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Tattoo Culture > View Culturama

Sailor Jerry Swallow

A Maritimer's Living Tattoo History

by jamerdude1Artist

May 3, 2006

At one time tattoo parlors were the absolute underground. Now they're just another store people pop their heads into while out shopping. Most things that people find and become passionate about have no shortage of documented history. In one way I'm happy that tattooing, a thing I hold so dear, has such an antisocial history but on the other hand this has undoubtedly contributed to the lack of historical information available to me.
I began emailing Sailor Jerry Swallow about six months ago, asking him questions about this and that. Now in his sixties and packed full of historical tattoo knowledge, his answers usually instigate ever more questions. The way I see it, at 32 years old, I'm basically some "ignorant kid" in the tattoo world.

I had to ask who Frederick Baldwin was... "He may have been the first Canadian electric tattooer," Jerry replied. Needless to say I felt embarrassed and guilty for not knowing .But it isn't my fault. No one before this had told me. When Baldwin started work 120 yrs ago, tattooing wasn't as socially acceptable as it is today. Every tattooer and his dog has a book out nowadays. But back in the day, a book on a tattooer would sell very few copies. Therefore, there is very little written history on the genesis of electric tattooing, and the guys who were there firsthand are all gone. It's the third and fourth generation of electric tattooers I have to depend on for my history lessons. Jerry is of the 3rd generation. Some of these old-timers are not so eager to share the old stories with a tattoo world that has become so interwoven with the mainstream. Jerry was nice enough to do an interview about the things he and I have been talking about. Here it is.

JAMER - You started tattooing around 1960. What brought you to tattooing?

SAILOR JERRY SWALLOW - Growing up in Halifax, seeing a lot of sailors, and the tattoos on them got me interested. Then my dad was a bus driver who used to take me downtown for a ride and we'd pass the tattoo shops, Charlie Snow's and a couple gypsy shops. I always wanted to go there and look. A few years later about 10 yrs old l used to walk down and stand around and look at the flash in windows, then go home and draw that stuff, and then draw them on my friends. I went there lots and the old gum tattoo stickers I'd buy lots of them just to look at the designs. I remember the name on the package -- tattoo designs by Tattoo Ole Denmark! Years later l was to become great friends with Tattoo Ole...

Everyone gets interested in tattoos a different way, like seeing one on someone, a shop, flash, at least that's how it was. Now you can pick up any book, TV, etc, and see tattoos, but for me it was the tattooed sailors, and the old tattoo shop. That's how l got my interest. Some years later l got to hang out in the shops, run errands and draw, listen to the stories, and then figured that's what my life sentence will be -- tattooing!

J - When you finally got to hang out at Charlie Snow's how did that feel?

SJS - I got kicked out many times. Finally I got to run errands and then l was allowed to go in and watch. It felt real magic -- all the kids were like, Holy Shit! I was like the king -- kids would ask me to tattoo them, l did it with pens.

It felt good to be in there, but he was a bit cranky and would kick you out sometimes, but I'd always come back, and one time l did a drawing, and Charlie seen it and asked me to go home and draw some hearts and stuff. He liked most of them. Then one day he gave me a pile of old flash he had, and said take these home and draw them on Bristol board and he gave me a nib pen and some ink and colour pencils and l went home and done it, and he liked it all. It was nice to see him smile -- which was not often. That was about 1958, about the time the Maclean's Magazine came to take pictures. I had to go outside for that -- not allowed to get in the pictures -- but it was a real big thing to be allowed in the shop and to run errands for the tattoo man.

J - You mean he would kick you out of the shop but you just kept coming back? And you say kids were real interested in the whole thing, was this a time when tattoos were really popular? Have you noticed a fluctuation in popularity of tattoos over your 47 years in the business?

SJS - Yes, Charlie would tell me to fuck off, and if his door was open and we looked in he'd yell "Get the fuck outta here. No kids!" The kids were amazed at me being able to run errands and go in, because tattoo artists and shops were very mysterious, magical to everyone. There was no big interest in tattoos then, only drunks and sailors got them mostly. But the tattooer was the MAN. He was like someone special scary, but yet magical with all the tattoos and the secretive ways about him. Never talking just looking at ya and showing his tattoos... l got kicked out many times but kept comin' back... till l was OK to go in.

l sure seen some changes in tattooing. The past 20 years the popularity of tattoos has been high, the past 10 higher and the past 5 even higher, with just about anyone getting a tattoo. I first noticed the public interest and acceptance of tattoos in the early 80s, the 90s it got more and more, the 2000's even more. Now l wonder when or if the bubble will break. There are too many people tattooing now and the magic about the old-timers and the shops is all gone.

J - It's cool you stuck it out. I think the shop eventually had your name with Baldwin and Snow's. Who are these people and how did it all go?

SJS - Snow was a sailor in WWI in the British Navy. After the war ended in 1918, Charlie left ship in Montreal, went and got a tattoo from Baldwin who tattooed on St. Laurent St. They became friends as they were both from London, England. In 1918, Charlie started learnin' from Baldwin and worked with him till 1920, when he moved to Halifax. Baldwin would go there and work with Snow off and on and Snow would go to Montreal as well. In WWII in the 40s, it was so busy in Halifax, Baldwin spent a lot of time at Snow's place. l remember him in the 50s and early 60s a few times. Baldwin was old and sickly, he died early sixties l think. His daughter came and got him and he passed in Montreal.

Baldwin tattooed in the 1890s and served in the Boer War in South Africa in 1899 and tattooed in the field by hand there, then came back to Montreal. There was never a sign up saying Snow (continued next page...)

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