Storytelling, specifically of the Southern tradition, is the focus of our project here at Serpents of Bienville. The craft of tattooing and storytelling work hand in hand, and my love for tattooing directly influenced my love for great story telling. Tattooers are the greatest at fireside storytelling, having to be able to take the client out of the pain they are experiencing, into one that can have a positive memory about. Once someone is tattooed, for the rest of their short ride here on earth, they will be looking at that tattoo and having some sort of a memory about it. They will remember if the tattooist was a condescending jerk, or if the tattoo was horribly painful. As a tattooist, my hope is that, when they look at that old tattoo, their memory is that of something positive and progressing forward. Storytelling gives us that opportunity, the chance to have our stories tie directly to a permanent expression on someones body, something they will always remember. On top of that, tattoos themselves are just stories, with an illustrated vocabulary, written on flesh. Once the tattoo is applied, if it had meaning or not, a story will eventually tie in with it. Storytelling and tattooing are essential to each other, so it's only natural for me to share this blog from my website (www.seanherman.com) from an on going series entitled "For the Love of Tattooing: Documentaries". In the series "For the Love of Tattooing", I interviewed different tattooists, and clients, asking the same question, "Why are we involved in tattooing?". The answers were gripping and amazing, you can find those past blogs on my website. This series is now focusing on documentaries that have influenced my thoughts on tattooing. With the rise of tattooing in the video media form, I think it's important to look back at earlier documentaries to learn where tattooing has been in modern day, and discover where we may be able to go, if we can keep our heads on straight. I hope you enjoy this piece on my favorite documentary "Stoney Knows How".
Out of the long history of Southern Storytelling rises up the hurricane that was Stoney St. Clair. Born in West Virginia in 1912, Stoney forged a 50 year tattoo career, one that tied together the importance of storytelling and community, by using the sacred craft of tattooing. Naturally, he is a huge influence on generations of tattooers, myself being one. Storytelling and tattooing go hand in hand, both strongly influencing the other. Tattoos are stories told visually, using recognizable imagery as vocabulary, creating a piece of folklore forged in flesh. During the process of getting a tattoo, the tattooer is put back into the storyteller position again, but now using storytelling as a way to walk them through getting tattooed. As a tattooer, a large part of our job is to create an experience for the person experiencing the tattoo process, one that they will always remember when they look at their tattoo, into their old age. We get the honor of creating something they keep forever, a story of their time on this ride. The great Southern storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham said, "Story telling means: I love you enough to tell you something that means a great deal to me.”
In the film Stoney says, “I am proud that in the past I was able to carry on the oldest art in the world and try to keep it decent. I am not going to be here all the time… so maybe some day somebody will look at the little daisies growing over me and say “He didn’t butcher it up anyway.” (laughs) “He carried it on and handed it down. You don’t find us on every street corner.” In the thirty plus years since Stoney said this, you now can find tattoo shops on many more street corners, but true tattooists, like Stoney St.Clair, are still a rare breed to find.
When asked about what it’s like to have a tattoo shop next to their business, a local business man, a washing machine sales man to be exact, replied with this,
“I would have two of them if they were like Stoney. Good neighbor, good business man, and a heck of a good fella. One of the best.”
“You’d be surprised who comes in there to get tattooed. A lot of nurses, doctors, lawyers, church men, clergy men, you’d be surprised at some of the people that come in there. Most people thinks that the people paying come in riding a motorcycle, a drunken sailor, and this isn’t the truth. As a matter of fact, I used to think that myself years ago.”
Stoney had an effect on his entire community, an effect created by living honestly and trying to help those around him. There are a ton of “Stoney-isms” throughout the documentary, here are just a few.
Narrator: “Do you feel like when you are tattooing that you are helping people somehow?
Stoney: “Let me study that over, yes and no. I must be helping him because he’s craving it, and he is in his right mind, he’s not under the influence of anything, that’s for damn sure. And he’s paying me to do it. BUT, I don’t think I am helping him a bit if certain designs he picks…he might smoke pot, which is none of my business, you might have a lot of fun with it, I had a lot of fun with liquor, but why go out and where a badge of ‘I am a drunkard’ ‘I am high as a kite’. We all know that a baby craps in his diaper, but why pull the diaper out in front of everybody and say ‘My baby does this!’ ya see. Ya understand what I am talking about?”
Another one was this,
“I was raised that you can trust people…if you learn what trust is, that’s a great damn thing.”
One of my favorite parts of the documentary is when they ask Stoney to explain what makes a good tattoo. He says, “A good tattoo? A good tattoo is something a man studied and thought it out, long before he got it…As an art, it’s the shading, not the color. You could put a minimal amount of color to real good shading and it will go over and it will stand out.” As a tattooist today, this is still an idea that I am understanding and applying to my work, an idea that still seems fresh and relevant to everyday life. I have spent so many hours watching this 29 minute documentary. With his Southern accent, and quickness of speech, I find myself constantly pausing to process the simple yet amazingly complex ideas that he throws out there. After watching it for 13 years I still find myself hearing new things from Stoney.
When discussing his life, Stoney states, “Hell, I ain’t never felt like a cripple. I ain’t walked since I was four years old, whatcha never had you never miss.”
In 1916 when Stoney was four years old, his tonsils burst and he contracted rheumatoid arthritis. While being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for two year he learned how to draw. With the same determination you see in the documentary, Stoney stuck a pen between his fingers as much as he could, still dealing with the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and not being able to open his hand, yet he drew non stop. Even though he lived the rest of his life in pain, and in a wheel chair, he never let that affect his outlook on what he did. Stoney states,
“What keeps me going? Like I told ya before, corn bread and black eyed peas (laughs) Nah, determination buddy, that’s all. I’m not fighting a battle, its natural for me just to be jolly, get up singing in the morning, saying howdy to somebody that comes in the door.”
Tattooist or not, everyone can learn from this essential piece of film, one that I am so grateful exists. Stoney knew how to tattoo, and not only that, but how to live.
Hanging in his business was a sign that read:
“I, Leonard 'Stoney' St. Clair, am in the business of rendering a service to the community for the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in some way or another. I choose to pursue my profession with intelligence and skill, wishing not to offend anyone, but instead, with my love of mankind, to do what good I can before I die.”
Leonard L. “Stoney” St.Clair
Tattooist of the Old School since 1928
Stoney St. Clair died peacefully in his sleep on December 3rd, 1980 at the age of 68, and never breaking that promise.
Summary of the film:
“Stoney Knows How is a visit with a master of the oldest art in the world - Tattooing. Disabled by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of four, and forced to use a wheelchair, his growth stunted, Stoney St. Clair (1912 - 1980) joined the circus at 15 as a sword-swallower. A year later, he learned to tattoo, and for the next 50 years, he continued to work as a tattooist traveling with circus and carnivals across the country. As we watch him at work, we see the determination which led Stoney to overcome his handicap to heal himself and others with the magic of symbols. The film ends with a visit by master tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy who pays Stoney the highest compliment by asking him for a souvenier tattoo. For more information on the life of Leonard L. "Stoney" St. Clair, see Alan Govenar, Stoney Knows How: Life as a Sideshow Tattoo Artist", Schiffer Publishing, 2003.”
"Stoney Knows How is an extended interview with 'Stoney' St. Clair, an ebullient little man with the gift of gab of a circus tout and a fund of bizarre stories about tattooing and other matters. One of these is the tale of a Florida snake handler and tattoo artist who was squeezed to death by his own python. His widow made a fortune touring the South with the guilty snake. "After all," says Stoney, "how often do you get a chance to see a snake that's squeezed a man to death?" Not often, nor does one often have the opportunity to meet a man like Stoney. The film makers treat him with respect, fondness and appreciation, and he responds in kind."
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times
You can watch the film below, enjoy! As always, remember that this was a time before the knowledge of cross contamination was where it is today. So there will be tattooing without gloves or barriers, and definitely not how we do it today. It captures a moment in time, and that should always be kept in mind. Now enjoy the film!
For a DVD copy of this film contact www.docfilm.com
Film by Alan Govenar, Bruce "Pacho" Lane
Camera by Les Blank