“The Father of American Tattooing”—Paul Rogers
TATTOO Q&A WITH MATTY JANKOWSKI
Dear Matty: I picked up an old copy of Skin&Ink and found out that I’m not the only one who wanted to know how a tattoo machine really works. Finally, somebody had the answer. You mentioned Paul Rogers, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard his name. I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only one who wants to know more about him. —Pete F. Madison Wisconsin
“Born in a log cabin” seems to be a cornball phrase commonly associated with the birth of Abraham Lincoln, but, for many Americans, it honestly reflects their humble beginning. In the case of Paul Rogers, life began on September 9, 1905 in a log cabin up in the woods, off the road, in a place called Couches Creek, North Carolina. Much of the life of legendary artist and machine-builder can be found in an engrossing narrative dedicated to the loving memory of Franklin Paul Rogers and his wife of forty-nine years, Helen. Entitled The Father of American Tattooing, this compelling biography was a labor of love compiled and edited by Don (Doc Don) and Paula Lucas from notes, photo albums and interviews with the late, great artist. The book is not a tattoo picture book, but an intimate first-person account, which you won’t be able to put down (www.docdon.com).
Paul Rogers was a shy boy with nothing more than a third-grade education. Interestingly enough, he developed a love for calendars, beginning with his first memory of seeing one on the wall of his Aunt Lawnie’s bedroom in 1911. All his life, this is where Paul kept a record of daily events and of those who came to visit. “Eating squirrel, dumplings and turtle soup,” “cutting wood with a worn out axe for the fireplace and kitchen stove,” those were typical calendar notes, his personal journal of hard times. His fond memories of the woods and watching fish swim overshadowed the hardships of farming, a career that couldn’t properly support a family. But that’s how Paul existed for the next seven years. He often spoke of how he could write a book about that segment of time. Paul had his first look at a tattoo when a traveling silk salesman came to the farm. The man was an old Army vet who had been stationed in the Philippines.
The Rogers family’s Gypsy blood had them on the move from the farm to a nearby town and the cotton mills, where he worked for the next twenty years. Beginning with a meager salary of fifty cents a day, in all the years he spent in the mills, Paul never earned more than $42.00 for a grueling forty-hour week. With a strong interest in gymnastics, Paul became a great hand walker and was able to balance on his hands anywhere he could walk with his feet. He then began balancing on stacks of chairs, riding unicycles and was no stranger to putting up and tearing down carnival tents, when there was a lull between cotton mill jobs.
Paul got his first tattoo when he was twenty-one from a guy named Chet Cain traveling with the Robertson Circus. For the next three years, Paul would get his annual tattoo from Chet, every time he came to town. He told Paul about Cap Coleman, showed him how he had set up his machines and taught Paul the basics of how to keep them running. In 1928, Paul bought his first kit from the E.J. Miller supply company in Norfolk. He spent a lot of time learning to tattoo, mostly on himself and a couple of locals. Confident with his results, he hit the road with John T. Rea’s Sideshow. That’s where he met Helen. In Pittsburgh he met J.G. Russel who had worked in a brass factory all his life. J.G. wasn’t a great tattooist but he was a fine machine maker. After sixty hours a week in the mills, the sideshow tours seemed like a vacation, what with high diving routines, guys being shot out of cannons, motorcycles screaming around the Wall of Death and Willie Camper, the eighteen-year-old, eight-foot seven-inch giant. Paul spent the next seven years on and off the road with his wife and kids in tow.
The next stop was to Norfolk, Virginia. Cap Coleman would grab a sailor’s arm and twist it all around as he looked at his tattoos and told them how awful they were and that “now they would get good ones.” A sailor walked in with a bunch of Cap’s work and noticed a sweet piece that was not his but was done by Paul. Consequently, Coleman got in touch with Paul and invited him to come work with him in Norfolk. Coleman learned to tattoo from his father, who had been hand-poking tattoos since the 1890s. Once, Cap built a raft and poled along the river, stopping occasionally to tattoo and paint signs. He simply advertised on a cap that read Tattooing & Sign Painting. His artistic and, more importantly, mechanical skills inspired Paul to build and repair machines. Paul did repairs on all the machines. Once a guy came back three months later with his machine not running and the same needles still in it.
Tattooing was outlawed in Norfolk in the 1950s. On a tip from Bill “Jonsey” Jones, Paul hooked up with Huck Spaulding, who was passing through Jacksonville. Paul’s shop was closing down as they were making way for a doctor’s office. Luckily, Huck had a choice location with more Special Forces customers than he could handle and asked Paul to join forces. Then they closed down tattooing in Jacksonville, which prompted the boys to pick up and move to Alaska. Luckily, after two weeks of nothing but snow, the ban on tattooing was lifted and they returned. It was even busier than before, due to the Korean War. Huck loved the idea of selling stuff through the mail and the supply business partnership of Spaulding and Rogers was born. Paul was only involved in the supply business for a few years, but they both continued tattooing together until 1961.
In 1970, Helen and Paul bought a mobile home in Jacksonville, Florida, and he built a twelve-by-twelve tin shed that he called “The Iron Factory.” Irons was what Paul affectionately called his tattoo machines. From old-time customers to new upstarts, there was an endless flow of people making a pilgrimage to his workshop.
Over the years, I have heard many people describe “The Iron Factory,” but Doc Don puts it best: “The organized chaos of the shed only left room for a few stools outside, where the visitors would sit and hang on every word, as Paul stood and crafted his machines the old-fashioned way with hand tools like round-blade hacksaws and files. Most hoped to discover some secrets to the machine construction that Rogers had developed through decades of his personal experience and that of Coleman, Bill Jones, Jack Wills, Charlie Barr and many more. Paul never had a recognizable machine design of his own, but rather found gems in the trash heap by rebuilding cast-offs and hand-shaping unstylish, yet dependable, workhorses.”
In 1983, Franklin Paul Rogers was inducted into The Tattoo Hall of Fame at Lyle Tuttle’s Tattoo Art Museum in San Francisco. His machines have been the preferred tools of the trade by the elite and novice alike. D.E. Hardy, Greg Irons, Martin Robson, Dale Grande, John Lenz, Greg Skibo, George Bone, Dennis Cockell, Jack Rudy, Kari Barba, Juli Moon, Tom Beasley and Bob Roberts are just a sampling of the world-class artists who sewer by Paul’s machines. Even as we speak, the highest prices paid for tattoo machines are those made by the hands of Franklin Paul Rogers. In 1980, C.W. “Chuck” Eldridge founded The Tattoo Archive in Berkeley, California. Chuck knows too well that most major tattoo collections have not been accessible to the public, and those that were available are in the hands of individuals. The fate of those collections are usually left to blow in the wind. When the entire Paul Rogers collection was donated to the Tattoo Archive upon Paul’s passing in 1990, the Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center was founded. It is a nonprofit organization established so that the collection would be controlled by a board of directors interested in the preservation of tattoo history. The PRTRC board consists of C.W. Eldridge, Alan Govenar, D.E. Hardy and Henk Schiffmacher. Advisors from inside and outside the tattoo community help the corporation achieve its established goals. The organization collaborates with groups worldwide to document and preserve contemporary and historical tattoo information and artifacts. This information is available to the public for research purposes or general interest.
After Paul’s stroke, a benefit flash book was created by some of the best in the business, including Guy Aitchson, George Bone, Kevin Brady, Fred Corbin, Henry Goldfield, Hanky Panky, Don Ed Hardy, etc. It consists of over one hundred 8½ by 11 pages, including a Paul Rogers flash book designed by Paul himself in the 1970s (not just outlines but a collection of designs reproduced from his full color renderings he drew on tracing paper). Filip Leu rendered ten sheets from Pauls collection in the 1980s and Hardy Marx Flash from the Past along with Madame Chinchilla’s Stewed Screwed and Tattooed books are the first of many fundraising publications with all the profits going to the PRTRC. The Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center invites you to become a part of tattoo history by helping to create a long overdue national landmark, a non-profit tattoo museum and research center to acknowledge those who have contributed to tattooing’s colorful past, as well as those who are shaping its dramatic future. The Tattoo Archive’s move east from Berkeley to North Carolina, will, of course, be celebrated with an inaugural exhibition. For a progress update, log onto www.tattooarchive.com.
EPILOGUE From The Father of American Tattooing, by Don Lucas. “Paul and I were working on this book the night of October 10th, 1988 when Paul had a stroke. Within minutes, I rushed Paul to the emergency room at his local hospital. Luckily, he survived his first stroke. The following evening, while still resting in the intensive care unit, Paul suffered his second and more serious stroke. It tragically paralyzed his right side and took his ability to speak. No longer was he able to talk of his colorful life. “Ironically, his stroke occurred on October 11,1988. Earlier that day, while laying in his hospital bed, Paul pointed to the calendar on the wall and asked me if I knew what day it was. He said, ‘It was sixty years today I started in tattooing.’ He always did have a love for calendars.
“Paul survived at a nursing home for over a year. He still had his smile and sense of humor right up until he died. He passed away about noon, February 27, 1990. Indelibly, Matty J. firstname.lastname@example.orgBIBLIOGRAPHY Eldridge, Chuck, ed. Paul Rogers’ Irons. Berkeley: Tattoo Archive, current. Lucas, Don. The Father of American Tattooing: Franklin Paul Rogers. New Orleans: Lucas Enterprises, 1990. Wyatt, John. Under My Skin. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2003.