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

06 Jan 2016 | 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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