Profile | Jonathan Shaw: Vintage Tattoo Flash

Artwork: Unknown, Bowert, New York City ca. 1900-20s.

Born in New York to big band legend Artie Shaw and movie star Doris Dowling, Jonathan Shaw was raised in Los Angeles where he learned to tattoo on the legendary Pike boardwalk from old-school California masters. He left 1970s Hollywood to travel the world and founded Fun City, the first street tattoo shop in New York City since tattooing was decriminalized in the 1960s.

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As an Influential Tattoo Man, his clients have included Iggy Pop, Johnny Depp, The Cure, The Velvet Underground, The Pogues, The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Asia Argento, Johnny Winter, Kate Moss, Orlando Bloom, Kathy Acker, and Tupac Shakur. Now in his 60s, Shaw has retired from tattooing to become a full-time writer. He has been dubbed “the next Bukowski” by Rolling Stone, and optioned his life story to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ed Smith, Bowery, New York City ca. 1900-20s.

Ed Smith, Bowery, New York City ca. 1900-20s.

VTF_jacket.inddShaw owns one of most valuable collections of tattoo art in the world, from which he has compiled an incredible compendium of work. Vintage Tattoo Flash: 100 Years of Traditional Tattoos from the Collection of Jonathan Shaw (powerHouse Book) spans the first century of American tattoo art from the 1900s Bowery to 1950s Texas through the Pike in the ‘60s and the development of the first black and grey, single-needle tattooing in Los Angeles in the ‘70s. The book presents entirely unpublished sheets of original flash pioneers of the form including Bob Shaw, Zeke Owen, Tex Rowe, Ted Inman, Ace Harlyn, Ed Smith, Paul Rogers, and he Moskowitz brothers, among others.

Speaking of his earliest memories of the art, Shaw recalls, “In my mid 20s, I started to travel. I was making my way around South American and Mexico by hitchhiking and working on ships. I started to see tattoos again; I hadn’t seen them much since I was a kid. As a merchant seaman, I was around sailors a lot. Back in the days, tattoos weren’t mainstream. They were part of the underworld and seen as sleazy. You didn’t come across them in polite society.”

Photos by Bert Grimm, St. Louis, Missouri ca. 1930-1940s

Photos by Bert Grimm, St. Louis, Missouri ca. 1930-1940s

Shaw got his first tattoo at this time. As he remembers, he and another shipmate were handpoking anchor tattoos on each other in a barroom in Mexico. It wasn’t a real tattoo. It wasn’t electric. It was primitive jailhouse tattooing, making one any way I could.” He got his first real one at a tattoo parlor in Panama when he was 20 years old. Shaw recalls, “I was watching closely, thinking, ‘I can learn how to do this.’”

Shaw ended up in Brazil and met a guy who was just starting out. Together, they began making their own equipment in order to make tattoos. Shaw went back to the United States a couple of years later and began an apprenticeship with Bob Shaw (no relation), one of the old school tattoo masters. He remembers, “I lucked into it on the Pike in Long Beach. The Pike was a west coast Coney Island—an old amusement park for the blue-collar workers. It was at the Port of Los Angeles, where ships were coming and going. At one point, there were ten tattoo parlors on the Pike. I stumbled into the right one, although I didn’t know it at the time.”

Bert Grimm, Long Beach, California ca. 1940s

Bert Grimm, Long Beach, California ca. 1940s

Shaw gained access to this closed society, working up close with the people who created the hand painted sheets of tattoo flash. He remembers, “They were hanging on the walls for decades, handed down from one generation to the next.” The sheets featured designs that were popular at the time, including sailing ships, women, hearts, roses, daggers, eagles, dragons, wolves, panthers, skulls, crosses, and cartoon characters of the era. The featured cold outlines, solid colors, and smooth shading, creating a look that came to define the era.

Shaw observes, “Tattooing is a popular art form that reflects the times and culture in which it is produced. The designs of the 1930s and ‘40s became irrelevant in the ‘60s and ‘70s as new styles emerged. But I always had this love for them; I didn’t want to see them completely destroyed. People were literally throwing away sheets in some places. I began collecting them. I remember asking, ‘Hey Bob? What are you doing with these old designs?’ Bob said, ‘You want ‘em? Take ‘em.’ This scenario repeated itself as I became more well known.”

Unknown, Bowery, New York City ca. 1900-30s.

Unknown, Bowery, New York City ca. 1900-30s.

Over the intervening years, Shaw has amassed a huge collection of work. He observes, “No one saw it has having any sort of value. Tattooing has a very one-track mentality: to sell tattoos.”

Vintage Tattoo Flash is both an art and a history book, featuring over 300 pieces of flash that take us back to a period in time when tattooing was an underground art. Taken as a whole, the collection is a study in the iconography of outsider art, revealing the earliest days of the practice before it became a mainstream phenomenon. Shaw hopes the book will be the first volume in an on-going series of books. Undoubtedly, Vintage Tattoo Flash is a must-have for fans of not only tattoos but of American art.

Indio Tatto Studio, San Juan, Puerto Rico ca. 1940s

Indio Tatto Studio, San Juan, Puerto Rico ca. 1940s

Artwork: From Vintage Tattoo Flash: 100 Years of Traditional Tattoos from the Collection of Jonathan Shaw, published by powerHouse Books.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.