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COLUMN ONE : Ebb Tide at a Tattoo Landmark : A maritime tradition that flourished at Grimm's is fading along with Long Beach's naval operations. Though old salts sigh, today's image-conscious military frowns on skin paintings.

October 20, 1995|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bert Grimm's Tattoo Studio used to need 10 full-time artists to keep up with the legions of sailors waiting to go under the needle.

There was the kid, fresh from boot camp, who wanted classic Navy emblems etched into his chest. The superstitious sea dog who thought tattoos of a chicken and a pig would keep him afloat. The love struck sailor who asked to have his sweetheart's name inked on his arm forever, only to gasp in horror when the relationship fizzled weeks later.

"The place was really jammin'," says Bobby Shaw, who now owns the Long Beach shop, believed to be the oldest tattoo parlor in the nation. "Now it ain't nothing like it used to be."

Today, the shop employs only two full-timers. The sailors have all but vanished, leaving nothing behind but a few dozen U.S. Navy-issue caps perched near the ceiling.

Once a shrine to the ancient maritime rite of getting tattooed, Grimm's has witnessed the ebb and flow of the sailor, formerly its most reliable client, in this financially hard-pinched port city. The warships, and the crews they carried to and from Long Beach for nearly a century, have drifted away. The Navy's last local foothold, its shipyard, is set to close in 1997.

From Grimm's downtown storefront, artists have watched since 1927 as the Navy made its mark on Long Beach, home port to hundreds of ships during World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. With painstaking care, they etched symbols of love or belief in God and country onto countless sailors waiting to go to battle.

With the departure of the Navy, the traditional tie between tattoos and sailors in Long Beach has withered. In towns such as San Diego and Norfolk, Va.--homes to two of the world's largest naval bases--tattoo shops still ink crowds of sailors. But even in those Navy strongholds, today's young seamen, with their better technical training and high school educations, seem less likely to want tattoos. In the Pentagon, image-conscious Navy officials also frown on the designs.

"It used to be a tradition, part of being in the Navy," said Robert Audiss, 30, a Navy SEAL instructor in San Diego who got his first tattoo at Grimm's in 1983, two years after he joined up. "Nowadays, I think more people outside the service have tattoos than people in the service."

Grimm's gets by on myth. Its artists count on repeat business and guard their reputations as craftsmen above all else.

A job at Grimm's used to be considered the finest hands-on training an artist could get. The tattoo artists and sailors who listened to the needle's buzz say the shop's own lore, like its excruciating artwork, will last forever. Says Dave Gibson, an artist in the studio during the early 1980s: "I think it's the coolest tattoo shop in existence."

Grimm's walls are lined with sheets of tattoo designs ranging from plain (roses) to elaborate (sailing scenes). Customers wishing to become walking artwork for about $30 to $125 can choose from hundreds of images: an ark's worth of animals plus cartoon characters (including Popeye the sailor, who himself bears a large anchor tattoo on his bulging forearm) and sundry symbols of love and hate. One sheet among the dozens offers traditional Navy tattoos, with prints of winding ropes and a sinking ship above the words "Sailor's Grave."

Framed black-and-white photographs of sailors with fresh tattoos, many drawn by Grimm himself in the 1950s, hang in corners and along the ceiling, advertising the shop's most visibly patriotic clients. In one graying picture, a smiling sailor shows off his full-chest tattoo, a submarine propeller in front of a waving American flag. In another, a young sailor faces away from the camera, displaying an elaborate image scrawled across his entire back: a sailing vessel floating above the words Homeward Bound, flanked by two huge flying fish.

Looking back across the years, manager Rick Walters says the shop's busiest days came with the regularity of military paychecks. Many young sailors had little else to spend their money on.

During the shop's heyday, servicemen would wait for up to three hours for Grimm's artistry. Even when some grew impatient, wandered to the nearest pub and returned inebriated, the shop wouldn't turn them away.

Walters says he usually refuses to tattoo drunk customers because they won't sit still and they've been known to cause a mess. With Navy clients, however, he made an exception: "There's not much you can do when the place is full of sailors."

But it's been years since the shop saw that kind of crowd. To some, it seems the centuries-old sea custom of being tattooed is fading. Across the country, the tattoo industry is increasingly linked to body piercing, and its most common customers are young rebels and bikers, artists say.

"There was a different class of Navy back then," Gibson says of the golden years. "They were into having fun."

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