my all-time favorites is Triangle’s Thomas Edison machine. “Mine, too,” says G. But the most recent is a Charlie Wagner that came from the accountant for one of the circuses in the Midwest. The thing that was really nice about that one—and the same goes for all my prize machines—is that they have not been monkeyed with by modern tattoo artists. They’re set up the way they were eighty years ago. They’re not touched. It’s really valuable to see how people set up their machines back then. The spring tensions haven’t been changed. They haven’t put capacitors on them. With a lot of old machines, people in the ’80s and recently try to make these old machines to work. They want to tattoo with these old machines, so they really screw them up. The screw all the settings up. They change things, they lose hardware off them, binding posts. The real prize about the machines is that they’ve never been touched.
“Another really rare one is the Johnny Two-Thumbs machine. That’s a very rare machine from Hong Kong. They used a doorbell frame and there’s a whole lineage of those. I believe there’s only four or five of in the world.”
Visiting the museum is really important in the way it takes us back to our roots and connects us with the realities of the past. It also inspires us to start collecting. I asked G how he would go about it.
“If someone wants to get into collecting, the first thing I’d suggest is that they read some history books on tattooing, so they have an idea of value and the importance of the key players in the tattoo history. If they are going to collect, they should at least know who did what and what their contribution was to the tattoo industry today. And they should have an appreciation not to hoard. The Internet has made it very easy to grab these things. Some people are buying things up and reselling them. Then those people resell them again and so on and so on. It’s an investment game. It’s getting crazy. For example, I’ve seen reproductions put on eBay that were not presented as reproductions. People get too excited about much of the flash and printed material on eBay. It really takes an expert to determine what’s good and what isn’t. The best way is to start slowly and expand one’s knowledge of tattooing. They can invest in a few books for a hundred dollars that will educate them as to what’s important and what isn’t. And, above all, visit the other collections and especially Chuck Eldridge’s www.tattooarchive.com website, so, when they see the real deal, they can recognize it.”
Although most of the exhibits are behind glass, I was interested in how they keep everything safe. “Several of the exhibits in the museum, of course, are reproductions, so we are able to put the originals away for safe keeping, out of harm’s way, fire, theft or ultraviolet. And if they do find something valuable, they should really protect it,” says G. “These things were often already trashed, thrown away and destroyed, so there’s a very limited selection.”
Thanks to the dedication of tattoo artists and collectors like G and Chinchilla, we can visit our glorious past whenever we wish, seven days a week, noon till 6 p.m. All ages are welcome and admission is free.