With a quarter of Americans sporting at least one tattoo, it’s become impossible to walk down the street in summertime without navigating a virtual museum of color on skin. But who are the artists? Unlike a painting or a piece of music, which are closely identified with their creators, tattoos are less likely to come with an authorial pedigree. Never mind being able to identify someone else’s piece—many people (including me) don’t know the names of all the artists who produced their own.
The obscurity of tattoo artists has been a theme for as long as tattoos have existed. For every well-known tattoo artist, such as the recently fashionable Ed Hardy, the 20th-century icon Sailor Jerry, or Samuel O’Reilly, the 19th-century inventor of the rotary tattoo machine, there are thousands of others whose stories have been lost to time.
For decades, one of the most intriguing of these unknowns has been a mysterious 19th-century tattoo artist by the name of C.H. Fellowes. This March, some dogged sleuthing by an amateur genealogist helped bring Fellowes’s full identity to light, opening a window into a rarely seen part of the culture, and giving Boston a new claim on American tattoo history.
The turn of the last century, like now, was a high point in American tattoo culture. While we might think of tattoos having been strictly the domain of military and seafaring men, they spanned all levels of society; upper-class Bostonians like Charles Longfellow and Charles Goddard Weld were smitten by tattoo work, and brought home impressively ornate back tattoos as souvenirs of their travels to Japan—a carp for Longfellow, dragons for Weld. “You also have everyday people getting memorial designs or names,” says Anna Felicity Friedman, a professor and tattoo historian who runs the Tattoo History Daily site. “Women are getting tattooed at the time, socialites. There was a fad of socialite tattoos in the late 1800s, with pretty, little, girly designs for women.”
The names of the majority of tattoo artists of that era have vanished. Fellowes would have been lost, too, aside from the fact that, in the 1960s, a sketchbook of his turned up in the private collection of an antique dealer in Providence. The book, along with an electric tattooing needle set and tools that may or may not have been his, made their way into the hands of Kristina Barbara Johnson, a prominent New Jersey art collector and museum patron.
The sketchbook offered a rare glimpse into the professional preoccupations and creative daydreams of a tattoo artist of the day. Its 114 pages are filled with black, brown, and red ink sketches of nautical themes, dragons, swords, warships, and patriotic flag designs. There are bawdy images throughout, like topless dancing girls or one curious piece of a naked woman astride a cross emerging from the ocean. “Most of it was geared toward the military,” says C.W. Eldridge, a tattoo artist, historian, and owner of the Tattoo Archive in Winston Salem, N.C.
A turn-of-the-century tattoo sketchbook is an extremely rare object, Eldridge says. Even stranger was its complete lack of context. “There’s all that art by him, but very little background information....You would think that if you have all those drawings, you would at least have a business card or something that would tie him to some location, but there was nothing like that.”
The sketchbook was published as “The Tattoo Book” by a small publisher, Pyne Press, in 1971, and garnered attention at the time. “To judge by Fellowes’ sketches,” the Globe’s Bruce McCabe wrote in March of 1972, in a somewhat condescending appraisal, “his imagination was populated with a wild assortment of nymphs, minstrels, circus dancers, mythological heroes, deadly beasts, sinking ships, daggers and flowers and conveyed the sentimentality of a more simplistic age.”
When it came to details of the artist himself, however: nothing. In an introduction to the book, William C. Sturtevant, the late curator in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution explained that he had scoured records but had been unable to turn up any details about Fellowes’s life. “Presumably he, like many past and present tattoo artists, was an itinerant, and followed the fleet wherever it went,” he wrote.
The trail ended there, and for decades nothing more was known about Fellowes.But something about the sketchbook itself piqued the interest of Carmen Nyssen, an amateur genealogist in Washington state. She came across the story of Fellowes in researching a book on her great uncle, Bert Grimm, a fixture in the tattoo world best known for a shop he operated in Long Beach, Calif., in the 1950s and ’60s.
Outside of the tattoo world, she explains, it’s often very hard to find information on these artists: “There aren’t a lot of things that survived in tattooing,” she said.
The sketchbook, now in the collection of the Museum of America and the Sea at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, presented her with some significant clues. Some of the pieces included illustrations of the Spanish American War of 1898, and one was dated 1900, tightening the window on the time frame in question. Then there was the cover embossed with two names: Warner Locks and C.E. Stumcke.
Charles E. Stumcke, Nyssen discovered after a search of genealogy resources and city census data, was a Boston resident and employee of the Bigelow and Dowse Hardware Co., one of the biggest hardware stores in Boston in the late 1800s. Warner Locks was a Chicago-based hardware company of the same era. Finally, things started to click into place.
Nyssen cross-referenced the name C.H. Fellowes with Stumcke. The 1897-1898 Boston City Directory had both men’s addresses listed as 229 Franklin, which happens to have been the address of Bigelow and Dowse. Fellowes, it turns out, also worked in the hardware business under Stumcke (which is interesting also because it tells us just how long employees have been taking stationery home from work).
Strewn throughout Fellowes’s sketches were so-called sweetheart initials, a common style of tattooing both then and now, which read G.W.B. and C.A.S. According to Boston marriage records, Fellowes had been married twice, to women whose names matched up to both sets of initials.
And just like that, a man about whom we knew nothing save his art came into existence.
As Nyssen describes it on her blog, Charles H. Fellowes was born in 1869 in Killucan, County Westmeath, Ireland, and died in 1923. He is buried today in Dorchester’s Cedar Grove Cemetery, alongside Clara A. Steele Fellowes (the C.A.S. of the book), and a 3-month-old son named George.
While Nyssen’s research has yet to be professionally vetted, all of the tattoo historians interviewed for this article found her account remarkable, convincing—and much appreciated. “For centuries they’ve been kind of disregarded in a way by the art world,” Eldridge said. “I think it probably is just tied to how tattoos are viewed even away from the art world, how they’re viewed as kind of an underground art that is not something that ‘good’ people or ‘nice’ people do....It’s almost like class structure or conflict.”
As Sturtevant concluded in writing on Fellowes, he and other artists like him were working in a popular folk art style that has turned out to be of lasting significance. The Mystic Seaport museum has said it is planning to update its description of the materials in light of Nyssen’s research. The story of tattoos may be less ephemeral than we thought: Much like tattoos themselves, history fades over time, but with a little upkeep it can leave some permanent marks of its own.Luke O’Neil’s work appears regularly in the Globe and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47 .