Reluctantly, Cincinnati Warmed Up to Tattoos


Poor Mister Poore! In 1938, Clifford Poore had a problem. It seems that he had acquired, as a young man, a tattoo featuring some sort of Masonic emblem. It was now rather worse for wear. He needed a tattoo artist to cover it up, blend it into a new design, or restore it to its former glory. But where could he find a tattoo artist in Cincinnati?

In 1938, there was only one tattoo artist listed in the entire city directory, a fellow named Jack Temke, out on Central Avenue. He didn’t make house calls. Mister Poore wanted someone to do the work at the Cuvier Press Club, where he was membership secretary and entirely too busy to leave work, so he placed an advertisement in the Cincinnati Post [1 February 1938]:

“Help Wanted – male, female, tattoo artist. Apply at once, Cliff Poore, Cuvier Press Club, 22 Garfield-pl.”

Tattoo Convention Advertisement

From Cincinnati Post 11 February 1889 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Presumably, Mr. Poore was able to connect with one of the traveling tattooists who wandered through town, although they mostly showed up in warmer weather to set up temporary parlors near circus tents or country fair midways. In February, this crowd was out of town seeking warmer climes. Or maybe he found one of the fly-by-night tattooists who set up temporary quarters in one of the downtown target-shooting galleries.

Or maybe Mr. Poore gave up and walked over to Jack Temke’s place after all. Temke had a good reputation. Around 1915, he took over the parlor founded by legendary inker J.F. Barber just south of the Canal on Vine Street. By the 1930s, Temke moved his operation out to the West End and, according to his death certificate, was engaged in tattooing right up until tuberculosis ended his life in 1949.

Given the popularity of tattoos today, it may be difficult to remember how rare and exotic tattoos were in Cincinnati. They were not exactly shunned (several respectable businessmen, like Mr. Poore, were known to bear discrete ink) but they were associated with untamed youth, military service, prison and freak shows. Tattoos were often used to identify drowning victims in the Ohio and – very early in the city’s history – marked deserters from the British army.

Among the first mentions of tattoos in Cincinnati newspapers is an 1831 display at the old Western Museum (predecessor of today’s Museum Center). Along with an anaconda, an asp and some chameleons, the museum had on display the head of a New Zealand Maori chieftain named Howaman, “handsomely tattooed . . . beautifully preserved.” The museum claimed the rest of him had been eaten by his cannibal tribesmen. An 1858 article in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune announces that tattoos were becoming fashionable among Parisian women – but still describes the practice as a “strange and abominable South-Sea Island custom.”

Tattoos might have been strange and abominable, but Cincinnatians loved to gawk at strange and abominable. As you would expect, anything that separated suckers from their coins caught P.T. Barnum’s attention, and so he brought Captain Costentenus to Cincinnati in 1877. The Captain was tattooed from head to foot, allegedly as punishment for leading a rebellion against the king of Chinese Tartary. His skin, according to Barnum, exhibited “388 figures, necessitating over 7,000,000 blood producing punctures.” Strangely enough, considering the source, that story might have been mostly true.

The tattooed Captain appeared in an advertisement for P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show On Earth,” appearing that week at Cincinnati’s Lincoln Park.

From Cincinnati Daily Star 8 October 1877 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Tattooed men and, particularly, tattooed ladies were big draws at Cincinnati’s Dime Museum. American “dime museums” were a big deal from about 1870 to 1910 and combined aspects of vaudeville, curiosity cabinets and freak shows. Cincinnati’s Dime Museum exhibited the famous Irene Woodward, known as “La Belle Irene” and reputedly the original tattooed woman, in 1884. Irene shared a bill with a bearded man, Buddhist priests and some “intelligent and beautiful” albino children. Five years later, in 1889, the Dime Museum brought in 20 “charming human picture galleries” promoted as a “convention” of tattooed people.

If tattoos were considered a tad risqué, tattoo artists were viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Sometimes, there was good reason. There was no licensing or inspection of tattoo materials or equipment. These were the days when germ theory was considered avant garde and antibiotics non-existent. The Cincinnati Gazette [19 October 1877] reported on a tattoo artist who was sent to prison for transmitting a “loathsome disease” (a term usually used to mean syphilis) to his clients.

“He had a book of highly colored specimens of body marking (tattooing), with which he would go into factories or assemblages where there were men and boys, show his specimens, and offer to indelibly prick them upon the body for a certain sum. There were a great many young persons who thought this an advantage, and underwent the operation. Of the various colors used by Kelly, he had to mix but one with his own saliva – vermillion; and in each case where vermillion was used the disease followed.”

Like most itinerant workers, including agricultural field hands, tramp printers, and the like, tattoo artists were often suspected of theft, or worse, especially if they left town just as something went missing. The Cincinnati Post [10 August 1898] carried an appeal from a Washington, DC, couple whose 16-year-old son had wandered off with a traveling tattoo artist. Before the boy disappeared, the parents found that he had acquired tattoos of a weeping willow and of a heart pierced with a dart.

Stories of nefarious traveling tattoo artists decorating boys as young as 11 or 12 are relatively common in Cincinnati newspapers. As late as 1950, a Third Street tattoo artist was arrested for applying a tattoo on a 14-year-old boy. The Cincinnati Post noted that the law prohibiting tattooing minors without parental permission was “rarely used.”

Tattooed Woman Advertisement

From Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 6 January 1884 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Si Cornell, in one of his marvelous columns for the Cincinnati Post [27 July 1964] relates a story about one of these underage tattoo aficionados from the 1930s:

“Ray Ridge, regional distributor for Coppertone sun lotion, has the name “Nickie” tattooed on the muscle of his upper left arm. Ray was 13 and Nickie was his childhood sweetheart when a local tattoo artist agreed to do the job for a dime. When Ray went home, his mother spanked him. Then his father came home and spanked him. Then his father took him to Nickie’s father, who spanked him. Ray grew up and married Nickie about 25 years ago.”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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