Emerald Triangle Ink
Jun 19, 2019 02:03PM
● By Nora Mounce
Today, social media is the most common vehicle to perform self-identity on the public stage. While an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the pack, it’s the same forum where we pledge our allegiance to a particular heritage or crew. Every day, people make hundreds of subconscious decisions about what to wear, eat, post, and how to express other non-verbal semiotics that absorb and reflect our cultural identity.
Wading into this existential territory, nothing is more potent than tattoos in their ability to represent insider and outsider status. As an embodied art form, tattoos hold the symbolic power to express membership (or a lack thereof), ethnicity, religion, or whatever you damn well please. Not only does the wearer select the design permanently inked on their skin, but the meaning as well. A heart tattoo for your college boyfriend can become a sweet ode to Granny, and the origin story behind your geometric mandala is yours to share (or not).
It wasn’t always so. Tattooing dates back to prehistoric eras; mummified examples suggest medical applications, and relics from ancient Japan illustrate the prestige of the art form. In 1769, the famous marauder Captain James Cook and his crew landed in Tahiti, where they were intrigued by the natives’ intricate body art. Adopting the Tahitian ta-tu or tatau, Cook appropriated the word in his journal, and the term tattoo came to describe body art in the English language.
Across the world, various indigenous cultures have used tattoos in religious ceremonies, to signify tribe membership or symbolize a rite of passage, such as puberty or marriage. In ancient Maya, early “tattoo artists” painted figures of animals, serpents, and eagles on bodies before cutting the design into the skin and packing wounds with black earth or charcoal. In coastal Northern California, Karuk, Hupa, and Yurok tribes often tattooed women with three parallel stripes on their chin, a tradition that’s been revitalized in recent years. Historically, tattoos have been far more associated with inclusivity and heritage than hallmarks of rebellion.
Today, more than a third of Americans between 18 and 40 have tattoos. In the Emerald Triangle, where one’s livelihood is often a product of resistance, tattoos enjoy an even greater degree of acceptance. Our green pocket of the country has been described as rugged and independent, and Netflix has sensationalized our community as a rural ghetto plagued by violence and crime. But like just like Anywhere, USA, our local tattoo artists grumble that tattoo parlors are more frequented by soccer moms than punk musicians. Personal politics aside, how do tattoos represent the diverse cultural identity of the Emerald Triangle?
“Hey, do you guys do a lot of weed tattoos?” Henry Kruger yells. Across the orderly partitions of the tattoo parlor, an artist quietly shakes his head while bowed over a colorful forearm.
Kruger is a fifth-generation Humboldt County resident and owner of the iconic Eureka tattoo parlor, Sailor’s Grave. Kruger was an artistic child and was first fascinated by tattoos when an artist set up a makeshift shop in the small rental behind his family’s house. In 1991, he moved to Seattle to attend art school, dropping out a month before graduation and landing a gig at the oldest tattoo shop on the West Coast. It was the mid-90s, and Seattle’s Tattoo Emporium, established in 1941, might have been the country’s unofficial capital of punk and grunge.
“I’m an old-school metalhead, and all my friends were punkrocker metalheads,” remembers Kruger. “Tattoos were way more rebellious back then. That’s why I got into it.”
Drawn home by the beauty of the “ocean and the trees,” Kruger moved back to Humboldt County in 2003. He remembers that people’s ideas of what tattoos could be was pretty primitive. Over the years, pop culture cast tattoos in a more favorable light, and Kruger started seeing a variety of people wanting tattoos. “TV brought all the soccer moms in,” he says.
After opening Sailor’s Grave in Old Town Eureka nine years ago, Kruger is happy to tattoo any paying client but wants people to understand the history behind the art form. The name itself pays homage to Eureka’s history as a seaport: A “sailor’s grave” is a classic nautical tattoo of a sinking ship, often accompanied by an eagle and an anchor, inked in memory of those lost at sea. Entering the shop, the public is welcomed into the Sailor’s Grave “museum,” a collection of tattoo history and relics assembled by Kruger. Black and white photos of legends like Sailor Jerry hang next to glass cases of antique tattoo guns and stick n’ poke needles.
While Kruger hasn’t inked too many pot leaves in his career, he’s designed redwood trees for almost every body part and frequently incorporates local plants like ferns and trillium flowers into larger bodyscape pieces. Notably, he remembers designing a beautiful and masculine sleeve of ferns, drawing lots of “little black trees,” and inking a beautiful mandala of waves and redwoods for client Tyler Canning last winter. Canning, who now lives in San Francisco, grew up in Arcata and got the tattoo in remembrance of surfing College Cove with his brother.
Across town, Stacey Keilitz is the owner and artist at Seven Stars Tattoo, a Pepto Bismol colored storefront in Eureka’s retro Henderson Center neighborhood. Formerly an employee at Sailor’s Grave, Keilitz still tattoos a wide variety of clients but is often favored by women, who feel more comfortable shedding layers of clothing in front of a female artist.
Originally from New Jersey, Keilitz was introduced to Humboldt County 10 years ago while visiting family. “It seemed beautiful place to live, and people had a lot of tattoos,” says Keilitz. Now living and working in Humboldt herself, Keilitz appreciates that people get more custom tattoos, which she credits to the community’s artistic bones. “People want unique things rather than picking something off the wall,” she explains. Often, this includes Humboldt-themed tattoos, says Keilitz, who has designed artwork that incorporate “poppies, lighthouses, trillium flowers, ferns, and other things unique to this area.”
Shannon Townsend was drawn to Keilitz’s work by the tattoo artist’s open-minded personality and enforcement of stringent health codes. Townsend, a committed vegan, is the board president at Spay Humboldt, a nonprofit spay/neuter clinic that serves low-income pet owners. Sporting two colorful tattoos by Keilitz, Townsend has helped spread Seven Star’s reputation for realistic pet portraits and poetic tattoos. Each of Townsend’s sleeves are tributes to her pets, inked over a bright landscape of Emerald Triangle flora and fauna. Townsend’s left arm features her three kitties, Murfy, Baley, and Luna, while her right depicts her dogs, Josie and Sweetie Muffin, and (in memory) Roxy.
At the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, a traveling exhibit opened this June titled, “Tattooed and Tenacious: Inked Women in California’s History.” Curated by Amy Cohen of Exhibit Envoy, the installation takes an in-depth look at the history of tattoos through the lenses of gender and place. In the West, tattoos have historically signified men as sailors, criminals, or punks, but Cohen examines the divergent narrative for women using tattoos as self-expression. In her research, she was surprised to find that tattooed women are hardly a new phenomenon.
“Wealthy white women took cues from their European counterparts, and got tattoos of family crests, portraits of lovers, and more,” writes Cohen, noting this trend grew among American elites before the turn of the century. But women kept their tattoos covered by “long sleeves, high necks, long skirts,” staying discreet in high society. “Aimee Crocker, the railroad heiress, was a notable exception; she had multiple tattoos and loved showing them off,” explains Cohen.
The exhibit also explores identity in female tribal tattoos and the relationship of tattooed women exploring “outsider” status within mainstream society. She notes that Betty Broadbent, a beloved Tattooed Lady, competed in the 1939 World’s Fair beauty pageant to share her brand of beauty on the main stage. “I see that as challenging the system, but also working within it and valuing its judgements on beauty,” writes Cohen. “Tattooed and Tenacious” will be in Ukiah through August 4th before traveling to the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa this fall.
Another Mendocino County museum has preserved the tradition of tattooing in the Emerald Triangle since 1986. Triangle Tattoo & Museum was established by Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla, as the couple is known personally and professionally, in a Victorian storefront in the coastal town of Fort Bragg. Running both a working tattoo studio and one the world’s few museums dedicated to tattoo history, Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla are legendary among the global tattoo scene and have been included in numerous documentaries and articles about tattoo arts. A dedicated historian, Madame Chincilla has written seven books on tattoos, including Electric Tattooing by Women: 1900-2003, and contributed the “Tattooed and Tenacious” exhibit. For many years, Triangle Tattoo was the only tattoo parlor between San Francisco and Portland, and built a reputation by tattooing Humboldt State students, fishermen, loggers, anyone looking for ink throughout Northern California.
At first glance, Emerald Triangle tattoos might sound like a tired cliché: a “grow bro” with a 7-0-7 tat in Old English on his bicep, a pot leaf tramp stamp, or all those “little black redwood trees.” But like any cultural identity, tattoos this far north are as nuanced and diverse as the community itself. At a winery in Hopland last week, a man walked by with both his calves inked proudly, vertically reading, “Gods” “Grass.” (Amen!) In Eureka, home of the rough n’ tumble Humboldt Roller Derby, a woman’s ankle tat sports two roller skates with the initials TM, short for Thunder Muffin, her derby name. Finally, some tattoos aren’t symbols at all, but literal place markers to home and identity, like the ‘H-U-M-B-O-L-D-T’ tattoo that Michael L’Allier has proudly inked down his spine. Life is short, but heritage and tattoos are forever.