This is an excerpt of the first story we are bringing you for the Transformative Tattoo series at Serpents of Bienville. Learn more from our prior blog that you can read here. We are working with an amazing organization, openoureyes.org to bring you stories of lives changed through tattooing. For the full article, click here.
Hi, I’m Sean Herman, and I’m an over-planner. It took me years to accept that I operate in a world that I tend to plan out to the last minute. I don’t mean to do it, I just keep thinking about things that I want to do, and the best way to get them done is to write them in the book of life, sorry, I mean, my schedule. It’s a disease I’m trying to overcome, but the first step is acceptance. Those spur of the moment occasions, those are the ones that end up throwing a much needed wrench in my system.
Me tattooing Yall’s thumb at Hell City
In my years of working tattoo conventions, I have always found that the unplanned walk-up will be one that ends up changing my life. I was approached by a formidable presence of a man years ago while I was packing up my table, getting ready to leave Hell City, and make the drive back to Alabama from Ohio. Yall Quiñones approached me to get his thumb tattooed. His passionate love of tattooing, the work that goes into it, and his ultimate respect easily convinced me that Alabama could wait, and I had more important things to do. That tattoo changed my life, but that is for a different story that I will tell later. One of the other times that I was approached at a convention to do a piece was by a kind, soft spoken man named London, and little did I know, that experience would create a bond that, in the end, would help give me hope for someone I love.
Photograph of London Reese
London Reese approached me years ago, asking about an opening that weekend at the Motor City Convention. Within minutes we had a common bond in punk rock and hardcore, and even more in struggles going on in family matters. We both had a mother that was in a similar place, and it tore us apart. In London, I found someone that not only understood where I was coming from, the pain I was going through watching my mother continue down a path of self destruction. London had something I didn’t have though, and that was hope. When we spoke about the piece that he wanted to get, a woman with tears streaming down her face, the thing he wanted to emphasize was that he wanted hope in her eyes. Listening to him talk, I found that the only way I was going to find that hope was going to be if I got over my own anger and resentments, and focused on love, on showing my mother that same much-needed love. That tattoo, that day, changed my life in more ways than one.
The following is an excerpt of my most recent blog for Serpents of Bienville, for the full article click here.
Tattoos are a living, breathing thing, existing symbiotically with us. They can change rapidly, making them one of the most impermanent arts. The maximum life span for most tattoos is 70 years or so, aside from cases like Otzi the Iceman, whose lifetime was around 3300 BCE. Most people will not end up being preserved in ice, the perfect storm of conditions, preserved via the wintery storm that took their life. For most people, when their time comes and they move on to their next journey, their tattoos are left behind, quickly dissipating back into the air around them. In essence, tattoos are just like our life spans, gone within the blink of an eye, and also fluidly moving, ever changing, and becoming something new.
Example of the tattoos found on Otzi the Iceman.
As tattooists, we get to take part in a sacred act, opening up the skin that guards people, now making them vulnerable. We then get to put something back into that wound, something either positive or negative. We have the ability to give people something, during that time of vulnerability, that their body will heal over, and the skin that guarded them will wear for their journeys to come. Scientifically, our tattoos are always changing. Tattoo needles, made in various groupings, are pushed through the skin by small, precise machines, pushing through the epidermis at some 50 to 3000 times per minute, and distributing ink into the dermis, the deeper layer of skin housing our nerves and blood cells. Our nerves produce triggers, declaring that a break has occurred. These triggers tell our immune system to get to work, and attempt to fix break has occurred on our protective skin, creating inflammation. In essence, the pain is a signal of something being fixed. Job specific cells called macrophages come to triggered area, guided by following the inflammation, and they begin to consume the ink that has been pushed through the puncture wounds. What ink that is left is then soaked up by skin cells called fibroblasts. Much of the macrophages and fibroblasts are then trapped there, suspended in the dermis, in perpetuity. This suspension of the ink in the cells are why we see tattoos as they are, but the slow dispersant back into the body is why they appear to fade over time. Perpetuity can only be so long. There’s that impermanence thing again. Change is all around.
To read the rest of this post, go to www.serpentsofbienville.com, or click here.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God,” words rise from a lone voice, growing from the small country church congregation, lying deep in the heart of the American South. The voice barely has a discernible echo, floating to the back of the room.
“No higher power,” is proclaimed loudly by one single voice in front of a hungry crowd of worshipers. The echo now fills the room. Head down, concentrating intensely, his movements look as though he is storing up a body full of potential energy.
“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” says another voice rising eerily out into the room.
“Whosoever resisteth the power of God,” is echoed from the man, now circling, almost nervously, his energy building.
“Come on, come on. Tell it,” a multitude of voices now filling the room, giving force and vigor to the man now circling the stage.
“Those who resisteth receive damnation,” proclaims the man, now breaking a sweat, as he circles the small stage once more.
“Amen. Come on,” rises like an on coming wave in the distance from out of the crowd.
Voices continue. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.”
“We’re fixing to find out what the power was,” loudly proclaims the man on stage, now starting to pour sweat, with the room beginning to fill with the energy he is manifesting with his proclamations and movements.
Voices continue loudly. “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
This piece is an exert from the most recent blog I wrote for www.serpentsofbienville.com. For the full article, click here.
This piece is an exert from the most recent blog I wrote for www.serpentsofbienville.com. For the full article, click here.
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
–Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
As I sat and watched in horror, I could hear nothing but the consistent thud and crunch on the concrete as the man smashed his head, repeating “But what now?” over and over again, yelling in a distorted voice that sounds like, not just one, but a group of people. His forehead was now gathering blood, dripping down to collect in his eye socket, the scrawled homemade tattoos that covered his body now exposed, he appeared more undead than alive. My eyes cut to the stranger, whose unfamiliar eyes are cutting through the man on the ground, repeating louder and louder, “In the name of Jesus, get out…” The phrase was shouted over and over, with the thud on the concrete growing louder and harsher, intensity reaching a boiling point.
Reverend Bill French was a pastor in Irondale, Alabama, who started Advocate Ministries in 1974. He was an evangelical exorcist and claimed to cast hundreds of demons out of people. French’s methods were less akin to the film “The Exorcist”, and more a laying of hands and authoritative prayer, the more evangelical southern way. Though French did once say, “I’ve seen everything that was in the movie ‘The Exorcist’ except somebody’s head turning all the way around.” His son, the Rev. Michael French, said. “He dealt with people most folks wouldn’t want to stop and talk to.” Those typically consisted of people with multiple personalities, some manifesting as growling voiced demons, sometimes becoming violent. His son recounts one situation:
“He was praying with a lady coming out of witchcraft. They were sitting in folding chairs. She was about 5’2″, 120 pounds. He was six feet tall, 220 pounds. She flicked her foot and kicked him 10 feet into the wall.”
French was performing exorcisms during the heyday of “Satanic Panic”. In 1985 an ABC-TV “20/20” show about satanism set off waves of panic and media attention that culminated in Geraldo Rivera’s “Devil Worship” special in 1988. Other “Geraldo” segments in 1988, 1989 and 1991 followed up. Sally Jesse Raphael did episodes on “Baby Breeders” in 1989 and “Devil Babies” in 1991. Oprah Winfrey did programs on the subject in 1986, 1988 and 1989. Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder wrote a book in 1980 about women bearing children for satanic sacrifice, called Michelle Remembers, the first satanic cult survivor story. Maclean’s Magazine in Canada did an expose on Michelle Remembers, interviewing relatives who lived with Michelle Smith during the period she described but that were never mentioned in the story.
“I believe there are frauds, but they’ve reached some wrong conclusions,” French said at the time. “There are frauds here and there. That doesn’t take away from the real incidents that are taking place all over this country.”
“All possessions were sacred dramas. They were performances. The demoniacs and the exorcists, who were trying to drive out the devils, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. And these scripts were widely known, you have some of them in the Bible, but you also have all these accounts of other possessions that people read at this time. And once it was suggested that someone might be demonically possessed, you know they had fits or something like that, they would follow that script. […] Certainly the anxiety was real, and they are responding to it.”
Brian Levack, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West
To read the rest of this blog, go to www.serpentsofbienville.com, or you can click here.
Still from “Stoney Knows How” of Stoney St. Clair (1980)
Out of the long history of Southern Storytelling rises up the hurricane that was Stoney St. Clair.Born in West Virginia in 1912, Stoney forged a 50 year tattoo career, one that tied together the importance of storytelling and community, by using the sacred craft of tattooing.Naturally, he is a huge influence on generations of tattooers, myself being one.Storytelling and tattooing go hand in hand, both strongly influencing the other.Tattoos are stories told visually, using recognizable imagery as vocabulary, creating a piece of folklore forged in flesh.During the process of getting a tattoo, the tattooer is put back into the storyteller position again, but now using storytelling as a way to walk them through getting tattooed.As a tattooer, a large part of our job is to create an experience for the person experiencing the tattoo process, one that they will always remember when they look at their tattoo, into their old age.We get the honor of creating something they keep forever, a story of their time on this ride.The great Southern storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham said, “Story telling means: I love you enough to tell you something that means a great deal to me.”
Still from “Stoney Knows How”. Stoney tattooing the legendary tattooist Don Ed Hardy (1980)
In the film Stoney says, “I am proud that in the past I was able to carry on the oldest art in the world and try to keep it decent. I am not going to be here all the time… so maybe some day somebody will look at the little daisies growing over me and say “He didn’t butcher it up anyway.” (laughs) “He carried it on and handed it down. You don’t find us on every street corner.” In the thirty plus years since Stoney said this, you now can find tattoo shops on many more street corners, but true tattooists, like Stoney St.Clair, are still a rare breed to find.
When asked about what it’s like to have a tattoo shop next to their business, a local business man, a washing machine sales man to be exact, replied with this,
Still from “Stoney Knows How” of a local business man and neighbor of Stoney (1980)
“I would have two of them if they were like Stoney.Good neighbor, good business man, and a heck of a good fella.One of the best.”
“You’d be surprised who comes in there to get tattooed.A lot of nurses, doctors, lawyers, church men, clergy men, you’d be surprised at some of the people that come in there.Most people thinks that the people paying come in riding a motorcycle, a drunken sailor, and this isn’t the truth.As a matter of fact, I used to think that myself years ago.”
Stoney had an effect on his entire community, an effect created by living honestly and trying to help those around him.There are a ton of “Stoney-isms” throughout the documentary, here are just a few.
Still of Stoney St. Clair from “Stoney Knows How” (1980)
Narrator: “Do you feel like when you are tattooing that you are helping people somehow?
Stoney:“Let me study that over, yes and no.I must be helping him because he’s craving it, and he is in his right mind, he’s not under the influence of anything, that’s for damn sure.And he’s paying me to do it.BUT, I don’t think I am helping him a bit if certain designs he picks…he might smoke pot, which is none of my business, you might have a lot of fun with it, I had a lot of fun with liquor, but why go out and where a badge of ‘I am a drunkard’ ‘I am high as a kite’.We all know that a baby craps in his diaper, but why pull the diaper out in front of everybody and say ‘My baby does this!’ya see.Ya understand what I am talking about?”
Another one was this,
“I was raised that you can trust people…if you learn what trust is, that’s a great damn thing.”
Still from “Stoney Knows How” of Stoney tattooing Legendary tattooist Don Ed Hardy
One of my favorite parts of the documentary is when they ask Stoney to explain what makes a good tattoo.He says, “A good tattoo?A good tattoo is something a man studied and thought it out, long before he got it…As an art, it’s the shading, not the color.You could put a minimal amount of color to real good shading and it will go over and it will stand out.”As a tattooist today, this is still an idea that I am understanding and applying to my work, an idea that still seems fresh and relevant to everyday life.I have spent so many hours watching this 29 minute documentary.With his Southern accent, and quickness of speech, I find myself constantly pausing to process the simple yet amazingly complex ideas that he throws out there.After watching it for 13 years I still find myself hearing new things from Stoney.
When discussing his life, Stoney states, “Hell, I ain’t never felt like a cripple.I ain’t walked since I was four years old, whatcha never had you never miss.”
Stoney at the stock car races with Don Ed Hardy. “Stoney Knows How” (1980)
In 1916 when Stoney was four years old, his tonsils burst and he contracted rheumatoid arthritis.While being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for two year he learned how to draw.With the same determination you see in the documentary, Stoney stuck a pen between his fingers as much as he could, still dealing with the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and not being able to open his hand, yet he drew non stop.Even though he lived the rest of his life in pain, and in a wheel chair, he never let that affect his outlook on what he did. Stoney states,
Still of Stoney St. Clair from “Stoney Knows How” (1980)
“What keeps me going?Like I told ya before, corn bread and black eyed peas (laughs) Nah, determination buddy, that’s all.I’m not fighting a battle, its natural for me just to be jolly, get up singing in the morning, saying howdy to somebody that comes in the door.”Tattooist or not, everyone can learn from this essential piece of film, one that I am so grateful exists.Stoney knew how to tattoo, and not only that, but how to live.
Hanging in his business was a sign that read:
“I, Leonard ‘Stoney’ St. Clair, am in the business of rendering a service to the community for the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in some way or another. I choose to pursue my profession with intelligence and skill, wishing not to offend anyone, but instead, with my love of mankind, to do what good I can before I die.”
Leonard L. “Stoney” St.Clair
Tattooist of the Old School since 1928
Stoney St. Clair died peacefully in his sleep on December 3rd, 1980 at the age of 68, and never breaking that promise.
Summary of the film:
“Stoney Knows How is a visit with a master of the oldest art in the world – Tattooing. Disabled by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of four, and forced to use a wheelchair, his growth stunted, Stoney St. Clair (1912 – 1980) joined the circus at 15 as a sword-swallower. A year later, he learned to tattoo, and for the next 50 years, he continued to work as a tattooist traveling with circus and carnivals across the country. As we watch him at work, we see the determination which led Stoney to overcome his handicap to heal himself and others with the magic of symbols. The film ends with a visit by master tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy who pays Stoney the highest compliment by asking him for a souvenier tattoo. For more information on the life of Leonard L. “Stoney” St. Clair, see Alan Govenar, Stoney Knows How: Life as a Sideshow Tattoo Artist”, Schiffer Publishing, 2003.”
“Stoney Knows How is an extended interview with ‘Stoney’ St. Clair, an ebullient little man with the gift of gab of a circus tout and a fund of bizarre stories about tattooing and other matters. One of these is the tale of a Florida snake handler and tattoo artist who was squeezed to death by his own python. His widow made a fortune touring the South with the guilty snake. “After all,” says Stoney, “how often do you get a chance to see a snake that’s squeezed a man to death?” Not often, nor does one often have the opportunity to meet a man like Stoney. The film makers treat him with respect, fondness and appreciation, and he responds in kind.”
– Vincent Canby, The New York Times
You can watch the film below, enjoy! As always, remember that this was a time before the knowledge of cross contamination was where it is today. So there will be tattooing without gloves or barriers, and definitely not how we do it today. It captures a moment in time, and that should always be kept in mind. Now enjoy the film!
For a DVD copy of this film contact http://www.docfilm.com