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For the Love of Tattooing: “Stoney Knows How”

Categories: Featured Blogs, General, Videos | Posted by: Sean Herman

Stoney Knows How (1981)


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,

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.52.23 PM Still from "Stoney Knows How" of a local business man and neighbor of Stoney (1980)

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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.47.07 PM

“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

Film by Alan Govenar, Bruce “Pacho” Lane

Camera by Les Blank

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For the Love of Tattooing: “Signatures of the Soul”

Categories: Featured Blogs, General, Videos | Posted by: Sean Herman
Good Time Charlies Tattoo Land from "Signatures of the Soul"

Good Time Charlies Tattoo Land from “Signatures of the Soul”

Anyone that knows me will tell you, I love tattooing.  I love everything about it.  I love the act of tattooing, whatever the piece may be, and I love getting tattooed.  It’s a passionate love affair that started for me almost 20 years ago.  I am so thankful and grateful to get to be involved in such an amazing and beautiful craft.  It’s something I still, to this day, can’t believe I am lucky enough to get to be a part of. (You can read the full piece of how I was introduced to tattooing at TAM blog)  Every day, tattooing amazes me in one way or another.  The way I like to describe it is “Tattooing” is a larger thing, a beautiful entity that we are all just tapping into when we do a tattoo.  When you can get the motions just right, it’s like riding a wave, and it just carries you through.  Many tattooers will tell you, the machine will do the work, it will move for you. 

That love affair also stretches into the history of the craft of Tattooing.  I will sit and talk for hours with anyone that will listen about books, documentaries, or just stories of the people in the past that have been involved in the craft.  After a particularly long conversation the other day, I decided I wanted to share some of those documentaries and stories with you guys.  So I am continuing with a past project I was doing entitled “For the Love of Tattooing” (which can be found at TAM blog).  In the first part of the project I interviewed several tattooists, asking them about what got them invested in tattooing.  Now, I will be sharing some of my favorite documentaries, interviews, and stories, and what they mean to me, and how they show a love for this amazing craft.  I am so thankful that I get to be involved in such a historically rich and beautiful craft, and hopefully I can share that feeling with you guys.  I hope you enjoy!  The first post will be on the film “Signatures of the Soul (Tattooing Today)”

Signatures of the Soul (Tattooing Today) (1984)

Film Overview: “Tattooing — “The world’s oldest skin game” — is the subject of this documentary made by Geoff Steven who scored a major coup when he obtained the services of Peter Fonda as his presenter. Shot in NZ, Samoa, Japan and the United States, it traces the history of tattooing from Ancient Egypt through its tribal importance in the Pacific, to a counter culture renaissance that began in the 1960s. Leading practitioners (including superstar Ed Hardy) are interviewed and observed at work, while their clients wince their way towards becoming living canvasses.”

Host Peter Fonda describing his experience with tattooing from "Signatures of the Soul"

Host Peter Fonda describing his experience with tattooing from “Signatures of the Soul”

“Signatures of The Soul” is an essential starting point for tattooing documentaries. Peter Fonda (of Easy Rider fame) hosts this documentary, going over much of the early history of tattooing.  Fonda even goes into explanations of why he is tattooed, and specific tattoos he wears.


Paulo Sulu’ape tattooing from “Signatures of the Soul”

Starting with a history of Samoan tattooing, the film goes into the revival of tattooing in modern Samoa, specifically with tattooist Paulo Sulu’ape.  Sulu’ape was a huge influence on me and my interest in tattooing. I saw a clip from Signatures of the Soul when I was young, and it forever influenced and affected my thoughts.  I identified with Sulu’ape, that personal connection in tattooing. The way he spoke about a connection to the person receiving the tattoo and the power that it gave, it was amazing… inspiring. I knew tattooing would forever be an obsession to me, something I could never get out of my head, but I never thought I would be one of the few lucky ones that could give a tattoo.  Years after I had tattooing brought to my attention by Paulo, I found myself working under the watchful eye of an amazing woman in the Netherlands. I went out there to tattoo at her shop, and she became something of a tattoo mom for me. She had been in the craft a long time, had seen the world and had fought for tattooing. She was tough, and I respected her for it.

One night we were having a meal out and she asked me the question of, “How did you get into tattooing?” I began by telling her about Paulo Sulu`ape, and how his words changed my life. She looked at me, smiled and I noticed tears started coming down her eyes. “Paulo” she said, “was the love of my life.” I sat in awe and listened to a story of them falling in love, getting ready to spend a life together and his untimely death that forever changed her life. I listened and was amazed. I told her how his words changed everything I thought, to which she smiled at me, and softly said, “It’s tattooers like you that Paulo lives on through, forever.” We sat, in silence, with tears in our eyes, forever connected. To me, that is the heart of tattooing.  That was the greatest compliment I will ever receive. 


Tattooist Bob Roberts from "Signature of the Soul"

Tattooist Bob Roberts from “Signature of the Soul”

From Paulo,  the film continues on through tattooing rich history, its discovery by sailors and how it spread throughout the world.  From Doc Webb, to Bob Roberts and Leo Zulueta, to Ed Hardy, this film documents the beginnings of what became modern tattooing.  The origins of everything tattooing is today can be found in “Signatures of the Soul”.  Doc Webb telling stories about sailors and traditional American tattooing, and Bob Roberts going into explantations of why solid black work has beautiful longevity and its place in the punk rock culture. 


Tattooist Jack Rudy from "Signatures of the Soul"

Tattooist Jack Rudy from “Signatures of the Soul”

This transitions to interviews with Jack Rudy and his explanations for why black and grey tattooing has such an impact on portrait tattooing and why he feels it looks complimenting as a tattoo.  It’s a great piece of modern tattoo history. Sailor, punk, circus and gang culture are all covered in this piece. 

Lyle Tuttle gives great explanations for tattooing in freak shows, and how it influenced tattooing overall.  On the other side is Ed Hardy giving a detailed interview, explaining his ideas of private studio tattooing, and how Japanese tattooing contains valuable essentials that are key to the growth of modern tattooing.  A short but detailed history of tattooing in Japan is included, a valuable resource for anyone interested in tattoo culture.  Hardy and Zulueta’s work creating Tattoo Times (in my opinion, one of the single most valuable tattoo publications) is also covered in the film.  Even the creation of temporary tattoos gets some screen time in this film.

Tattooist Lyle Tuttle describing his history in tattooing from "Signatures of the Soul"

Tattooist Lyle Tuttle describing his history in tattooing from “Signatures of the Soul”

“Signatures of the Soul” is a beautiful document in time that every tattoo enthusiast should see, so naturally it had to be the first piece I would recommend seeing.

“There’s a certain percentage of the populace everywhere always that will want to be tattooed and I’m sure none of us will every fully understand why. And that’s part of the attraction.”

Tattooist Ed Hardy

“Signatures of the Soul” is  separated into 4 clips.

CAUTION:  There are a few clips in this first one that could be offensive, if you are the type to get offended, or if kids are watching it. So if your kids watch this, and you don’t want them to see nudity, you might not want to watch it in front of them.  Also, tattooing shown on this film is from a time when sterilization practices were not what they are today (i.e. latex gloves, machine bags, etc).  Today we know the importance of cross contamination, and what we need to do to provide the safest environment for our clients.  This film documents a different time, where the tattooist felt they were providing the same level of protection, prior to the advances that were made to get us to where we are today.  Watch the film with an open mind to where tattooing was and is today.

If the movies below won’t load for you, you can click the link here and view it directly from the site.

New Zealand On Screen is who we have to think for uploading this valuable piece of tattoo history.  Next time I will be featuring the first film that the director of “Signatures of the Soul” (Geoff Steven) did on tattooing entitled “Skin Pics”.  Stay tuned!

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The Bell Rose Tattoo and Piercing

Categories: Featured Blogs, General, Interviews, News, Travel, Videos | Posted by: Sean Herman

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to move back to my hometown and work with some of my best friends. I grateful to have spent the past 6 years growing in the environment we had at the shop. During this time, we all grew as artists and family men. Some got married, and some expanded their families and had kids. I was one of those fortunate enough to get married to a beautiful woman and have an awesome daughter. They always say that your kids give you direction, and focus and maybe there is some fact to that.

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Michael Warechowski IV

Categories: Featured Blogs, General, Interviews, News, Travel, Videos | Posted by: Sean Herman

As a tattooist, I am very fortunate to work with the clients that I do. Tattooing a majority of my clients for many sessions, larger scale pieces, I end up being around them for quite a long time, some for years. I have been fortunate enough to tattoo Mike and Katie Warechowski for over 4 years now. They are everything you could want from a client, amazing people that love the tattoos that they get.

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